How Embrapa Manages its Research and Development Programs – I

Embrapa has always invested a great deal of effort in foresight, strategic planning and improvement of institutional processes.  During its 37 years of existence, the leading Brazilian agricultural research organization experienced four different models of research and development management in response to changing realities and emergence of new trends and innovation methods.

The implementation of its current model, called Embrapa Management System (SEG) was an important move towards stronger networking to tackle new challenges, both at the national and international levels. Also, this management process incorporated the concept of integrating and aligning the organization´s efforts in R&D, communication, technology transfer and Institutional Development.

The SEG system was conceived and implemented between 2001 and 2003, when Embrapa anticipated the need to promote more cooperative efforts within its network.   Also, it was a response to a need to expand its networking capabilities beyond its borders, both upstream (with national and international scientific partners) and downstream (with users and beneficiaries of agricultural innovations).

The strategic planning process of Embrapa takes into account the fact that organizations in the modern world are subjected to many kinds of pressure and cannot afford to respond to change and undertake adaptation following the traditional cycles of planning, which are usually too long.  Organizations must plan and act strategically, in a continuous manner, and management processes must be flexible enough to accommodate adjustments and modulations any time during their implementation cycles.

In this post we present the motivations that led Embrapa to revise its R&D management system and to incorporate, since 2002, a more integrated mode of operation.

Responding to a New Reality

The pressures posed by economic and political changes generated by economic liberalization, globalization and fast advancing technological changes are key components driving organizations to more dynamic modes of operation.  Multiple intertwined realities, dynamic markets and constantly changing innovation paradigms force organizations to become increasingly global and flexible to stay competitive. The so-called “traditional organizations” have increasingly being forced to become “learning organizations”, moving away from inflexible vertical management, and towards more dynamic management strategies.

Organizations are also increasingly pressured to relate closely to a much more informed and engaged society. As people have more access to education, information and income, expectations increase. And society reacts to the ineffectiveness and perplexity of organizations that are unable to adjust and to respond to its needs.

More inflexible organizations are constantly under pressure and may fall into oblivion if unable to adjust. Also, NGO and other more agile and flexible organizations may outcompete the conventional organizations in presenting responses and solutions that are required by modern society.

In light of these challenges (and opportunities), organizations dedicated to innovation, such as universities and research institutions, have now to seek cooperation with a wider range of collaborators, extending the limits of their functionality well beyond the conventional arrangements, which are usually vertical, disciplinary and disconnected to the needs of society.

Thus, systematic review of institutional strategy and focus become essential for the survival of any organization dedicated to innovation.

Emerging Challenges in Agricultural Research

Agricultural research organizations have considerable challenges to face, considering that their traditional structure and management, based in specialized departments, divisions and centers lead to a very fragmented approach to problem solving.

It is not uncommon in agricultural research organizations the fragmentation of the reality or the problems, to facilitate the search for solutions.  For example, some groups dedicate to solve problems related to inputs for agricultural production (before the farm), while others concentrate on problems related to the production process itself (inside the farm).  And it is not uncommon to see these groups disconnected from realities that are beyond the farms, such as processing, value addition, communication, marketing, etc.

It appears that this model of producing “solutions” in stages is fast becoming outdated since the cost of bringing together fragmented results to build solutions to today´s problems, which are increasingly complex, is too high.

We are living in a time of fast changing realities. Conventional innovation systems usually put the highest priority to farmers´ needs when defining  their strategies and programs.  However, as countries develop and society becomes more informed, the consumers also become important “coordinators” of agrifood systems.

Many important themes and challenges that require response from innovation organizations have components that are not directly connected to the farming process itself, but are located downstream or upstream the production system.  Examples are challenges related to quality, safety, traceability, certification, etc, all pertaining to processes that have gained tremendous importance for the viability of production chains.

Also, global climate change is impacting agricultural production, especially in the tropical belt of the world, where the poorest countries are. The inexorable rise in world temperatures will lead to intensification of heat stress, nutritional deficiencies, drought and biotic pressures to crops and animal production systems, demanding solutions that will be achieved only through more transversal and integrated models of innovation.

There are also issues of social inclusion and equity, which in many poor countries are closely connected with the complex reality of rural areas.  To tackle these problems, society demands solutions that incorporate, beyond economic considerations, a whole new set of values, especially those related to social and environmental dimensions.

The next post describes the basis of the Embrapa Management System (SEG ), which was developed in response to the above mentioned challenges and opportunities.

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