What is Extension?
Extension is about working with people in a community to facilitate change in an environment that has social, economic and technical complexity. This is achieved by helping people gain the knowledge and confidence so they want to change and providing support to ensure it is implemented effectively.
In extension the community may consist of any group of people with a common interest such as a town, region, industry, supply chain, catchment or a social grouping with a common problem.
Extension relies on the commitment of the community to the change process so any collaboration needs to be meaningful otherwise little will be achieved. As trust and respect develops the common goals can be expanded and the partnership will become more productive.
Some behaviour can be changed quite easily by simply informing people of a better option in a way that is appealing. In these instances changing poses little risk. Organisations use marketing and other communication techniques extensively to influence simple behaviour change.
Extension focuses on change in more complex environments where the risk of failure is greater and people need to develop the capacity to change.
The need for capacity building distinguishes extension from many other change management approaches such as marketing.
An important part of building capacity is empowering people in the community to take responsibility for the change process. People who invest their time and resources will be more committed to achieving a successful outcome for themselves and their community.
Change also requires understanding of what needs to be done and why. Communities need to be educated so they can make informed decisions. This involves people learning from their peers, their own activities and accessing new sources of knowledge.
The learning process helps build community knowledge that improves decision-making and this leads to a better extension outcome.
An extension worker facilitates the change process in a community by:
- Helping people to work together more effectively and to establish a common commitment to the goals
- Assisting people to better utilise existing knowledge, skills and resources
- Facilitating access to new knowledge which resides outside the community
- Encouraging people to take responsibility for the change process
- Working with the community to identify barriers to progress and developing, with the community, ways of overcoming them
By harnessing the collective knowledge, skills and resources of all those involved, extension greatly increases the probability of a successful outcome.
Why it is important
Extension can achieve change in environments often considered too difficult when using other approaches.
Extension works where other approaches fail because it uses community knowledge, skills and resources so that solutions are appropriate for the audience.
Participation in the decision making process creates understanding of what needs to be done and why. This reduces the potential for conflict in extension programs and provides an easy way to resolve differences of opinion through discussion.
Creating change though is of limited value unless it can be sustained and built on over time.
A real strength of extension is achieving sustainable change by involving and gaining a strong commitment from the people in the community. This gives them greater ownership and control over their own destiny. It also motivates them to learn about the issues and better utilise community knowledge, skills and resources.
The business case
The value of extension in primary industries has been clearly demonstrated through a number of detailed evaluation studies.
For people involved in the change process the value of extension is self-evident.
If carried out properly extension is a low risk activity. The two most important areas where risk needs to be managed are:
- Engagement of communities
- Timeliness of activities
Engagement involves working closely with the community to develop a partnership. By working as a partnership risks can be more easily identified and managed. Inadequate engagement often leads to a lack of understanding of local circumstances increasing the risk that mistakes will be made.
Timeliness of activities can also pose a risk to the successful outcome of an extension program. There is no point in working on water efficiency in irrigation systems if the community is experiencing a flood!
Some issues that determine the best time to carry out an extension program cannot be predicted. Flexibility is the key to reducing any risk. The extension worker is in an excellent position to understand what needs to be done if they have the flexibility to adjust their work program to accommodate changing circumstances.
An extension program will have a relatively low risk of failure if carried out correctly.
Extension achieves change by following a series of simple principles. These aim to improve the capacity of people to change and maintain the momentum of the process.
How these principles are applied differs in each situation as every community is different and every problem has more than one solution. The best approach is the one that works for the community and the extension worker in the most efficient and effective way.
Extension relies on building partnerships where the partners have a common goal and invest in the process. For those involved in the partnership the goal is to achieve a WIN-WIN scenario where all participants benefit. Unless people are benefiting they will quickly loose interest in participating.
Initially the partnership can be quite narrow in the goals the participants have in common but this often broadens as trust and respect develops.
Extension workers sometimes provide additional incentives by helping the community leverage government and industry funding through grants or sponsorships of various kinds. This can be helpful in situations where the broader community gains significant benefit and when there is an important need to accelerate a change process.
People often learn best from people. Extension workers facilitate change by working with people and helping people to work with each other to achieve common goals.
Engagement is important as it involves people interacting with each other. This leads to a greater understanding of issues and the ability to deal with complex problems.
Empowerment involves people taking responsibility for the change process and being committed to achieving a successful outcome.
For extension workers empowering people and communities helps develop a strong partnership that is needed to facilitate change.
People learn best by doing. The more involved people are in the change process, especially in its management, the more they will learn and be committed to achieving a successful outcome.
This principle also applies to communities. Change often involves many people working together. Those who have to carry out the change need to be involved in determining how it is to be done.
If people are to change behaviour they need to understand the need for change and how to go about it. This involves good communication and education processes. As the changes become more complex simple communication of information alone is not enough and more sophisticated approaches to facilitate learning need to be used.
An important distinction between facilitation and extension is that extension involves providing technical support to facilitate change.
An extension worker is usually technically trained and has access to extensive resources that can be used to help the change process.
The technical support also extends to providing advice on the integration of technical knowledge to develop holistic solutions. People and communities do this very well but sometimes need support when complex changes are required involving concepts foreign to them.
The technical support is not a service otherwise the extension worker runs the risk of developing dependencies. If a service is developed it is usually only an interim measure until a local service provider can take over the role.
The extension worker should be able to leave the community and the changes continue to be sustained and evolve.
Different cultures sometimes communicate and do things in different ways. To facilitate change extension workers have to manage these differences to ensure they do not impede the change process.
Utilising local resources:
Most of what is needed for change often resides within the community. New knowledge and physical resources usually only represents a small part of what is needed in a change process.
Extension workers work with the community to ensure the local knowledge, skills and physical resources are considered and utilised.
How approaches differ
Marketing, communication and facilitation are three other common approaches, other than extension, used by organisations to facilitate change within communities.
It is important to note that there is considerable overlap between the four approaches and their definition influenced by the policy of organisations, regional influences and academic debate.
A person working in marketing uses communication processes and someone working in communication will use marketing processes and may use extension processes. An extension worker commonly uses facilitation, marketing and communication processes.
Extension is an education process (capacity building) that involves working with the target audience (engagement) and sharing the responsibility of decision making to achieve greater personal and group ownership of decisions (empowerment) to improve the commitment towards reaching common goals.
The process is particularly powerful when working in complex environments where developing the solution requires a partnership between the extension worker and the target audience.
As the target audience is intimately involved in the process the solutions are more readily adopted.
As extension workers are required to work with communities this can be a much more expensive option than communication alone. It is particularly suited to smaller audiences with specific and complex needs.
One advantage of extension over marketing is that an extension worker does not have to maintain a service or support products so the target audience is not dependent on them once the extension program is finished.
Facilitation is commonly used when most of the knowledge for change resides in the community or can be easily supplemented using external specialists and knowledge resources.
A facilitator does not necessarily have technical knowledge about the issues they are facilitating. Where an extension worker will partner with a community to solve issues a facilitator will focus on helping the community come to their own decisions based on local knowledge and information gleaned from external sources.
Facilitation has been used extensively by many organisations including agriculture departments. The latter have used facilitation extensively in the Landcare program.
A facilitator does not need to be technically trained or have the same level of understanding of community networks as an extension worker so are less expensive than an extension worker to support.
Communication approaches focus on conveying to the target audience information in an easy to use form to raise awareness and to facilitate change through passive adoption.
Communicators do not always engage their target audience although others in their organisation may have this role. They focus on working with the organisation’s specialists to package and deliver high quality messages to the people they wish to inform and influence.
The target audience could be quite broad including community, industry and technical audiences. These audiences usually have quite different needs and are managed accordingly.
The general media (print, radio and television) are used extensively.
This is a relatively cost effective process and particularly suited to large diverse audiences.
Marketing is the most commonly used approach by business. It usually focuses on simple changes in behaviour that results in the purchase of goods and services.
Marketing is a highly sophisticated and very well researched approach to behaviour change as it is the principal driver of commerce. It is particularly suited to changes in behaviour where the goods and services are already defined and little interaction with users is required prior to the purchase.
The main challenges facing marketers are to design something that will be valued, convince users they need it and deliver what is expected including any support that is required.
Effective marketing can be an expensive process and quite complex. It also involves a holistic approach to the promotion and delivery of products and services. For a product or service it is usually an ongoing activity with the associated costs.
How communities benefit
Because communities are partners in the change process they can gain many benefits from participating in an extension program. These benefits extend beyond the main purpose of the partnership.
Extension is an education process that builds the capacity of people to undertake change. An important part of the process is people working together to achieve a common goal. This provides people with experience and skills that can be used to deal with other important community issues.
What is a community?
Extension is about influencing a community but what is a community?
A community in the context of extension is a group of people with a common interest or purpose. It could be a town, region, state or even a country.
In agriculture it often involves an industry or a group of industries and the people in a supply chain from the farmer to the marketplace where the goods are finally sold to consumers.
In natural resource management it may involve the people within a catchment or group of linked catchments such as the Murray-Darling Basin. Along coasts it could involve communities that impact on the coastal zone.
In the fishing industry it may involve fishers, their industry organisations and other associated businesses involved in the supply chain to consumers or businesses and government providing services to the industry.
When extension is used for dealing with social problems the community may consist of a group of people with a common challenge such as a financial problem, a pollution threat or increasing teenage poverty.
Some extension workers also work across whole industries in national roles so the people who work in the industry throughout the country are their community.
Benefits of being involved
Extension helps people to work together and take responsibility for actions that will benefit themselves and often their community. In doing so it reminds people of the important role they play in building a stronger community.
Extension provides many benefits for the people involved such as improved networking and better understanding of:
- The problems that affect them
- How their community works
- How to better use the resources available to them
The Extension worker
An extension worker is usually a technically trained person with excellent people skills. They enjoy working with people, can deal with complex technical and social situations, are holistic thinkers, good problem solvers and have excellent empathy skills.
Extension workers also need to be confident and able to allow others to take control. Empowering others in the community to lead is an important part of extension. It is important to know when to lead and when to step back and allow others to take control.
Extension is an education process so extension workers need to understand how people learn and how to influence them in order to change behaviour.
It's not all extension:
Extension workers use extension but often do other things as well that are not extension.
In agriculture they maybe involved in applied research, marketing, providing specialist (free and charged) and regulation. There are many different roles an extension worker may do that will be dictated by their employer.
The following is an example of the different roles of a government Agricultural Extension Officer.
Responses to Government Extension Policy
At times APEN will consider policy issues that impact on extension. This may done by:
- Participating on committees that influence extension policy
- Establishing and promoting a policy position (e.g. by having it on our website)
- Providing submissions to government enquiries
Input for policy issues will usually be obtained by a request to members or through special sessions at an APEN event, probably the National Forum or the Australasia Pacific Conference.
Most policy is influenced by informal interactions amongst professionals. The mere existence of the extension network and having members involved in a wide range of government and private institutions means that APEN members are involved in the policy making process whether they realise it or not.
At times though an issue comes along that needs special attention and the Management Committee will seek to gauge member’s views to establish a position or become involved as it is obviously of importance to extension.
The following are policy areas APEN has been formerly involved in:
- Should APEN have a position on climate change (Outcome – No, but members need to have an understanding of the issue as it impacts on their work. See Climate change in the Links section for access to external resources on the internet.)
- Representatives on the State Extension Leaders Network.
- Exploring the establishment of professional accreditation.
- Establishment of a National Extension Framework for Australia.
- Submission to the National Food Plan.
- Submission to the Agricultural Competitiveness Issues paper (April 2014)
- APEN Response to the Green Paper on Agricultural Competitiveness (Dec 2014)
- MOU with AIA 2015
- Submission to the Standing Committee Inquiry into Agricultural Innovation (November 2015)