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Maintaining links with stakeholders in partnership extension models: Lessons learnt from TOPCROP West

Leanne J. Schulz 1, Christine E. Storer2 and Roy Murray-Prior3 Ms Tresslyn Walmsley4

1 Bank of Western Australia, BankWest Agribusiness, WA,
Muresk Institute of Agriculture, Curtin University of Technology, WA,
Muresk Institute of Agriculture, Curtin University of Technology, WA,
Agriculture WA, Avon Districts Agriculture Centre, PO Box 483, Northam WA 6401, .


Things were looking good. TOPCROP West had grown to providing extension services to 86 farm development groups in five years. However, management was concerned about rumblings that initial service provider expectations were not being met. Was it just expansion issues or was there a problem in the partnership extension model? After all, this model had only been in wider use since the early 1990’s.

Research by Curtin University confirmed suspicions that it was more a factor of rapid expansion. Initial informal management systems had been outgrown and were not working effectively for all groups. More formalised management systems were needed to ensure all stakeholders were communicating on a regular basis to enable expectations to be understood and met. In addition, systems were needed to provide feedback to quickly identify and address problems and opportunities.


Historically extension within Australian agriculture has involved ‘technology transfer or advisory approaches’, delivered through traditional linear models, classified as top-down (science push and diffusion of innovation models) or bottom-up (Farmers Needs Pull) (Cary 1993, p. 71). Figure 1 provides an outline of the progression of extension models.

Figure 1. Progression of extension models

Source: Adapted from Selesnew 1999; Coutts 1997; Roling 1994.

With the realisation that top-down models of extension were failing to meet the needs of farmers, bottom-up models of extension emerged from the view that farmers wanted to be involved in research, development and the extension process (Clampett 1993). New models of extension are characterised by participatory involvement of many stakeholders in program planning, development and implementation (Blackburn and Flaherty 1994). N. G. Roling summarised these new participatory models of extension in the systems framework: Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems (AKIS) (Coutts 1997). The AKIS concept arose from the recognition that relationships between researchers, extension, farmers and industry, should be more actively integrated to develop effective extension programs (Roling and Engel 1991). The partnership model of extension, identified by Selesnew (1999) as the model used by TOPCROP West satisfies this concept of AKIS.

Fisk et al. (1998) suggest the role of industry and extension workers in such partnerships is to provide technical knowledge and maintain groups in order to establish ongoing effective working relationships. To achieve these mutually beneficial partnerships stakeholders must work together to identify problems, possible solutions, and barriers to adoption (Fisk et al. 1998). Farmers are therefore involved from the beginning stages of group formation, creating ownership of not only the problems and solutions, but the process (Clampett 1993).

Outsourcing extension service providers

The partnership extension model takes on an added complexity when the service provider role has been outsourced and a network of organisations with different roles need to be coordinated. One example of extension programs being outsourced is TOPCROP which involves private consultants, agribusiness and state agricultural departments providing the extension services to grower groups (GRDC 1999). Outsourcing enables extension programs to obtain expertise, skills and technologies that may not otherwise be available (Greaver 1999). However, outsourcing can be costly, may result in a loss of control over the functions outsourced with the possibility that the selected provider is not appropriate and partnerships do not develop into positive ongoing ventures (Cook 1999). To address these problems, he suggests a twelve-step process for the “planning”, “selecting service providers”, “transition” and “ongoing management” stages of the outsourcing process.

During planning clear, short and long-term goals need to be established to guide the assessment of outsourcing options, provide a basis for measuring progress and facilitate the implementation and evaluation of the final plan (Cook 1999). In selecting service providers qualifying criteria need to be defined and weighted to ensure needs of stakeholders are compatible (Greaver 1999). Qualifications include both ‘hard’ (historically based and verifiable) and ‘soft’ qualifications (attitudinal, difficult to verify and may change with circumstances) (see Table 1). To make informed selection decisions Cook (1999) suggests requesting proposals from providers to cover their company profile, requirements and expectations, communication, technology, reporting, administration and financial details.

Table 1 . Service provider qualifications

Hard qualifications

Soft qualifications

Demonstrated ability and experience to
deliver today


Experience to deliver

Positive attitude

Vendor strengths

Good Chemistry

Superior performance

Good cultural fit

Deserved positive reputation

Flexibility to change

Proven customer satisfaction

Cost conscious

Financial stability

Willingness to share cutting-edge knowledge

Proven management capabilities

Clear vision of their market

Shared approach to problem solving


Commitment to continuous improvement


Strong transition experience


Commitment of specific resources


Source: Greaver 1999, p. 173.

The transition stage includes conversions of proposals into contracts with negotiations of terms and conditions and building a rollout schedule (Cook 1999). An essential element in negotiating and building cooperation is agreement on goals (Ellram 1995).

Ongoing management ‘Outsourcing is a partnership’, therefore continuous open communication is necessary throughout the process about both the strengths and weaknesses of all parties (Cook 1999, p. 21). Communication is also important to improve performance, satisfaction and the strength of the relationship in terms of mutual trust and commitment (Stank et al. 1996). A key to establishing and managing new ongoing relationships is the development of ‘quantitative performance measurement criteria’ to ‘monitor effectiveness on a regular basis’ (Cook 1999, p. 193). There must also be an established process for resolving problems (Greaver 1999). The implementation of these processes at the beginning of the partnership will ensure positive interaction between all parties and a successful outcome.


While it is clear that in the 1990’s extension has moved towards partnership style models which include a degree of outsourcing, a number of questions arose: What impact did this approach have on the role of traditional extension providers, especially where service provision was outsourced? What is required of all stakeholders to ensure the long term operating success of the partnership?

Extension, outsourcing, relationship and network management literature provided some insights to these questions. The purpose of the research undertaken was to examine TOPCROP West as a case study of a partnership extension program so as to understand the management processes used. Specifically the objectives were to determine:

  • How extension service providers have been recruited;
  • Implications of service provider expectations on partnership agreements made between stakeholders; and
  • How to ensure the long-term success of the partnership.


This research was based upon the concerns of TOPCROP West management that alliances with agribusiness service providers were not being sufficiently managed. In addition to this the Grains Research and Development Corporations’s 1999 review of TOPCROP recommended that the focus of TOPCROP Development Officers be shifted from servicing groups towards training providers and developing tools and products (GRDC 1999). This would necessitate an increase in the number of agribusiness service providers. However, in order to achieve this a better understanding of current service providers was required, as recognised by Selesnew (1999).

Initially a review of extension and outsourcing literature as well as discussions with TOPCROP West management were undertaken to gain an understanding of changes taking place in the extension industry. Secondly a focus group of seven Agriculture Western Australian employed TOPCROP West Development Officers and staff was conducted to review research objectives and gain an understanding of agribusiness service providers. The focus group discussion was taped, transcribed and analysed.

Finally a phone survey was carried out involving a census of all current service providers (41) and a sample of past service providers (40) after an introductory letter had been sent. The structured questionnaire consisting of open and closed questions, was based on the results of the literature review, focus group and pre-test of six service providers.

Recruiting service providers

One objective of this study was to determine how service providers were recruited in order to gain an understanding of the TOPCROP West outsourcing process. Respondents provided four options as the method of recruitment: the group approached them (46%), they approached the group (40%), both (10%) (the provider made the initial approach and another group approached the provider) and neither (4%) (the provider had taken over from the previous person), Figure 2. While TOPCROP West does have a policy requiring groups to recruit their own providers, in an equal amount of situations the provider was the initiating person for establishing a group.

Figure 2. Recruitment of agribusiness service providers

Providers were also asked what they did to find out more about what their role would involve. Half said they contacted TOPCROP West management or employees. The next most popular source of information were the TOPCROP West manuals and literature (40%). Being employed by AgWA (13%) and other providers (12%) were also important.

The way in which agribusiness service providers were recruited varied, as did sources of information utilised by providers. This resulted in an ad-hoc process based upon the existing informal outsourcing system. While informal management processes can be highly effective for small numbers of stakeholders, they do not necessarily work effectively when there are larger numbers of relationships to manage, as in TOPCROP West. An essential element of building cooperation within these relationships is sharing of goals (Ellram 1995). One test of how effective the TOPCROP West system was in reaching agreements in goals and expectations of stakeholders was whether initial expectations of providers were met.

Initial role expectations

The most common initial expectations of agribusiness service providers were to disseminate industry information (46%) and provide their own technical knowledge (42%) (Figure 3). The majority of past agribusiness providers (75%) felt that their initial expectations about their role were met. However, this was not the case with current providers where the majority (59%) felt that initial expectations were not met. The reasons given for initial expectations not being met did not differ between past and current providers. The main reasons related to group issues, specifically that providers were more involved with the group as the “driving force” to organise and provide direction. When asked whether their initial expectations were realistic, nearly all (92%) said “yes” based upon the image conveyed by TOPCROP West and additional information received.

Figure 3. Initial expectations of providers

These results indicate an unrealistic expectation of groups to be self directed and willing and able to organise and lead their extension program. This may be explained by the fact that traditionally growers have sought advice from government agencies and while it is easy for individuals to seek advice as and when they need it, it is much harder to coordinate a group to do the same. With the majority of TOPCROP West agribusiness service providers (56%) being currently employed by organisations with greater than ten employees, it may be expected that these providers have appropriate skills in organising and managing people, hence explaining why groups left this activity to service providers. Expectations of stakeholders may therefore need to be discussed, agreed upon and appropriately adjusted as the nature of the relationships within the extension partnership develops.

Managing and monitoring the role of stakeholders

The most significant finding from this research was that the partnership links, between TOPCROP West, growers and agribusiness, need to be strengthened.

Agribusiness service providers have typically been contracted by groups to deliver modules designed by TOPCROP West in consultation with industry research. Providers have therefore been delivering extension services traditionally provided by government. Additionally providers have been becoming increasingly involved with organising activities and motivating/facilitating groups. While some providers expected to and were willing to undertake these activities, there are clearly those who were not. The interaction of providers and groups is significant since group issues were the main reason providers’ initial expectations were not being met, suggesting that groups were not as self-directed as anticipated.

The relationship between TOPCROP West stakeholders must therefore be monitored and managed, through processes that will increase involvement of TOPCROP West with providers and groups. TOPCROP West must encourage groups and providers to establish roles and goals to ensure conflicts do not arise. This would assist to overcome any future conflict and problems that may arise when stakeholders’ goals and expectations do not match those of others. Where a mismatch of stakeholders’ goals and expectations does arise, TOPCROP West could assist in facilitating the discussion process to assign roles to stakeholders within the partnership.

To encourage stakeholders to establish the goals of their extension program, specifically the role of the provider, TOPCROP West can provide a guideline of a process to follow, which includes examples of other group’s goals. This would best be provided in an induction package to orientate new and existing providers and groups. An induction package would encompass typical activities of providers and groups but stress that their roles and goals are dependent upon their situations and the agreements they reached. A package that included this information would assist agribusiness to obtain a better understanding of providers’ roles within the TOPCROP West partnership. This would assist in overcoming different information being given to providers from various sources. Planning and revision of goals and roles of both groups and providers should take place regularly.

Agribusiness providers view the lack of motivated group members as a significant obstacle to the TOPCROP West process. Where group members were not motivated, providers felt that it took more time and effort on their part to organise and undertake activities. In relation to the collection of data, several providers mentioned that establishing links with other groups, thereby enabling farmer members to see what is being achieved elsewhere would motivate groups to participate. As one respondent commented, ‘farmers want to see the benefits of crop monitoring before being fully committed’. Facilitating links with other groups would provide insight into the potential benefits of crop monitoring, encouraging growers to be involved, thereby reducing the need for providers to motivate groups. Establishing links and contact between groups would not only assist to motivate members but also facilitate the extension process through opportunities for improved information flow and application of technical information.

Management of the ongoing relationship between TOPCROP West stakeholders will be crucial to ensure the efficient resolution of any problems. Cook (1999, p. 193) believes the key to managing the ongoing relationship is ‘continuous open communication’ and the development of ‘quantitative performance measurement criteria’ to monitor activities and provide feedback. While a formal outsourcing and quality assurance program for providers may not be appropriate, due to the lack of numbers, a feedback mechanism between providers, groups and TOPCROP West management would ensure problems and opportunities are recognised, allowing for their resolution or development. Such a feedback mechanism would be facilitated through the increased contact between Development Officers and agribusiness providers.

The increased support from Development Officers to develop and maintain self directed groups is consistent with Fisk et al. (1998) who suggested the role of industry and extension workers in partnerships was to provide technical knowledge and assist groups to maintain effective working relationships. Since agribusiness providers have largely been involved in delivering technical information required by TOPCROP West groups, it would therefore be appropriate for Development Officers to provide support for managing and monitoring ongoing relationships.


TOPCROP West is a partnership between industry, government and producers as a means of facilitating communication between industry and farmers. The overall implication of this research, extension and outsourcing theory for this partnership is a need for increased participation and contact between the TOPCROP West stakeholders to monitor and manage the ongoing relationships. The informal outsourcing process undertaken by grower groups has resulted in the need to develop management and monitoring systems which allow for the effective maintenance and adjustment of the extension partnership. In order for this partnership to continue to operate effectively, all stakeholders must set and communicate goals and establish roles in order for expectations to be met.


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