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Consultants: the innovation intermediaries for innovating innovation in innovation-intensive industries
Innovation is the life-blood of the agricultural sector, yet many farmers suffer from an innovation gap due to their on-farm commitments and daily chores that limit their opportunity to network. Consultants provide an invaluable resource that can bridge the networking gap between the external world and internal farm environment where they provide innovative management capacity. In addition, the consultant can facilitate and foster innovation by creating a different ‘space’ for the farm owner, manager and staff in which to unlock their innovative potential, and so plug the innovation gap (PIG). By sharing in concentrated bursts of innovative enthusiasm and learning from the collective experience of their client base, farm consultants can innovate innovation.
In discussions on innovation it is not unusual for the conversation to focus on sexy new products that can do things that only a few years ago were not done or had not even been thought of such as smart phones and hybrid cars. Less sexy is talk of new feed ingredients, improved genetics or heat detection devices, innovations that enable us to do what we have always done, but to do it better and more efficiently. Yet it is just such innovations that pervade the agriculture industries where innovation is an everyday, everywhere and essential capability necessary not only for success but survival in the face of enormous challenges that are diverse and evolving. Amongst the livestock industries, none has embraced innovation more than the swine sector which rallies to meet the increasing demand for protein in the face of increasing but asymmetrical pressures from competition, uncertainty over feed availability, environmental and resource constraints, emerging diseases and consumer concerns over the ways its’ animals are farmed. Local hog farmers have had to adapt to these and other pressures while at the same time increasing their production efficiency and reducing cost: demands that have seen the number of farmers decline dramatically and herd sizes increase accordingly around the world. Through this process of elimination, a progressive population has been selected that is, for the most part, informed, industrious, and innovative. Gone are the days of being pig-headed and hogtied, these are business people with a passion for raising hogs and feeding people.
As an example of innovativeness in the agricultural sector, hog farmers are inspiring. Like all farmers they innovate in practical and unassuming ways as they find novel solutions to the practical problems that arise as part of routine farm operation on a daily basis or in response to specific challenges. For example, farm staff may come up with a better way to walk pigs up a new loading race without their baulking or a trick to manipulate the computerised wet feeding system into delivering the right quantity of a novel feed ingredient, they may come up with new ways to manage pig flow so as to remove a pig-move from the system or to utilise available space that enables sows to be housed more liberally, or they may reformulate diets to include innovative feed ingredients to better partition nutrients. In addition to such internal process innovations there is an enormous amount of research and development dedicated to the swine industry that provides farmers with an external source of new ideas and products. To benefit fully from these innovations, farmers must access, recognise, analyse, understand and exploit them when and where appropriate. Access to such innovations is through technology transfer forums (e.g. PigLink), industry magazines (e.g. Hogfarmer), trade shows (e.g. Eurotier) and directly or indirectly through the sharing of knowledge between farmers and their intermediaries (i.e. networks and consultants).
Farmers vary in their absorptive, assimilation, transformation and exploitation capacities and in their willingness or opportunity to network, even though (in the Netherlands at least), networking has been shown to correlate directly with acquisition and assimilation capacity and indirectly with transformation capacity, exploitation capacity and innovativeness (Tepic, 2012). In many swine industries for biosecurity and commercially sensitive reasons hog farmers rarely if ever visit the farms of other producers, limiting the knowledge such networking would provide. In many instances farmers also lack the resources, notably time, to adequately assess the information and opportunities available to them. Amidst their busyness, hog farmers, and farmers more generally, often fail to put time aside for collective thinking as they are either doing too much work themselves or they do not want to distract their staff from their daily chores. This limits innovation.
Within most swine industries there are dedicated and specialised PIG consultants who visit multiple farms. These consultants fill a vital role as intermediaries bridging the networking gap between the external world and internal farm environment where they provide innovative management capacity. In addition, the consultant can facilitate and foster innovation by creating a different ‘space’ for the farm owner, manager and staff in which to unlock their innovative potential. On many hog farms, visits by the PIG consultant account for the majority of occasions at which the farm owner and staff sit down together specifically to discuss problems, look for solutions, consider alternatives, generate ideas and ‘stargaze’. The consultant literally carves out “space for innovation in the midst of all the busyness”. Often the innovative ideas already exist amongst the staff who have a wealth of experience and are a source of innovation that is underutilised - if not completely overlooked - unless directly engaged. Staff may only require the right environment and encouragement to voice their ideas or to develop the ideas of others. By providing this environment and as an approved justification for “time-out” the consultant becomes a facilitator and stimulator of innovation on farm. Furthermore, as the PIG consultant is involved in such exchanges, which in essence are mini-workshops, on a daily basis he or she becomes a unique repository for the collective knowledge and experience of the client base. This enables the consultant to serve as a ready reckoner against which the ideas that are generated can be appraised or linked to experiences elsewhere or the consultant can offer other alternatives. These alternatives need only be new combinations or novel applications of the existing ideas generated by and tested within the client base. Whether viewed as an intermediary, “middleman”, bridger, or broker in the innovation process, through his or her industry-intelligence the consultant plays an important role by facilitating information diffusion, supporting decision-making, evaluating technology, and as a collator of collective experience, assuming a role Bessant and Rush (1995) likened to that of a bee, buzzing around and cross-pollinating between firms, carrying experiences and ideas from one location or context to another.
In addition to the collective experience of the client base, the consultant usually has specialised training in a number of disciplines such as nutrition, reproduction and veterinary medicine, which provide further insight and apply meaningful filters to the information available. Essentially the PIG consultant is uniquely positioned to predict the probable likelihood of a particular innovation adding value to a particular hog farm, thus focusing the farmer’s efforts where they will be most rewarding. The consultant is often able to advise on changes to the innovation that may be necessary to make it most effective on a given farm, thus minimising the amount of incremental process innovation or “tinkering” that is required before value is maximised. Consultants are uniquely positioned to know what works and what doesn’t, and what the important factors were that contributed to success or failure in particular instances.
Two-way sharing of ideas and experiences is thus absolutely critical to the farm consultant’s value. This is made possible by the close and continuous contact PIG consultants have with hog farmers and the establishment and maintenance of their trust, especially those within the client base. Familiarity with the client base and knowledge of the sector generally, sensitises the consultant to relationships between individual farmers which enables him or her to apply the appropriate level of openness or confidentiality to each unique circumstance. Protecting this trust is absolutely essential for the reverse flow of knowledge and the consultants learning. As Bessant and Rush (1995) note: simply possessing a technology is no guarantee it will, or can, be used effectively and that to become competent with the technology so as to use it optimally, a learning process is necessary to fill this gap. By combining the collective experience of the client base with external knowledge and facilitating the opportunity for innovation by providing an appropriate environment, the consultant can innovate innovations.
In an industry where ingenious solutions to challenging problems are a necessity rather than a luxury, it is not surprising a relationship between innovativeness and profitability has been established (Tepic, 2012). What is perhaps surprising is that some farms either don’t use or under-utilise their PIG (plug innovation gap) consultant. While this short account has specifically considered consultants to the swine industry, and how they can plug the innovation gap, there is little doubt that consultants can add value to most businesses – perhaps providing some clue as to why consultancy as such has taken off in the past 20 years. Innovation is both the flavour and saviour of the month, and consultants can be its important intermediaries. Consultants are in a position to have the most complete knowledge and intelligence about the technology, issues, and possible solutions within the space they operate. Through this knowledge and their intelligence, consultants can not only help find innovative solutions, but they can often identify needs not yet apparent to the client.
Bessant, J., & Rush, H. (1995). Building bridges for innovation: the role of consultants in technology transfer. Research Policy, 24(1), 97-114.
Tepic, M. (2012). Innovation capabilities and governance in the agri-food sector: Wageningen Universiteit (Wageningen University).