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The digital explosion is already here

Richard Stup for Progressive Dairy Published on 28 June 2019

We’ve been watching new technologies, especially digital ones, arrive – but things are about to get interesting.

Robots are the obvious technology with the potential to disrupt the dairy industry as we know it, but there are many other technologies ready to adopt right now you probably never noticed.

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How should you and your workforce respond to leverage and adopt technology?

Disruptive technology

A disruptive technology is one that has the effect of completely upsetting an established business model. In many cases, the new technology is out there in the marketplace, and it exists alongside mainstream technology.

Perhaps disruptive technology is still improving, but at some time a tipping point is reached and the disruptive technology begins to rapidly take market share from the established technology.

Think of the landline telephone and the cellphone; the technologies have coexisted for decades but, increasingly, younger people find no need to have a landline phone. So the days of landlines are numbered.

Clearly, automated milking systems, or milking robots, are a disruptive technology in the dairy industry. The technology works; there are many examples of well-managed automated milking systems that get the cows milked and offer many other benefits.

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The newest twist in automated milking applies to rotary milking parlours. Robots are a viable solution to replace much of the at-risk, front-line milking labour on dairy farms.

Only the weak dairy economy and high cost of robots is holding back extremely rapid adoption of these systems, but a tipping point will come, and robots will suddenly be milking a large percentage of cows.

Digital technology has come to mean using or leveraging computers and information. Digital technologies often do much more than we ever expected from the old technologies they replace.

That smartphone in your pocket does a lot more than just make telephone calls like your old landline phone. Yes, you can place a call with it, but the chances are most communications now involve text or apps, things never even contemplated for your landline.

In the same way, the automated milking system will milk cows, but it will do a whole lot more as well, things such as monitoring cow health and giving you additional options in how to feed cows.

More than just robots

Milking robots are the most visible of the digital technologies for dairy farms, along with calf feeders, feed pushers and other robots designed to do farm chores. But there are new, digital technologies springing up in every aspect of business.

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My specialty is workforce management, and digital systems are quickly changing this field.

When a client who was doubling his workforce asked me to help with his scheduling process, I took the opportunity to evaluate available workforce scheduling technologies. We found a whole market of technology, some clunky products using legacy systems and some amazing and creative solutions.

The system we selected, as we should now expect, does much more than what we were originally seeking. In addition to scheduling, it integrates with payroll, keeps training records, facilitates communication, schedules tasks, supports SOPs, aids in performance feedback, and I could go on.

My point is: Digital technology is literally changing every aspect of business, even disciplines as staid as managing people.

Work with the natives

Long ago, in the early years of this century, it became clear the workforce was dividing along a new fault line. A thought leader named Marc Prensky described the people on either side of the divide as digital natives or digital immigrants.

People who immigrate to a new country as adults can learn the culture and language of the new country, but they will always have unusual behaviours and a distinct, non-native accent.

Those who are born and raised in a country will naturally have the culture and speech pattern that perfectly matches their native land.

According to Prensky, those who went to school and started careers before computers and the internet became so dominant are digital immigrants, while those who grew up in the digital revolution are digital natives.

This is not just another cute way to describe population groups; it is a deeply meaningful difference in how the two groups think and interact with technology.

Farmers and other business leaders need to accept and encourage the participation of the newest generation in the adoption of technology. These digital natives think differently, and they can see and grasp the possibilities of newer technologies in ways digital immigrants will likely miss.

It’s worth taking business time to ask how work could be done better, faster or cheaper than what you do now. Ask your suppliers and advisers about technologies they could see working in your farm. Challenge new employees to share what they have seen working in other businesses.

Very often, younger and newer employees and advisers are reluctant to speak up about new technologies because they are afraid the more senior leaders and business owners won’t understand or appreciate its possible application.

Apply technology to intentionally achieve business objectives

Great businesses focus on knowing and exploiting their competitive advantages in order to achieve production and profit goals. Technologies should be chosen that will enhance the business in clear and specific ways, not just because everyone else is doing it.

For example, many farms now have milking parlour information systems that generate large amounts of data about cows every day.

Some farms have learned to turn that data into actionable knowledge employees use to work efficiently and effectively with the herd. Other farms invested in the systems but can’t seem to learn to use the data to guide their work.

Occasionally, technology can cause a business to become less efficient. I consulted with a dairy farmer who was attempting to grow using satellite dairies. He wanted to develop strong, confident middle managers to run the satellites.

Unfortunately, he had invested in the latest communication technology, radios and cellphones so all of his employees could reach him at any time.

And so they did; it was impossible to hold a conversation with this manager because he was constantly interrupted with simple questions from his middle managers and other employees.

The technology that made him easily accessible also enabled his middle managers to avoid making decisions independently.

Actively manage technology adoption in your workforce

Adopting technology isn’t just about digital natives and digital immigrants; some people like to change and others don’t. To get the full value of any digital advance, you need all affected employees on your team to adopt it.

Partial adoption, when some adopt and others refuse, leads to confusion, division and bad attitudes. An article in Harvard Business Review offered some ideas for getting employees on board.

1. Choose the right technologies. As we discussed before, make sure it will make an important contribution to achieve your business goals. Choose technology as intuitive and easy-to-use as possible. Technology requiring lots of training is hard for any business to adapt successfully.

2. Make the business case clear to your workforce. “We’re going to use this new technology because it will do A, B and C for us. It’s going to make your life easier for this reason and will help the cows do better for this reason.”

3. Adapt training to each person. Some of those digital natives won’t need much training at all; just give them the new app and let them learn it, then check back to be sure everyone is using it in the best way. Others are going to need more formal training and ongoing support and follow up to master the technology. It’s OK – people learn in different ways and at different speeds; meet their needs.

4. Build it into the system. Update your overall processes and SOPs to use the new technology. For example, if you’ve got new feed management technology, start using a report that shows the accuracy of feed mixing. Better yet, get your feeder to start generating the report and sharing his success with you.

5. Make it fun. Learning a new technology is a blast for some and a chore for others. Build some small rewards into stages of adopting the technology. It can be simple things: First one to download and use the app gets a candy bar; as each person learns to generate and use an important report they get a $10 gift card.

6. Deal with resistors. There will always be a few who just struggle to adopt the technology. The first thing a manager must do is talk with them about it. “What’s going on? Why haven’t you caught on to this? What support do you need?” Often, that conversation will surface a problem you can fix. Sometimes resistance is more serious; if the person just can’t get it, maybe you can find a workaround or reassign that person. Too many resistors indicates either a problem with the technology or a problem with how you’ve tried to implement it.

Production, financials, crops, herd health, employees, work performance, communications, animal biology, genetics and more, every aspect of the dairy business is changing from the influence of digital technologies.

Dairy managers need to be alert to these seismic changes and take steps to recognize and take advantage of opportunities digital technology presents for your business.  end mark

Richard Stup
  • Richard Stup

  • Agricultural Workforce Specialist
  • Cornell University
  • Email Richard Stup

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