How do you and your team like to learn?

Published 25 June 14

View from Jon Parry, Head of Extension

There have been many articles written extolling the virtue of effective knowledge transfer, or extension, and its role in improving the efficiency and performance of British agriculture. In fact, many agree it will be critical in helping the UK dairy industry to meet its ambitious target of producing over 4.3 billion litres of additional milk by 2025, as outlined in ‘Leading the Way’. (Learn more)

Improving business performance requires the adoption of new practices by both manager and staff – but having a clear understanding of which sources of information you and your team will utilise and each individual’s preferred methods of learning can help speed of uptake and incorporation into your business.

There are lots of academic papers examining how people learn and almost as many theories on the best approach. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004) (View Report) produced a detailed critical review of all the available literature on learning styles and their impact on education.  Coffield’s final comments included: “…researchers will continue groping like the five blind men in the fable about the elephant, each with a part of the whole but none with full understanding.” This is because there is no single correct approach to categorising learning styles or delivery approaches.  

The Times reports Professor Coffield  as saying: “The reality is that most people learn in most ways.  There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support a one-label approach.” Most professionals involved in knowledge exchange accept that a mixed approach of delivery methods – blended learning – is needed to maximise the impact of the new knowledge or approach.

Dr Tim Minshall from Cambridge University states knowledge transfer is: “..a ‘contact sport’; it works best when people meet to exchange ideas, sometimes serendipitously, and spot new opportunities.”  This idea fits neatlywith a blended learning approach, which suggests that to improve the chances of the new knowledge or approach being fully embraced by you and your team, a series of learning episodes is likely to be required.  Your herd manager reading about a new approach in the traditional media – or perhaps via social media – may not on its own instigate any change, but maybe they will seek out some further details using the internet to find a webinar or video clip.

Or this may be the encouragement for them to attend a meeting with an expert speaker.  This direct ‘contact’ may need repeating while the options to apply this knowedge to your business are considered and refined; experience suggests it may take several months before the change is enacted on farm.

Across the globe much time and effort is focused on helping farmers understand and benefit from improvements in our collective knowledge. Many approaches for knowledge transfer have been tried and reviewed, and many conclude that discussion groups remain the most effective.  My colleague Heather Wildman produced a recent Nuffield report on ‘Influencing and motivating change’ (View Report). Her conclusions include:

  • The discussion group is the most effective knowledge transfer model available. It stimulates discussion, influences and encourages changing practice, challenges the norm, encourages and motivates. It provides easy access to technical information.
  • Effective knowledge transfer to influence and motivate change can be achieved in many ways, but it is key to ask questions – and the right questions – to enable minds to open, to engage, ‘buy in’, to identify the ‘want’ and the ‘need’.
  • Effective time management is a key skill to develop and it starts with learning to delegate.

The role of the facilitator is critical to the success of the model.