Interview with Andrea Powell
For podcast release Monday, August 8, 2016
KENNEALLY: From understanding the impact of climate change on agriculture in developing countries to promoting equality for women farmers through training in livestock management as well as marketing, the global mission at CABI is to improve people’s lives by providing information and applying expertise to solve problems. The organization’s chief information officer says CABI is in the knowledge business, whether the work is publishing traditional reports for governments and funders or developing mobile technology that reaches millions.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Andrea Powell joined CABI in the marketing department in 1991 and has worked there ever since. In her current role as chief information officer, she leads CABI’s publishing business unit and is responsible for strategic development. Founded just before the First World War, the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International manages research and assists projects around the world, including in South America, Africa, and Asia. As Andrea Powell recently told the Scholarly Kitchen blog, access to knowledge and technology is no longer seen as a development outcome in itself, but as a catalyst for development. She joins me now from the CABI headquarters in Wallingford, the United Kingdom. Andrea Powell, welcome to Beyond the Book.
POWELL: Hi, Chris. It’s a real pleasure to be with you today.
KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to chatting with you, because you really do have a global perspective on the publishing business, because absolutely CABI is a global organization. I’ve briefly outlined what it is that CABI does, but I’ll give you an opportunity to tell us in your own words. CABI is really about information that promotes development. But as you say, it is a catalyst for development, as well.
POWELL: That’s right. We see our role here at CABI as being one of bridging the gap between research and the practical application of scientific knowledge. So we’re really very much about problem-solving, understanding what works and what doesn’t work, and helping farmers mainly in the developing countries – helping those smallholder farmers to apply the knowledge that they need to solve the problems that they’re experiencing with their crops. So we’re not a heavy-duty research organization, nor are we just a publisher. We’re a problem-solving, science-based organization that uses its information skills to serve our mission.
KENNEALLY: Hence your title there as chief information officer, which might otherwise be a publisher itself. CABI has recently reorganized its operations around this whole notion of being in the knowledge business, and obviously technology is fundamental to that. Talk about the relationship of your publishing efforts, of your information efforts, with technology.
POWELL: Sure, yes. Indeed, about 18 months ago now, we came to the conclusion that technology and content, technology and information, were inextricably linked, and that it was the way in which we blended those two component parts that really helped us achieve our mission and helped us to stand apart. So rather than having a separate organizational structure for IT reporting through to a senior IT leader, we decided to combine the role of the director of publishing and the director of IT into a single CIO role and create a much more integrated global team that can look at how technology can help to deliver better information solutions.
KENNEALLY: When we’re speaking about technology, I have to say the technology that really is pervasive and is the one that you’re most concerned with is one we’re all very familiar with, and that’s the phone, the mobile phone. That’s how you’re delivering information to people who would never have a dream of having a landline telephone.
POWELL: That’s right. This is something that has evolved quite dramatically over the last few years. I have to say, and I think we’re still learning how to deliver information in the right format to customers who often only have a very old-style 2G phone. But I think we’ve been making tremendous progress in reaching out to rural farmers, putting knowledge into their hands.
For many of the poor farmers that we work with, their mobile phone really is their lifeline. It has transformed their whole lives. Whether it’s their ability now to receive pricing information or weather data or pest alerts, which is the sort of information we provide, for the first time ever they can really acquire that knowledge and do something about it, so act upon that knowledge. It’s a very interesting process learning how information needs to be packaged and delivered very differently to that kind of audience compared to an audience of scholarly researchers in a very well funded, well equipped North American research organization.
KENNEALLY: I’d like to hear about that more, but I think it’s also fair to point out that these farmers and others are not only content consumers, information consumers. You’ve told me before that they are information providers. They’re able to deliver to the researchers data literally from the field on a real-time basis, and that’s important for the report writers back in Wallingford.
POWELL: Yes, absolutely. It’s this two-way communication system that mobile phones offer that really make them so exciting. We operate a network of plant clinics currently in 34 developing countries where trained plant doctors are able to deliver advice and support to farmers who are experiencing problems with their crops. But at the same time, as you say, we’re gathering data back in from those same farmers that helps us to provide an aggregated view of how pests are traveling around the world, how they’re being dealt with, the kind of recommendations that are being given, and the way that different farmers are responding to the kind of advice they get. It’s that macro level data that really helps with policymaking and the development of whole plant health systems, rather than just the individual face-to-face interaction between one doctor and one farmer.
KENNEALLY: Right. Andrea Powell there at CABI, you have a lot of relationships you have to juggle. I’m interested to hear about how you’ve worked out interacting with the technologists on your team. As you say, this is a result of the combining of the information publishing side of the business with the IT part. So they’re listening to you. You’re coming from an editorial and marketing perspective. Do you find that a difficult interaction, or is it one that is surprisingly easier than you might have anticipated?
POWELL: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t find it terribly difficult, because I have had responsibility for IT in the past. My background is more in product development, production, and as we were producing products digitally more and more over the last few years, we’ve had more to do with technology in our core publishing business. So I was very fortunate in that I had a good appreciation for what technology can do, and I had a good appreciation for – I could understand what I was being told, or I could at least understand when I was being told the truth. (laughter)
So I think I had a reasonably good position here that people could respect my experience with technology in the past, but I also made a couple of very important hires and brought in some key leaders who could really bolster my technical understanding, because I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. So I think that made a big difference, bringing in a couple of senior people who could really help me bring the teams together and that did have the real technical credibility that we needed.
KENNEALLY: We speak a great deal on Beyond the Book with people like yourself and talk about the challenges for publishing, broadly speaking, to adapt to all the innovation happening in technology. To the point about staffing – and you mentioned some important hires you made – where do you look for people who are going to be able to contribute successfully at CABI? Where do you look for them? Do you look in publishing, do you look elsewhere?
POWELL: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. We’ve been really fortunate in that we’ve brought in some very, very bright young people over the last few years to work in our Plantwise program, the plant health program. Actually, a lot of them are recent graduates who are passionate about making a difference and have a very good, solid background in biological sciences, some kind of relevant scientific discipline.
We have also been able to grow our own talent by bringing people along through the organization, offering them the opportunity to develop new skills in areas like user experience or project management. Of course, we’ve also gone out to the market and hired technologists. Actually, we have a tech team in Delhi, in our office over in India, that we’re looking to grow, as well.
Being an organization with a mission like CABI is makes it probably a bit easier to find really high caliber and committed staff. We have an incredibly energized and positive workforce all over the world. Giving people the opportunity to really make a difference to people’s lives in the developing countries is a great sales pitch.
KENNEALLY: We were very intrigued to learn more about your story when we came across the recent post in Scholarly Kitchen by Robert Harington, an interview with you that we will link to on beyondthebook.com, and one of the questions that Robert asked you about was how you lead change. Apparently your approach is kind of a hands-off approach. Tell us about that.
POWELL: I firmly believe in leading by example and by creating the right environment for people in which to thrive. I’m not going to stand over people and give them step-by-step instruction how to implement a change. I’ll encourage people to find their own way, give them positive support, and set the vision. I think it’s very important that they hear a clear vision from me that says this is where we’re going, this is our strategy, and then allowing people to develop their own capabilities. We bring in consultants. We bring in help when we need it. But I think from a personal point of view, I like to see my role as a senior leader as one of mentoring and coaching, rather than standing over somebody with a stick.
KENNEALLY: (laughter) Right. We live in such a fast-paced world, a world of breaking news when it comes to technology, but also when it comes to agricultural development as well as environmental challenges. Climate change is one, but certainly, as you mentioned, pests and diseases that we didn’t know existed just a short time ago are now front-page news. I’m thinking of the Zika virus. Can you tell us, what’s next for CABI? What are the areas that you’re hoping to pursue? Is there something that is an important new direction for the organization?
POWELL: Yes, absolutely. To be fair, this is something that isn’t completely new to the organization, but one which is taking a new higher profile within CABI. For many years, we have worked on the problem of pests and disease, as we’ve said – plant pests and disease – mostly to do with insect pests or fungal pests or pathogens. And what we’re seeing now is that as a result of climate change, the spread of invasive species, particularly invasive weeds, is having a huge detrimental impact on world agriculture. These aren’t pests, in the sense that they’re not necessarily attacking specific crops, but they could be taking over agricultural land. They could be spreading and extracting nutrients from the soil that would otherwise be used to grow crops.
Invasive pests are a huge problem in the developing countries, causing well over $1 trillion of damage per annum and causing problems like women farmers needing to weed their fields instead of being able to do other jobs, children being taken out of school to help with that weeding effort, so that they’re missing out on their education. There’s even a link between a particular invasive weed in Africa and malaria, because that particular weed is a natural reservoir for the mosquito that spreads malaria. So invasive species are a particular focus of ours right now.
KENNEALLY: It’s very interesting, because you describe a real interlocking chain of cause and effect, and one wouldn’t imagine that weeds would have an impact on children’s education until you stop and think about it. That’s the real revelation of speaking with you today. We appreciate your joining us on Beyond the Book. We’ve been speaking with Andrea Powell, who is chief information officer for CABI International. Andrea, again, thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.
POWELL: You’re very welcome. Great to speak to you.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining, and rights licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com.
Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.