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How can we better integrate extension into research projects?

How can we get greater adoption of the outcomes from Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) projects? This question has perplexed us for decades, and it seems there are no silver bullets. It’s a complex problem but through the project, ‘Designing the integration of extension into research projects’ we were able to distil seven principles for obtaining greater adoption of outcomes from RD&E. 

Denise and I were recently involved in delivering this project, together with Jeff Coutts. It was co-funded by nine organisations (Hort Innovation, Cotton RDC, Wine Australia, Fisheries RDC, Dairy Australia, Australian Eggs, AgriFutures, LiveCorp, and NSW DPI). We thoroughly enjoyed being involved with this rather large research project. We’ll run through some of the things we did, and what we learnt along the way. 

Firstly, we applied a co-design approach to the project and we used a variety of participatory research methods to gather and refine the data. One of the things we particularly appreciated was working with a steering committee from the funders. So instead of working with representatives from all nine co-funding organisations—which would have been a rather large committee—we worked with just four people. They had strong ownership of the project and were keen for it to deliver useful outcomes, and yet they were willing to take risks along the way. When the three of us from our project team met with the four members of the steering committee, it meant we had fairly even representation and there was time for each of us to share our views. Thanks Jane, Jo, Warwick and Matt—it was a delight working with you!

We used an iterative process, beginning with a detailed literature review, where a collection of 30 documents was analysed. They were sourced from both the published and grey literature, to help us better understand current approaches to influencing greater change via RD&E. Topics we were keen to explore included impact pathways, co-innovation and co-design. For each of the 30 documents, we used a simple template to present our summary of the relevant information. This naturally had the reference at the top, then an abstract or summary of the article, and we then listed the key points that we thought were relevant to integrating extension into research projects. When possible, we included useful diagrams as they’re often handy ways to summarise a lot of information. 

Several key themes emerged from the lit review. The key one was around the importance of collaboration across the RD&E system, especially with including end-users such as farmers. Recognising and involving all the key players from the beginning of the project means that their knowledge and experience informs the research, and it also gives them greater ownership of the resulting solutions. There were some really interesting references that that literature review unearthed, so you might want to download the final report and read Appendix 4 where we included the full literature review. 

We also conducted a desktop review to explore the current approaches being used by the various RDCs to incorporate extension into their RD&E projects. Each participating organisation was invited to provide an example of a project that was successfully adopted and one where adoption was less optimal. While this review was a useful exercise it was often difficult to determine from project reports whether a project had been successful or not, as reporting requirements currently don’t often include any evaluation of project success. In addition, there was considerable variation in project proposal and reporting templates across RDCs which means there are varying levels of extension details provided or needed from each project. In addition, it is not clear from some reports whether the research was demanded from the market.

That exercise showed that documentation surrounding project design was lacking and it would be useful to provide a checklist of items to consider. It also illustrated that it would be desirable for RDCs to have a better structure for final reporting, as it was often hit and miss. Finally, it would be desirable to use a range of reporting mechanisms to complement the traditional final report, such as short videos summarising the key learnings. 

Those preliminary desktop activities provided a good foundation for the next steps we were about to take. Our next task was to design and deliver an online survey to gather both quantitative and qualitative data from RD&E practitioners and other key stakeholders. Initially we had hoped we might receive 100 responses (our rule of thumb which you may recall us mentioning in an earlier episode about designing a decent survey). We were blown away when we received almost 250 responses from RD&E practitioners across various industries and regions. When asked ‘What’s the one thing that RDCs could do differently to ensure better outcomes for their RD&E projects?’, five key themes emerged from the data. These were to extend the length of projects, better incorporate extension from the beginning of the project, improve stakeholder engagement, use a co-innovation approach, and finally, better understand the psychological drivers for practice change.

Our avid followers will recall that co-innovation involves key stakeholders (including end-users) from the very beginning of the project when they help better define the problem/opportunity. They then contribute to designing the project and helping create solutions in collaboration with the other project members. We’ve talked about whether co-design is the same as co-innovation in an early episode, and spoiler alert, it’s not. They are similar but different collaborative approaches. 

We next ran a series of six focus groups using semi-structured questions with 30 participants from varying industries and regions to explore the emerging themes from the research. The focus groups acknowledged that the expectations of RDCs have gradually shifted to incorporate adoption, but generally the system remains the same and the support required for greater adoption is often not available. Yet many of the researchers (who made up almost half of the survey respondents) want their work to make a difference. Several key issues bubbled up to the surface during the focus groups, and you can read all about them in the final report. It’s worth noting that we conducted these all online and we thought they were almost as good as when done in-person. A key benefit was that we were able to engage people from various geographic locations, which would have been very costly to do otherwise. 

We also conducted several one-on-one interviews with key individuals to complement the data being collected. That then put us in a good position to run an online co-design workshop with 30 RD&E practitioners and key stakeholders to develop the key principles and implementation steps. We used the flipped learning approach and sent them material to digest beforehand, so they were already warmed up to the topic when we met with them. During the online workshop the participants discussed what they agreed with, disagreed with, and thought was missing. It was particularly helpful having the workshop participants contribute to the development of the key principles and the subsequent implementation steps. 

The results from the co-design workshop were collated and synthesised into a pre-reading document that was sent to the pre-mortem workshop participants. We ran two of these online workshops with selected end-users and the project reference group. You’ve heard us talk about the benefits of using pre-mortems in an earlier episode, and once again, it was a fruitful process. It helped us identify potential weaknesses and risks in what had been co-designed, and allowed us to mitigate the risks. 

As a result of all that engagement and co-design, we came up with seven key principles and the steps for their implementation. These included using a systems perspective, using human-centred design, involving end-users, using an appropriate level of co-design, designing for impact, using agile management and finally, communicating and engaging effectively. They are all detailed in the final report which you can download from the Hort Innovation website where you can read the results and recommendations. 

It was certainly a great project to be involved with, and while we didn’t find any silver bullets, it did reinforce the benefit of using multiple approaches, and it highlighted the passion of many RD&E practitioners for their work to make a difference. 

Well, you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with integrating extension into research projects, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!

Resources

James, J., Bewsell, D., & Coutts, J. (2022). Designing the integration of extension into research projects. Hort Innovation. Final report for project HA21001. Retrieved from https://www.horticulture.com.au/growers/help-your-business-grow/research-reports-publications-fact-sheets-and-more/ha21001/  

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Roy
Roy
1 year ago

Great stuff John, Denise and Jeff. We need this stuff peer reviewed and published, particularly as an example for the Reef projects. Could you publish part of your report?

David Bicknell
David Bicknell
1 year ago

Another interesting and energising presentation. There was a comment in there along the lines of ‘if the research and development meets the needs of the stakeholders’. Extension is not only about selling the widgets that researchers want to produce. I believe that extension needs to identify the R&D needs that fill the gaps or increase the options for specific outcomes. That is, R&D is a subset of good extension! (E&RD!) Sure, we can use good extension methodologies to improve adoption of a given research technology, but it is much better for extension to make sure that the research is meeting… Read more »

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