Source DocumentTable Of ContentsNext Page

Using modern communications technology: turning on, not turning off

John Childs,

Technical Services Branch
Queensland Department of Primary Industries


When we consider the sophisticated equipment and electronics used, and indeed necessary, for communication today it's amazing we ever did it at all previously. Now we almost presume that if we aren't using electronics, satellites and computers we can't be communicating effectively. But the medium cons us that the message is sound. In fact, TV is not an important or respected medium in technology or information transfer in the primary producer sector as shown by recent studies of communication.

In analysing communications systems and designing strategies which will be effective, we must initially ignore the methods; the technology. We must look for a sound basis in theory or principle on which to base our communication strategies.


The basic theories for information and technology transfer prior to and early in the 1970s were linear in concept (1) (2). They portrayed information as moving from a sender through an intermediate medium (mechanism or person) to a receiver. Various factors influenced the rate of flow, and feedback mechanisms could be made part of the process (3). But these were sequential over time and space. Similarly, the early theory for technology adoption, the Adoption-Diffusion of Innovation Theory (1) was linear and subsequential.

Figure 1. The linear concept of information flow.

This model was found applicable in simple production and marketing systems, for example fixed price markets or for simple technical packages such as plant varieties.

Evidence showed that where the situation involved complexity; technical in production systems or social and cultural because of diverse and integrated attitudes and beliefs, the simple linear model could not adequately explain the transfer process or provide an adequate basis for designing strategies of technology or information transfer.

A major weakness in the Adoption-Diffusion of Innovation model and its practice is that it condoned following the path of least resistance; benefitting those farmers best able to help themselves and neglected those in most need but who are hardest to reach (4). Other weaknesses including a pro-innovation bias, an assumption of homogeneity of the population in terms of need for the technology and an excessive emphasis on "people faults" as causes of lack of change, all led to the rejection of the Adoption-Diffusion of Innovation theory as a basis for effective communication and technology transfer (5).

Of course diffusion still occurs, as do the inequities that are related to it. The process is still used, for example in the Training and Visit System in developing countries.

Efforts to develop effective methods of communications and technology transfer were centred on modification of the Adoption-Diffusion model to counteract its weaknesses. For example, particular homogeneous sub-groups in the population were targeted with technology and information specifically tailored for them. Communication and extension methods were specifically tailored for those homogeneous sub-groups. This approach introduced the marketing concept of target categories in a population; identifying homogeneous groups with respect to information and technology need.

Since the concept of tailoring the content of the message to the target audience was found effective, it was obvious that the development of the technology must be similarly influenced. Acceptance of the notion that research might be designed to fit the conditions of target categories has been limited. However, the power of influence which client groups can have over research and extension agencies has increased. This increase in the power to influence has resulted in target/client groups demanding appropriate services, knowledge, information and technology (4).

Where these strongly participative interactions and collaborations have been encouraged, developments in communications and technology transfer have been considerable. In Victoria, Salmon (7) found evidence of the effectiveness of the application of a Resource Model in knowledge development. In this model knowledge is accepted as a community resource and the process of its development, communication and utilisation can be facilitated and made more relevant by the interactive involvement of the community in the process. Underwood (8) modified this model to demonstrate that the basis for knowledge and information acquisition of Queensland dairy farmers is one of self directed learning. The farmers influence their own communication requirements for information, knowledge and technology and the methods they use to acquire them.

In the 1980s we now have a better conceptual basis on which to develop strategies of information, knowledge and technology exchange which is more suited to the cultural and attitudinal situation in the community.

The Agricultural Knowledge Systems approach (4) is based on participation according to need and capacity to contribute in an interactive way.

This basis for communication has been found effective in technology and knowledge transfer where the technology is complex and undeveloped, where many components of a system have to be considered and when knowledge is in the process of development. The focus is on effectiveness of achievement not on how the communication process is organised and conducted. Emphasis is on functionality not role definition of the participants.

It is important that the conceptual basis for communication and learning be sound. If not, effort and dollars will be wasted. And we will continue to hear the cry "Why don't the silly blighters do what's good for them".

Communications technology can facilitate these processes of participation, communication and learning. Sometimes it is best just to sit down around a table and talk. But generally we want the information from a number of sources and in a number of ways so as to see it from a number of perspectives.

Technology which assists communication

There are many forms of technology at our disposal sometimes not always obvious in their impact.


It is essential to view the people involved in the communication as a critical component. Socialising in its many forms is a considerable aid to communication and its effectiveness.

One of the major forces in communication enhancement has been the capacity to travel. Visits interstate and especially internationally have made a major contribution to information and technology exchange. Technologies which enhance interaction, such as teleconferencing, allow remote group interaction and exchange. They are being used in business and farmer organisations.

The Medium

The systems of storage and delivery of information and technology are of critical importance to the effectiveness of communication.

There are many obvious technologies which enhance communication. Perhaps the most important and most frequently used have been those which enhance the ability to speak to one another. Hence technologies which have enhanced telephone networks and made them simple and easy to use have had the major impact on information exchange. The use of enhanced land-based and satellite networks in the expansion of STD and ISD facilities almost throughout Australia have had an impact on obtaining market, technology and knowledge reference information from a much wider base of people and institutions. The expansion of the facsimile network and facilities is rapidly increasing the exchange of documents to enhance information transfer.

The more widespread ownership of video cassette recording equipment and the increasingly wide scope of enhanced television reception have provided opportunities for demonstration of complex technology and skills training which have not yet been fully utilised.

With the enhancement of these communication facilities the capacity to store and access information has been put under considerable strain. Libraries and organisations have had to develop data bases which can feed these enhanced communication facilities. There is now considerable emphasis on the development of data bases which are readily accessible at low cost and are easy to search. In particular an emphasis has been placed on the development of computer software which is more attuned to the needs of users. Programs have to cope with subjectivity and qualitative data. An increased effort is needed in this area.

The Message

A major study of communication recently found that people in agricultural industries considered that there was not too much information but that it was extremely difficult to know what information was valuable. With increased access the volume of information and its availability has increased exponentially. The real challenge is how to analyse the massive amount of information available to determine what is useful to the particular person seeking the information and to present it in a style which is easily understood and used.

Considerable effort is being expended on the development of computer software and models which enhance the analysis of information and knowledge in ways the user can control. In particular the application of Expert Systems software and technology must continue to be expanded and developed.

User involvement and control in the development of information system designs has been inadequate. This is an area to which considerable resources must be applied. Consideration must be given to the formats and styles of information presentation as well as the particular machinery and technology used to deliver it. The considerable developments in technology involved in the storage and delivery of messages will not be fully exploited until such time as the presentation component is developed beyond its present state.

The appropriate technology and systems

We often say that the needs of the users are paramount in developing information and communication systems and strategies. But we all too often ignore the detail involved in accepting this concept. It is essential to target particular groups in the community and involve them in the design of systems suitable to them. Target groups can differ greatly in their communication situations and needs.

For example in the extensive grazing industries the people in production units are widely separated. The population of townships serving them are generally small. The people are widely dispersed, very individualistic in the way they function and live. They are strongly influenced by cyclical changes in seasonal conditions and profitability. Their productivity is generally not high and their production systems are simple. Their ability to have frequent access to agri-business and other organisational support is generally low. News media access is restricted.

By contrast, intensive cropping industries are located in closely settled and integrated communities. There is generally a high degree of family, social and cultural integration within these settled communities. In many parts of Australia they are influenced by involvement of migrants from other countries and their cultural and social attitudes and beliefs.

Production is intensive with a high level of inputs and a frequent need for decision support. They are generally highly productive but oft n with fluctuating profitability. They generally have good access to a range of media and agri-business and organisational support.

Interestingly, in studies undertaken of these communities many aspects of their communication systems are similar. Studies by Childs (9) the extensive grazing industries of south-west Queensland and Underwood (8) of intensive dairying areas of Queensland, found that neighbours and respected people in the industry locally were major components in the communication systems of both. Whenever communication strategies are designed this component must be an integral part.

There remain considerable constraints to obtaining knowledge and information. These include the high initial capital outlay to acquire equipment used in modern communication. While the relative cost of equipment is falling it still remains a considerable initial outlay. Access to particular sources of information can be influenced by commercial factors. For example, commercial media interests are based on the size of the audience for advertising. Hence, TV and newspaper networks are generally based on large city or near city areas rather than in widely scattered rural communities.

There is also the cost in acquiring information and therefore a cost to be recovered in making it available. It can be an important capital asset from which returns can be made in making it available to others. This can influence who can or cannot obtain such information.

A study by Anderson (10) also found that there were social and personal advantages to possessing information. He found that certain groups of producers communicated in a very closed and small, intimate circle and did not make their particular knowledge and information available outside that group. This can severely inhibit the exchange of important knowledge and information of value to the rest of the community. The role of technology in accessing expert knowledge has not been adequately explored.

There have been considerable changes in legislation and community attitudes which have increased the accessibility of information. Freedom of information legislation has made access much easier and has improved the climate within which information can be sought and obtained.

The attitudes of the scientific community to access to information are an important factor. Many scientists withhold information until such time as it can be published to their own advantage. This is not unreasonable since their own recognition and rewards are dependant on it. However, the present system of releasing such scientific information is inhibitive and restrictive. It is probable that most knowledge and information obtained by scientific endeavour is not made available to the community in general. Just as the general community is more demanding in its access to information generally, so it will become more demanding of the information possessed by the nation's scientists. The scientific community should tackle this crucial and important issue, and consider how modern communication technology might enhance both scientific reward and community access.

A recent study of communication effectiveness for the CSIRO Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures in Queensland found that the main inhibitors to effective communication in the rural sector were that the knowledge and information could not be assessed in terms of its value to the particular user. In addition, most research was considered to be irrelevant and not locally applicable. There is a huge gap between the findings of research and their development into commercially applicable technology and knowledge. Additionally, the sectors in the communication system used and valued different communication media. For producers the rural and local press and local individuals were the most respected and used sources of information. For extension and research workers it was their own peer groups who were most important. Since we don't adequately respect other people's most important sources of information we tend not to use them and thereby create communication blocks. These must be explored and deliberately overcome.

The future

Major emphasis will be placed on getting the "humanware" right. That is, we must understand what people need and use in their communication and how to appropriately meet those needs. This will involve the development of knowledge systems based on interactive participation. It will involve a reduced fear of losing control of the development of knowledge. Researchers must except that users of information and knowledge have a right to influence the development of that knowledge and technology. They also have a right to the information and knowledge acquired. Modern technology increases the capacity to influence information acquisition and to access it.

There must be a major emphasis on the development of computer based software to enhance understanding of the information and knowledge currently available. This must enhance the analysis and processing of information. It must take account of risk and uncertainty and qualitative assessments and judgements related to that information. It must enhance the development and assimilation of technology. The emphasis to date has been on hardware; "computers, telephones, videos, satellites". This technology is available beyond our capacity to utilise it. The software component is the area requiring particular emphasis and investment.

Studies have shown there is not too much information, but it is difficult to determine what is useful and locally relevant. There is more than adequate technology available to communicate well. We must apply ourselves to understanding which communication technology is most appropriate and how to use it.

We must use the technology to enhance the participation of end users in developing, storing and presenting information, knowledge and technology in relevant ways.


1. Rogers, E.M. 1971. 'Diffusion of Innovations' (New York:Free Press).

2. Berlo, D.K. 1960. 'The Process of Communication' (Holt, Rinehart and Winston:New York).

3. Havelock, R.G. 1969. 'Planning for Innovation through the Dissemination and Utilisation of Knowledge' (Ann Arbor:University of Michigan, CRUSK).

4. Roling, N. 1985. Sociologia Ruralis XXV (3/4):269-89.

5. Rogers, E.M. 1976. Communications Research. III (2):213-240.

6. Kotler, P. 1975. 'Marketing for Non-Profit Organisations' (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice Hall).

7. Salmon, P.W., Bock, I.M., Turnbull, E. and Trethewie, R. 1977. 'The Human Crisis Change in Agriculture'. University of Melbourne.

8. Underwood, C.A. and Salmon, P.W. 1980. 'Nature and Extent of Self Directed Learning in Agriculture'. University of Melbourne.

9. Childs, J.R. and Salmon, P.W. 1978. 'Studying Property Management'. University of Melbourne.

10. Anderson, A.M. 1981. 'Farmers Expectations and Use of Agricultural Extension Services". Hawkesbury Agricultural College.

Top Of PageNext Page