Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Building cross-professional networks

Nuffield scholar Finola McCoy writes in praise of networks and the role of the honest broker.

There is an Irish saying ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’, which translates as ‘There is no strength without unity’, and it comes to mind when I think about the service provision sector in Irish agriculture.  Farmers will engage with many varied service providers as part of the management of their business - vets, farm advisers, bank managers, engineers, nutritionists etc. In turn, these agricultural service providers rarely engage with, or even know each other. Yet, we are all working towards a common goal - to provide a good service to farmers to enable them to run an efficient business. While Ireland has retained a strong, largely publicly funded research and advisory service i.e. Teagasc, this too can present a challenge. When one organisation dominates the research and extension space, this can create a perception that the ‘peripheral’ extension services e.g. vets, private consultants etc. are less important or influential, placing little value on the knowledge resource within and creating a divide between the 'central' and 'peripheral' organisations. In the 300s B.C. Aristotle said ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. What if we were to apply this to the agricultural service provision sector? If it worked as a whole could it be more effective than the sum of its parts? What are the barriers to building this whole? What is needed to initiate and sustain it? These are some of the questions that I have ruminated upon, and with the opportunity of a Nuffield scholarship, have been able to explore in more detail. 

The initial title of my study was ‘Building Strong Professional Teams’, with a focus on looking at how on-farm professional teams can work. However, I soon realised that while these on-farm teams might be very effective, to some degree they may also be idealistic. They can be very formal and structured, and not always practical; one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. However, one of the building blocks to creating teams is an existing network between people. Without networks people don’t get an opportunity to get to know and trust each, and understand what skills and strengths they can bring to the party.  Over time and in the right circumstances, service provider networks could grow into on-farm multidisciplinary teams.

I started by looking at and learning from agricultural organisations and projects, including Landbridge UK, that have either used a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve their end goal, or where the end goal itself has been to develop networks between service providers. It became apparent to me that service provider networks can offer many benefits. As well as providing clients i.e. farmers, with more holistic, comprehensive services and a broader cohesive knowledge base, the network members benefit from knowledge exchange and upskilling, business referrals and social interaction with other professionals. Industry benefits from an improved feedback loop to research and development.

However, it would be idealistic not to recognise that there are also barriers to building networks, and working as a team. Finding time to participate in a network, as well as support from the service provider’s parent organisation/company can be an obstacle. Competition between professionals can also be a challenge, particularly when initiating networks. Many professionals have a ‘healthy’ suspicion of other professionals working in the same region, and may worry about losing clients or business. However, the reality is that this suspicion is often born out of ignorance of and isolation from other professionals and in general, the positive outcomes from networking outweigh the real challenges and the perceived threats.

It appears that one of the most effective solutions to many of these barriers is the identification or establishment of ‘an honest broker’. This broker could be a person, or a body e.g. Landbridge UK, and is a relatively impartial third-party, bringing people together mainly for the greater good, and without a vested interest. Brokers can build trust between the various people, and by objectively analysing the needs of the various parties within the network can identify their requirements and stay relevant. Brokers need funding however, and this can be a constant challenge, as their behind-the scenes role conceals their impact and may limit support.

For Ireland, I believe the most important step now is to promote the benefits of creating cross-professional networks, identify an honest broker and start nurturing those cross-professional networks through multi-disciplinary activities. Without unity, the fragmentation continues, and the opportunity to maximise our potential remains untapped.

The final Nuffield report on “Building Strong Professional Networks” will be available in winter 2015 on www.nuffield.ie


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