Shades of grey: ag's power play

Australian agribusiness could do with some flattening of it’s management structures

THE discovery of some snowy strands in my dark brown 'do this week brought me both pleasure and pain - the 'pain' of ageing of course stings, but the pleasure was based on the realisation that the older I grow, the more I’ll be taken seriously in Australian agribusiness.

Most Australian business, including agribusiness, uses age-old management styles. It’s a vertical, top heavy system that that needs ‘workers’ not ‘contributors’. The sector has limited time for innovation and is resistant to change. We live in a fast-paced, globalised world and this structure is failing us.

These old school management styles put a lot of power at the top of the hierarchy and from there it’s a top down management approach (autocratic).

Those at the top resist innovation, which gives them greater control while providing a safe environment to maintain self-preservation.

The system is too insecure to empower employees, while still maintaining control. That’s where sectors like IT and finance are leagues ahead. And surprise surprise, they’re the growth areas.

Rob Beck, chief executive of CR-X: Big Data Integration, started in IT in the late '70s, and has seen 35 years of unparalleled change. I asked him about the management structures that drive IT.

“The IT industry is driven by cultures, not structures - based on nurturing and rewarding innovation, not hierarchies. The companies that lead, are made mostly of young people, we all use their creations every day," he said.

"They don’t feel locked into any precedents and although there’s a consensus of needing a good grounding and training, 'years spent in the game' are not held in overly high regard as when infected with functions of predecessors, those candidates destroy innovation.”

Certainly a different industry, but that book is worth nicking a few leaves from.

Australian business could do with some flattening of it’s management structures, which could then allow the infusion of young or entrepreneurial talent to thrive.

The top heavy approach that champions managers over change leaders deters much of what it needs to keep alive in the competitive global marketplace.

I asked Stephan Knoll, the newly elected 31-year-old Member for Schubert in the South Australian Parliament for his thoughts on the issue.

“I am a great believer that we must learn from the past and the people in it, otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes but this must be balanced with a willingness to accept change, youthful ideas and different models of engagement," he said.

"For my part I have been welcomed to join and get involved but on terms not of my own, or my generations, but on current terms.

"Senior members around me are uneasy about this generation and feel that we are unwilling to contribute. My answer would be that things will not change until my generation is able to forge a path of our own, still we must be given opportunities to shape the future that we are going to inherit.”

Stephan hit the nail on the head: that we must forge a path of our own. The solution we find ourselves in now is from an equation that’s lacking, it’s made up of mis-matched values for the world we need to succeed in. We need leaders that shift that equation, but not with new “set” values like we’ve used in the past, but variable ones... as the world and business that sits in the distance is of a kind we’ve never seen before.

Identifying the problem is the first step - check in with me next week when I take a look at some of the ways leaders will be thinking and the kind of tools they’ll be using to drive industry change.

Sam Trethewey

Sam Trethewey

grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


8/07/2014 8:37:01 AM

Why does this article set me thinking about producer representative organisations?
Joe Dewar
8/07/2014 8:54:57 AM

As a young farmer I find that as long as you give older blokes the respect they deserve for having a lot of knowledge that you don't and not just dismiss their way of doing things because its the "old" way but evaluate each way on merit then generally they are happy to let us young blokes have a crack with a new idea. But we have to show respect to them first otherwise they will never take us seriously
9/07/2014 9:04:04 AM

Many Ag-representative groups advocate the need for their farmer members to constantly innovate, yet seem not practice what they preach themselves. Few are good at it. Ag-representative groups are actually agribusinesses, not farmers (like Elders, Landmark, etc., they depend upon farmers too). Here's the thing, agribusinesses also need to constantly innovate to survive in this ever more competitive world. For them, available innovation strategies include, but are not limited to; uniting, cooperating, merging, forming alliances, offering new services, shared services, etc. Seen much of that?
9/07/2014 2:01:38 PM

Call me a traitor but I find many younger farmers don't have definite views on agri-political topics, some do but when pushed to express them more publicly, they go quiet. I don't use twitter, but am sure there would be plenty of agri-pol minds there, technology has facilitated more free expression, a great thing. I think many younger farmers like me, have always had the security of an old guard. They saw good and bad, I find they are more likely to stand up and say something is wrong when compared to younger farmers. I expect I will upset people by my comments, but its how I see it
10/07/2014 4:04:46 PM

The top down agricultural system will resist change unless it suites the top, take NLIS and a 5$ levy as an example, our trading competitors pay much less , I was involved in taking a grading system to beef CRC some years ago that had the potential to determine tenderness on the live animal , we could prove that it was accurate but they were not interested, too many vested interests at the top, I'm sure there are young people willing to take up the challenge if the economics were there, at the moment they are not.
22/07/2014 10:34:17 PM

When we think about innovation in agri-business, we go straight to innovation in production - growing new clones of drought or salt resistant crops or producing a different form of livestock protein in record time. Twenty-five years ago the agri-business leader was an agronomist, a geneticist, at least an agricultural scientist who could help us improve our production efficiency, sustainability and therefore our bottom line. Today's leader must know about people management, training, marketing, farm succession, accounting, communications and IT. The pathway ahead has never been so uncertain.
Get MuddyTo think clearly in farming and about farming, you need to get muddy - commit, roll up your sleeves and get involved. SAM TRETHEWEY gets stuck into some of the issues facing those on the land.


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