Incorporating Emerging Technology into a CPG Company’s Technology Landscape
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Incorporating Emerging Technology into a CPG Company’s Technology Landscape

Erin Allen, Director IT Strategy and Architecture, Sargento Foods Inc.
Erin Allen, Director IT Strategy and Architecture, Sargento Foods Inc.

Erin Allen, Director IT Strategy and Architecture, Sargento Foods Inc.

Several years ago, I was at an Enterprise Architecture conference where a visual was shared depicting when the best time to invest in projects was in relation to economic cycles. Of course, I did not realize it at the time, but that visual stuck with me and guided my view on corporate IT departments' needs to invest in experimentation, especially during hard times. I brought this mindset forward as we stood up our emerging technology practice at Sargento.

2018 was a big change year for Sargento. A business transformation and technology upgrade initiative going live meant we needed to understand the context in which we started our practice. So, we began with education—first, a short cross-functional executive trip to Silicon Valley for the chance to see and talk with venture capitalists, industry disrupters and start-ups. The conversations with this diverse group led to several new ideas we developed post-trip. As a result of the positive feedback, we have incorporated these exposure trips into our ongoing activities.

We continued educating the larger Sargento Family too which includes our employees. There was some anxiousness around newer technologies like AI that people had heard about, and there were questions around automation and job security, which I’m pleased to say that at Sargento, if new technology is introduced, our employees will maintain roles with the company. Still, we invited everyone across the company to ‘Lunch n' Learns’ about various technology topics to increase people's understanding and awareness about the technology. We gamified the experience and worked with our HR partners to align these knowledge sessions with our corporate focus on continuous learning.

We wrapped 2018 with our first Shark Tank innovation challenge. We achieved our employee engagement goals with an easy-to-use tool for collecting ideas and encouraging interaction. We had a plan to move one Shark Tank pitch forward; however, all four pitchers earned leadership sponsorship. We also were able to fill our backlog of possible emerging tech experiments with the other ideas we collected. The success of our first challenge allowed us to add this to our regular activities.

Innovation is a crucial tenant of the Sargento corporate culture. We have a long history of bringing forth new, successful ideas to the dairy case.  Our drive for innovation has strong support from leadership and departments, so it was natural to extend this philosophy to our goals in IT. Focused on bringing innovative technology to Sargento, we refer to ourselves as the Emerging Technology practice. We are a small team with a fraction of the overall IT annual budget with room to grow. We leverage partnerships not only outside of Sargento but most importantly inside Sargento. We have started to leverage the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) Definitions from NASA to understand our roles across the innovation and production teams.

With a backlog of ideas and partnerships outside and inside Sargento, we next set our sights on developing a faster way to experiment and learn about technology and its impact on business opportunities. Our IT PMO runs most of our projects using waterfall methodologies with in-depth RFP processes. For quick experiments, we needed to leverage more agile frameworks of hypothesis-build-test-adjust. We leveraged our innovation challenge partner to help us spread this method across the IT department and execute our backlogged experiments.

In the last couple of years, we've built an emerging technology practice that focuses on education, curiosity, partnership, and how to act innovatively in applying technology to address internal opportunities at Sargento. Transforming those technology experiments into scalable, robust solutions in our technology roadmaps is the next focus area.

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