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Finding out what the client wants and giving it to them

Wendy McLeish1, Bob Armstrong2, Geoffrey Knights3

Agency for Food and Fibre Sciences (Sheep and Wool), Department of Primary Industries, Queensland
PO Box 102, Toowoomba Qld 4350, 2Locked Bag No. 4, Moorooka, Qld 4105, 3PO Box 310, St George Qld 4487


In 1998 a number of factors that were impeding Queensland producers from reducing their reliance on pesticides for managing blowflies and lice were identified. Many of these related to on-farm management, but producers also nominated conflicting and poorly targeted information as contributing to the problem. Based on this understanding of producers’ needs a strategy was developed for the publication of a new product that would meet the criteria of relevant, reliable, concise, user-friendly information on key topics. The product would provide all of the core information that was most needed and regularly sought by producers and advisers. A new approach was taken to the writing of the material, moving away from a traditional, authoritative style to a more communicative style. The aim was to develop strategies that would gradually build producer’s knowledge and confidence through simple but effective communication of practical integrated management practices. This paper describes the approach taken to the generation and presentation of a publication that sets a new standard in the provision of information to the Queensland wool industry.


In response to global, government and wool industry concerns regarding the effects on the environment and human health of pesticides and residues on wool (Russell 1994; Pattinson 1995; Shaw 1997), the Queensland Government in consultation with the state peak industry body Agforce determined this to be a priority issue. In 1995 they formed the Wool Industry Chemical Residue Committee (WICRC) with the purpose of reducing pesticide residues on the Queensland wool clip. Significant resources were directed towards the development and delivery of extension activities that aimed to encourage and support producers in reducing pesticide use and residue levels on wool.

The Department of Primary Industries, Queensland had resolved to take an integrated pest management approach to its research, development and extension activities. While there had been many attempts at promoting non-chemical management and strategic chemical intervention practices in the past, these were ad hoc and lacked focus. Also, it was six or seven years since blowflies and lice extension material had been generated and the pesticide residue issue had achieved prominence in the meantime.

Market research conducted for the International Wool Secretariat by Monash University (O’Keefe and Gray, 1996) showed that most producers did not have detailed knowledge of the on-farm practices that led to high pesticide residues on wool. Most producers wanted detailed solutions to the problem of pesticide treatments and residues on wool. However, previously published information products were judged to be poorly targeted and irrelevant.

To ensure that Queensland extension products and programs were relevant and effective, the department decided to conduct market research to determine Queensland producers’ awareness and knowledge of the residue issue and their needs in relation to blowfly and lice management. A series of discussion days on maximising parasite control while minimising pesticide residues on wool was conducted in March 1998 and was attended by 257, or 10 per cent, of the state’s sheep and wool producers. A total of 22 discussion days were held in centres selected so that all producers in Queensland’s sheep districts could participate.

Producers who attended the days readily acknowledged that improvements in their management would contribute to solving problems related to parasite control and pesticide use. However they said that one of the factors preventing them from making these improvements was conflicting, poorly targeted information. They believed that more relevant, better-targeted information was a solution to the problem of residues on wool (McLeish et al, 2001). The days also revealed a misalignment between extension officers’ and producers’ perception of information being delivered to industry. On the one hand staff believed producers had received sufficient information, yet producers felt their needs had not been adequately or appropriately met.

The shortcomings of previous publications were also revealed in qualitative market research conducted for the department (Anon 1997, Olsen 1998), which included the following recommendations for the improved presentation and distribution of information products:

  • Producers wanted reliable, concise, user-friendly information on key issues.
  • Written information was judged on the quality of the data provided for the reader to make their own judgement.
  • Producers responded best to simple, short bursts of information that clearly stated the point of the communication.
  • Producers needed help to manage and integrate information in a way that would improve their own results.

An information extension activity, known as Sheeplink, was developed that aimed to solve these problems and meet producers’ needs for information on managing blowflies and lice and minimising pesticide residues on wool. The output is a comprehensive, user-friendly information manual that provides a cognitive view of decision making and strategies. It acts as a reference manual to help advisers give consistent advice to producers. The activity effectively utilised available resources and the publication builds on the department’s integrated parasite management (IPM) activities.


The process the Sheeplink activity followed addressed two key problems. Firstly, producers' need for better quality information, which is described above and secondly the ineffective approach taken by extension staff to technology transfer. Both of these problems were clearly identified at the discussion days. A number of tools and techniques for information delivery were considered and a print-based information manual was selected as best meeting the information needs of producers at the time.

The first task was the formation of an activity team that incorporated the desired mix of interpersonal skills, technical skills and experience. Critical to the success of the project was their ability and willingness to adopt a new approach to writing and presenting information. The team that was formed was interdisciplinary, consisting of a communications officer with experience in advertising and publishing, and an extension specialist and veterinary scientist specialising in sheep and wool production. The team performed multiple roles, with the extension specialist filling the role of team leader, the communications specialist coordinating the activity and the veterinary specialist providing in depth technical expertise and links to national industry networks.

To formalise their commitment to changing the way previous publications had been written and presented so as to meet client needs, the activity team developed a set of principles. These included:

  • Focus on the core information that is most needed and regularly sought by clients.
  • Present information in line with how it has been sought.
  • Package information into sections that make access and information retrieval easy.
  • Operate the activity under quality management to guarantee product quality and integrity.

DPI’s Agrilink concept, which had evolved from research that showed existing information lacked completeness, quality, easy access and regular updating, was adopted as the model on which to base the publication. Agrilink is based on the principle that if information is to be effectively used it needs to be presented in the way farmers actually seek and use it (Noel Vock 1999, pers com).

To provide context to the gathering and sorting of information, a framework for the content of the publication was developed. The sections were: industry situation; common questions; management program; key issues; problem solver; contacts and references; glossary; and index. This framework met the principles of presenting information in line with how it had been sought and making access and information retrieval easy.

Early drafts of the text were compiled using a combination of face to face meetings, e-mail and independent work. Initially, the activity team invited contributions from other departmental staff (extension and research) as well as producer members of the WICRC. They were asked to supply their ‘three most commonly asked questions’, which were collated and prioritised to form the basis for the 'common questions' and 'problem solver' sections. The extension and research officers were also required to contribute technical content appropriate to their areas of expertise. The activity team provided guidelines for authoring and presentation to aid in the collation of these contributions, which formed the first draft of the manual, principally the 'industry situation' and 'key issues' sections. This draft was reviewed at a workshop held over one and a half days and attended by research and extension staff, two woolgrowers and a rural merchandiser. The 'management program' and 'common questions' sections were drafted at this workshop.

The activity team found that the greatest progress was achieved at face to face meetings over two to three days. It meant they could focus on the job at hand without distractions, there was a schedule to follow and tasks to be completed, and each meeting concluded with an action list. Setting the next meeting date and venue at the current meeting imposed discipline. Between meetings the communication officer edited each draft and the technical authors researched and generated additional information. This pattern of researching, writing, editing and reviewing was repeated up to six times for each section of the manual over a two-year period and generated information of a high quality.

The face to face nature of the meetings also enabled team members to challenge ideas and content and resolve issues on the spot. This proved essential in adhering to the principle of providing core information that was most needed and regularly sought by clients. In addition, the change from an authoritative, prescriptive writing style to a more communicative style was gradual and became more and more evident with each re-writing of the draft sections.

The technical authors had to be vigilant that they did not lapse into the traditional style of writing with which they were more familiar. For example, on occasions when the technical authors worked on the draft without the communication officer present, some of those sections had to extensively re-written at a later date to ensure a consistent style was followed. Similarly, when the draft was externally edited to Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS) standards, the editor questioned and challenged content if it did not make sense or was not concise. The technical authors believe that by later drafts their analytical and writing skills had greatly improved and less substantial editing by the communication officer was required.

The communication officer fulfilled a devil's advocate role, constantly questioning what should and should not be include and digging deeper to clarify how, when, where and, in particular, why. Because the communication officer and external editor did not have a technical background they were able to question what was important, why it was important, what would make a difference on-farm and ensure it was presented so that a lay person could understand it.

In line with the team's principle of operating the activity under quality management to guarantee product quality and integrity, two scientists external to the department were contracted to conduct a technical review of the manual. As previously mentioned, an external editor reviewed the manual both prior to, and post, the technical reviews. One of the extension officers who had contributed to the first draft also reviewed the manual and a producer member of the WICRC was given the opportunity. A professional design firm was contracted to design and print the manual, which was completed according to the department’s quality assurance procedures.


The Sheeplink activity has resulted in a high quality, user-friendly information manual titled Blowflies and lice information manual: a practical approach to producing low residue wool. The manual takes the reader step-by-step through best practice management of blowflies and lice following an IPM approach to reducing pesticide use and pesticide residues on wool. Information is presented in simple, short bursts that clearly state the point of the communication. The data and information has been written is such a way as to help producers read, analyse, understand and apply improvements to the management of their enterprise.

Although written for a Queensland audience, the manual has generated widespread interest and endorsement from interstate government and commercial organisations. This support reflects the quality of information contained in the manual and the manner that it has been presented. There has been a positive response from producers to the professional appearance of the manual and the spiral bound format with thumb tab dividers.


The Sheeplink activity was developed with the objective of ensuring producers had easy access to effective and beneficial information on ecto-parasite management to reduce pesticide residues on wool. The principles of continuous improvement (plan, act, observe, reflect) were central to the writing of the manual, and have resulted in a decision tool that encourages the development of a long-term integrated parasite management plan. In the places where the manual does play a ‘trouble-shooting’ role in response to a problem it also takes a planning approach to integrating management strategies. The manual facilitates problem and opportunity identification and introduces strategies for acting on them according to IPM principles.

To combat the authoritative style of a previous publications, high priority was placed on respecting and incorporating producers’ views, knowledge and needs. This required that the authors write the manual in plain English, avoid jargon and avoid treating the information as a prescription or final solution. The manual acknowledges situational and seasonal variables and differences between regions with particular climatic and property features. It allows the reader to tailor the information to a particular property system, history, scale and management. Voluntary changes that can be made and sustained by producers are discussed; changes are not imposed under threat or duress. New approaches and ideas are supported by relevant basic information to ensure a sound understanding of the topic.

The Agrilink concept that the capture of information is based on the premise that ‘80 per cent of what is worth knowing is contained in 20 per cent of the information’ informed the inclusion and exclusion of much of the content. Technical facts and principles that apply anywhere anytime sit side-by-side with management scenarios and options for addressing them. This sort of information is needed to inform the total decision making process.

Producers and advisers are under high time pressure and they only have patience for products that can provide the information they are looking for quickly and easily. The manual is structured around eight sections that stand-alone, yet are complementary. The information is presented in simple, short bursts that clearly state the point. Links are provided to other sections in the manual via information boxes in the page margins, which demonstrate how the information has been integrated and serve to highlight important or note-worthy information. An index further assists the reader to access relevant information quickly.

Other features of the manual include a glossary, reference list and contacts list. A number of definitions in the glossary are specific to the context in which the term has been used in the manual. The reference list is not exhaustive, but consists of those that the authors recommend. The contact list is designed to be comprehensive, however the authors acknowledge that it will be out of date from the time of publication. While this is unavoidable the list does provide a constructive overview of the stakeholders in this area.

The information is presented in a spiral bound format because it is a practical and cost effective way of including a thumb index, it allows the manual to lay flat when in use and it positions the manual with a slightly different image to a book. A pocket on the inside of the front cover holds Handy Guide inserts and allows users to store their own information. The two Handy Guides are practical tools that can be personalised to suit individual situations and utilised as wall charts.

The information gathering, writing and review process followed in the development of the manual was extensive and delivered a number of valuable lessons along the way. For example, the first draft was very large and unwieldy and it wasn’t until the third and fourth drafts that the content started making sense. Problems with the first two drafts included: duplication of information; conflicting styles; knowledge gaps; unsubstantiated statements; ‘motherhood’ statements; and misalignment with the principles of the activity. The authors operated under the premise that ‘good writing is rewriting’ and devoted themselves to rigorously reviewing and editing the material and researching and generating new information. Content quality and integrity was a priority and this included two editorial reviews, two technical reviews and a field officer review.

Early in the development process it became clear that there were significant differences between the planned format and writing style of the manual and the style that the technical authors were accustomed to. Traditional styles had to be set aside to allow a new style to emerge. This transition occurred gradually, and over an 18-month period six or more drafts were completed for each major section. While the format of the manual did not change, the content of the final draft bore little resemblance to the first draft. Whereas the first draft was essentially a compilation of technical papers, the final draft had integrated the information in such a way that the producer would be able to relate it to their on farm practices. It must be acknowledged that the technical authors had 65 years experience between them, however both responded positively to the challenge of changing their writing style.

The Sheeplink activity took three and a half years from the initial idea to publication of the manual. In that time it survived three structural changes to the organisation. However, one of the constants has been government policy and its commitment to enabling industry to be nationally and internationally competitive through achieving responsible pesticide use and residue control. The other important constant was the activity team itself. The team was successful because of its interdisciplinary nature, the interpersonal skills of the members and the experience and expertise they brought to the activity.

An interesting outcome of the Sheeplink activity and the strategic approach taken to its development was the impact that it had on all of the information activities undertaken as part of the IPM project. An ad hoc approach to information production was no longer appropriate or endorsed. Along with the results of the discussion days, the activity created a new context in which to examine producers’ information needs and the best methods to address them. For example, we responded to producer demand for user-friendly information on pesticide products with a publication titled Quick guide to commonly used treatments for lice and blowflies; a double-sided A4 sheet that was written from a producer’s point of view. The publication was very well received and widely endorsed by producers and chemical suppliers and the concept has been extended to internal parasites and other livestock industries.


Pesticide residue on wool has been recognised throughout the Australian wool industry as a priority issue since the early 1990s. Since then resources totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars have been directed towards providing producers and their advisers with information on reducing residues. In Queensland in 1998 extension of integrated parasite management was at a turning point. Producers had told us that they needed more relevant, better-targeted information on parasite management, pesticide use and residues on wool. Market research confirmed these findings and provided additional pointers for the improved presentation of information products. The Sheeplink activity was developed in response to these forces.

To be successful however, the Sheeplink activity needed to overcome the authoritative, prescriptive approach of previous publications and present information in a way that producers would respond positively to. The Sheeplink manual, which is based on the department’s Agrilink concept, introduces strategies for solving problems and identifying opportunities according to IPM principles. The principles of continuous improvement applied to the development and the writing of the manual resulted in a publication that satisfies the objectives of the activity team and the needs of its clients. It is professionally presented and provides clients with practical, relevant management strategies.


  1. Anon (1997) ‘Project Fleece’ Market research report for the Department of Primary Industries Sheep and Wool Institute, Andersen Scott Fagg Pty Ltd, Toowoomba.
  2. Dunlop, L. & Le Feuvre, A. (1998) Parasite control and chemical residue discussion days, Department of Primary Industries, Queensland, Brisbane.
  3. McLeish, W., Armstrong, B. & Knights, G. (2001) Queensland producers’ needs in relation to blowfly and louse control. In: ‘Flies and lice IPM Control Strategies (FLICS)’ conference 2001, Launceston, Tasmania.
  4. O’Keefe, M. & Gray, S. (1996) Market research into producer attitudes on chemical residues in wool, Report to Russell Pattinson, International Wool Secretariat, Agribusiness Research Unit, Monash University.
  5. Olsen, M. (1998) Communication research: Producer and staff perceptions, Durham, Kelly & Olsen, Brisbane.
  6. Pattinson, R. (1995) The marketing consequences of pesticide residues in wool and the results of the national residue monitoring program, In ‘Proceedings of the Australian Sheep Veterinary Society’ Melbourne (Ed. J Cox) pp 102–105, (Australian Sheep Veterinary Society, Indooroopilly, Qld.).
  7. Russell, I. (1994) Pesticides in wool: downstream consequences, Wool Technology and Sheep Breeding, 42, 344–49.
  8. Shaw T (1997) Wool as a ‘clean green’ fibre: the implications of pesticide residues in wool — a challenge for regulatory authorities, drug companies, wool processors, veterinarians and farmers. In ‘Proceedings of the 4th international congress for sheep veterinarians’ Armidale, University of New England, Publisher Australian Sheep Veterinary Society (Ed. MB Allworth) pp 98–105, (Australian Sheep Veterinary Society, Indooroopilly, Qld).

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