Farming is a grassroots industry more commonly associated with heavy machinery, livestock, rolling fields and over-enthusiastic collies. It is not normally uttered in the same breath as big data, cloud computing and IT overhauls.
However, Devon-based Mole Valley Farmers, which provides products, forage, research, fuel, business consultancy and other agriculture-related services to the farming world, has used Microsoft's enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, cloud, big data analytics and collaboration products to overhaul its IT systems and create one integrated platform for internal and external use.
Alan Parsons, programme manager at Mole Valley Farmers, explained at Microsoft's Convergence 2015 conference in Barcelona that several acquisitions over the years had left Mole Valley with numerous IT systems for its various business units.
The company had legacy Microsoft and Sage systems, among others, and opted for a newer version of Microsoft Dynamics AX to act as a centralised ERP system for the core of its whole business.
"The technical proposition for Dynamics AX was quite complex: 15 legacy systems, and centralisation of infrastructure because effectively the acquisition's [existing infrastructures] were still operating as their own sole businesses," he said.
"The company is a very lean co-operative business that doesn't have a lot of money to splash around."
As such, Mole Valley started to roll out Dynamics AX from September 2014 across its business units, which acted as a central platform for an additional layer of ERP functions specific to the food and feed sectors of the agriculture industry from Adifo's Milas AX software.
Mole Valley also plugged in financial process software from Bottomline Technologies to handle payments and invoice automation. The result was a reduction in systems and complexity.
"The key to the system is that we have zero customisations sitting in our AX platform. We don't need them and we've gone back and thought about what we're doing and changed [our] processes to fit the structure. What it means is that upgrades for us are easy weekend jobs to get up to the next level," added Parsons.
Shifting to a new ERP system could be a headache for some companies, but Parsons said that the Dynamics AX setup was tested in Microsoft's Azure cloud platform before it was pushed out to the business so as not to disrupt day-to-day operations.
Harvesting big data
Mole Valley also wanted to tap into big data to gain an insight into its customers' needs and provide better, more tailored services.
The firm opted for Microsoft's SQL Server supported by Azure to create a big data system that worked with Dynamics AX and could store five years' worth of Mole Valley's historical data. This made it possible to analyse old data alongside real-time data to gain deeper insights from activity across the business.
Mole Valley added Microsoft's Power BI analytics tool on top of its system to provide visualisations of the big data to make it easier to analyse without requiring complex programming or data scientists.
"[I] can't emphasise the power of that business intelligence as something that's most important. Everybody needs that insight into their customers, and the customers need that insight as well," said Parsons.
Cloud and collaboration
Mole Valley also used Microsoft's cloud services to create a second system that plugs into Dynamics AX to allow staff, sales representatives and farmers to work together and share information.
The company used Microsoft's SharePoint platform to support apps like Yammer and communicate and manage workflow internally and externally.
The SharePoint platform supports an extranet that plugs directly into a Dynamics AX portal enabling sales representatives in the field to access business data, served on Power BI, Microsoft Surface tablets and Windows smartphones. It can also provide information to customers about soil sample results and ration portions for animals.
"Effectively the dairy, sheep, beef and agriculture farmers are all basically being powered by Microsoft tools throughout the whole business, only they don't realise it," he added.
Mole Valley is looking to develop a customer extranet to use with pre-set Microsoft mobile devices that will allow farmers to see the amount of forage they need for their animals and the products they need to order.
"Basically, what we're trying to do is provide the farmers with the ability to improve their profitability and productivity," said Parsons.
The company is also looking at creating SharePoint-based "miniature apps" to support the farm management service and provide data on how much farmers spend with Mole Valley and when they need to replenish stock, for example.
SharePoint was used to support the setup of a mobile point of sale system that allows users to order directly from other suppliers going through the extranet portal without needing to involve Mole Valley directly.
The system effectively allows decisions to be made based on real-time data and acted on straight away.
Mole Valley is a solid example of how companies can use digital systems, cloud computing and big data throughout their company if they take a considered approach to its direct benefits.
Such examples are worth paying attention to, particularly when heads of IT are seeing their role and position in the enterprise world change, requiring them to take different approaches to the way they adopt and deploy technology.
Electronics and computer chain the latest high street retailer to fall into difficulties
Incisive Media and Investec Asset Management supported fundraiser crosses Atlantic in 40 days
Alphabet's health sciences division Verily have been messing with AI algorithms
North Korea's cyber attack capabilities are expanding fast - and turning their fire on a wider range of targets