Professor researches communication chains in the cattle industry

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On December 19, 2007

What do cattle and technology have in common? Plenty, if you talk to Dr.
David Wright, a professor of English and technical communication at the
University of Missouri-Rolla. For the past three years, Wright has been
studying the cattle industry and developing a communications model from his

Wright developed his communications model after researching the effects of a
new cattle-tagging system, called the National Animal Identification System
introduced, by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This new tagging
system, which would work much like the barcode, scanner, and database at the
supermarket, would allow animals to be tracked from their place of origin to
their final destination, as well as allowing other information like sales and
veterinary information to be collected.

Wright saw that the USDA failed to communicate the technology well enough to
livestock market owners and the small producers who would have been among the
system’s proposed users. Rather than forming a consensus among the cattle
industry alliances, with whom the markets owners and small cattle producers
communicate directly, the USDA shared information with the feed lots and others
establishments which farmers and ranchers don’t directly communicate with. The
USDA also relied on the internet to disperse their information – another source
the cattle producers don’t directly utilize. This indirect communications route
muddled the information that the USDA wanted to convey to the market owners and
producers about the new technology. As a result, the farmers rejected the
technology because they were unable to understand how it would be used.

Wright researched and interviewed staff from approximately 50 livestock
auctions across the Midwest from North Dakota to southern Texas to form his
communications model. His model is part of the larger model of technology
diffusion, which begins with an idea or innovation that spreads through
networks. Wright’s model examines the message itself and its method of
distribution, whether it’s written, recorded or on a web page. Once the origin
is established, the diffusion and communication networks examine how effective
that distribution is.

Wright’s three-fold plan includes linguistics, communication theory and
diffusion theory. He created the model as a tool to test the effectiveness of
the communication and the diffusion and communication networks. “Where this is
most interesting is in industries that are not typically technologically
advanced,” says Wright. “This is why I chose the beef industry.”

Wright worked with the livestock auction owners and studied how well the
USDA communicated the new tagging technology to the small producers. He was
particularly looking at how the USDA would diffuse the information from the top
level of the communication chain (itself) to the bottom (the proposed users).
Wright found that the communication chain was a lot more complicated than the
USDA had anticipated and thus left the “change agents,” which include numerous
industry alliances such as the Livestock Marketing Association, out of the
communication loop. The livestock auction owners go directly to these industry
alliances for answers rather than to the USDA itself. When the information came
out about the new tagging system, industry alliances formulated their own
opinions about the new system and offered their own interpretations of the
original information from the USDA, confusing the market owners and livestock

As Wright found with the beef industry, most information does not travel in
a straight line from the company with the information to the company for whom
the information is intended. He hopes his model can be used as a tool for other
industries to test their communication chains and make them stronger.

Wright plans to publish journal articles about his beef industry experience
and hopes to write a book about his model. He feels it is applicable to any
industry which needs a clear communication chain. “The model is a tool for
viewing technological change as it is affected by communication,” says

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On December 19, 2007. Posted in Research