All Posts

September 2020 – Virtual Extension

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
This is the first blog I have written since the Covid-19 Tsunami hit.  Given that it has curtailed travel and I have had more time in my office – I certainly have no excuse.  Maybe like lots of others I was just locked into a state of following the ebbs and flows and massive changes to so many – as well as the loss of so many lives across the world.  The uncertainty, the despair, the hope.

It has been a time where distance communication has come into its own.  I remember giving an address at conference some 20 years ago suggesting that the day would come when the consultant appeared in the office as a hologram and planning meetings would occur virtually.  In a field trip with extension officers and consultants to New Zealand a few years ago, we went to one of the machinery company’s head office and I was amazed at so many screens around showing where different machines were working in real time as they harvested, travelled, planted or whatever.  In the extension field, Leading Sheep in Queensland led the way with the use of Webinars.  In cotton there was a ‘web on Wednesday’ opportunity.

Maybe not holograms yet, but those in extension/consulting and many producers have embraced a range of virtual platforms to run workshops, communicate one-one discussing profit maps showing on the screen and holding webinars.  There is a way to go, but this period has shown the willingness of many to adapt and take up the opportunities offered.  In the extension professional arena, APEN has taken up the challenge, replacing annual face to face workshops with ‘Extension Chats’ – 90 minute interactive workshops around topics of interest to extension. John James (now based in Tasmania) started us off with an update on what is happening with extension; I followed a week later with an update on extension evaluation; Denise Bewsell and her team from New Zealand on supporting change; and then Jeanette Long with facilitating tips & tools.  All topics dear to the heart of extension and other change agents.  I have been amazed at how many registered (there was a small payment) and also how involved people were in the virtual break-out rooms’.

We know that face to face is very important when it comes to building relationships and properly understanding and supporting options for improvements on individual farms and properties, but hopefully this enforced learning curve of virtual interaction will strengthen this part of the extension tool kit and allow for greater reach and on-going interaction with producers and others in the extension arena.

Once Queensland opened up (only for Queenslanders at this stage), Robyn and I managed a three week road trip up as far as Cairns, visiting some of the coastal towns we always wanted to spend some time at – Seventeen-Seventy; Yeppoon; Airlie Beach; and Trinity Bay just North of Cairns. Getting to Eungella Range on the way back was a real highlight!  So many Platypuses (or Platypi?)!!  It was a great break (North Queensland in the winter is fantastic!) and a way to also support businesses who have lost the international and interstate visitors!

Let’s see how 2020 finishes and whether the promised vaccines come to fruition.  Whatever happens, we can at least continue to build on these virtual communication skills that have become the norm.

Are you proving the value of your comms program?

  • Published: by Amy Samson | Permalink

Many rural, NRM and agricultural organisations invest sometimes significant amounts on communication programs which we all agree can play a vital role in growing next and end user knowledge, awareness and understanding. Why then are these clearly important activities not always measured as rigorously as the research and adoption and extension programs, with communication outcomes clearly linked to and measured against higher level organisational objectives?

An excellent journal article arrived in my inbox this morning from the latest Public Relations Journal by Alexis Bajalia (volume 13, issue 2) – Where Are We Now? Public Relations Professionals Discuss Measurement and Evaluation. Alexis looks at the current state of measurement and evaluation in the PR (and by extension the communications) industry by reviewing excellence and role theories in literature and interviewing PR professionals across different organisations in the US about how they “view measurement and evaluation and the extent to which they use measurement and evaluation findings to influence organizational effectiveness”.  This article has some great takeaways for any comms professional.

I like how Alexis notes that output-level metrics (e.g. impressions, circulation, no. of articles etc) are a necessary first step but the important part for continuing to advance the PR profession, is to link outputs and outtakes (e.g. reaction, tone, click throughs, engagement, followers) with outcomes (e.g. awareness, impact, attitudes, advocacy). Executive level PR professionals she spoke to expressed a high level of awareness of the need for making these connections, particularly noting the management function of PR and the importance of outcome-level metrics, building relationships, and satisfying stakeholder needs.

It’s also interesting how Alexis found through her interviews that PR professionals at junior and executive levels were more likely to engage with and advocate for measurement and evaluation if they had strong relationships with higher level management.

The article is worth a read in full, particularly if you are in comms/PR or interested in measurement and evaluation at all, but I wanted to pull out a few points worth pondering raised in the article.

  • Professionals (executive and junior) who reported using Advertising Value Equivalent or AVE (a metric which equates coverage to equivalent advertising spend) said they do not think the metric is strong or even valid.
  • Executives interviewed pointed out measurement and evaluation challenges as being a need for staff trained in data analytics; the need to develop stronger, more creative ways to measure (beyond outputs); and the need to integrate measurement and evaluation.
  • The findings of the study recommend these steps for PR/Comms professionals who want to improve their measurement and evaluation:
    • determining what success looks like up front by initially defining objectives and key performance indicators;
    • increased planning for and implementation of evaluation research at the formative, process, and summative levels;
    • integration of measurement among departments and platforms to gain clearer, deeper insight about audiences;
    • determining correlations between outputs and outcomes, rather than relying on anecdotal measures or inferences;
    • and a willingness to be critical of what has been done in the past, making room for stronger ways to measure and evaluate public relations.

While this article is based on a relatively small sample and is US based, Alexis points out that her findings line up with decades of literature and contribute new knowledge about the current state of PR (and comms) measurement.  And I agree that this study has a lot to offer and makes good suggestions for continuous improvement, which is what we all should be doing!

The International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications (AMEC) has developed an integrated logical framework which is a great comms planning tool and extremely helpful for developing meaningful and impact based reporting at the organisational level (e.g. KPIs and objectives).

If you are outcomes and objectives focused when planning your comms program, integrate data collection activities across your organisation, and deliver impact based reports, you are well on your way. If you’re not and want to be able to better plan for and prove the value of your comms program, we’re more than happy to have a chat.

Summer 2019

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
PNG Prime MinisterJeff's Trip to PNG Sketch of the Barossa grape vines The Barossa Valley South Australia Kanagroo Island rock formation

So, we are coming to the end of a very hot and dry year in this part of the world – with scorching temperatures expected this week leading up to Christmas and no serious rain predicted until early in 2020.  It’s hard enough for towns on severe water restrictions – with some already having run out of water – but so much worse for many of the farming and grazing community who depend on rain for their livelihoods.

One of the projects which we provide monitoring and evaluation support for is the DCAP project (Drought and Climate Adaption Project) which is directed at developing strategies and tools to assist producers to best plan for these eventualities.  Ironically, the massive floods in North Queensland earlier this year had a huge impact on the areas that had been impacted by drought (and are again) and it was impressive to see how the teams working in the project used their skills to support graziers going forward from this challenge as well.

It is the opportunity to sit alongside long term projects undertaking Monitoring and Evaluation that is perhaps the most satisfying in this role. We have the opportunity to work with project teams from the start in clarifying goals, performance measures and how they plan to achieve these – and then to build the M&E framework and process around these with the help of our M&E data management platform YourDATA.  We have found that M&E done systematically and well provides the basis for effective adaptive management over the life of the project as well as enabling projects to report clearly against their contracts and objectives.

This year saw another visit to Chile where I continued to work with the Consorcio Lechero on the project funded by their Department of Agriculture (INDAP) to finalise a workbook and guide on working with smallholders (in Spanish). We included the experience of the veterinarians and agronomists who are engaged in this work to ensure it was relevant and built on their pre-existing knowledge.  The other overseas visit was to PNG – a place where I have lots of history and interest.  In this case it was as an invited speaker to a University of Technology sponsored seminar on rural development.  The new Prime Minister of PNG also attended to give his vision.  PNG has many challenges – and there is a real need to up the ante with M&E of the initiatives being taken.  

Work in the reef regions of Queensland has also been on-going – and an area that we have a high level of interest and experience over the years.  Having had the opportunity to review the Reef Alliance Project (Commonwealth Government funded Reef Trust 3) earlier in the year, and then work with the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership (WTSIP) as they look ahead to needs in their region provided a lot of insights and encouragement about the efforts being made to ensure that agriculture continues to address water quality needs.

A workshop for the iMapPESTS project found Robyn and I in the Barossa Valley recently.  What a great place for a workshop – and fantastic to see the progress the project is making.  We took the opportunity to also visit Kangaroo Island while down there – well worth the visit!

Now on to 2020 – to see what it brings!  I hope the Christmas period provides the time to rest and reflect and make us all ready for what is ahead in 2020.

April 2019

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
It’s well into Autumn and here in Toowoomba we were heartened by some Autumn rain.  I am not sure how effective this has been for producers on the Downs, but it has greened up our lawns – certainly good for the psyche.We had the opportunity to visit Spain, Morocco and Portugal over the last month. It’s always good to experience other places and be challenged to reflect on our own circumstances. We have our ancient culture in Australia although we lack the older architecture and modern history evident in many other countries.

As someone who likes to sketch, I found something new around every corner – and each house and street is shrouded in history.  I was also privileged to observe 35,000 year old rock drawings/carvings in Portugal which was profound and reflected the feelings we have when seeing similar ancient rock art in Australia from our oldest inhabitants.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of our very ancient natural gems and continues to be in the spotlight. Our company was fortunate in having the opportunity to recently complete a review of the Reef Alliance program. This was a remarkable coming together of NRM Bodies and rural industry to work collaboratively and assist producers in reef regions to continue to reduce any negative impacts on water quality.

Meanwhile new graduates are being placed in the regions across a range of organisations to increase extension and education capacity in these regions – and a coordinated training effort is gathering momentum.  There is also an upcoming Extension ‘Think Tank’ in Townsville to explore what we have learned and to spark new ideas in our extension approaches. This is a long term effort and we need to maintain the strategic support to ensure that agriculture and grazing continue to move towards a fully reef-friendly future.

The APEN Extension Conference is coming up in Darwin in September!  This is always a highlight in my calendar.  It’s where those who are passionate about making a difference through extension gather to share and learn from each other.  It’s also a great networking and social bonding opportunity. Extension has developed a lot over the decades and has certainly gone beyond the notion of ‘experts telling farmers how to farm’.  There is a recognition that we are all part of a learning and innovation system each with different skills and experiences to add to improve the whole system.

Easter is now behind us and the year is racing towards Christmas – but there is a lot to address in the meantime.  We will need to assess the landscape after the elections and policy implications and continue efforts towards dealing with economic, social and environmental challenges. One of the reasons we are passionate about evaluation is because we can learn from what has been done before and continue to improve.

5 key evaluation steps to consider before you hit crisis mode

  • Published: by Amy Samson | Permalink

Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand, you would know about the food tampering crisis that recently engulfed the Queensland strawberry industry (in particular) and seen other industries affected as well. This has been, and is still, a crisis situation until it is resolved, and the perpetrator/s are discovered.

From an evaluation perspective, going through a crisis, by its very nature, reveals a whole lot of key learnings that can be taken forward and applied at all levels of the organisation/industry. So how do we capture these and use them moving forward

Alan Williams (2011) proposed a framework that can be applied to help assess crisis management initiatives and is intended to help better understand the difficulties and complexities of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in crisis management. He recognises that there are shades of grey along the spectrum between what could be considered a successful outcome or a failure and offers a systematic approach in understanding and evaluating crisis episodes.

The crisis management success/failure spectrum.

His framework is based around three dimensions of crisis management – processes, decisions and policy. Williams then provides criteria around what could be considered a success/failure in each of these as well as the types of evidence that could be considered to assess the outcomes.

This approach makes a lot of sense and I would think that the ideas of what a successful outcome or failure looks like (and their key indicators) in an organisation / industry should be workshopped through as part of the crisis management planning phase. And then revisited as a part of the evaluation process.

I’m a strong believer in planning your evaluation from the start including your data collection processes. So as you are developing your crisis management plan, build in your crisis evaluation plan. Of course it depends on the nature and type of issue you are dealing with, but if you’ve thought through different scenarios, you’ll have a head start on collecting useful information that you can learn from.

Here then are the key evaluation steps that could be taken when developing a crisis management plan:

  1. Map out data collection opportunities and how/when to implement around planned response activities (e.g. media monitoring and analysis, social media monitoring and analysis, website analytics, online polls, interviews, structured observation, impact on sales, records and details of related incoming calls/emails, records of actions taken)
  2. Develop key evaluation questions around identified crisis scenarios and planned approaches (e.g. process related, decisions made, policies enacted/changed/impacted)
  3. Workshop your success and failure criteria. These will be different for individual situations.
  4. Develop post crisis debrief process – e.g. debrief workshop with key players / industry/organisation/stakeholder; broader survey (telephone or online) of relevant stakeholders (if relevant) on perception of crisis handling and impacts; case study based report (to be widely shared) of what happened, how it was handled and what has been learned; ongoing media/social media analysis of public sentiment / attitudes / key message delivery etc.
  5. Review and update crisis management plan

The above should also consider the organic response to the issue, that is, the broader public response as a result of influencers outside of your immediate control. Social media (and traditional media) is a major driver of this and can often sway public mood one way or the other (often within the space of an hour) simply on the trending of a hashtag.
In the strawberry industry’s case, social media (and the traditional media – particularly abc radio) really influenced public sentiment and actions in a positive way, seemingly without too much influence from the strawberry industry itself. Things don’t always work out this well, but that’s another article more about social media strategies for crisis management. Google should give you plenty of good reading around this.

Autumn/Winter 2018

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
I went to my website recently and was astounded that my last blog was from Spring 2017! And now it is Autumn 2018. I found this incredible – had so much time really passed by? I observed to someone that I felt like I was in a ‘very-fast-train’ with the scenery rushing past me in a blur! And I know life is more about living in the moment and smelling the roses…. So time to slow down a little – but still keeping up with the blog! What makes this possible is having Ben and Amy as key partners in the business. Ben’s YourData platforms for managing and reporting M&E are much in demand and Amy continues to be an effective project manager for many of our projects.

In Australia, the end of the financial year is always a busy time for projects funded by government or industry – it’s a time of reporting or winding up and a time for evaluation reports. It is so much better to be part of an evaluation that has been built into a project or program from the start – you understand the project so much more, have had the opportunity to influence and undertake M&E data collection along the way – and you have literally years of data on which to provide a robust evaluation report which is useful.

We were fortunate to play an evaluation role in two of the initial Rural Research and Development for Profit projects – one directed at improving the effectiveness of RD&E by better engaging with the private advisory sector and the other directed at the dairy industry through increased traits to test for through milk testing. Both involved strong collaboration – as is the intention of these projects – and both brought forward benefits for the farming system.

Improved coordination and collaboration across extension programs is increasingly emerging as a goal across government and industry as they seek to gain greater efficiencies and effectiveness – making a difference in the ground. This is evident in the Cooperative Research Centres and is a major element of a two-yearly benchmark across CRCs in which I am involved. It is also a major factor in improving water quality in the reef regions of Queensland. It has been very encouraging to see the efforts going in to these areas and I am very optimistic about the gains that are being made.

Since the last blog I have been back to Chile – running the last of workshops for consultants who work with small holders (a real privilege) – as well as spot of fly fishing with colleague Octavio! And continued to cross the Tasman for the Weaving the Korowai project (improving a run down catchment). It all makes for interesting experiences and learning and chance to meet and work with fascinating people!

Meanwhile, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of days at my Cousin’s farm in Collector NSW – certainly was nice to be on the back of horse rather than in front of a computer for a short time.

Coming up is a visit back to South America and then on to Canada to visit family – with a short trip to share my insights into evaluation in Sweden. Hopefully there are many roses to smell along the way!

Spring 2017

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
It is Spring already – I am not sure where winter went, and the update with it! Although, when I think about it, we lost some of the winter by going to the Mediterranean to participate in the 23rd European Seminar on Extension and Education (ESEE) at Chania in Crete. We combined this with a visit to Croatia – and loved the crystal clear water and sense of history that permeates cross the Mediterranean.

The ESEE brought together people involved across Europe and beyond (even from Australia) to explore the changing face of extension, education and rural development and what we are learning about the best approaches. My contribution was a paper (with Neels Botha from NZ) looking at how to build evaluation into multi-stakeholder/collaborative program delivery. It was interesting to hear how ‘co-innovation’ and ‘innovation systems’ thinking was impacting on rural development policies across Europe.

The other conference was the International Australasian Pacific Extension Network (APEN) conference in Townsville. I was convener of an international extension conference in about 1992 at the Gold Coast which also triggered the establishment of APEN. Now seeing the interest, professionalism and commitment of those at the conference reflects the value and success of this network. I was part a workshop that explored the need for a special ‘Reef Extension Network’ for those working in regions impacting on the Great Barrier Reef. This is complex situation that calls for strong technical and extension skills and support from peers. There was a lot of interest and now steps are in place to put something in place.

Other initiatives have also been triggered from the review. This includes appointing a cross-reef region coordinator to maximise collaborative strategic effort, training in extension and increased interest in facilitating ‘peer-peer’ learning. We have long known in extension the value of providing structured opportunities for producers to come together, plan and learn from each other – rather than being seen as recipients of expert ‘teaching’. Now is an opportunity to build this more strongly in the mix.

I also had the opportunity to participate in two national forums in Wellington, New Zealand. These were the final national workshop of the NZ Primary Innovation program (Co-Innovation) where the results of the 5 year project were presented and discussed with a national audience and also a national forum on ‘adaptive governance’ as part of the Scion ‘Weaving the Korawai’ project in which we are involved. Both co-innovation and adaptive governance have a lot in common.

Next on the agenda is a visit back to Chile to test my Spanish in the delivery of another set of workshops around extension delivery. And of course to take the opportunity for fly-fishing in one of those perfect rivers that flow from the Andes to the coast!

Autumn 2017

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
That was quite a Summer! The heat and then the cyclone. How much is global warming and how much is natural variation I have no idea – but the indication that extremes will increase going forward is certainly a concern.

The reef (Great Barrier Reef) of course is caught up in these extremes. I have just returned from a series of regional workshops with people involved in agriculture and natural resource management in the reef areas. We have been looking at how to strengthen the underlying extension and education system to best support producers as they seek to adapt to continuously improve the way in which they farm and manager their properties – with benefits to water quality and reef health. This also coincided with another major coral bleaching event that threatens general reef health and adds urgency to do all we can to provide an environment for protecting our world treasure.

The Summer also saw me in New Zealand on two occasions. One visit was associated with the Weaving the Korowai of Papatūānuku – Adaptive governance and supported environmental decision making project where we visited the community to better understand the challenges facing them. It was incredible to view a ‘glacier’ of what rock and clay moving down their river system and taking an entire mountainside with it over time. The downstream effects are the loss of land and livelihoods and a stress on an already disadvantaged community.
The other visit was for the on-going Primary Innovation Project – or Co-innovation Project’ as many know it. It is coming to the end of its five year exploration of a different model to fast track innovation and positive change across rural industries. It has been an exciting project with significant learning and it is hoped that a new project can build on this and demonstrate some real transformation of the way do business in research, development and extension.

The other significant occurrence in Coutts J&R is the return of Amy from maternity leave and from living in London. Amy (Samson) is already doing a great job pulling together the different project strings. We have also been fortunate to have had Evie Grove Smith adding her expertise to our projects over the last six months.

It’s good to see the demand for, and interest in, program evaluation – especially when it comes to planning ahead and embedding in long term projects. Hope you all enjoy the changing season!

Summer 2016: From England to Canada and a few places inbetween

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Yorkshire MoorsIceland by horseDolmen at CarlowCanadian familyFlyfishing in the Miramichi
I am coming to an end to six months of working remotely!  This has been quite an experience and only made possible by the internet, skype, zoom and e-mail – and having excellent and accommodating clients.  Having had all our immediate family living away and wanting to travel and explore, we decided to go and spend some time with them and get out and about.  This meant England and Canada primarily – with some side trips to Ireland, Norway and Iceland.  We were able to welcome a new granddaughter (Myla – Amy’s second daughter) into the family in London, explore Dorchester-on-Thames with Ben and Evie and go searching for moose and bears with grandsons Beni and Alex in New Brunswick!

While in Ireland, I was invited to give a seminar on evaluation at Teagasc – the extension delivery organisation in the Republic of Ireland – at their head office in Carlow.  This was a great opportunity to share ideas and approaches on this topic.  It emphasised the need to be prepared to demonstrate value for money in investing in extension services.  Then, Ben and I attended the 12th European IFSA (farming Systems) conference at Harper Adams University in England.  Robyn and I had attended the last one in Berlin in 2014 and it was great to catch up with colleagues and friends and see what was happening in the ‘systems’ world.  The Primary Innovation Program – in which I am involved in the evaluation area – ran a successful workshop on “Using a co-innovation approach to improve innovation and learning”. I presented a paper on behalf of the other authors on the lessons learned about the “nine principles of co-innovation”  in the program.  There was a good range of papers well worth having a read.

Meanwhile, back in Australia two of the Research & Development for Profit Projects in which we are providing evaluation support are gaining momentum – as is the ‘Weaving the Korawai’ project in New Zealand which is addressing the roll out of a 100 year MOU to restore and develop a catchment in collaboration with the Maori Community.  On the other end, the Primary Innovation Project and the NCCARF project are on the homeward run.  At both ends, monitoring and evaluation planning and implementation are paramount.  By thinking through what is needed through the life of a project at the beginning, then life is much easier at its end to demonstrate its effectiveness and measure its impact!

I don’t get to relax for too long in one place when I get back to Australia – a week in New Zealand in October for work with the ‘Weaving’ project in New Zealand and then back to Chile in November for the second series of workshops directed at developing capacity in consultants working with smallholders – a great experience.  One upside will be having Ben and also Amy back in the same time zone –they are moving to Brisbane – at least for a while.

Spring in England

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Australian Gum Trees English Daffodils
This blog is coming from London.  I left Autumn in Toowoomba for Spring over here!  I’ve always enjoyed coming over this way – the history in the buildings and cobblestones, green meadows and stone walls.  Its not that I don’t also enjoy gum trees, kookaburras and windmills – its just different.  I wonder how many generations it takes before one fully identifies with the country in which you were born, and not, in part, the country of your ancestors?

It has been a terrific smorgasbord of projects as we have gone into 2016.  The Research and Development for Profit projects have commenced and, as well as evaluating the ‘Stimulating the Private Sector’ project being lead by Dairy Australia, I also have the opportunity for input via the Expert Panel on the ‘Extension and Adoption for Australian Farmers and Fishers’ project lead by RIRDC. So good to see the effort and resources being put into understanding and supporting contemporary extension! What stood out with these federally funded projects was the requirement for a monitoring and evaluation plan as the first milestone!  And this practice is becoming more common place for projects funded by some of the Rural Development Corporations!  Extra funds are being allocated specifically for evaluation – so it becomes an integral part of project management and not an ‘add on’.

Speaking of R&D 4 Profit projects, I have been fortunate to be involved in early discussions and a workshop lead by MLA looking at the potential to use a co-innovation approach to look at the long term management of recurring drought.  There was a high level of interest of progressing this approach to this issue and developing a proposal for the next round of funding.

In New Zealand, I participated in a ‘writeshop’, where all of the researchers involved in the Primary Innovation (Co-innovation) Project were facilitated to develop joint papers – aimed at conferences and/or journals.  It was an excellent collaborative experience with some great outcomes. I was part of a team writing a paper for the upcoming IFSA conference on the “Nine principles of co-innovation” based on a survey undertaken of the experience of innovation project teams.  While in NZ, I was also a part of the initial team meeting for a project led by Scion, called “Weaving the Korowai of Papatuanuku – Adaptive governance and supported environmental decision making” – a holistic project looking at catchment rehabilitation and community capacity building.  There is a very strong focus on relationships and this was the focus of our first meeting.

So 2016 has started with a good deal of interest and energy and, for a while, greener pastures over here in the UK.