Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Only connect…..
The recent Foresight report on “Future Identities, changing identities in the UK: the next 10 years”, highlights the importance of technology and “hyper-connectivity”.  What does this really mean for rural businesses and the people who advise them?  Rural Business Adviser Simon Haley is from a generation that has embraced this technology, for both business and social life.  In his latest blog he shares some insights.

Is social media just the latest buzzword or can it really enable interprofessional working? asks Rural Business Adviser Simon Haley
Among the buzzwords at the inaugural workshop of the Landbridge Network was that phrase ‘social media’.  Most of those in the room had probably heard it before, but I would guess that few are actually using it daily in their business lives.   Social media used for business is quite different from using it to connect with friends.  But advances in technology have made communications much easier, and the borders between our personal and business lives are becoming blurred, with public profiles linking individuals to businesses.  That can mean reputations being enhanced or damaged for both.
Very simply, social media can be defined by its terminology. Being social is all about sharing and interaction, and the same conversations that happen face to face are now online, where others can listen in to those conversations and add their opinion. This means that I can make contact with other professionals across the country without having to visit them. And by making regular contacts of this kind, familiarity builds into a longer-term relationship.  This is a concept I was putting into practice throughout 2012.  But the way we use the internet and applications on mobile phones have moved to a new level, beyond simply providing information via a webpage. The world is now dominated by interaction and engagement. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are three of the most widely known social networking sites, but sites such as YouTube and eBay also come under this umbrella owing to their feedback and interaction mechanisms. 
So how do we use this explosion in social media effectively for interprofessional working? Well currently, I am involved in a project which aims to address this exact question. I run a two hour online discussion forum on Twitter every Thursday evening looking at issues within the rural industries. This platform, under the profile and hashtag #AgriChatUK, gives everyone involved in agriculture a place to share ideas, discuss pressing rural issues, debate hot topics and connect with other people in the industry.   There are open discussions, with over 4,100 followers, and a varied range of participants including farmers, rural advisors, land agents, lawyers, journalists, academics, NFU officeholders and people who are simply interested in the countryside. I am convinced it opens up new connections within the industry.  To give just one example, a recent discussion on the role of the levy boards saw the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, DairyCo and BPEX join Twitter specifically to take part.  And the comments they received gave them a lot of useful feedback, including answers to questions they might not have considered asking.
If more professionals used social media in its most basic form simply to expand networks and connections, then I believe the right questions can be asked more quickly, and to better effect, and directed towards the right people within the industry.  But we need to look ahead too.  Social media must be developed and given its proper value. It is not something that businesses or professionals should undertake half-heartedly.  They could be using online networks to transcend traditional exchange barriers such as distance and time, and to establish valuable relationships. Social media will never, and should never, replace traditional means of linking up with colleagues, as these are still the most important and effective way of communicating, but they are a useful additional tool.  They provide another way to get messages and news out to the industry more quickly and with greater effect.
The use of these media enables people to express opinions, which are honest, reflective and happening in real time. Summaries of the discussion from forums such as AgriChatUK  help to raise awareness and will ultimately pay dividends along the value chain. Businesses need to have a presence on such media, but it is important to know which social networking platform is right for you and how to then use this to your advantage.  That could mean keeping yourself informed about new grants, or posting an instant reaction to the Autumn Statement, which other professional firms can then benefit from, rather than waiting another week for the email briefing to be sent. The more professionals that engage in using such a resource the more the industry can benefit as a whole.  So if you haven’t been using media such as Twitter, and the discussion forums, why not give them a try?  Clicking onto #AgriChatUK might be a good starting point.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Rural Business Adviser Simon Haley wants young people to be better informed about the opportunities available to them in the agricultural sector – and he has signed up as a STEMnet ambassador to help make it happen.

At the moment, the UK is full of young people wondering what direction will offer the best prospects in the long term.    At the same time, farming is asking itself how to encourage more bright new starters into the industry.  How can we capitalise on the situation, for the benefit of both?

The agricultural sector will face a wide range of challenges over the next ten years.  It has to be adaptable, reacting to events such as extreme weather and changing legislation, so change management will be key.   Who will be expected to put this into practice if not the next generation of farmers and industry enthusiasts? Indeed, it would be remiss of the industry to expect the current workforce to weather pressures without instilling the skills further back down the line to address such problems with new ideas.

But how can we find the people we need?  That seems to be a perennial question for farming. I believe it needs to be addressed from primary school stage up, giving children role models and instilling passion to both learn and farm.  Such encouragement must continue throughout their university education, right up to the point of entering the industry.  We also need to be telling young people about the diversity of careers that are open to them within farming.  This is the only way to nurture and encourage the next generation.

Recently Farmers’ Weekly ran a campaign to support young people into farming through its Farm Apprentice online series.  Ten finalists competed to win £10,000. What a fabulous concept - I wish it had been available to me a few years ago.  Farmers’ Weekly sought to get across the idea that a farming background is not necessarily the only route into the industry; anyone who is passionate and works hard can be a successful farmer.  A non-farming background can actually provide different skills and perspective.  Certainly a rural career requires particular skillsets and attributes: a strong work ethic, a willingness to learn, an ability to apply business and practical thinking. But other skills learned outside the agricultural sphere can be useful and can make young people more flexible in their approach.

When I graduated in 2009, I actually felt overwhelmed by the scope and opportunities that were available to me. I had started out at Harper Adams with no farming background at all and after three years of teaching and a one-year placement I came out at the other end with a first class agri-business degree, but with little idea of which route I wanted to take: journalism, consultancy, the agri-food sector, or a path I was still not aware of.  I think many young people are in the same position.  There are opportunities in the world of farming, but they aren’t being told about them, the industry isn’t promoting the wide range of careers available in farming and what they can lead to in the longer term.

Because I wanted to try and do something about this on a personal level, I have recently signed up to be a volunteer STEMnet ambassador.  It means I get involved in educating and promoting the use of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in primary and secondary schools and they are all relevant for modern farming.  When I was at secondary school agriculture certainly wasn’t a subject we were encouraged to pursue; it wasn’t regarded as “academic”.   I want to be able to explain about farming to young people who may be in that position now.  

I wholeheartedly believe Landbridge can help bridge the gap between academia and professional working because I know there is a demand for this. However, it’s not a result that one project or one person alone can deliver. The whole industry, starting from the top down, needs to sign up to such a commitment. We have seen elements of it in various forms, such as Open Farm Sunday, the Farm Apprentice, and the different colleges and universities getting out on their stands at the large agricultural shows. But only when the Government, the NFU and other stakeholders including me and you, pull together can the industry be pushed forward by a new wave of ideas and keen young minds, passionate about farming.  The “Feeding Future Careers” initiative just launched by Farming Minister David Heath for Defra is one encouraging sign that the Government is starting to do its bit, so I hope that the farming sector will also take this to heart.