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The round table

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

Friday late September, the community group Swamps, Rivers and Ranges ran a round table for people in the natural resource management sector. A Zoom event, eighteen people, three hours, each of us sitting at home, gathered around the collective screen.

We worked our way through the agenda, but 18 people on one screen doesn't lend itself to give-and-take, and I left with a whole lot I hadn't said and a lot to think about. The round table was meeting for the first time, so we had done a couple of rounds finding out where each person was from, and what they did, getting a sense of how our different interests might connect. Near the end, we broke into small groups to think about the round table itself, starting with a Dorothy Dixer: Is this worthwhile?

Well yes, it was worthwhile, but what specifically had been worthwhile? What had worked for each of us in our three hours in front of that flat screen? What hadn't? What kind of forum is needed?

I found myself in discussion with people from the Ovens Valley and Vincent White VicForests. It was easier to have conversation here in the breakout room - smaller numbers, and a connection between some of those people already.

Karen Tymms from Ovens Landcare Network told us about the Green Team, an earlier regional forum. Convening each time at a different project or location, people had been able to see and hear what people were doing, and understand how it fitted with what they were doing. The afternoon was for discussion and collective thinking. Each person took new ideas and new connections back to their own niche.

As we report back from our breakout group, we found our group had a different idea of a future forum to others. We wanted something for people working on-ground, as staff or volunteers; other groups saw value in a forum between managers, that aligned organisational agendas, and a place here policy shifts, funding and roles could be discussed.

'Influencing agendas' and 'strengthening practice' are different purposes, and they suit people in different roles. Influencing agendas suits managers, and those who want to influence managers; strengthening practice suits those working on-ground or close to it.

There's no hard line between these two purposes, but can one forum serve both purposes? I have seen many forums run for practitioners that end up being about organisational agendas, not on-ground practice. The agency staff take over, it becomes an information session on the latest priorities of government, and those who do the on-ground work shrug their shoulders and stay home.

The organisational world and the world of on-ground practice talk to each other all the time, but they have different native languages and they are underpinned by different networks. People at a round table for managers won't talk the way on-ground people talk, and the forum will build the networks between staff and managers, not between on-ground people.

The NE region is not flush with places for on-ground practitioners of the fine arts of land and landscape management to sit down and talk. If we broaden the definition of 'practitioners' to include not just paid staff, but the initiators community groups, and wider still, to include the innovators in communities, then the absence of places to meet becomes more obvious, and it matters.

It matters because first movers - the people who pick up new ideas first, and push the boundaries of accepted practice - tend to be out on their own in their localities, and hungry to find enthusiasts like themselves. In their locality, they're the crazy ones or the bold ones doing things differently. The first movers gain strength when they connect to people who share their interest beyond their own locality.

They want to feed their need to know what works in other places, for the big new ideas. They are hungry for the data and technical systems that can underpin local application. They build their own networks, but it would be handy if they had places where they could connect regionally with people in the same game.

This reminded me of the CSIRO research team that followed wine companies and growers, and peanut growers, to understand what drives large-scale, transformational adaptation to climate change. They found a startling difference between those who initiated big shifts in their businesses, transformational changes, and those making incremental changes.

The people they called 'incremental adaptors' had strong local ties, and not so many connections outside their locality. Local ties kept the incremental adaptors oriented to local practice. They took their reference points from other producers in their locality.

'Transformational adaptors' didn't have as many local ties, but they had many more ties outside their locality. They knew a lot of people who didn't live and work locally. They used the ideas and information they picked up here to fuel their transformational leaps.

Figure 1 from the research team shows how stark that difference in information ties was:

'Transformational' might sound a bit grand, but not when you are moving grape production to Tasmania ahead of a drying landscape, or moving peanut production into the Northern Territory after decades of below-average rainfall in southern Queensland. That's big investment, and it means rethinking the way a business operates. It's about transformation.

There's more in the paper (attached below), but here's the take-home: the first movers around any emerging practice, whether it's wine production or perennials in pasture systems, want ways to connect to people doing things differently. Maybe there needs to be something for the managers, something for the on-ground practitioners, and something for the first movers stretching the boundaries and inventing new practice.

The role of agency and networks in agric
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