When Nigel Brabyn took on the newly-created role of business performance analyst at Nelson Forests Limited (NFL), one of the first things he assessed was the 'information supply chain' across the group.
"I wanted to try and integrate those systems together, looking at what intelligence we can get out [of them], and get the systems to talk to each other," says Brabyn, who four years ago who stepped up from the forest and information technology manager post.
NFL -- with around 600 staff and contractors - manages 78,000 hectares of high quality radiata pine plantations in the Nelson and Marlborough regions, and owns and operates the Kaituna Sawmill near Blenheim.
"I started mapping information flows," says Brabyn. "I went around, interviewed everybody, what information do you receive and give out? Some were in Excel, people were also printing things out and punching them into another system."
He also checked for duplication of information, and created a diagram of the data flow.
From there he created a diagram by "taking those functions and reordering them", which is now part of the company's standard systems.
It used to take us between three and six months from the time the tree was felled out in the forest to know whether we were making money. Now, I can tell you the trees that we cut down yesterday whether we will be making money on it.
By integrating these different functions, we gained a lot of efficiencies, says Brabyn.
NFL also invested in a core system to get "one version of the truth".
"It used to take us between three and six months from the time the tree was felled out in the forest to know whether we were making money," Brabyn says. "Now, I can tell you the trees that we cut down yesterday whether we will be making money on it."
Brabyn has been working in the forestry sector for more than 33 years, starting as a forest draughting cadet in Gisborne, using pen and ink to do the mapping. He did get involved in the first private sector computer record system in the 1980s when he was with Tasman Pulp Paper's Forestry Division in Kawerau. He progressed to a range of roles that included forest information officer and IT coordinator at another forestry company, Weyerhaeuser New Zealand, for 10 years; and valuation and information officer at Fletcher Challenge Forests.
"It was all about keeping records of what we had done," he says of his earlier roles.
This experience brought him much insight into the forestry sector. "We were good at recording information on everything we did, but quite slow in getting that to the system."
So when he took on his current role, he looked at how to improve the systems.
It was, interestingly, a CIO New Zealand column by Owen McCall titled "The 'I' stands for Information" that prompted him to focus on NFL's other key asset -- information.
McCall transposed the triangle model of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to the four stages on "maturity in better use of information".
In an ascending order, these are:
" I understand historical performance.
" I receive information that allows me to monitor performance and act on exceptions quickly.
" Information enhances my decision making ability today and predicts future business results.
" I receive information that allows me to identify and exploit new opportunities.
"Reading this article, I felt it spoke to me," says Brabyn, who was then in the business performance analyst role for about a month. Applying this insight to Nelson Forests, he states, "What it told me was our forestry industry is extremely good at understanding information to the 9th degree. Forest companies record everything and put them into databases. We did mapping, filled out standard record cards.
"My analogy was the Titanic [ship]," he says. "You are concentrating on your historical information and you are receiving data on it, but it takes a long time for that data to come through.
"You are, actually, looking at chunks of ice float past. You might hear a bump but you don't know what is really happening. You don't know whether you are turning away from risk or into it. By the time you actually turn, it is too late.
"Getting that feedback quickly is important because if you don't, we have people in the forest cutting down trees, they will just keep doing what they are doing. We need to change it, by the time you make the change you are now another six months behind.
"Taking those and getting those core systems in place took two years," he says.
He believes he has reached the second rung of the information hierarchy, and working towards the next rung, which is "information enhances my decision making ability today and predicts future business results".
"The forest is our factory, the forest is our warehouse," says Brabyn. Most of the logs are harvested using mechanised machines. NFL is using a program where after stripping the branches off, the machine would measure the log and program it to cut in areas to provide optimal grade products.
These technologies are used for quality control, but the challenge is how to get back the data in the machine into the office.
"We store huge amounts of data, but the only way we can get it back to the office is through one of these," he says, holding a USB stick.
"It is a two-way thing," he states. "We get a lot of the information here in the office, and a lot of the information out there. The key to it is speed."
The sheer volume of data then brings on another challenge.
"We used to record everything," he says. "We still have black and white photographs of the area 30 to 40 year ago before the trees were there."
"But should we record everything, and for how long? What do you keep, what do you throw, what is important, what is not?"
"It is one of those Catch 22 situations," he says.
"I am constantly looking at our business, specifically looking at performance management. How do we measure and get those performance issues, how do we get them on time and present them to the people to actually make good decisions?"
This focus ensures Brabyn's goal to progress NFL to the next rung of the "information needs" hierarchy.
This is part of a special report on ICT in Nelson that came out in the 2014 leadership issue of CIO New Zealand.
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