Extension Best Practice Guidelines - Becoming an effective connector

You’ll recall that the connector is one of four critical roles identified within the red meat sector’s extension system model.

 

The connector is the role that initiates the extension process with the farm team. Their job is to bring individual farm teams together and to identify the common purpose for an extension group – a shared issue or opportunity they want to address.

The connector may also:

  • help identify the most appropriate subject matter expert to support the group or have an individual farmer address the issue/opportunity
  • work with a facilitator to develop a programme for a group
  • encourage change on-farm
  • stay with the group over time (or leave the group once it is established).

What skills does a connector need to initiate the process?

The key skills required to fulfil the connector role with a group initially include :

  • bringing groups together
  • uncovering needs for farmers/farm businesses
  • identifying relevant SMEs and facilitators to deliver on extension programme goals
  • working with facilitators to design relevant activities and information resources.

 

Bringing groups together

This first phase will be all about bringing the right group of farmers (or farm teams) together to:

  • identify a shared need (based on an issue or opportunity)
  • work collaboratively to explore potential solutions
  • support each other to implement new practices and overcome the inevitable challenges along the way.

You might like to refresh your memory as to what we’ve already said about ‘Identifying the key audience’ to help with this.

Forming a group and getting them to work effectively together takes time, and is not always smooth sailing. You might find it helpful to read more about what to expect as a group goes through the predictable stages in changing from being a collection of relative (or complete) strangers to a united group with common goals:

Forming, storming, norming, and performing: understanding the stages of team formation

 

Want more detail?

You might like to read the section on establishing groups, pages 5-9 of Farmer to Farmer Discussion Groups

 

Uncovering needs for farmers/farm businesses

A key role for the connector is being able to identify needs that farmers or farm businesses may have, but that have not yet been expressed.

If you haven’t already read the earlier section in these guidelines on ‘Identifying the issue/opportunity ’, we recommend you do so now.

The key skills a connector needs to bring to this process are open questioning techniques and active listening skills. You can find out more about each of these skills here:

Questioning techniques: asking questions effectively

Active listening: hear what people are really saying

And, of course, as the connector begins to uncover these needs with the farmer group, it will help if the needs get converted into SMART goals. This is to inform the effective design of the overall extension programme and the design of individual extension activities, resources and adoption support within that programme. You can read more about ‘Defining SMART goals’ here.

 

Identifying relevant SMEs and facilitators to deliver on extension programme goals

The best connectors are the ones who have broad networks of connections within the industry, and the confidence and skill to tap into these networks to identify the relevant people they need to fulfill roles, such as the SME or facilitator, to support the programme.

You can remind yourself of the roles the SMEs and facilitators play within the extension programme here:

In a later section of these guidelines, we also look in further depth at the role of the facilitator.

When looking for a SME or facilitator to contribute to the programme, keep in mind:

  • The credibility they need to have with the farmer group to be effective in their role – will the group recognise and respect the knowledge and experience this person has to offer?
  • The time they have available – do you need them for a one-off session, or to play more of an ongoing role? Will you be able to pay them for all or some of their time?
  • The skills they will need to perform effectively in the role – what kind of activity will the person be involved in (e.g. workshop, field day, discussion group or something else)? Does the person have the skills they need already to be effective in that forum, or can you help them develop these skills as needed?
  • The match they have with the programme goals you have identified – does this person have the requisite knowledge and skills to deliver on the outcomes you’re after?
  • What they (or their organisation) might get from being involved – can you encourage their involvement by outlining the benefits they may get from taking part?

 

Working with facilitators to design relevant activities and information resources

Whether the connector also intends to play the role of facilitator themselves, or they are working with independent facilitators, they may be involved in designing relevant activities and information resources.

Of course this process should be guided by what is in the annual extension plan, as this is the document that captures the desired outcomes for each planned extension activity. You can remind yourself of how this plan gets developed and what it looks like here:

You may also find it helpful to revisit two other sections of these guidelines when thinking about the connector’s role at this point:

What skills does a connector need to continue working alongside the group?

Once a group has formed, the connector may continue to work alongside the group and a facilitator (or may even move into the facilitator’s role), to connect individual farmers to the resources required to address their identified needs.

The key skills required to fulfil the ongoing connector role with a group include :

  • identifying genuine knowledge gaps
  • selecting relevant information for the farming systems and local environments with which they are working
  • being aware of research that has already been conducted, and sharing that with the group
  • contacting relevant people for individual farmers and groups
  • accessing ‘difficult-to-find’ resources.

 

Identifying genuine knowledge gaps

While we shouldn’t assume that providing knowledge through an extension programme is a necessary precursor to farm teams making practice change, it’s important for the connector to identify what the people in their group already know, and what they need to know. This can be done through brainstorming with the group, or by using a simple ‘What can you do now?’ sheet  to get the group to reflect individually on what they know/don’t know as a starting point.

Once genuine knowledge gaps are identified, connectors can help fill these gaps with the right input at the right time – whether that’s through a facilitated activity, a quick conversation with a SME (either face-to-face or via phone or Skype), or referring the person/people with the knowledge gap to a specific information resource.

 

Selecting relevant information for the farming systems and local environments with which they are working

We know many farmers relate best to seeing examples of practice or technology change from farms that share the same:

  • environmental features – for example, land type, weather patterns
  • farming system – for example, breeding and finishing mix, stock policies, forages, etc.

Effective connectors will make the most of their local networks to gain relevant input and information from people like regional council scientists and advisors, veterinarians, agricultural professionals, and so on, so that the group can relate well to the experiences and recommendations from these people who they feel will truly understand the enviornment they are personally farming in.

 

Being aware of research that has already been conducted, and sharing that with the group

Connectors can serve their groups well if they keep an eye across research and publications available through sites such as:

Beef + Lamb NZ – Data & tools
AgResearch
Landcare research – Manaaki whenua
NIWA – Farming and the primary sector
Massey University – Centre for Excellence for on-farm research and teaching
Lincoln University – Dryland Pastures Research
AgriOne – a partnership between Lincoln and Massey Universities
Deer Industry New Zealand
NZ Deer Farmers Association
New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre
Rabobank – Farming and agricultural information
Plant and Food Research
Marlborough Research Centre
Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR)
GNS Science – Te Pū Ao
Fertiliser Association
Federated Farmers of New Zealand
Science New Zealand – Agricultural and pastoral
Poukawa Research Farm – Calf rearing in New Zealand
AgriNetworks – On Farm Research
Relevant commercial companies (e.g. fertiliser, chemical resellers).

 

Contacting relevant people for individual farmers and groups

Again, this will come down to networks. An effective connector will make the most of the networks they already have, and be continually looking to grow their personal and professional networks, so they can draw on these relationships when they need to connect people with individual farmers or groups.

As you may not always be able to offer payment to people you are calling on in your role as connector, it will help you to have a clear picture of the potential non-monetary benefits that come from involvement in an extension programme. These benefits mirror those the connector themselves might gain:

  • positive perception – they will be seen as valuing farmers and having farmers’ interests at heart
  • greater engagement with farmers and other rural professionals
  • the ability to influence outcomes for their organisation
  • overall, a more sustainable and profitable red meat sector to operate within.

 

Accessing ‘difficult-to-find’ resources

Whether these ‘difficult-to-find’ resources take the form of people or tangible information, the connector will, at times, need to play detective, drawing on all their existing networks and knowledge of information sources to hunt down the right input to meet the desired outcome for their farmer group.

Persistence will be rewarded with ongoing progress against the goals that have been set for the programme.

Who would be suitable for the role of connector?

The connector role could be undertaken by:

  • the processor representatives (e.g. stock reps)
  • a farm consultant, scientist or vet (rural professionals) who sees a need amongst a group of farmers
  • a farmer (e.g. an experienced farmer might act as the connector and (unpaid) facilitator, until a paid facilitator is appointed and funding is approved).

 

 

What benefits will connectors get from playing this role?

A connector will get recognition for being a ‘go-to’ person, as someone who can ensure that the right person is involved at the right time. Other benefits include:

  • positive perception – they will be seen as valuing farmers and having farmers’ interests at heart
  • greater engagement with farmers and other rural professionals
  • the ability to influence outcomes for their organisation (e.g. a meat processor rep playing the connector role can help achieve greater supply, better quality, greater return, more successful customers)
  • overall, a more sustainable and profitable red meat sector to operate within.

Some tips and tricks to get you started as a connector

Here’s a few ideas to get you started.

Document your networks

Draw a diagram of who you already know directly in different areas – you can use the outer layer of our extension model diagram to spark ideas for different parts of the industry you may already have connections in

 

 

Think about ways to expand your current network

  • Could you be more active on industry-relevant social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter?
  • Could you attend local events such as council meetings, research/project updates, meetings of special interest groups, Federated Framer meetings, or informal gatherings like school Ag Days? It’s worth pursuing any opportunity that will help you meet with more farmers, as well as other people who could be useful as SMEs, facilitators or adoption support for your group.
  • Could you ask people in your current network to introduce you to people they know who might be the right fit with what you’re trying to do?

 

Evaluate your current skill and knowledge level

Think about the skills and knowledge you’ve read about here that effective connectors have:

  • Are there areas you feel you could improve in?
  • How could you go about doing that?

Opportunities for further connector skills training

The list below is by no means exhaustive, but might give you a few useful ideas of where to start.

 

Skill area Possible providers
Public speaking

Toastmasters

Centres for Continuing Education at your local high school, polytechnic or university

Networking opportunities

Beef + Lamb NZ events

Federated Farmers events

Rural Women New Zealand discussion groups

Agri-Women’s Development Trust events

NZ Young Farmers

NZ Sheep Breeders Association

NZ Deer Farmers Association events

Cattle Breeders Associations (e.g. NZ Red Devon Cattle Breeders Association events, NZ Angus Association events)

Your local Chamber of Commerce or Regional Economic Development Agency

Leadership

Leadership New Zealand

New Zealand Institute of Management and Leadership

Business Mentors

 

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