Moving Veterinary from a Service Function to a Development Function

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    Geoff Dooley's picture

    I was struck by a moment of clarity on reading the finding made by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company (2013) that there is a “40% better marginal return from investment in human rather than knowledge capital”.

    As a training provider to the veterinary and farming sectors; XLVets Skillnet holds many training events, equipping our vets with the latest clinical knowledge and ensuring that farmers are aware of how various herd health risks should be managed.

    But what McKinsey & Co. found is that investment in human capital, such as management skills, business processes, organisational structure and operational models creates assets that are difficult to replicate, that lead to significant competitive advantage and therefore higher marginal returns. The point is that if we fail to invest in human capital, the potential gains from knowledge capital become difficult to capture. This is because the implementation of knowledge requires the human capability to adapt and to change routines and behaviours; which isn’t always easily done.

    This is a point that reflects our learning journey in XLVets Skillnet. At our launch in June 2011, with 18 eager and progressive veterinary practice members; we saw the framework provided by Skillnets as an opportunity for the veterinary profession to take control of its own training agenda. And, we got off to a great start with Skillnets, running a range of clinical skills events on bovine scanning, milk quality, equine colic and so on…

    And while this was all very useful and ensured that our members had access to the latest science-based information; we also learned that disseminating more information and knowledge does not necessarily make veterinary or farming more competitive. After the first year, our Board was asking;

    Is our activity making a difference to our businesses?

     Is it making a difference to  our clients businesses?

    Are we making positive change happen?”

    After much soul searching we identified our purpose as being to “enable Irish veterinary and Irish farming to become world class performers”. It is a phrase that we use over and over again to remind ourselves of the reason for our existence.

    We then decided that we needed a simple strategy for how we would deliver our purpose. We recognised that if we’re to change Irish veterinary and Irish farming; we have to change ourselves first. So our strategy for enabling Irish veterinary and Irish farming to become world class performers is to move our veterinary practice members from a service function to a development function.

    In other words, inch-by-inch; our strategy is to broaden the role of our veterinary members beyond being service providers to include being a trusted advisor, mentor, trainer, consultant and coach to their farming clients.

    This represented a big shift from traditional thinking!

    About 2 years before XLVets Skillnet launched, I recall meeting 3 vets on a drizzly November evening in 2009 when we discussed their concerns about how the role of the vet was constantly being reduced. The vet was becoming the person of last resort to call to a sick animal or a difficult calving. Reducing the role of the vet to an emergency response provider was threatening the veterinary business model. It also indicated the lack of a pro-active process or structure for the vet to use his specialist knowledge to create value for his clients and for himself.

    The interesting thing about moving veterinary from a service function to a development function is that it throws open a whole plethora of training needs and training opportunities for XLVets Skillnet to upskill the veterinary sector in the clinical, business management, marketing, communication and facilitation skills required so that vets can meet the training and development needs of their farming clients.

    Making and sustaining this shift in focus has not been easy. Veterinary is a traditional sector. Veterinary practices are small businesses where operational processes and structures tend to be poorly defined and therefore difficult to change. Farming is also a traditional sector and it doesn’t always feel normal for farmers to step back and adopt a more investigative or pre-emptive approach to managing herd health risks.

    With this challenge in mind, we created a suite of herd health development programs. Each program includes a diagnostic aspect at the beginning to identify relevant risks at farm level. Then each assessment is followed up with a plan that is designed to improve the health status of the herd. The plan includes a number of routine interventions and meetings both in group format and one-to-one between the vet and the farmer. The role of the vet is to monitor the implementation of the plan and to bring accountability to the relationship with the farmer.

    Designing this concept and rolling it out has been very exciting and we were delighted earlier this year when the Irish institute for Training and Development recognised XLVets Skillnet as Ireland’s best Learning and Development Network on foot of our DairyMentor program.

    There are two key reasons for how we have been able to sustain this change effort over time. The first reason is that we consistently repeat the reasons for why we are doing what we do – that is; the mission of enabling Irish veterinary and Irish farming to become world class performers and the strategy of moving veterinary from a service function to a development function. Having clarity on what we are trying to achieve keeps us focused and it also helps us to engage others.

    The second reason we have been able to sustain this effort is because of the support of Skillnets. Skillnets provides the enabling framework and the operational processes required for us to be able to succeed. As such, Skillnets is an investor in human capital as McKinsey defines it. Skillnets also introduces a strong element of performance monitoring and accountability to its relationship with its member networks. This is something that we recognise as fundamental to effective implementation; so much so that in XLVets Skillnet, we now make performance monitoring and accountability a core part of our farmer training and mentoring programs.

    So, how can we quantify the return on the investment made by Skillnets in us?  

    We have discovered that the impact of moving veterinary from a service function to a development function has also been to move veterinary from a curative focus to a preventative focus. In other words, rather than addressing the needs of individual sick animals, we are now spending more time working with farmers at herd or flock level in preventing clinical problems from emerging in the first place. Intrinsically it feels like we are creating value, particularly from the perspectives of supporting better animal welfare, addressing concerns associated with anti-microbial resistance and reducing business risks at farm level.

    There are lots of metrics showing the economic value of shorter calving intervals, increased milk quality, lower incidents of infectious disease and so on; but to quantify the impact of Skillnets investment in us; I suggest we consider the observation made by Benjamin Franklin that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

    Based on that benchmark, and given that there are 16 ounces in one pound, we can say that Skillnets investment in enabling a behaviour shift in Irish veterinary and Irish farming towards preventative medicine is yielding a 16 fold return over the traditional curative approach.

    (1)            McKinsey & Company (2013) Innovation matters; reviving the growth engine