News

Reforms urged in ‘constructively critical’ report on MLA R&D performance

James Nason, 02/08/2013

MLA managing director, Scott Hansen An independent review has recommended major changes to Meat & Livestock Australia’s systems for selecting, funding and managing on-farm research and development projects if the organisation is to help deliver urgently needed technological advances for Australia’s livestock industry.

The review report was handed to MLA in June but has not yet been released publicly, with the MLA board due to discuss its findings at a meeting in Brisbane next week, while peak industry councils will also meet to discuss it later this month.

However, a copy of the report seen by Beef Central contains 11 recommendations (listed in full below) which include the need for MLA to take a stronger leadership role in national beef and sheepmeat RD&E strategies, to adopt a longer-term major project investment process, to adopt a formal process of stakeholder engagement and develop a ‘more inclusive culture’ within the research fraternity, and to move to an annual project cycle.

MLA managing director Scott Hansen confirmed to Beef Central yesterday that the review was commissioned by MLA management earlier this year to provide an independent assessment of MLA’s Livestock Production Innovation R&D investment systems and to recommend areas for improvement.

He told Beef Central yesterday that recent changes to the red meat research landscape, including the cessation of major long term investment strategies and partnerships such as the Beef Cooperative Research Centre, and an ongoing reduction in state-based research capabilities, had motivated the timing of the review.

MLA, with input from peak councils, selected a panel of six independent research experts to conduct the review, comprising Professor Tim Reeves, Dr David Band, Professor Allan Bell, North Australia Beef Research Council chair Ralph Shannon, Professor Kevin Smith and Dr Paul Wood.

The reviewers conducted interviews with more than 70 stakeholders across the research and development community in order to benchmark MLA’s performance against similar R&D providers in other industries, both in Australia and overseas, and to identify areas for improvement.

They state that existing systems will not help MLA’s Livestock Production Innovation business unit to deliver the technological advances the industry urgently needs in the foreseeable future.

“Equally, the status quo will not support the retention of key research capacity in partner organisations over the coming decade, and beyond,” the report states.

“Major changes are therefore required if MLA/LPI is to effectively adapt to its new and evolving operating environment and deliver the beneficial impacts that industry urgently requires to enhance competitiveness, productivity and profitability.”

The report provides a frank and at times confronting assessment of MLA’s existing processes.

For example, stakeholder feedback cited by the reviewers includes the statement that “almost unanimously, MLA/LPI’s major stakeholders and R&D partners stated (that) the policy framework for MLA/LPI investment was unclear and did not provide a sound basis for effective research collaboration and future planning”.

The same section refers to “widespread and substantial dissatisfaction with the current MLA LPI processes for selecting and approving projects including long time lags; lack of transparency; no apparent connection between project calls and larger, more strategic thrusts such as the National Feedbase plan; and widespread criticism of the perceived, heavy-handed ‘gatekeeper’ role of MLA/LPI Program Managers. (It is the opinion of the Review Team that the current investment system of ‘random’ project calls and lack of a clear strategy  has exacerbated this strongly perceived ‘overstepping’ of their custodial role, as all LPI Managers are well known for their dedication, expertise and ‘great passion’ for the industry that they serve).”

The existence of the report has sparked behind-the-scenes interest for several weeks as some in the cattle industry and research community await release of its findings.

Mr Hansen said the review was conducted for MLA management and it would be up to the MLA board to decide whether to release it publicly after its meeting next week. All stakeholders were still yet to be advised of the report’s content, and MLA believed it was not appropriate to release its findings publicly until that had happened.

There have also been rumours that MLA has not been happy with the reviewer’s findings, and that approaches were made by MLA to ask the reviewers to adjust or rewrite their findings.

The length of time that has transpired since the panel supplied its report in early June, and without its release to public scrutiny, has perhaps further fuelled speculation about its content and MLA’s response to it.

When asked about the claims by Beef Central, Mr Hansen said that MLA had provided additional information to the panel, such as in response to a statement by the reviewers that MLA did not have a succession plan in place for staffing, MLA had advised the reviewers that it did have a succession plan, but had not asked the reviewers to change their recommendations and they had not rewritten any part of it.

He told Beef Central that MLA had asked the reviewers to identify where its weaknesses were and where it could improve, and was happy with the report the panel had provided.

“We haven’t asked them to tell us what a good job we’re doing, we have asked them to identify what the deficiencies are and what should we be doing to achieve international best practice,” he said.

“We certainly don’t see (the report) as negative, we see it as telling us a whole range of things that we can do to improve and that is why we commissioned the report.”

A number of the recommendations outlined have already been implemented or planned for.

He said MLA was aware that some people would try to spread misinformation about its processes, which is why MLA had appointed a totally independent panel of reviewers of high standing in the scientific community to review its processes.

“They have done a good job, they have gone out and done what they were asked to do in terms of looking at what other agencies do and tell us what seems to be working for others and what is isn’t, and we can now look at how that applies to us.

“This is also why we have asked the reviewers themselves to talk directly to Cattle Council of Australia and the Sheepmeat Council of Australia without our involvement which they will be doing in the next two to three weeks.”

Cattle Council of Australia chief executive officer Jed Matz said the council will be briefed by the review panel at its next council meeting at the end of August and will discuss the recommendations and content of the report at that meeting.

“Until we have had time to fully consider the report and its recommendations we will not be making any comment,” he said.


RECOMMENDATIONS

Strategy

1. MLA should publicly and unambiguously take ‘ownership’ of the National RD&E Strategies for Beef Production and Sheep Meat Production (the ‘red meat strategies’) Including leadership of their ongoing review and revision of strategic priorities, and of the implementation of these Strategies in partnership with its co-investors in RDE. The research related aspects of MISP, BISP and SISP should also be included. 

Stakeholder Engagement and Project Selection

2. MLA/LPI should adopt a formal process for stakeholder engagement in setting priorities, implementation of strategy and two-way industry communication, with the following elements:

– Establish Advisory Panels of credible, experienced industry leaders and other stakeholders that would recognise regional (eg north, south) and industry  beef, sheep meat) diversity across the red meat industries

Panels would:

  • Identify and monitor key issues of national and regional importance;
  • Identify, develop and recommend on RD&E investment priorities and project selection via LPI to the MLA Board;
  • Interact with producer groups and other research advisory committees to exchange information;
  • keep industry peak bodies, producers and advisors informed about MLA’s strategic direction, investment portfolio and research projects;
  • Assist MLA managers in monitoring the effectiveness of the investment portfolio.

3. Given the key role of extension agents in the research continuum, from engaging stakeholders, to advising research priorities, and brokering knowledge from R&D, MLA/LPI should reconsider the move of its extension capacity to the communications area.

Portfolio Balance and Management

4. MLA/LPI should focus a substantial proportion of its R&D portfolio on fewer, larger projects through strategic partnerships (including longer term funding arrangements to support capacity building and maintenance) with appropriate organisations that would change the portfolio balance in favour of higher-risk, longer-term research and include commitment to capability development and maintenance.

5. To complement the establishment of these larger strategic partnerships and to help retain responsiveness and agility, MLA/LPI should adopt a clearly-defined and well-publicised annual cycle for setting priorities ? including industry input ? and solicitation, evaluation, selection and funding of projects, that clearly address aspects of the ‘red meat 11 strategies’. A small portion of funding should also be set aside to deal with emergencies and other contingencies.

6. MLA/LPI should reduce its reliance on formal ex ante BCA for initial project evaluation and selection and increase its reliance on the experience and judgement of credible industry stakeholders, including the Panel system, and MLA/LPI senior staff.

International Collaboration

7. MLA/LPI should develop and implement a policy on strategic engagement with selected international R&D agencies with expertise that complements the capability of Australian research providers in order to leverage the best global research capacity onto the challenges and opportunities for the Australian red meat industry.

Private Sector Collaboration

8. MLA/LPI should develop a proactive plan to engage with commercial companies within Australia and overseas to ensure that relevant new technologies in the red meat sector are available to Australian producers.

Capability and Capacity Development

9. MLA/LPI urgently needs to develop a more inclusive culture that is also more outward looking and cognisant of the needs and concerns of all of its key stakeholders, including producers and all research partners whether from CSIRO, other national  organisations, State-based agencies, universities or the private sector.  This necessary change will be facilitated by:

  • Adoption of a contemporary best-practice performance management system that includes 540 analyses – involving key external stakeholders – as part of employee evaluation. This is seen as key to supporting the changed behaviours requiredm ovement to a cascading approach to objectives- setting and performance management that also reflects the cultural changes necessary for new  approaches and directions
  • Development of  a thorough understanding within MLA that the company’s values and  business objectives must be the key drivers  of any new PMS
  • MLA’s approach to employee development achieving a greater balance between self?identified needs and the means to meet them; and the capability needs of the company

10. MLA should adopt contemporary best practice in succession planning, for which the key driver should be the company’s business objectives.

11.  MLA should  consider adopting a  robust approach to 'Thought Leadership'. Many leading professional services firms are exemplars in this area. The new knowledge management system provides the ideal platform for enabling MLA to capture, codify and disseminate its Thought Leadership.

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