Are Cows the Key to IT success?


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Cows and computers? Really? It’s not as udderly ridiculous as it sounds.

Back in the mid ’90s, I undertook a research project as part of my Master’s in Information Systems. I decided to look at the impact of introducing IT to dairy farm operations. Some very interesting things emerged from my research, insights that can help today’s leaders take action to deliver more successful IT implementations in their organizations.

Introducing IT into dairy farms changed how people perceived work

Dairy farms are not renowned for cutting edge work practices. Despite advances in automation, farm work still involves a great deal of unskilled, manual labor. And many farm workers judge the contribution of their fellow employees based on how much physical work they have done in a given day. If you aren’t lifting, shoveling, carrying, or working directly with a cow, you are not working.

IT changed how people spent their time …and everyone noticed

When technology was first introduced to many dairy farms, the managers (often the owners) spent less time doing physical labor and more time at the computer. By necessity, the shift of how they spent their time corresponded with a shift away from physical labor toward more analytical and data entry tasks. Their absences from the barns and fields was noticed – and commented upon by the other workers. They were perceived as going soft and getting lazy.

The lesson here is that even in a modern office environment, implementing a new system and process will shift how people spend their time.

People may spend less time in meetings or focused on tasks they worked before. This will change how others perceive if their coworkers are working hard or if they are working at all.

Technology changed what it meant to be good at your job. And not just for users

Historically, dairy farmers had a great deal of tacit knowledge that was passed down through the generations and gained over years of working hands-on with the herd. For example, one farmer I know (a bit of a cow whisperer) could look at a cow and tell if it had a twisted stomach and he would wake up from a sound sleep if he heard a cow moo in a way that indicated she was in distress.

Before computers, one was considered good at your job if you could understand animal behavior and take appropriate action.

Increased access to data means that in addition to knowing animals, farmers need to be data analysts.

Once the IT systems were live, there were new information sources. Cow-specific data could be generated to indicate if an individual animal’s production was off, possibly indicating illness. Reports could be generated about animals that should be ready for breeding, allowing the farmer to move from passively observing signs that an animal was in heat to proactively examining individual animals.

The increased access to data means that in addition to knowing their animals well modern dairy farmers now need to be gifted at analyzing reports and using that information to take action. It also means that they have increased information relating to feed costs, animal production, and employee production. It has dramatically altered the decision-making process and put increased emphasis on financial decision-making and management of operations.

Implementing and IT system changed the farmers’ jobs – and what it took to be good at their jobs.

What will changing systems mean in your organization? What new skills are needed for your people to be successful? Do your current staff members have these skills? If not, what will you do about it?

People look for new signs of success

Another interesting thing happened on the farms: all employees – not just system users – looked at system-generated reports to help monitor progress. Reports would be posted in the barns that would show things like daily milk production, number of sick animals, and the time it took complete various tasks.

Quite simply, everyone was curious about how the organization was performing and they liked the feedback that the reports provided.

When I work with clients today we often spend time looking at what reports are required and with whom they should be shared. There are often a lot of cultural and political questions that come up in this area. Keep in mind that people do want insight and feedback about their individual performance as well as information on how their group and the organization as a whole performed.

Change continued as the new (and unexpected) ways of working emerged

Farmers that had being using IT for a while shared how the longer they have the systems the more new, creative, and unexpected uses they have had for the data.

For example, one advanced farmer had a lot of data regarding specific areas in which fertilizer had been spread on his fields. While originally intended to help him maximize crop yields while minimizing costs, he later found that this same information helped him avoid a legal entanglement because he could prove that the source of pollution in a nearby lake did not come from his fields.

When implementing new systems, spend time looking at what’s working and what new creative uses of the technology or data emerge over time. Find a way to encapsulate best practices into normal work procedures, while simultaneously ensuring they are effectively shared across your organization.

Organizations are still trying to figure out how they can get the most value from their IT investments. What’s needed is a pro-active evolution of both how they introduce technology, and how they manage it over the long-term. And surprisingly enough, yes, there are some great lessons they can learn from a cow!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jason Whitehead
Jason Whitehead is CEO of Tri Tuns, LLC, an organizational effectiveness consultancy specializing in driving and sustaining effective user adoption of IT systems. He works at the intersection of technology, process, culture and people to help clients actually achieved measurable business benefits from their technology investments.


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