August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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The Role of Problem Specification Workshops in Extension: An IPM Example

Three idealized models of the Extension process are reviewed. The first model involves top-down technology transfer from researchers to farmers. The second is a farmer first approach, which emphasizes the important role that farmers play in formulating research agendas. The third model is a participatory approach involving researchers, farmers, and other stakeholders. The participatory model is explored with special reference to problem specification workshops for addressing complex pest management issues. The successful use of these workshops by the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Pest Management, in Australia, is discussed by way of a case study on the biological control agent Trichogramma.

John Foster
Research Officer
Decision Analysis and Implementation Program
Internet address:

Geoff Norton

Elaine Brough
Program Leader
Decision Analysis and Implementation Program

Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Pest Management
University of Queensland
Brisbane, Australia

Three basic Extension models underpin this paper: (a) technology transfer, (b) farmer first, and (c) participatory approach. The first model involves top-down technology transfer from researchers to farmers. The second, the farmer first approach, emphasizes the important role that farmers have to play in research and Extension from the bottom up. The third model is a participatory approach which, in some ways, integrates and extends the first two models. The participatory approach relies on the involvement of both researchers and farmers, as well as other stakeholders, in the Extension process.

While these models are, by definition, idealized abstractions of reality, they provide guidance on the development and use of more specific Extension techniques. Focusing on the participatory model, this paper highlights the problem specification workshop approach as a specific and useful participatory technique, which involves key stakeholders in structured group processes and aims for cooperative outcomes. Problem specification workshops have been used successfully in Australia by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Tropical Pest Management. A recent workshop, on the use of Trichogramma as a biological control agent, illustrates some specific workshop processes and outcomes.

Technology Transfer Model

The traditional approach to Extension follows the linear technology transfer model where the research and development (R&D) product is extended to individual farmers (see column 1 of Table 1). This model suggests that research leads to development, which in turn leads to diffusion of the innovation (Rogers, 1983).

Table 1
Central Issues Associated with Three Idealized Extension Models
Strategy top down bottom up interactive
Aim technology
Pre-cursors research
of key
Key Players scientists/
Extension agents
farmers stakeholders/

The technology transfer model frequently involves a top-down approach where scientists, often from the public sector, determine research priorities. In this model the preferences and knowledge of farmers are not explicitly considered. Scientists generate new innovations they believe are good for farmers and pass them on to Extension agents. Extension agents then transmit information about the innovation to individual farmers and explain the likely benefits in order to encourage them to adopt the innovation (Chambers, Pacey & Thrupp, 1989).

In many cases farmers do not rapidly adopt the new technologies and practices extended, often for quite sound reasons. The research-centered focus of the process often means that the end product does not fulfil a genuine need. For example, some innovations which worked well in the laboratory may not work well in the field. Access to capital and lack of supporting infrastructure for the innovation also represent constraints to widespread adoption (Frank & Chamala, 1992). In some cases, the most innovative farmers may gain a competitive edge and actively block transfer to other producers by capturing the available Extension resources. In other cases the technology is successfully transferred, but subsequent problems with the use of the technology emerge. For example, some pesticides, once widely promoted and used are now recognized as causing problems.

Farmer First Model

The farmer first model contrasts strongly with the technology transfer model (see column 2 of Table 1). The farmer first approach acknowledges that farmers often have sound local knowledge and good reasons for their behavior, which may not be understood by scientists (Frank & Chamala, 1992). It acknowledges farmers' analyses as the basis for setting research priorities. Farmers are involved with experimentation and evaluation, and scientists learn from and with them. Research and services to farmers become decentralized, differentiated, and versatile (Chambers, Pacey & Thrupp, 1989).

The main objective of this approach is to empower farmers to learn and create better situations for themselves rather than being passive recipients of new technology. Researchers do not drive the research, development, and Extension process--they merely assist farmers. The process is bottom-up with emphasis on bringing about changes that farmers want.

Research experiments are conducted in farmers' fields, where possible, to help ensure the relevance of research results. The outcome of the R&D process is usually a "basket of choices from which to select" rather than a package of practices to be adopted. In this way, farmers are encouraged to make wise and informed decisions (Chambers, Pacey & Thrupp, 1989).

One limitation of the farmer first approach is that it overlooks many of the important (off-farm) structural forces that inevitably shape farmer priorities and decision-making. These forces may be associated with private sector infrastructure for the marketing of a new technology or relevant government regulations.

Participatory Model

Recently many researchers, Extension officers, and farmers have recognized the need for a cooperative, participatory approach to examine interacting sets of issues in an holistic way. Using this approach, an ill-defined agricultural problem situation is viewed as a complex human activity system (Wilson, 1992).

The participatory approach (see column 3, Table 1) views the research, development, and Extension process as both cyclic and interactive, involving a wide range of key stakeholders. Emphasis is on the involvement of key stakeholders in a cooperative and flexible process to facilitate the implementation of specific innovations by primary producers. Several types of workshop/appraisal techniques have been used, ranging from rapid rural appraisal, participatory rural appraisal, focus groups, and structured workshops (Chamala & Mortiss, 1990). The common themes of these approaches are qualitative data gathering, active participation of those having an interest in the research outcomes, and responsiveness to decision-makers both on and off the farm.

Fliegel (1993) points out that the participatory approach applies particularly to packages of technologies rather than single innovations. He uses integrated pest management (IPM) as "a good example of the increasing complexity of recent technology development efforts" (Fliegel, 1993, p. 94). IPM is a site-specific management strategy rather than a concrete entity.

Problem Specification Workshops

To implement a participatory approach to its applied research activity in IPM, the CRC for Tropical Pest Management (Brisbane, Australia) has developed a range of techniques for "problem specification workshops" and used them to address many pest problems. Once a particular pest or crop situation has been identified as requiring further investigation, a detailed problem specification workshop is held to explore in depth the key elements and processes influencing this problem. A range of participants, representing the major players involved, provide the essential elements for problem definition. These participants provide information in a structured way, using a range of facilitation techniques.

Problem specification workshops involve a three-stage process. Stage 1 identifies the key elements of the problem and barriers to change. This sets the scene in terms of the constraints and opportunities for improvement. Stage 2 explores options for improving pest management and overcoming likely constraints. This leads to Stage 3, which identifies targets to be achieved in order to bring about substantive change. This provides a basis for developing recommendations and action plans across a range of activities, from R&D to Extension and training. The problem specification process allows early conceptualization of the problem and promotes efficient and effective responses.

Seventeen of these workshops have been carried out in Australasia and more are planned. To illustrate how these workshops operate in practice, a brief description of a problem specification workshop on the use of the Trichogramma wasp as a biological control agent is presented.

The Trichogramma Problem Specification Workshop

Twenty-five participants attended this two-day workshop held in Brisbane, Australia, in February 1994. The participants represented Trichogramma producers (who initiated the workshop), crop consultants, researchers, chemical companies, Extension officers, and growers. The main objectives for the workshop, as agreed by the participants, were to:

  1. determine the barriers to the increased use of Trichogramma as a biocontrol agent;

  2. determine research, educational, and other needs necessary to overcome the barriers; and

  3. construct action plans to address specific needs.

To address objective 1, individual participants wrote their perceptions of key barriers on small cards, using one card for each point. In four facilitated groups, participants pinned their cards onto a pin-board and then each group put together those cards addressing similar issues. When each group agreed on the card placements, header cards were used to identify the key emerging issues. The key issues were then ranked using a voting procedure. A presenter from each group reported back to a plenary session on key results, and an overall list of the major barriers was formulated through group discussion and voting.

Small group discussions, focusing on one major barrier per group, led to the identification of key research, education, and other needs, as part of objective 2. For example, one of the needs identified was for "better communication among Trichogramma workers and users." Some action plans associated with this particular need are shown in Table 2, which contributed to objective 3.

Table 2
Action Plans to Improve Communication Between
Trichogramma Workers and Users, Developed by Workshop Participants
1. Maintain and/or expand content and circulation of the Trichogramma newsletter.
2. Form a Beneficial User Group to enhance communication among Trichogramma workers and liaise with outside interests.
3. Form working sub-groups to address specific Trichogramma issues.
4. Create a special Trichogramma section of the Australian Entomological Society.
5. Arrange for press releases about Trichogramma.
6. Join the International Organization for Biological Control.

Eighteen of the workshop participants completed a short evaluation questionnaire at the close of the workshop. Many (13) respondents suggested that communication, information exchange, or making contacts was "the most important thing that happened" at the workshop.

Half of the respondents found the workshop to be extremely useful while the other half found it to be very useful. In achieving stated objectives, the ratings were: very good (six respondents), good (10 respondents), and satisfactory (two respondents). Almost half of the respondents had not had the opportunity to attend any other workshops in the past five years and most suggested that a Trichogramma workshop should be held every year or two (Seymour, Foster & Brough, 1994).


The participatory approach model brings together elements of the technology transfer and farmer first models and extends these to provide a more comprehensive approach which is likely to enhance practical results. The structured workshop format described provides an effective means of implementing a participatory approach to Extension. Problem specification workshops achieve a comprehensive analysis of the problem and a specification for designing realistic research, development, and Extension strategies. The use of structured workshops in addressing complex pest management issues has been clearly demonstrated and this experience provides lessons for handling other resource management issues.


Chamala, S., & Mortiss, P. (1990). Working together for land care. Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.

Chambers, R., Pacey, A., & Thrupp, L. A. (1989). Farmer first: Farmer innovation and agricultural research. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

Fliegel, F. C. (1993). Diffusion research in rural sociology, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Frank, B., & Chamala, S. (1992). Effectiveness of Extension strategies. In G. Lawrence, F. Vanclay, & B. Furze (Eds.), Agriculture, environment and society (pp. 122-140). Melbourne: Macmillan.

Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press.

Seymour, J., Foster, J., & Brough, E. (1994). Workshop report: Use of Trichogramma as a biocontrol agent in Australia. Brisbane: Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Pest Management.

Wilson, J. (1992). Changing agriculture: An introduction to systems thinking. Kenthurst, Australia: Kangaroo Press.

Author Notes

Constructive comments from Bruce Frank and Ed Rajotte on a draft of this article are gratefully acknowledged.