Management: Relating is everything.

Or, The Wizard of Rice who cultivated minds



In case you wanted to know: The actual search entries I typed were: rice -condoleeza -“rice university” -tim -anne -“edgar rice burroughs” – the minus sign (not hyphen) means ‘by all means exclude in the search.’ And the search results were only the pages published in the Internet.

Here’s a comparative data on the importance of subject knowledge based on Google search in number of English pages:

81.2 million, Shakespeare
79.2 million, Lost TV Series
55.3 million, Al Qaeda
33.8 million, Beatles
31.7 million, Da Vinci Code
31.0 million, Bill Gates
22.3 million, Albert Einstein
19.4 million, Tiger Woods
17.5 million, Britney Spears
02.3 million, Princess Diana
01.6 million, Maria Sharapova
01.5 million, Richard Branson
00.7 million, Steven Curtis Chapman

For control, I got 95.9 million for George W Bush (hero for the world?) and 00.3 million for Manny Pacquiao (hero for the Philippines).

With 200 million pages, rice is more or less 2 times more popular than George W Bush (politics) or Shakespeare (literature) or Lost (runaway TV show), 4 times more popular than the talkative and much-talked about Al Qaeda (running on scared), 6 times more popular than the Beatles (radical music) or Da Vinci Code (Catholic-busting novelization of Jesus Christ, Superstar) or Bill Gates (domineering software), 10 times more popular than Albert Einstein (creative science) or Tiger Woods (minding your sports) or Britney Spears (minding your publicity), 100 times more popular than Princess Diana (lady in distress) or Maria Sharapova (tennis princess) or Richard Branson (creativity on the loose).

Rice is life in terms of food for billions; rice is lien in terms of management for millions of farmers, a constraint, a limitation. Millions of farmers know how to grow rice; they don’t know how to manage it to optimize their economic returns. What they sow, they reap – but only so much. They earn little; they haven’t learned much. That is why the poor farmers we have always with us.

What can we do for them?
What can I do for them?

This article is a review of the life of an institution, a review of a man’s life, a review of his book, and a review of the world of management, all revolving around rice. The exciting thing is that I can relate all four one to the other three, and I believe I can make you see how we all relate to them, especially you if you are into rice or if you are into management. In other words, this time I am going to write about four things:

(a) Our relatedness & our management of rice

(b) Our rice & his wizardry.


He, in his own words, did ‘dare to dream’ about quietly contributing his own knowledge in science alongside his own thirst for knowledge in management, of which he knew next to nothing. Consciously, he wanted to reach the level of the best, if not spectacular; unconsciously, he assumed the relatedness of things – One began with The Big Dream and worked one’s way toward that, never losing sight of one’s goal. ‘A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it – as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky’ – Crazy Horse, Indian chief. Everything one thought and felt and did one had to relate to that goal. One made the relatedness happen. And since no one had seen any of those relatednesses happen, one had to persevere despite objections, naysaying, obstacles put across one’s path, despite the absence of a model institution and model employees anywhere one knew. Despite the absence of a blueprint in black and white.

The man succeeded beyond even his own expectations. He built from scratch the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in the countryside, some 150 km North of Manila, and single-mindedly made it nationally respected. I said single-mindedly, not single-handedly. He needed the right people to make an institution, so he nurtured their minds too. And so, PhilRice won one of the coveted national science awards for an institution, Tanglaw Award (Beacon Award) from the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Resources Research and Development (PCARRD). Two PhilRice scientists won the nation’s most prestigious national award for young artists and scientists, the TOYM (The Outstanding Young Men), and he himself won several awards, including the Pantas Award (Sage Award) from PCARRD in 1993, and the Presidential Public Service Award-Outstanding Work Performance’ presented by the Civil Service Commission and conferred by the Philippine President in 1999.

Simultaneously, he single-mindedly made PhilRice internationally respected. PhilRice became the model national R&D institution for rice in Asia, with the the world-renown International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) looking on approvingly. One of the most successful collaborative projects between IRRI and PhilRice was on integrated pest management (IPM); IPM as implemented by PhilRice became an Asian cornerstone in the art and science of the control of pests along with the proper culture of the rice crop and the appropriate care of the soil. IPM requires that the farmer look into the non-linear, complex relationships of crops and soils and fertilizers and pests and pesticides. IPM enables the farmer to increase his net income essentially by reducing his cost of production, mostly in terms of fertilizers and pesticides, which in fact make up the bulk of cost of growing rice. In managing all that, the secret lies in relatedness, in understanding the ecology of it all.

‘The first law of ecology is that,’ says Barry Commoner, ‘everything is related to everything else.’ Google gave me only 24,000 English pages of my search entry “Everything is related to everything else” (including the double quotes). Which to me is an excellent sign that the first law of ecology may be true but most people don’t accept it as truth. To make it acceptable to millions more, I shall now revise it and restate it thus:

Relating is everything.

Those 3 words make a coherent, concise, clear and comprehensive statement that is as potent as it sounds. I call that Hilario’s Brief: 3 words say it all. Those 3 words are almost as powerful as ‘Love conquers all.’

Now, look at ‘Everything is related to everything else’ – you are assuming you can see the connections, that you don’t have to struggle to make the connections, that the relationships are given and obvious and all you have to do is acknowledge them. In real life, that is not so. That’s why you you have social classes, you have the rich and poor, you have Muslims and Christians, you have whites and blacks and browns, you have prejudice. That is why I have rewritten that first law of ecology into another and more realistic aphorism. ‘Relating is everything’ means the art and the science of it is in your effort to find the relationships even where others have claimed there was none, or where you are forbidden to explore.

I am not talking of statistical relationships, such as when C always occurs whenever A and B occur, A and B are positively correlated with C; therefore, if you want C, you have to have A and B – I don’t give that kind of ABC too much credit. I’m talking of value-adding or value-deducting relationships. The act of relating is the thing; it’s everything. For instance: Why are yields of rice varieties increasing while the incomes of farmers are decreasing in relative terms? There must be either broken or unsound or undiscovered relatedness somewhere between or among the factors of production: land, labor, capital, seeds, culture, crop protection, management, post-harvest practices, market. They must be found and corrected.

Relating is everything; that unarticulated by him but was in his guts, he accepted the challenge and proceeded to found an institution of R&D in rice with just a handful of staff and very little budget, related that small beginning to a big dream that he dared to build slowly but dared not share with anyone because it was too big – a Philippine R&D agency in rice relevant to the needs of the Filipino farmers and known and respected the world over on top of the awesome presence of the International Rice Research Institute in the country.

‘Tomorrow’s big dreams grow from little things done today’ – Lloyd W England. He succeeded because he was always relating every little thing that needed to be done with the big dream. He walked in faith in that vision. He achieved the vision because he did not wait for each relatedness to happen; he made each relatedness happen. He flew high and saw which relatedness had to happen.

‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is his story. It is time to reveal to the whole world who he is. He celebrated his birthday the other day, Friday 28 July; he is now 71 years old, being born in 1935.


In the Philippines in June, the children go to school to cultivate their minds and the farmers go to the field to cultivate their rice. Both are necessary. To one man, rice has been both school and field where one can excel. And so Santiago Rigonan Obien will go down in Philippine history as The Wizard of Rice. Being the first and past (1987-2000) Executive Director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), he has made a great difference in rice – he built PhilRice into a world-class institution as well as a locally relevant one, and now the Philippines is now very close to its dream of being self-sufficient in rice.

He is also a self-made man, an Ilocano, from Batac, Ilocos Norte. That’s what I read in his first book, titled Dare to Build, recently published by PhilRice. Most people know him with his initials, SRO, and he likes it like that. His accomplishments in the world of rice speak for themselves. Even UP Los Baños, PCARRD, Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), Central Luzon State University (CLSU), and International Rice Research Institute recognize him as a great man of science and of management rolled into one. He is currently a consultant at BAR. Today, in the science of crops and administration, say ‘SRO’ and it rings a bell. The ring tone is one of passion, compassion, pride, humility, excellence. Yes, he is all that. I like the book enough, I like the man behind the book enough.

In his fertile mind, he dreamed of a world-class science campus. PhilRice is what it became. In his bare hands, he molded the men, like a potter his clay, to the image and likeness of what he thought they should be. He succeeded. Mightily. He convinced Japan International Cooperation Agency to hand over to the Philippine government a grant-in-aid of US$ 15.7M to build a world-class PhilRice headquarters building, internationally acceptable laboratories and facilities. He got more from JICA, scholarships included. Today, the staff of PhilRice continue to win awards and recognition. Based in the far-flung Science City of Muñoz in Central Luzon, PhilRice today is respected all over the world. (Visit PhilRice in Muñoz sometime.)

With Jean D, the woman behind the book, he has written his autobiography, the story of an idealistic farm boy who was nourished on the milk of honesty, the bread of hard work, the salt of persistence, the sugar of love, the dessert of visioning, the wine of an iron will. Man and woman make a perfect pair. It was a difficult book to write (it took Jean six months, she says), as SRO is difficult to accept, to understand. ‘You got to hate him (first) to like him,’ says Leo Sebastian, the current Executive Director of PhilRice, and one of SRO’s protégés. Borrowing from Frank L Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz, I say Leo is a horse of a different color.

A Horse Of A Different Color

SRO was a horse of a different color before him. If some boys thought of becoming President some day, this boy dreamed of becoming a great scientist. He failed. He became a great manager instead. By learning along the way. In the classical model, management is 4 of 4; SRO knew that the whole of management is greater than the sum of its parts, even if he didn’t know the names of those 4 parts. Management is planning – he had the vision, and he held onto it with heart, reveling in the happiness and enduring the hurt. Management is leading – his were the creativity and the initiative, and he pushed more than he pulled. Management is organizing – he pursued team work like crazy, even if the members did not understand it. Management is controlling – he trained and visited and inspected everyone, everything. Some people called that micro-management; in fact, it was macro-management – he was managing the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, minding even the smallest elements for the composite Big Picture.

He was an intellectual terrorist, as he himself admits in Chapter Four. I know; I worked for him too. Did you like what he was doing? I did not, no, but he insisted on doing the right thing in the right way, even if it was not in the way you liked.

He wasn’t perfect. PhilRice’s Roger Barroga knows, he who is a wizard himself, of computer networks. I should know. I was a Research Fellow of PhilRice Maligaya (in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija) for a year (1997? I forget) and we slept in the same house (Director’s Cottage) and ate the same food and rode the same car coming from and going back to Los Baños every week. (Thanks for the ride, Sir, and the food.) I was there as a writer. By that time, I was already in love with the computer. For many months, I tried to convince him to buy a computer, desktop or laptop, to be assigned to me. For as many months, he demurred. I didn’t know it then, but one of his major hesitations (his word, in the Prologue) was on the use of computers as a production tool, beyond spreadsheets, beyond occasional desktop-publishing of reports. Inside the Director’s Office, I was using someone else’s desktop computer while he was using his desktop typewriter. I didn’t mind his typewriter, but I minded that I did not have a computer assigned to me. I don’t write – I type. I’m a type-writer. If you want to make me unhappy, banish me to a wonderful land made of blue skies and ice cream and chocolates where computers are either unknown or unwelcome. Out of frustration, but to avoid confrontation, I left without saying goodbye to him, to anyone. I never returned. I never called. I was mad inside. I wasn’t perfect either.

Many years later, I met him again, at PhilRice Los Baños. I was walking toward him and when I got near hearing distance; suddenly he turned to his companion and said, ‘You know, it’s only now that I realize we need the computer.’ It was his way of saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ I smiled. I had forgiven him long before that. Nonetheless, I admired him for that because he was already retired and his remark could not have made me go back to work. Saying sorry is never too late. ‘Don’t be afraid to admit that you are less than perfect,’ says Nancye Sims. ‘It is this fragile thread that binds us to each other.’

As a man, he loves you, he loves you not. As a book, Dare To Build is an ambivalent read too, like that. In his heart SRO knows he loves you, but you don’t – the man with the will of steel comes on more strongly than the man with the heart of gold. Gleaming steel, pure gold, I can say now. Golden dreams. Dreams of empire – empires of the mind. I will now quote one of his favorites, Winston Churchill: ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.’ With rice, we are in the future now. Thanks to him (SRO, not Churchill), we are almost 100% self-sufficient in rice.

In his book, he says he was building men. I disagree: He was building structures and systems, he was cultivating minds. It’s the attitude that counts. He was creating you with an attitude of excellence. It didn’t always work – it didn’t work with Roger, it didn’t work with me – but it worked a million times, despite people like us, who were horses of different colors ourselves. So what do we have today? Among other things, a PhilRice that is world-class. Like a coin, the Filipino is ambivalent, but the other side is that the Filipino is world-class, and don’t you forget it!

A Study In Fairness

SRO’s book is unique, as it is a study in fairness, as SRO’s life is: It presents an almost equal dose of the praise and dispraise. Included in the book are many brief testimonies of many of the PhilRice staff, past and present, speaking of him in fondness and fairness, frankly and honestly. With his first book, SRO makes history again.

SRO the book is ambivalent too in that it has two faces. One is that of SRO the manager telling you what ought to be done; the other is that of SRO the man telling you a compelling little story of what ought to happen. Read the book! With about 120 in all, those little stories are invariably those of rough diamonds being hewn to brilliance – if you were the diamond, you wouldn’t like what’s happening to you until it’s all over and you see your brilliance in the mirror of your mind. That’s the testimony of many, and you will find them in the book.

You must read the whole book, not just some parts. To understand, if not to accept, you must know the whole story. The whole story of SRO is one of dreams being pushed to transform themselves into reality as much as possible – so, push, push, push. That was SRO. That is SRO still.

A Man Who Believed The Filipino Is World-Class

SRO will go down in history as the man who believed that the Filipino scientist was world-class, and lived to prove it. He is alive and well, thank you.

I know he dreams still. He dreams of transforming no less than the Department of Agriculture from dullness to luminescence, from unproductivity to productivity, from inertia to motion, from drive to a purpose-driven life.

He belongs in the top. I was (I am) the Editor in Chief of the Philippine Journal of Crop Science, and SRO knew that. Still, notwithstanding my standing, he did not ask me to edit his book. Anyway, he gave me an electronic copy and asked for my opinion; I saw many mistakes and so I volunteered to do the last-2-minute editing of the manuscript, not bossed it over him, as I would have liked. Why not? My answer is a joke, mine: ‘Why is SRO not a musician? Because he won’t play second fiddle.’ SRO will always be SRO. You love him, you love him not. I love him, I love him not.

I said he is the Wizard of Rice, didn’t I?

Two Wizards

After all the adventures/misadventures in fairyland, the one major lesson in The Wizard of Oz, the venerable story written by Frank L. Baum published in 1900, is this: In each one of us is the mustard seed of a miracle. Even if we are a Cowardly Lion, in fact we have courage within us; even if we are a Scarecrow, in fact we have a brain in our head; even if we are a Tin Man, in fact we have a heart in our body – all we need to do is recognize it within ourselves and nourish it. And that’s exactly what the Wizard of Rice did – he made men (embracing women) feel with their heart, think with their brain, take risk with their courage. He made them write their individual/institutional books of life in the institutions he managed: PhilRice, Philippine Tobacco Research & Training Center, Mariano Marcos State University. He succeeded, marvelously. He is the Wizard.

The Wizard has written his book, 350 pages more or less. There are mistakes. There are lines written in love, lines written in angst. In the writing of books, there is no end. In the making of mistakes there is no end. In the dreaming, in the keeping of faith, in the fulfilling of dreams. In the building of men, in the building of minds, in the building of institutions. That is the world-class story of SRO. So far.

We need someone like him around. Philippine agriculture needs the Wizard of Rice. Even if we cannot live on rice alone. We need someone up there to get things moving faster just to keep pace with globalization. In SRO the book you will see, as I can see him now, that SRO the man has the indefatigable mind and body. He is 71, but he feels much younger. His body is at work at the Department of Agriculture; his mind is at work there and elsewhere. I am glad he will never rest in peace!

Published by the American Chronicle 31 July Copyright July 2006 by Frank A Hilario

Explore posts in the same categories: Filipino, science management, SRO

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