Competitive Advantage Through Information Usage


By Carlos Piñeiro,

More information is available now than ever before (Google is processing more than 24 petabytes per day), but this abundance is not a guarantee of success. Having information at the right time is paramount, as is connecting data that has no apparent relationship.

How important is information in getting a competitive advantage? A recent report published in 2011 by The Economist Intelligence Unit gives some clues from a survey over 602 company executives. Most executives agree the best way to get a competitive advantage is based on the following:

  • Get the best information available,

  • Interpret it easily, and

  • Deliver it in formats that are easy to understand.

But, very few companies are able to accomplish this, and the usual result is that a huge amount of corporate information remains unused. In fact only 17 % of the companies use more than 75% of collected information, and only 27 % think that they use information better than their competitors. Most organizations are swimming in unused data and information.

Factors contributing to this scenario include:

  • Bad organization,

  • Deficient information sharing processes, and

  • Very restrictive security policies.

In general, big companies tend to rely on internal information, and smaller ones rely either on external or market information. Why isn’t the data used?

The three main attributes of information for the majority of executives and managers are (in order)

  • Accuracy,

  • Validity, and

  • Level of detail.

In a way, the third attribute ‘level of detail’ is surprising, but when it is considered that the decision making process is always a risky situation where circumstances change constantly, sometimes it is better to take a quick decision based on the available information rather than wait to have all of the information we would like (an example of the constantly used term ‘fuzzy logic’).

This is certainly true in the livestock, particularly the swine industry. Many companies run their information systems on software packages (locally tailor-made products to highly acknowledged and well-known products in the marketplace) to Excel spreadsheets, or combinations of the two. Quite frequently the process is not agile, key performance indicators (KPI’s) are not set, and priorities are not defined. In other words, data (or some data) are collected, processed in the swine software package and/or Excel spreadsheets, leading to working lists and some routine summary reports being generated. Only when there is a problem is the influence of other factors checked (parity, cohort, season, facilities, etc.), either for sows or grow-finish pigs.

As the industry evolves, other KPIs may need to be added to the list. In a general sense, only reproduction performance in sows and performance in grow-finish have been recorded. A growing need is for the collection of health data, including as it relates to either gestating (i.e. lameness problems) or lactating sows (MMA syndrome) or nursery-grow-finishing pigs.

For example, prolificacy has largely improved over the last few years, affecting not only the individual weight, but also homogeneity. In many cases, litters are produced with a number of low viability piglets that will increase pre-weaning mortality. Ignoring this factor might lead to a misunderstanding of the problem.

Another example is culling due to lameness, which is a growing problem, worsened in many cases by improperly designed group sow gestation barns. The stated cause ‘lameness’ is clearly insufficient, taking into account the different reasons and factors provoking this diagnosis is required.

Another issue of growing importance is the necessity of dealing with monitoring, as opposed to analysis. In some situations this can be done in real-time management. Customers demand an immediate response to their questions and problems, and in the global market every manager knows that success is highly dependent on prompt and fast decisions. Every day more companies are moving towards real-time management with the first ones being outside our sector. The leaders in this matter are oil and gas companies, as their income and margin are highly dependent on demand that is very fast changing, but their approaches can be adapted to the swine industry.

In today’s swine business, monitoring the production process is becoming extremely important, and in many cases more than the analysis of the information. The disciplined, methodical follow-up of properly defined KPIs within the production process is a valuable step leading to the early detection of risks and problems before they become worse with more serious consequences.

Monitoring weekly abortions or negative pregnancy checks, born-alive and stillborn in sows, or total deaths by category in nursery-grow-finish, can alert supervisors to early problems when deviations beyond the norm for that farm are found. For this approach statistical process control techniques are particularly useful, and we know companies are using it more and more every day – but they still need to be widely implemented.

Besides these traditional data points, there are others data points from other sectors that can be easily adapted to the swine business. As outlined earlier, a classic problem is deficient information sharing processes -- those who have the data and those who need the information are not necessarily in the same place. But in today’s information age this should no longer be a problem. With a variety of communication devices real-time monitoring is now possible; data coverage is wider, more powerful, and inexpensive.

In our consultancy business we are collecting data using the above mentioned criteria using common devices such as digital pens for collecting sow and grow-finish reproduction and performance data. The data is directly uploaded into software that immediately generates quality information for our customers via the web or under customized company dashboards.

In addition to this, we also collect physical data in real-time, effortlessly with wireless (no cabling) and at very low cost, using simple commercial SIM cards. So, room temperature, water intake, humidity and power consumption can be monitored from anywhere at any time. Linking reproduction, production, health and physical data is generating information that is of an excellent quality. Alerts based on individual preferences are easily set. The smooth integration of these different sources of data generates a new scenario for each type of producer, from small family operations to large integrations, since the cost is extremely affordable and the equipment is user-friendly and easy to use.

With this approach combined with using strong management software, an organization’s full information potential is unleashed, instead of being underused. The consultants’ and vets’ work becomes easier and of considerably higher quality as more aspects of production can be controlled and understood.

Traditionally, the most important problems associated with moving to real-time company management have been described as the lack of technology and experience. The approach being proposed here will overcome these obstacles since data can be sent directly to the database using a digital pen and physical data can be continuously sent, without human intervention.

Finally, some practical tips that should not be forgotten when thinking about improving the use of information in your farm or company:

  1. Define which KPIs are right for you; focus on getting the right information and identifying data that is unnecessary. Many companies dedicate time and resources in collecting data that will be never used. So, a good start can be to review and reconsider your data collection strategy and data usage.

  2. Widen access to the information within your organization, taking reasonable precautions. The payback can be significant.

  3. Promote delivery of information through devices that are part of peoples’ lives. Market share of smartphones and tablets is growing rapidly. Use them.

  4. Promote education and training on how to interpret the data. Many people - from farm staff to managers - lack this basic ability.

  5. Designate an information champion within your organization, and encourage their efforts. The Champion should have the responsibility of generating and delivering the information in the right format to the individuals who need it when they need it. These tasks are often divided among many different people generating confusion and inefficiencies.

Today’s market demands in the swine industry means greater demands are placed on us for enhanced quality and cost-effectiveness within our organization, focusing on our data collection efforts can successfully support those requirements. Transforming data into knowledge is becoming a must.

Carlos Piñeiro is the Managing Director of PigCHAMP Pro-Europa. Carlos has been with PigCHAMP Pro-Europa SL since it was founded in 2000. Pro-Europa is a livestock consultant, mainly swine. One of Pro-Europa’s main goals is to transform the data generated by the sector into useful information, capable of generating the knowledge needed to improve decision making.