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Information and COmmunication Network (ICON): professional communicators enriching the role of information in extension

Darren Schmidt

Queensland Department of Primary Industries
PO Box 23 Kingaroy Qld 4610


When the Queensland Department of Primary Industries reviewed its extension policy in the early 1990s, it recognised “information extension” as a discrete and crucial component of the wider extension effort. Information extension officers, some new recruits and some “old hands” and all representing various industries, met in 1996 to discover they shared similar problems in dealing with the new challenges of the information age. The Information and COmmunication Network (ICON) was established to provide mutual technical support and, later, to identify opportunities for professional development.

This paper details a brief background to the establishment of the group, its dynamic composition and why it has endured beyond the normal lifespan for such a venture. It argues that the professional integrity of individual members, coupled with the collective spirit of the group, has seen ICON weather political changes, developments in communication technology and developments in extension policy and practice. Threats and weaknesses of ICON are identified, and some of the group’s approaches to addressing these are discussed.

The professional camaraderie and fellowship, not to mention input for this paper, from ICON members is gratefully acknowledged.


“Information extension” was seen as one of the core components of a new approach to extension when Queensland’s Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) re-conceptualised its extension policy in the early 1990s (Whythes et al, 1990). In essence, this new professional description recognised prima facie that information products and services were emerging as some of the most visible currencies exchanged during interactions between the DPI and its clients. Information-related activities, encompassing a myriad of skills and tasks from writing and editing through to design, production and distribution, had been claiming increasing amounts of extension officers’ time as clients and funding bodies demanded more and better written outputs. A new professional was created to siphon off the burden: “information extension officers” (IEOs) were charged with the task of marrying established extension principles with information management skills to produce high quality, targeted information products and services to clients.

Rising to the task, DPI’s IEOs and other information specialists have indeed produced some high quality, targeted information products and services to clients. Information kits such as the “Agrilink” horticultural series and periodicals such as the “Beeftalk” magazine have become bywords for quality in the industries they service and, unusually for government publications, they continually threaten to become commercial concerns. DPI’s “Prime Notes” cd, originally a compilation of Queensland agricultural fact sheets, has now expanded to include material from all states and is sold across Australia and internationally.

In the space of a decade, then, DPI’s IEOs and other information specialists have “kicked goals” for the department and cemented their legitimacy as neo-professionals. This legitimacy has been generated because IEOs:

  • come from diverse professional backgrounds – for example, journalism, advertising, agriculture, media – and are willing to actively share their correspondingly diverse skills and experiences with each other
  • meet regularly at organised forums to develop technical and professional skills
  • have affirmed a commitment to producing high quality information products and services regardless of the changing tides of government policy or the endless agonising over the question “who is the client?”.

As a group, IEOs believe this structured and collaborative approach to professional development – coupled with some creditable runs on the board – will help them weather the challenges posed by future changes in extension or government policy.


The IEO network, known formally as the Information and COmmunication Network (ICON), first met in 1996 to discuss information service issues such as archiving technology, liability, and service level expectations amongst clients. At that time, the DPI web page was in its infancy, “one-stop-shop” DPI information centres were being established across the state, and emerging communication technologies suggested that we would need to rethink our approach to storing, retrieving and distributing information. Participants at that first meeting quickly realised that other IEOs in different industries and different regions faced many of the same problems and challenges posed by the demands of the electronic-information age, and undertook to establish ICON as a means of sharing solutions through regularly convened forums and via an electronic discussion group. ICON continues to meet and talk to redefine the role of the group and its response to contemporary challenges set by our funders and our markets.


Membership of ICON is not restricted to IEOs, who are for the most part aligned with industry groups such as grains or beef; it is open to all officers engaged in commissioning, writing, editing, producing, designing, and/or distributing DPI information. As such, ICON benefits from the input of graphic designers, web authors, publications experts, professional editors, extension officers, and industry players who contribute different professional perspectives to what are often common challenges.

Because “information extension” was created as a profession in the DPI relatively recently, ICON comprises a vibrant mix of recruits from within and without DPI. Some were drafted from industries firmly embedded in the information economy such as journalism, marketing and advertising. Others progressed naturally from within the department on the back of their long experience with information products developed for traditional DPI clients as part of previous extension projects. This mix of “outside” skills blended with “inside” experience has proved invaluable for the continued ability of ICON to meet new challenges innovatively whilst remaining cognisant of prior trials, errors, or costly and time consuming dry gullies.

How does it work?

ICON meets in two ways. First, members attend any or all of the two or three forums organised each year by the convenor of the group (currently the hardworking Peter Holden, DPI’s Farming Systems Institute in Mareeba, far north Queensland). Second, members subscribe to an electronic discussion list which operates like any other discussion list on the web; that is, questions and opinions are posted, answers and responses are given, and archives are kept. Electronic discussions at the strategic level are frequently lively and forthright; at the operational level, technical questions posted to 60 or so professionals elicit a quick and useful response.

The forums, however, are where much of the problem solving and professional development takes place. ICON participates in focused discussions about emerging or ongoing information issues through:

  • show and tell” sessions which allow members to present and describe their most recently developed products and services which are then critiqued by other members;
  • professional contact, usually via tours and inspections of DPI information facilities, such as the Call Centre, the publications section, the web section, the book shop and distribution centre and so on;
  • purchasing or arranging expertise from outside the DPI to keep members updated with industry developments
  • question and answer sessions during which technical-level problems and shared and solved (eg, what is the difference between a .gif and a .tif? why can’t printers cope with Microsoft fonts? – someone always seems to have an answer)
  • professional development sessions, sometimes using outside help or even through collectively organising a university short course, which helps build members’ skills and knowledge about how their job can evolve and how they stay at the thin edge of the profession wedge.

Why does it work?

There are several reasons why ICON continues as a group (internal effectiveness) and continues to perform as a group (external efficacy).

1. ICON is self organising. Clark (1997, p.357) and Krippendorf (****, p***) refer to “self-reliant” inquiry systems and ****** to describe human systems that are capable of posing their own questions of themselves, establishing their own benchmarks for success or failure, and responding to their own enquiries using the most appropriate means or technologies available. ICON is neither organised nor supervised by anybody in the DPI. Members anticipate the cost of attending forums and build this into their performance plan. They then make an investment in time and energy to be present at forums, to contribute to the discussion list, and – if necessary – undertake tasks outside their normal work schedule to progress ICON projects or ideas. The very fact that ICON’s performance is largely accountable to the members themselves – although supervisors are obviously kept informed of developments and learnings – means that members are more than willing to work to bring about shared outcomes.

2. ICON comprises communication professionals who are committed to getting results. Most professionals complain of information overload; ICON members are no different. They are, however, in a professional position of being able to ensure the products for which they are responsible are easy to read, easy to navigate, and convey the appropriate professional impression to those engaging in them. ICON members review each others’ products and keep abreast of industry standards to maintain professionalism and ensure their products remain acceptable or desirable to the market.

3. ICON members value face to face contact with each other and accept honest criticism in the professional spirit in which it is given. They exploit the established wisdom of the extension oracle that suggests that face to face, one on one contact allows for full and frank discussion about values, strategic decisions and judgements that need to be made on the basis of imperfect information. They also accept that no information product is beyond improvement and accept candid feedback from their peers.

4. ICON members participate in an industry that is evolving rapidly. The dynamism and ubiquity of the “information revolution” pulls the soldiers along in its wake at a sometimes dizzying speed. Although the basic tenets of high-quality information products are largely immune to technological gee-wizzery (witness the proliferation of abysmally poor web pages), the opportunities for cleverly storing and distributing information cannot be ignored. The speed and scope of developments in the information age keep ICON members vitalised and receptive to new ideas.

Threats and weaknesses

As a group, ICON has participated in its share of self idolatry and morose introspection. The strengths of the ICON concept have been detailed above, but there are threats and weaknesses that menace the continued success of the group. These are frequently identified during forums, and means of redress are generated, discussed, and formalised where appropriate.

Early in the life of ICON, it became evident that merely meeting to discuss work in progress would eventually see the network stagnating into a support group. Although mutual support is one of the reasons for ICON’s continued vitality, of itself it has little merit for supervisors and funders – particularly when it is expensive and time consuming. To overcome this, members embarked on a program of recruiting outside expertise to enliven debate and sharpen skills. Members have also become sensitive to “meandering” testimonials or opinions that re-appear regularly and which are better dealt with in a line management environment. ICON seeks continuous improvement in the way it refines its focus and the means it uses to achieve its aims.

ICON has already witnessed a significant change in government policy, and has adjusted to several minor ones. Some of these changes reflect the different ways successive governments have engaged with the QDPI’s traditional clients. Other changes have reflected the increasing will of most contemporary governments to promote “measured entrepreneurialism” amongst their departments. It has been part of ICON’s plan to “future-proof” itself against the tides of government policy, and it has done this by discussing and actively pursuing courses of action which keep it and its members professional and marketable in the public and private sphere and also the hybrid sphere between these two which has been labelled the “third way” (in Murdoch 2000). Fundamentally, this has involved keeping professional and organisational skills sharp and fresh and simply staying politically aware by talking to people.

Related to the above point, there is a propensity for information extension – the deliberate matching of information products and services to identified extension-related needs in the market – to descend to mere grist for the image control mill. ICON members are specialists in producing and delivering quality information which can be used judiciously as a learning resource (extension context) or profligately as ill-targeted promotion material for the policy de jour (worst case image control context). This is not to say that organisations such as QDPI do not benefit from intelligent profiling and positioning. Nor do traditional and new markets reject outright messages about the department’s achievements or designs for the future. However, ICON members must work hard to maintain their professional integrity in the face of increasing pressure to promote themselves, their programs, and their organisation for mere promotion’s sake.

ICON members, as government employees, have had to scrutinise their skills mix in the face of “competition” from private information providers. Private companies, including consultants, agribusinesses and farmer cooperatives, have long recognised the value of releasing only high quality (frequently expensively produced) information to their public to maintain an excellent image and profile. Because of the increasingly entrepreneurial personalities of government departments across Australia and the world, organisations like the QDPI have needed to improve the presentation quality of their documentation despite there having been an historically small budget for such indulgence. ICON members no longer deal with a “one-size-fits-all” government printer but a vast number of service providers supplying the full continuum of information services from full colour printing through to web design and multi-media training. At the strategic level, ICON arrange their own professional development if they perceive a gap in their skills base, in 1999 to the extent of organising their own one-off university-recognised REC course in evaluation.


Both individually and as a group, ICON members have achieved much in their five year collaboration. Members have been responsible for producing highly regarded and results-oriented information products, often with the help of other ICON members. As a group, ICON continues to meet, generate ideas and solutions, and report back to supervisors on information developments department-wide. Plans are afoot to promote the existing ICON web page to portal status, and more training opportunities have been identified for at least the next two forums.

ICON is an example of how professionals can seize common ground as an opportunity for critical and effective collaboration whilst choosing to ignore administrative or industry divisions which are ultimately artificial. By acting as service providers to the extension arm of QDPI – a role which has lately been expanding to also service managers and marketing officers – ICON members have had also to roll with the flow of changes to extension policy. It is likely that ICON will continue to grow and refine its role because its members’ skills and experience are diverse, they are prepared to accommodate changing policy and technology, and because they are professionals committed to ensuring the continued high quality of the products and services for which they are responsible, regardless of the audience.


  1. Clark, R. & Timms, J. (1997). “A framework for integrating information and learning. Which comes first, information or a question?”, in Proceedings of the 2nd Australasia Pacific Extension Conference, Albury, NSW.
  2. Krippendorff, K. (1987). Paradigms for communication development with emphasis on autopoiesis. In D. Lawrence Kincaid (Ed). Communication theory: Eastern and Western perspectives. San Diego: Academic Press.
  3. Murdoch, J. (2000). “Networks – a new paradigm of rural development?”. Journal of Rural Studies 16(4), pp 407-419.
  4. Wythes, J.R., Woods, E.J., & Gleeson, A.R. (1990). QDPI Extension Policy Review 1990. Brisbane, Q.: Queensland Department of Primary Industries Information Series QI90029.

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