We live in the age of information. Information on any subject is as close as the nearest Internet connection.

A particular concern of mine in pig production is the dichotomy of attitudes that producers take toward information. A producer, who told me several years ago that the only production figure he needed was "pounds of pork produced," illustrates one extreme. If that particular number was good, then in his mind, everything else was immaterial.

His approach was fine as long as the number was acceptable. However, if this productivity measure became unacceptable, there would be insufficient data to do diagnostics.

At the other extreme are managers who produce reams of data with corresponding charts, graphs and perhaps even statistical analysis, who are paralyzed when asked how to use them productively.

A colleague of mine characterizes these extremes as either being frightened or bedazzled by information technology. Those who are afraid of technology shun it, while those who are bedazzled may become prisoners of their fascination. Neither extreme allows for best management and productivity.

To use information technology effectively, we need to understand the differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

Data are unconnected facts.

Information is data that fits into categories, classification schemes or other patterns.

Knowledge is information that has been further defined into generalizations or general statements across numerous production systems.

Wisdom is the ability to productively use data, information and knowledge.

To illustrate, seasonal infertility in sows was recognized when data on the reproductive performance of individual sows was collected into the early computerized production record systems.

When that data was reproduced in the form of a farrowing-rate report, trends were recognized (information). As more data and similar information became available from farms and research reports began to confirm the observations, the information became knowledge.

Wisdom occurs in understanding what needs to be done in response to the available knowledge.

My computer science teacher characterized computers as "fast idiots." Computers can handle and quickly compile large amounts of data. But, developing knowledge and wisdom is still a human activity.

The transformation from data and information to knowledge and wisdom (application) requires tremendous skill from owners and managers in order for employees and the business to succeed. Owners and managers must understand the following truths about information technology as summarized in a 1994 Harvard Business Review article:

1. In most industries, managers do not rely on computer-generated information to make decisions, but instead gather information from personal interactions and documents generated outside their own organization.

A shortcoming of most computer-based record systems is that they are useful for historical analysis but may not be particularly useful in helping me make a decision today. I have observed recently that the most useful data is found on the dry-erase board in most farm offices (because it is the most current).

2. Managers prefer to get information from people rather than computers.

The computer may be able to supply the data quickly, but without the context added by the people, there is no knowledge or wisdom.

3. The more complex and detailed an information system is, the less likely it is to change anyone's behavior.

I regularly work with production systems that use one of the major recordkeeping systems to provide annual summaries. Because they don't like the reports, or they aren't timely, or they are too complex,the workers in the various production areas keep their own customized record sheets. These sheets commonly provide the information they need on a daily basis.

The challenge for owners and managers is to develop an information system that is appropriate for their unique situation. It should allow for timely decisions based on good information. There is a lot of lost opportunity in not having enough data and the right information to make good decisions. On the other hand, data that is compiled and information that is generated but not transformed to knowledge and wisdom is a waste of time and money.