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Developing the human resource of the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries

Richard Fell
Coordinator Extension and Vocational Education, Tropical Savannas CRC
John O'Leary
Human Resource Manager, Power and Water Authority
An innovative training program based on the Rural Extension Centre's Certificate in Extension has paid dividends in developing the extension staff of the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (NTDPIF). The program introduced after a department-wide review of needs and in the midst of a changing organisational background has successfully provided staff with training in extension, learning projects for immediate application and career options within NTDPIF and beyond.

The participants in the program recognised its immediate worth, as did their managers and supervisors (Sullivan et al 1997). Additionally, a group of the course participants were involved in the evaluation of the on-ground effectiveness of emergency services during and after the Katherine floods, using skills and knowledge gained through the training program.

The paper outlines the reasons and need for the training, the underlying philosophy of the training conducted, the process and content involved and an assessment of its success for the individuals and for the organisation. Recommendations are made for the future of the program and for the continued and wider use of the program both in the NTDPIF and other government bodies in the Northern Territory.

The philosophy and need for training in NTDPIF

In the early 90s a review of personnel and their needs was undertaken in NTDPIF (O'Leary 1993, 1994) that underlined the need for extension staff to undertake training to upgrade their knowledge and skills to meet the challenges facing their client groups. The upgraded skills would also prove useful in meeting the challenges in a changing organisation.

Extension staff are working with primary producers, providing advice on new technology to improve the production on properties in the Northern Territory (NT). They also facilitate groups, disseminate information and coordinate a range of programs to meet the needs of their clients. Extension can be broadly defined as working with people to help them help themselves.

Some of the organisational changes that were having impacts on extension staff were:

Extension staff were affected by all of these changes and were seen to need an enhanced set of skills and knowledge in extension to continue to service their client base and these changed industry circumstances.

Review of personnel and needs assessment

Skills audits were undertaken in NTDPIF in 1993 and 1994. These skills audits identified particular skills areas that were needed generally to cope with the changes that were affecting NTDPIF and their major clients. These were identified as better extension skills and better facilitation skills, the attendant knowledge and understanding of the processes involved and the need to develop partnerships with industry.

It was found that training programs were needed to enable some staff to move from the narrow job profiles of the BTEC program to a wider advisory and extension role. These programs would also enable staff to continue their employment within NTDPIF.

Improving primary industry through better extension service and delivery

NTDPIF saw training in extension for staff as a prime means to improve primary industry itself through the provision of an improved extension service delivered by professional extension staff.

This improved service would relate better to the needs of the client base and would result in more productivity in primary industry, as well as having clients able to make better decisions for their own properties and selves. A natural flow on from this in an economy firmly based in agriculture is a better Territory economy. Thus improving the extension service could be seen to have long term positive consequences for the Northern Territory.

Assessment of alternatives for training

In assessing alternatives there were some major considerations to be taken into account. These were: The choice of an outside training provider was based on the premise that the necessary training in extension could not be provided from within the NTDPIF or for that matter from within the NT government service. This assessment was based on the fact that there are few providers in Australia who can in fact train in extension.

It was also decided that accreditation should be part of the package as this would enable staff to further their careers both within NTDPIF and elsewhere. There are only 3 providers who could provide accredited training in extension in Australia - the Rural Extension Centre (REC) at University of Queensland, Longrenong College at University of Melbourne and Hawkesbury College at the University of Western Sydney.

The Longrenong course has an agricultural economic emphasis, while Hawkesbury's course is offered in the residential short course format, neither of which met the NTDPIF's needs.

The Rural Extension Centre (REC) is a joint initiative between the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) and The University of Queensland (UQ). Its headquarters are at UQ's Gatton campus. The REC's vision is "enriching rural communities through learning partnerships". The REC's Mission "to create, foster and implement collaborative action and learning opportunities through extension training, research, information, education and development for rural well-being and beauty", outlines the ways in which this vision will be achieved.

One of the primary tasks for the REC is to provide a focus for training in extension skills for practicing extension professionals, through accredited training programs:

The REC brings to these courses the experience of specialist extension staff through its partnership with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) and knowledge gained through further study in extension and education.

The choice of the REC Certificate in Extension course gave accredited training in extension, with a work related and practical focus that met the needs of the NTDPIF. The workshop based training also allowed the flexibility that was needed to match the work commitments of the staff undertaking the training. It was offered on-site in the Northern Territory making it more acceptable to staff and more cost-effective to the NTDPIF.

Entry to training in the Certificate was based on equity, it was provided to all whom had the need and had reasonable experience in agriculture and extension. Although the course is at tertiary level, it was not seen as overly academic. The trainers presenting the course have a wealth of practical experience in extension with the Department of Primary Industries in Queensland, an organisation which itself had undergone similar changes over the recent past. Additionally, most of the trainers had further training in extension or education, as well as practical experience.

A synergistic relationship was built up between NTDPIF and the REC from the initiation of the training program. Through the discussions between the two organisations, and between the authors, the subjects and appropriate trainers were chosen to meet the needs of NTDPIF and those of the individuals undertaking the training.

The NTDPIF particularly welcomed the workplace training projects, which were designed by participants to give immediate benefit to the organisation through improving their work.

The philosophy underpinning REC training

The education and training philosophy of the courses is that of adult learning (Knowles 1990) where adults are self-directed to learn what is relevant to them, their needs or their work situation. The objective is to encourage participants to use this as a conscious learning method, which they can model in their professional role in their workplace.

The structure and design of the courses, with the workshop residential sessions and workplace learning projects, meet the needs of full-time professional staff and their organisations while delivering a direct and immediate input into the workplace. In order to deliver education and training in a manner that meets these adult needs, the REC has based all courses and subjects on the Action Learning Cycle (McGill & Beatty 1992, Revans 1980 and Fell 1997a), experiential learning (Kolb 1984) and adult learning principles (Knowles 1990 and Fell 1997a).

Burns (1994) outlines four pathways for adult education and training:

The REC is an organisation that covers the last three groups and it is set up to help adults learn in a work-related context, at University level. It also hopes to do so in an independent adult learning manner, where the participants are encouraged to use a whole range of resources to learn.

The course stems from an androgogical approach where this is defined as "the science of teaching adults" (Knowles 1990). Malouf (1994) has converted this into a set of seven laws of learning to guide teaching adults in "a fun and exciting way". These are:

  1. Learners must feel the need to learn.
  2. The learning environment must be mentally and socially safe.
  3. Learners must set their own learning goals.
  4. Learners must participate actively in the learning.
  5. Learning must build on, and use, the learner's experience.
  6. Learners must see that their learning has been successful.
  7. Learning must involve effective two-way communication (Malouf 1994 p 15).
In agricultural extension, extensionists work with primary producers. These people are almost always adults, with varied levels of education, from less than high school through to Postgraduate degrees. Likely participants in the training had similar education levels to their clients. Many of the farming clients are characterised as being conservative, people who approach change cautiously. This is often true for the NTDPIF extensionist as well.

The application of the principles of adult learning and action learning to extension should improve the ways in which services are delivered to clients. The REC has developed training courses based on these principles and are helping extensionists put these into practice with their farmer clients. However, the principles are more widely applicable, in all facets of work, including research and regulation. NTDPIF is an organisation that operates in the above context and provides extension services to primary producers and others. The type of training provided by the REC fits with their organisational needs.

Format and delivery of the course

The structure of each 10 credit point subject in the Certificate course is:
  1. A five day residential workshop at the beginning of the subject which is designed to expose participants to theoretical concepts. They also develop a plan to undertake a learning project within their workplace;

  2. A work-based or community-based learning project, undertaken as part of the participant's normal work which is completed prior to returning for the second residential session, usually within two months of the first residential;

  3. A two day residential session, 8-10 weeks after the start of each subject which allows for review and peer feedback on the learning project before the final written report is submitted, and

  4. A final written report (learning project) which is submitted 3-4 weeks after the second residential as the final part of each subject and is the final part of the assessment.
To achieve a Certificate in Extension or a Graduate Certificate in Rural Extension the participant needed to complete 5 subjects or 50 credit points.

Residential workshops were delivered using adult learning principles and action learning. In some instances this reflected the content of the subject, for example, Adult Learning (QM722/REC04 -the subject) where these were both the content and the process of the workshop. Similarly it was important to demonstrate the planning process in conducting Managing and Planning Projects (QM739/REC66) and so the workshop was based on a strategic planning process.

It was important for presenters to ensure that these potentially confusing issues were made clear to enhance the learning during the workshop phase of each subject. The overall process of the course is based on action learning through the vehicle of a learning project conducted in the workplace. This is intended to be part of the normal workload of the participant and in most cases in the NT this has happened.

The expectation is that the learning project will provide a practical application of theoretical aspects of the subject under study - with better practice of extension being the end result. Various evaluations (Fell 1997b and Hossain 1998) have underlined the importance of the learning project and this has been reiterated by Sullivan et al (1998) for the learning project in the NT.

The process and format of the course also caters for the need for reflection in the workshop, throughout the learning project and in the reporting session, as well as the final written report. For this group of action-oriented extension officers in the NT this has proved top be the most difficult aspect. Frequent mentions in the early subjects were made to "too much time spent on reflection". This was not as prevalent as the participants undertook more subjects.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that the course provides practical tools and techniques to enable theory to be more easily included in regular work programs.

Courses and subjects available for the NT

The course offered in the NT is based around part of the whole suite of subjects offered by the REC. The full list and descriptions are available through the REC. The subjects chosen for the NT program were:
QM 722/REC 04 Adult learning in rural extension (2)
QM 727/REC 68 Evaluation of projects and programs (1)
QM 730/REC 42 Group leadership and facilitation (3)
QM 736/REC 67 The philosophy and practice of extension (1)
QM 737/REC 05 Development of workshops and extension packages (2)
QM 739/REC 66 Managing and planning projects (2)
The choice was made on the basis of needs of the trainee group and on the professional experience of the authors. Thus it was decided to deliver a core set of subjects including Adult learning in rural extension (QM 722/REC 04) - needed to gain a Certificate and Graduate Certificate and Evaluation of projects and programs (QM 727/REC 68) - needed to gain a Postgraduate diploma. The other subjects gave a balance - Managing and planning projects (QM 739/REC 66) complemented Evaluation, Group leadership and facilitation (QM 730/REC 42) complemented Adult learning. While Development of workshops and extension packages (QM 737/REC 05) gave participants a way of integrating all the other subjects into a whole.

Subject workshops have been conducted in Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs and most of these have been outside the normal semester timetable of the University of Queensland (UQ). Timing of the subjects fitted with the work patterns of the NT, based as they are on Dry Season and Wet Season, with March and October being the time when most subjects were delivered.

The Certificate in Extension was chosen as the NT base course for this reason, as it allowed more flexibility as well as catering for participants who did not have the necessary tertiary qualification for entry to Graduate Certificate. Some participants have subsequently moved on to the Graduate Certificate and then to Postgraduate Diploma but most who completed the course were awarded the Certificate in Extension (fully equivalent to the Graduate Certificate) in July 1998. A second round of awards are due at the time of writing.

Results of the training in the NT

Individual awards gained

There were 8 Certificate in Extension awarded to participants in the training program in July 1998. This group had completed 5 subjects as required under the format of the course as it was originally set up. The course now is 40 credit points (4 subjects) and there are has been a further 4 Certificates or Graduate certificates awarded or completed since then. Two participants are presently completing their Postgraduate Diploma in Rural Systems Management, due in 2000. It should be remembered that the initial target group for this training in 1995 was no more than 40 NTDPIF officers.

The NTDPIF also saw value in the training even for those employees that did not complete the academic portion of the subjects - in the improvement in their skills.

Evaluation of the course (Sullivan et al 1998)

Sullivan et al (1998) conducted an internal evaluation of the course by as part of the Evaluation subject. The report - REC'n the NT - found the course had improved extension skills and this had "manifested itself as increased confidence in dealing with people and situations, a more professional attitude and greater knowledge and range of skills to use in the workplace."

Supervisors and managers saw that staff had improved skills and also in the way they organised and planned their work programs. Some comments were:

"Improvement in the quality of presentations. (Their work is) more thorough and organised"
"More professional approach to work and clients"
"Approach is more structured, well thought through and successful"
Sullivan et al (1998) felt that "most staff identified Adult Learning and Group Leadership and Facilitation as the two modules which had most impact. There was also a strong feeling that the course of five modules gave a well-rounded training program in extension processes and techniques."

The group also recommended that the course continue and be offered more widely within the NT.

Katherine Floods Review

A group of course participants were nominated to conduct part of the review and assessment of the performance of emergency services during the Katherine floods of 1998. This nomination was based on the recognition that they had the skills and knowledge from the course to undertake the evaluation.

They conducted an innovative process based on people recounting their stories of the flood, as well as eliciting action and strategies for future disaster relief. The group reported to the Commonwealth government review from the rural areas surrounding Katherine that were hard hit by the floods.

Personal career changes

One measure of success of the course is that it has enabled personal career changes by people who have been through the course. Seven people from the initial group who were trained have made substantial career changes based on their qualifications and enhanced practice of extension.

The qualification has enabled them to demonstrate ability, experience and equivalence to degree status, thus making them eligible for positions to which they were previously not able to apply. The career changes are:

Five of these changes have been within NTDPIF, whilst the others have taken the officers to jobs in other organisations interstate. This is in accordance with the policy under which the training program was set up initially.

Learning projects completed and written up

Overall there are over 70 reports on learning projects that have been submitted for assessment in the course - these are 10 page reports reflecting the extension practice as it currently is in the NT from NTDPIF staff. It provides a valuable reference source which can be accessed by other extension professionals through the REC series "From the Field" (REC 1996,1997 & 1999).

Crothers (Weeds Management Demonstration Site From the Field 1997) is one learning project that has been reported in full from the NT. There is a case for a collection of NT reports to be collated and published to allow better access from others in the NT.

The learning projects provide a rich picture of the extension conducted in the NT by an increasingly professional group of extension officers.

Networking an added benefit for NTDPIF

The development of better networks within NTDPIF is seen as another benefit, this was helped in the course by:

Learning from the program - REC and NTDPIF

Overall the REC was able to establish credentials for providing training and courses away from Gatton - in the most remote and rural areas of Australia.

It has been possible by utilising adult learning process, through the practical application of action learning and by using learning projects to enhance learning experiences for groups of extension professionals in the remote areas of the Northern Territory and thus almost anywhere else.

The main benefit for NTDPIF was in improved extension service, through better staff delivering better extension activity. The choice of training, both content and process of delivery is crucial to this improvement. A lesson learnt that has been applied to other training since.

The NTDPIF learnt that it is necessary to match outcomes expected, with content and process, to enable the learning process to operate to the mutual benefit of the organisation and to the individuals in the organisation. It also became obvious during the program that it is vital to involve managers and supervisers in the program, so that they understand what the program entails, the knowledge gained by their staff and how it might be used.


The training program based on the REC's courses has provided good, relevant training for the extension officers of NTDPIF. The subjects that have been offered and taken up by the staff have provided a well-rounded training program that has met the immediate and longer-term needs of the target group within NTDPIF.

Training based on the learning principles embodied in adult learning principles and action learning has successfully delivered outcomes for both individuals and the organisation. Staff have been able to take part in good learning experiences, while their supervisors and managers have enjoyed the benefit of staff with improved skills and performance.

There is also motivation from some participants to continue to higher levels of training, whilst the program overall is still continuing to attract support from staff from all levels in NTDPIF. It is in fact attracting staff from the research and administration areas as well as extension staff.

Evaluation of the course and the part that the group played in evaluating the Katherine floods leads to the conclusion that the training has been effective in improving knowledge and skills of the extension personnel. This improvement is acknowledged publicly by managers and supervisors (Sullivan et al 1998), as well as in personal communications by them to the authors.

The learning project reports and the individual career changes reflect the worth of the training program to both the individual and to the organisation. There is a new level of professionalism amongst the extension staff who have completed the course that is evident in these learning reports and in the work that they now undertake, within NTDPIF or elsewhere. These reports should be published by NTDPIF for wider access within the NT.

It is recommended that the course continue with the NTDPIF and that it should be expanded to other organisations in the NT that have a similar staff profile and extension and research function.


Burns, R . (1995). The Adult Learner at Work. Business and Professional Publishing, Sydney.

Fell, R.F. (1997a). Action learning and application of adult learning principles give meaning to accredited training for extensionists. Proceedings of the Australia Pacific Extension Conference, Albury.

Fell, R.F. (1997b). "They say it best themselves" - a qualitative evaluation process. Proceedings of the Australia Pacific Extension Conference, Albury.

Hossain, D. (1998). Impact of Rural Extension Centre training on participants. Internal Report, Rural Extension Centre, University of Queensland, Gatton.

Knowles, M. S. (1990). The Adult Learner: A neglected species. Gulf Publishing Company, Houston.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning as a source of learning and development. Prentice Hall, Eaglewood Cliffs.

Malouf, D. (1994). How to teach adults in a fun and exciting way. Business and Professional Publishing, Sydney.

McGill, I. and Beatty, L. (1992). Action learning - a practitioner's guide. Kogan Page, London

O'Leary, J. (1993). Skills Audit Report. Internal publication, Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, Berrimah Farm, Darwin

O'Leary, J. (1994). Skills Audit Report. Internal publication, Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, Berrimah Farm, Darwin

Revans, R. (1980). Action Learning. Blond and Briggs, London.

Rural Extension Centre (1996). From the Field - Extension in Practice. Rural Extension Centre, University of Queensland, Gatton.

Rural Extension Centre (1997). From the Field - Extension in Practice. Rural Extension Centre, University of Queensland, Gatton.

Sullivan, R., McAlister, S., Foord, G., Moran, A., Stockwell, T., Lunn, K., Scott, G., Parker, D., L'Estrange, D., Crothers. M., (1998). Rural Flood Workshops internal report, Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, Katherine.

Sullivan, R., Parker, D., Hill, K., Crothers, M., McMahon, J., McAlister, S. and Schultz, V. (1998). RECn the NT - an evaluation of the Rural Extension Centre training in the NT. Learning project report for QM 727/REC 68 Evaluation of projects and programs. REC, Gatton.

Authors: Richard Fell, Coordinator Extension & Vocational Education, Tropical Savannas CRC, Northern Territory University, Darwin NT 0909
Phone (08) 8946 6156 Fax (08) 8946 6151 Email

John O'Leary, Human Resource Manager, Power & Water Authority, Cavenagh Street, Darwin NT 0801
Phone (08) 8924 7139 Fax (08) 8924 7128 Email

Please cite as: Fell, R. and O'Leary, J. (2001). Developing the human resource of the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 263-272. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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