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The value of learning

AME Management: Learning business management can contribute to self-esteem and confidence

Farmer Leaning on a Gate in a Paddock

Farmers sometimes wonder whether additional courses and learning are of great value after taking into account course fees, travel, sometimes hotels, and always valuable time away from your business. Peer pressure can add to the psychological cost if the destinations are at all interesting or exotic. Neighbours may think you are simply taking a tax-deductible break that allows you to party and tour for a few days.

So, is there a payoff from pursuing new learning opportunities, whether they be for management, production, leadership or other pursuits that can help build your own personal or your farm’s capacity?

Some evidence

Late in 2015, IPSOS published the results of interviews with 604 farms in its report Dollars and Sense. The intent of the survey was to assess whether there is a provable correlation between management practices and farm profitability. Using gross margin as a representative measure of profitability, they identified a series of potential practices and then undertook a statistical analysis to try to find that correlation.

Interestingly, IPSOS found seven practices that contribute positively to gross farm margin. And most interestingly, the No. 1 factor (i.e. the one with the highest correlation to gross margin) is “Propensity to Continuously Learn.”

Five of the other six are all practices that can be enhanced by learning programs.

This underlines a fundamental argument in one of the world’s best-selling books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. The seventh habit is “Sharpening the Saw” by continuously improving everything you do, always.

It also supports a 2014 study we at Agri-Food Management Excellence (AME) undertook with AME program alumni to identify if there was an economic impact to their businesses resulting directly from taking our Canadian Total Excellence in Agriculture Management (CTEAM) program.

Were we helping them make a difference? The answer was yes, as 82 per cent of participants indicated a return on investment (ROI) from the course greater than 10 per cent, with 50 per cent achieving a ROI greater than 20 per cent.

These specific economic benefits came from applying what farmers learned at CTEAM to their farm businesses, and they apply only to CTEAM. However, there are other programs such as TEPAP, a Texas A & M management program that focuses on learning management principles from a 40,000-foot viewpoint, and they may also contribute significantly to one’s business growth.

Some potential benefits

Continuous learning throughout your life has been documented as important, both personally and professionally, for a number of reasons. If you begin to understand it is an investment in yourself and your business, you will also come to consider the costs not as an expense, but rather an investment in what you’re wanting to accomplish in your personal and business lives.

And really, should you care what the neighbour thinks?

What are the benefits to your business that will convince you to make the investment and take the time for those learning opportunities?

Continuous learning has several benefits:

  • Learning from other successful managers: Attending seminars, workshops, or courses opens the door to learning beyond the event itself. A lot of learning takes place through all the conversations with others throughout the day.
  • Increasing your network: Those people you meet at learning events can become part of your network afterward. They come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences which can offer ongoing perspectives and wisdom. Listening to others’ perspectives can expand your knowledge and allow you to see things from another point of view.
  • Focus for your operation: Working on your business while working in your business is a difficult task when you are also juggling all the day-to-day responsibilities. Stepping away from daily operations whether for a day or a few days to attend a learning opportunity will provide you the time to focus on your business without these distractions.
  • Confidence: Learning business management also contributes to self-esteem and confidence. It’s not just about the gut instinct you have about changing a significant element of your business, but confirming it through learned principles and analysis and feeling confident in that decision. Our data concluded 91 per cent of CTEAM alumni reported a moderate or significant benefit in confidence in their operation and their ability to manage as a result of taking the management course.

All of the foregoing are benefits that come up over and over from people who have taken courses like CTEAM, TEPAP and some of the leadership programs. The terms “life changing” and “business changing” are used over and over, not just because of the material learned in the classroom, but because of the learning outside of the classes.

Agriculture today is a complex industry which changes rapidly, necessitating the need for better farm management skills and knowledge. The increased skill development and gained knowledge are critical to positively influencing financial performance. Increased skills and knowledge are critical elements that can contribute to individual businesses and the industry as a whole.

This isn’t about promoting any specific learning program, whether an in-depth comprehensive program or a smaller program offered locally; it’s about encouraging people to take the opportunities out there to build their skills and knowledge through learning opportunities, whatever they are.

Many of us are set in our ways, but giving ourselves a chance to listen to others opens the doors to other ideas and considerations, which often has us change our thinking on what used to seem the right thing to do.

Heather Broughton and Larry Martin are the principals of Agri-Food Management Excellence and are two of the instructors in AME’s Canadian Total Excellence in Agriculture Management program.

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