In a recent review of adoption of conservation practices by rural landholder, my co-authors and I broke down the factors that influence adoption into three groups: (a) social, cultural and personal factors; (b) features of a practice that influence its relative advantage; and (c) features of a practice that influence its trialability. These different groups of factors tend to come into play at different times in the adoption and learning process.
In the enormous literature on adoption of technologies, researchers have identified a huge list of factors that influence potential adopters, at least sometimes. In reviews and discussions of this literature, one often sees fairly unstructured lists of key factors. However, in my view it really helps to organise these factors into three groups:
(a) social, cultural and personal factors (e.g. peer pressure, government awareness-raising programs, attitude of the potential adopter towards risk);
(b) features of a practice that influence its relative advantage (i.e. its contribution to achievement of the adopter’s goals, such as profitability or environmental benefits); and
(c) features of a practice that influence its trialability (e.g. the ease of observing its performance in a trial).
In Pannell et al. (2006) we provide many examples of factors under each of these three headings.
Recognising these three groups of factors helps us think about the adoption process in a more systematic way. For example, in my judgment, the three factor groups tend to vary in their influence at different phases of the adoption and learning process.
What do I mean by “phases”? The adoption process can be broken down into phases as follows.
(i) Awareness of the problem or opportunity: In this context, ‘awareness’ means not just awareness that an innovation exists, but that it is potentially of practical relevance to the landholder.
(ii) Non-trial evaluation: Reaching stage (i), the point of awareness, is a trigger that prompts the landholder to begin noting and collecting information about the innovation in order to inform the decision about whether or not to go to the next step of trialing the innovation.
(iii) Trial evaluation: Trials contribute substantially to both the decision making and skill development aspects of the learning process.
(iv) Adoption: Depending on the trial results, use of the innovation may be scaled up.
(v) Review and modification.
(vi) Non-adoption or dis-adoption:
There is little firm evidence of how the above three groups of factors, (a), (b) and (c), vary in importance in the various phases, (i) to (vi), but in my judgment, the table below provides a reasonable indication. Three crosses indicates that a factor group is the decisive one during that phase.
|Social, cultural, personal factors||Relative advantage of the practice||Trialability of the practice|
|Review and modification||x||xxx||x|
|Non- or dis-adoptionü||x||xxx|
In general, social factors are most important in the early phases, but as the landholder gains personal experience through trialing the practice, its perceived relative advantage becomes more important. Put simply, before they have experience, landholders have to rely on what others tell them, but after experience is gained, this experience becomes more important than outside advice.
This schema suggests that the trial-evaluation phase is the most complex, in that all three groups of factors are strongly involved.
It also has implications about the potential contribution of government in the adoption process. Early in the process, the key role would be provision of information, education and other facets of “extension” in order to raise awareness and assist in evaluation. Demonstrations of field trials may be part of that, and would be most effective if the practice is highly trialable.
Later in the process, when relative advantage is decisive, extension probably plays little role. However, governments may still have an influence at this stage by virtue of its activities years earlier, when the practice or technology was being developed. In agriculture, most of the research is publicly funded and undertaken in public organisations, so the choices that these funders and research providers make about which technologies and practices to develop (and their specific characteristics that affect relative advantage) eventually become the crucial drivers of adoption. It highlights the need for research funders and research providers to pay close attention to the adoptability of their technologies during the research process.
Participatory research, bringing together researchers and potential adopters, can be an effective way of injecting “adoptability” thinking into the research process at a certain point. Ideally, though, adoptability should also be considered right at the start of the research process, before there is yet a technology available to trial, which is normally when participatory approaches start to be used.
Perhaps there is scope to involve practitioners more in discussions at those very early stages of the research, although in my experience this has not worked particularly well. What has worked well is the use of detailed economic modelling to consider alternative research directions, providing information about the economic aspects of relative advantage (e.g., Pannell, 1999).
David Pannell, The University of Western Australia
Pannell, D.J. (1999). On the estimation of on-farm benefits of agricultural research, Agricultural Systems 61(2): 123-134. Full paper (61 K)
Pannell, D.J., Marshall, G.R., Barr, N., Curtis, A., Vanclay, F. and Wilkinson, R. (2006). Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(11): 1407-1424.
If you or your organisation subscribes to the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture you can access the paper at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/72/paper/EA05037.htm (or non-subscribers can buy a copy on-line for A$25). Otherwise, email David.Pannell@uwa.edu.au to ask for a copy.