Monthly Archives: July 2009

From Newspapers to Nichepapers

For some time, I’ve been feeling a vague sense of guilt over the direction our organization’s online blogs have taken.  By strict definition they’re no longer blogs but online news releases and feature stories.

It’s my fault as much as anybody else’s. Roughly five years ago, when I started Extension Daily, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s first weblog, I vowed to pattern my material after one of the grand marshals of blogging, Andrew Sullivan.  A big chunk of my blogs was gleaned from sources that inevitably complemented Extension-related material but that typically quoted experts far removed from Extension- or even land grant university-related work.  

My experiment with true-blue blogging ended up being short-lived. I suppose my concerns about deviating too far from standard Extension practices prompted a return to the older approach of concentrating on longer, feature-type information, replete with quotes from our subject-matter experts.

And I’m beginning to regret it. And thanks to an excellent article on which I stumbled entirely by accident this morning, my regrets are confirmed.  

Harvard Business Publishing blogger Umair Haque openly challenges this approach. His piece, titled The Nichepaper Manifesto, targets conventional newspapers, but what he says aptly applies to what I’m doing – or not doing.

Haque contends that the 20th century news that distinguishes old-line newspapers isn’t fit for the 21st century.

I think he’s right.

It is unfit because it fails to educate, enlighten and inform, Haque contends.

On the other hand, nichepapers are succeeding because “they have built a profound mastery of a tightly defined domain — finance, politics, even entertainment — and offer audiences deep, unwavering knowledge of it.”

They’re succeeding because they are built on rules that comport more closely with 21st century needs. 

Instead of merely reporting news, nichepapers impart knowledge, lasting meaningful knowledge.   

Nichepapers also emphasizes dialogue with readers — what Haque describes as commentage instead of the one-way commentary that distinguished conventional newspapers.  This commentage enables readers to “fill gaps, plug holes, and thicken the foundations of knowledge.”

Haque especially hits close to home with this observation: 

Many newspapers have comments — so what? Almost none are having a dialogue with commenters — who are stuck in a twilight zone where they can only talk to one another.  Nichepapers, in contrast, are always having a deep dialogue with readers.

If the previous observation smarted, the following one qualifies as a belly punch:

Topics, not articles.  That’s why Nichepapers develop topics — instead of telling quickly-forgotten stories.  When Talking Points Memo exposed the Bush administration’s series of political motivated firings, it did so in a series of posts that let the story develop, surface, thicken and climax. Stories are for information — topics are for knowledge.

Ouch!  Yes, it smarts, but it doesn’t change the fact that Haque is spot on with his observations. 

 If there is a bottom line to be drawn from his comments, it’s that readers no longer seek news; rather, they demand specialized knowledge products.

That makes perfect sense to me.  In fact, after finishing Haque’s piece, the thought occurred to me that I enjoy the New York Times not because the masthead reads “New York Times” but because the online version carries specialized topics that relate to my work, especially its sections on health, books, education and technological trends.

Now, if I can just apply the same logic to my blogs.

How to Spark an Epidemic

Ever heard of William Dawes?  Chances are you haven’t.

Dawes attempted the same feat as Paul Revere on that fateful April night in 1775: He tried to warn his fellow colonists in the Massachusetts villages of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham of an impending British attack.

He failed miserably.  Why?  Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point, contends that Dawes, unlike Paul Revere, was not a connector.  A committed patriot?  Yes, undoubtedly so.  But a connector?  Not by a long shot.  Dawes may have been a decent enough man and a committed patriot, but as a sentinel of liberty — well, he appears to have failed miserably.  And he failed because he apparently lacked the social connections that Revere enjoyed in abundance.

Paul Revere:  The Connector’s Connector

Revere was the ultimate connector, someone who wore many hats and who, borrowing David Hackett Fischer’s apt phrase, possessed “an uncanny ability for being at the center of events.”

Just how central was Revere to the events of the day? Among his many public responsibilities, he served as an official in the city’s public market, as the municipal health officer and as a coroner for Suffolk County. In response to a ravaging fire that destroyed parts of Boston, he also organized the Massachusetts Fire Insurance Company.   

Revere was also one of only two men who served on five of the seven pro-revolutionary Whig organizations in Boston.  He acted as a vital conduit among all those revolutionary groups scattered along the seaboard between New Hampshire and Philadelphia.

Revere was a classic connector because he knew how to bring people together.

Using extraordinary ability, he sparked a social epidemic that changed the course of human history.  Poor Dawes, by contrast, remains only a curious historical footnote.

Another Critical Element: Mavens

Not surprising, Gladwell believes that connectors such as Revere typically play critical roles in the making of social epidemics. But they are only one factor.  Equally important are the mavens. 

Maven is a Yiddish word for someone who possesses vast knowledge.  Gladwell characterizes them as people who are “interested and curious about everything.”  Mavens don’t just enjoy accumulating information: they also strive to help others by passing on this information.   They are the kind of people who not only read Consumer Reports but also write back to correct erroneous information.

People look to mavens as clearing houses of useful, critical information.  Like connectors, they help spark word-of-mouth epidemics, Gladwell says.

Equally essential are persuaders. They are the ones who typically provide the compelling arguments to convince us that the message or the product is worth the cost. In a manner of speaking, they help seal the deal, often providing the final impetus that tips the balance. 

Gladwell makes some strong arguments about the synergistic effects behind social epidemics.

We Cooperative Extension professionals and educators would do well to heed them.

For my perspective, this raises several questions.

First, aren’t all longstanding and successful Cooperative Extension educational programs essentially social epidemics that, for whatever reason, have been sustained for years, if not decades?  Granted, we seldom think of them this way, but aren’t they?

Likewise, don’t all of these programs reflect in some way the underlying effects of connectors, mavens and persuaders?

A Shining Example

Master Gardeners a prime example. I suspect the program has succeeded so spectacularly within the last couple of decades because it appeals to so many connectors, mavens and persuaders.  To put it another way, it simultaneously offers connector-, maven- and persuader-rich opportunities.

It is a people-oriented program tailored to connectors —people like Revere who possess an extraordinary ability to forge bonds with others.  Likewise, its subject matter is specialized enough to appeal to mavens.

Finally, enough influential people — persuaders — apparently have completed Master Gardeners with a strong enough impression to share their positive experiences with other people.

And that raises a final question: If what Gladwell contends is true — if all successful Extension programs begin as social epidemics sparked by connectors and spread by mavens and persuaders — shouldn’t all Cooperative Extension programs in the future be designed with these critical players in mind?

Who Says 4-H is Passe?

Maybe it’s a middle-aged thing, but as I age I spend more time reflecting on the people, things and events throughout my life that not only made me happy but that also have contributed to the person I’ve become.

Many of the deepest insights I’ve gained over the last quarter century have been through close association with other Cooperative Extension professionals, such as Dr. Ned Browning.

Ned regrettably left Alabama to take an administrative post at another state Extension headquarters while I was still a comparative greenhorn.

But he left a lasting impression. Aside from being a well-integrated person psychologically, he evinced a deep familiarity with many practical things —one that complemented the more abstract, academic knowledge he had acquired in the course of completing his doctoral work.

Over time, though, I learned that this ability to integrate practical with more abstract forms of knowledge seamlessly and in ways that benefitted people was one of the hallmarks of the Extension educator — working knowledge as I’ve come to call it.

A lot of Ned’s insights into balancing the practical with the more theoretical was acquired from the countless hours spent preparing for and competing in countless 4-H science demonstrations.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best seller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell makes a point that is often lost in this meritocratic, SAT-obsessed society: Smartness is only one component of success.  With it come important but far less tangible factors.

He cites Bill Gates as a shining example.  No doubt about it, Gates is one extremely smart cookie.  But in addition to smartness, he also secured another distinct advantage — as it turns out, one crucial advantage — that put him head and shoulders above many other smart contemporaries: immersion in what would become his lifetime passion and calling.

Way back in 1969, Gates became only one of a handful of grade-schoolers who got to do real-time programming on a main-frame computer located in the Seattle, WA, area where he lived.  The thousands of hours he logged over the next 7 years provided him with an intimate knowledge of programming that only a paltry few of his contemporaries managed to acquire.

In addition to putting him light years ahead of virtually every other kid on the planet harboring similar interests in computers, it also equipped him with incomparable advantages years later when he decided to drop out of Harvard and try his luck with software design.

Yes, luck certainly played a part in Gates’s subsequent success.  He was fortunate to have been born to wealthy, educated parents who helped foot some of the costs of these early endeavors.  Likewise, he was spent his childhood in a region of the country where cutting-edge computer research was taking place.

But it was the perspective he gained from deep immersion in real-time processing that put him head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries.

Consider for a moment the immense potential that is lost year after year, simply because children with similar abilities and passions are not afforded opportunities for immersion along with the deep insights this type of experience typically affords.

And that brings me back to 4-H.

We hear talk of youth development groups such as 4-H becoming passé.   Quite the contrary: Grassroots youth programs have a unique potential to provide children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with opportunities that will secure lifetime success and, in rare cases, achievements on par with those of Bill Gates.

And considering the quantum scientific and technological advances that followed his immersion experience, aren’t these investments worth the cost?

Design, Design, Design!

What if I told you to read one book this year for the sake of your — and your employer’s — survival?

I have read one such book.  As a matter of fact, I’ve read it twice, taking care the second time to write notes in the page margins.

As a matter of fact, I would — if I could — require every Cooperative Extension professional in the United States to read this book.  As I see it, the very survival our organizations depends on whether we heed the lessons outlined in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink.

If you are unwilling to read any further, I’ll summarize the basic theme of the book: Design!

To drive home the importance of this theme, I suggest that it be repeated as often as possible, almost like a Vedic mantra: Design! Design! Design!

So what accounts for the centrality of design in this emerging economy?  Pink cites three factors.

Abundance, Asia, Automation

In the past few decades, the global knowledge economy has produced something beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations of humanity: abundance — a dazzling cornucopia of products encompassing every size, description and function.

But there’s a deeper, more disturbing dimension to this.  In the United States, most of the knowledge jobs — the sort of high-paying, high-tech professions that that inspired earlier generations of Americans to slog through four-year engineering curricula and similar courses of study — are rapidly and inexorably being outsourced to Asia.   As Pink stresses, the reason stems from simple economics:  overseas engineers and other high-tech professionals can be paid less to do the same high-tech work.

He also cites a third factor. Within the last few years, engineers have achieved quantum leaps in processing capacity, which have resulted in a new generation of computers equipped to undertake many highly complex tasks.

Pink cites a small British company, Appligenics, which has created a new application capable of writing hundreds of lines of software in less than a second.  Moreover, the processing power of computers has advanced to such a degree that tasks that once required the assistance of skilled knowledge workers — medical diagnoses or legal assistance, for example — can now be handled on-line with a few clicks of a mouse.

As Pink observes, some 100 million people across the planet go online to access health and medical information via more than 23,000 medical sites.  Needless to say, this is changing the way physicians serve their patients.  Ditto for attorneys.

Pink describes these three forces as “abundance, Asia and automation.”

Right-Brained Thinking

So, what is a professional in the West to do to survive within this radically changed environment? For starters, cultivate the part of the brain that is seldom given the credit it is due: the right side.

Pink contends that as three forces — abundance, Asia, and automation — exert more influences across the planet, the curtain is rising on a new era in human history: the Conceptual Age.

What does this new era mean for U.S. workers?

Mere survival today depends on being able to do something that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that powerful computers can’t do faster, and that satisfies one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age.

This will involve incorporating a high-touch, high-concept approach into every product.  Likewise, workers will be judged by how well they are able “to create artistic and emotional beauty, to direct patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention.”

This will require ample amounts of creative ability associated with right-brain thinking — the reason why Pink predicts that the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) will ultimately replace the MBA as the professional credential of this new Conceptual Age.

Back to that word: design.

There is a lesson here for every professional, and especially those in Extension work.

In this Conceptual Age, no one can afford the luxury of winging it — of simply designing a mediocre educational product and assuming that since a certain brand is attached to it that people will use it.

Unless it incorporates Conceptual Age values — unless it’s high concept and high touch — it will be ignored for something else that fits the bill.

Yes, I know, back to that word again.

A Glance Backward, A Step Forward

Yes, I hear it all the time: Cooperative Extension faces some of the most challenging times in our history, and meeting these challenges will require us to look forward rather than backward.

Valid advice, to be sure.

But at least one milestone of Alabama Extension history deserves a backward glance.  This year marks the 50 anniversary of Alabama cotton scouting — a massive effort that has involved generations of agents, farmers and aspiring college graduates and  a chapter of Extension history that serves as one of the most fitting and moving testimonies to the genius that Cooperative Extension work was and continues to be.

Cotton scouting bespeaks the genius of Cooperative Extension work in so many ways: our peculiarly American penchant for improvisation and pragmatics; our willingness to take risks; our readiness to work across organizational and disciplinary boundaries when the need arises; and our ability to bring research-based knowledge to bear over long stretches of time on what initially seem like intractable problems.

And an intractable problem this was: Southern farmers had been up against the recalcitrant boll weevil for decades — an effort that required the application of a virtual arsenal of pesticides, which was expensive and, to the growing dismay of researchers, possibly harmful to the environment.

But researchers had also discovered that farmers could reduce the levels of pesticide use through well-timed applications.

The challenge was not only to drive this important new insight home to cotton producers but also to develop a system by which they could determine the best times to apply these chemicals.

This required careful monitoring of fields to determine when post-populations had attained levels that required treatment.   

Still, the challenged remained how — how to find the time to monitor cotton fields for insect infestation when farmers faced even more pressing demands.

University of Arkansas educators eventually came up with an almost deceptively simple concept, which came to be known as cotton scouting.  

Working with their local county Extension agent, cotton growers would pool their resources to hire someone to monitor their fields through the cotton season.  In the vast majority of cases, these monitors – cotton scouts as they were later called — turned out to be graduate and undergraduate students at the state land-grant university.

It provided to be a win/win scenario both for the growers and the students: Farmers secured dedicated scouts for the entire growing season, while the students acquired a summer job, which typically generated enough funds to cover tuition and many college expenses throughout the next academic year.

In addition to enabling hundreds of college students to complete their undergraduate and, in some cases, their graduate educations, cotton scouting also helped thousands of farmers across the South reap substantial savings in chemical costs — a factor that also produced lasting benefits to the environment.

We Extension professionals talk a lot about how the radically changed knowledge landscape of the 21st century will require a new kind of educator equipped with the requisite skills to navigate around and compete on this new terrain.  Without a doubt, this is true.

But as we acquire and perfect these new skills, a glance or two back at organizational milestones such as cotton scouting is essential, if only to underscore the importance of never losing sight of the core values that have defined — and always will define — Cooperative Extension work: our ability to improvise, to forge partnerships and to change with the times.

And occasional glance backward reminds us of who we are.  That’s not a bad thing.

Creep-Proofing Our Features — and Our Mission and Image

A couple of days ago, I promised that I would offer some suggestions aimed at resolving the feature creep challenge within Extension.

Summarizing my earlier remarks, I believe the longstanding Extension penchant for improvisation has been both a good and bad thing — good in the sense that it’s enabled us to bring our vast sources to bear over long stretches of time on seemingly intractable problems, such as the boll weevil; bad in the sense that our yen for winging it has tended to contribute to organizational feature creep.

And this feature creep, in turn, has contributed to a murky organizational vision and public image.

So what do we do about it? We do what Palm Pilot has done: we construct a wooden block — mentally speaking, that is — a block that will help us define who we are and, equally important, who we are not.

We do nothing less than creep-proof our features —and with it our organizational mission and our public image.

Granted, this requires some organizational navel-gazing — something we in Alabama have been doing as part of our marketing efforts.

So what defines our wooden block?  We believe it can be explained in two words: Working Knowledge.  This short phrase summarizes the mission of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System during the last century.

Since the early 20th century, we have empowered people through working knowledge. To one degree or another, every Extension educator throughout our history has empowered his or her clients by providing not just knowledge but knowledge with a practical understanding — working knowledge that enables them to improve their lives or livelihood in some meaningful way, whether tangible or intangible.

In a manner of speaking, our wooden block is the Tuskegee farm demonstration wagon, commonly known as the Jesup Wagon, which was equipped by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and sent to far-flung regions of the state to reach farmers who, for whatever reason, were not attending Washington’s annual farm conferences.

In equipping these demonstration wagons, Washington and Carver evinced an intuitive understanding of the working knowledge concept.  They didn’t equip these wagons with leather-bound transcripts of classroom lecturers but with simple items of immediate practical benefit to farmers — items such as a cream separator, a milk tester, a revolving hand churn, a one-horse steel power and a cultivator.

The movable school became a form of working knowledge on wheels.

Yes, the working knowledge concept is only that — a concept — though we do believe it is one with the potential of providing our employees with much-needed organizational clarity.

We consider it an effective standard for guarding against feature creep.

Every outreach effort, whether it involves a twitter or a blog, a field day or a workshop, a publication or a television appearance should be predicated on this question: Does it advance working knowledge?  Does it enable our clients to improve their lives or livelihoods — or those of their families — in some meaning way?

Dignity Lost, Dignity Regained?

Years ago, an elderly lady shared with me a photocopy of a card carried around in the wallet of her long deceased uncle, Luther Duncan, a 4-H pioneer, Alabama Extension administrator, and Auburn University president.  The card essentially functioned as a wallet-sized catechism —a summary of the ethical standards that Duncan held most dearly. 

The frayed edges and smudged ink apparent even in the photocopy testified to the seriousness with which Duncan regarded these ethical standards. I imagined him perusing them time and again on those long train rides between 4-H meetings and farm demonstrations.

For me, this frayed card attested to the intense preoccupation, if not outright obsession, many 19th and early 20th century Americans had not only with high ethical standards but also with another attribute they closely associated with ethics — personal dignity.  In the view of most, acquiring these attributes involved a lifetime commitment and encompassed every bit as much of an inward as an outward transformation.

My parents were not born in the 19th century, though they could have just as well been.  They were sticklers for everything from posture and reasonably refined manners to grammar and diction. They never failed to note the slightest breaches of etiquette or moral lapses.   My father, who was born in abject poverty but went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, solemnly informed my brother and me that neither of us would drag the Langcuster fortunes back into the squalor out of which he had struggled.

What I hated then with a passion — those straight talks and dire warnings — I recall today with a sense of profound and abiding gratitude, though I confess that I remain a work in progress.

From an early age, I suppose I intuitively understood that ethics and dignity went hand in hand.  Likewise, in dealing with others, I tended to assume that one attribute was accompanied by the other: One who comported oneself with dignity likely evinced high ethical standards and vice versa.

I suppose my upbringing accounts for why I read and zealously forwarded to friends David Brooks’s recent op-ed: “In Search of Dignity.”

While observing that Americans continue to recognize and appreciate dignity where it can still be found — in public icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Tom Hanks, Ronald Reagan and, it now appears, Barack Obama — Brooks nonetheless believes that any objective understanding of dignity has been lost.

What are the factors that account for this loss?

First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

If dignity has been lost, how can it be regained?  More important, how do we reacquire something so intangible — something, much like humus, which is acquired only after long passages of time and only through the most careful and assiduous nourishment and stewardship?

Are you listening, 4-H?