A Blog Series: The Digital Transformation of Food Safety

Part One: What is “Digital Transformation” and how does this apply to Food Safety?

Maybe some of you reading this have begun the digital journey within your food safety programs. Or, maybe you’re still managing three-ring binders full of reports and manually updated spreadsheets. Regardless of where you are, I hope that this blog series will help spur some new thinking and ideas for how our industry and the food safety profession itself can benefit from the lessons learned within other industries through their journeys through digital transformations.

Future posts will cover those learnings. This blog post is about simply understanding how to define digital transformation. This is relevant right now as we are seeing progress being made toward a digital future within food safety.  New initiatives such as the FDA’s Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety are pointing the way toward increasing expectations, rules and eventually mandates for a more digitized food safety function. It is imperative, therefore, that we come to a common understanding together about what this means for our industry, our profession and the changes that we will experience.

For the first stop in this series, we’ll define the term “digital transformation”. This is a hype term, by the way… meaning that it has grown out of the well-funded marketing messages delivered by consulting and technology firms who seek to help companies digitally transform their businesses. I’m going to try to stay away from the hype and focus on some practical definitions.

In layman’s terms and in business terms — What does ‘digital transformation’ mean?

To paraphrase what we find at Wikipedia (the hive mind of all things), digital transformation refers to:

“…the transformation of that which is non digital into that which is digital’, (very obvious), and in doing so… ‘enable that which is made digital to solve problems.”

NOTE: Wikipedia’s article goes into further detail regarding different types of transformations – pertaining to the transformations to digitized information, industries, organizations and societies (see Wikipedia article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_transformation).

I don’t know about you, but I’m not even close to being satisfied with that definition.

I thought it appropriate to see what one of the world’s foremost catalysts for digital transformation has to say. If you’re not familiar with Salesforce.com, all I’ll say to sum up their influence on digitizing business functions is this: They completely transformed the way that sales, marketing and customer service professionals do their work. They digitally transformed Customer Relationship Management, or CRM. What they have to say (https://www.salesforce.com/products/platform/what-is-digital-transformation/) adds some value I think: Digital transformation serves an important purpose:

“to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements.”

This starts to help. As we dovetail these two definitions from Wikipedia and Salesforce.com, can we think of any existing business processes that are manual, and would be made better, even create a culture shift, if they were made digital?

CIO Magazine offers some similar thoughts in a recent article (https://www.cio.com/article/3211428/what-is-digital-transformation-a-necessary-disruption.html) by adding this idea to the mix:

“What is digital transformation? A necessary disruption.”

No one likes a disruption, but if its necessary… what does that mean? Often times, it is the customer who drives change and disruption. To compete, we often need to change what we are doing, otherwise someone else will do it and we will be left behind. If your competitors are digitizing aspects of their business to satisfy customer demand, will they gain an advantage? Will customers begin to expect more transparency into your food safety program if they are getting it elsewhere? Is digital transformation, therefore, a “necessary disruption”?

Here’s another thought-process. A combined academic & business approach to digital transformation comes from the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2019/03/digital-transformation-is-not-about-technology). They surveyed business leaders last year and found that digital transformation is ‘NOT about the technology’. Wait… what?!? That’s right… they learned that a great many digital transformation initiatives fail, and the reasons for failure were not tied to the technologies being employed. So why did they fail?

It turns out that successful digital transformations are really about the organizational changes that must occur. Culture change, process change, language change. But… we don’t like change.  Yet, we know we have to meet the challenge and shift our culture to one that embraces a digital approach… that may mean changing the way we do things, and the terminology we use together. This has occurred over and over again in business functions at every level of an organization (remember manual expense reports?).

So, what does this have to do with defining Digital Transformation for food safety?

When we put this all together, I think we do find a definition that is appropriate for the food safety profession… and after my many years in helping organizations through this journey (see bio below) – this rings true for me:

  • First… Digital Transformation is not something that just happens and then you’re done. That has never been the case in any industry, as we’ll explore that together in future additions to this series. It is an iterative process and a necessary disruption, often driven by customer demand.
  • Second… it is a trade-off. What does that mean? For every manual process you transform to digital, there is a trade-off between the skills required for the old way versus the new way. This is part of both the cultural and process changes that need to be identified (as discovered in the Harvard Business Review survey).

For example, If I was once manually entering the diagnostic results from my sampling program, which were delivered to me by the lab (how were they delivered? Via a PDF/CoA seems to be the most prominent method), then entered into my spreadsheet, in order to build pivot tables, so I could create management reports, so leaders could make decisions… sound familiar? 

Now imagine that the reports are already created automatically as the lab data is fed electronically into a digitized system. What will you be doing with all that time you were spending in spreadsheets and pivot tables? Well, I would hope that the TRADE-OFF would enable you to use your scientific training and backgrounds, not in the management of manually collecting and formatting data, but on analyzing the data and putting more emphasis on new innovations, corrective actions, investigative testing, root cause analysis and the like.

But you can see that there would be a trade-off to a new approach and processes related to how you work. Your process, the language you use, and the way you spend time would be transformed. Digitally transformed.

OK… that’s it for this post – #1 of a series on the digital transformation of food safety. I hope I have established an understanding of what digital transformation means, and perhaps with more accuracy, how to think about it within our world of food safety and how we work.

Stay tuned for the next entries where we will discuss how other industries have gone through their own digital transformations, and the lessons learned that we can apply to our profession.

 

About David Hatch (me):

I’ve been involved in some form of a digital transformation for a very long time. I was fortunate to start my career right around the same time that the Internet was emerging from the world of the government and military to commercial use. My first project was focused on a media challenge – transforming the Boston Red Sox baseball and Bruins hockey video content from an analog to a digital medium. This enabled, for the first time, the owner of the content to digitally access, search, and find the exact video they needed to fulfill certain new business opportunities. That experience, which resulted in building a video content licensing business, led me to various projects and roles across a multitude of industries, including banking, publishing, healthcare and food & beverage. I’ve now come to realize that I have spent my entire career working on one challenge: How a business uses technology and their digital assets, data and analytics to make better, more informed decisions that improve the business, meet customer needs and achieve desired outcomes and objectives.

About Corvium (my company):

Corvium is driving the digital transformation of food safety programs by automating and delivering a unified data platform for environmental monitoring, product testing, sanitation workflows, as well as tracking and alerting for conformance and compliance. We’re addressing the challenges that food suppliers are facing when it comes to making that leap from paper or manual spreadsheet processes to a fully digitized data-driven function.

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