Muddling Through: The Great Extension Dilemma

I’ve often joked that the Cooperative Extension concept shares a lot in common with the British.

Britons, namely the English, have always evinced a strong prejudice against applying quick fixes to complex problems.   They prefer to muddle through — to work through problems over time.

So do we.  Extension educators are muddlers.  Like the English, we prefer to work toward complex solutions over time.  We tend to be wary of applying grand solutions too quickly.

As I see it, this is our greatest strength — and one of our most serious weaknesses.

The good news, I think, is that this longstanding organizational trait uniquely positions us to compete in an increasingly wikinomical knowledge landscape — far better than many other public and private players, in fact. We readily share what we know and work with other public and private partners to bring our resources to bear on complex problems.

Collaborative knowledge is as intrinsic to the Extension experience as bats and gloves are to baseball.  We’ve been in the collaborative knowledge business for a long time.  Seaman Knapps’s Terrell, Texas, farm demonstration plots are arguably an early 20th century forerunner of wikinomics.

Need I even mention agricultural field days and 4-H demonstrations of every conceivable kind? Extension’s legacy of shared knowledge would fill volumes.

Here’s the rub: The penchant for working slowly through problems is also reflected in our organization’s development.  There has always been a sort of ad hoc quality to Extension’s organizational structure.

Our organizational structures have been cobbled together to address pressing needs.  It’s been this way from the very beginning, even before formal passage of the Smith-Lever Act, when Seaman Knapp and Alabama Polytechnic Institute President C.C. Thach hastily patched together a memorandum of understanding to govern how the U.S. Department of Agriculture would collaborate with API to carry out Extension work in the state — an agreement that subsequently served as the blueprint for Extension programs throughout the nation.

Yes, it worked reasonably well.  But within the last century, this discursive approach has also contributed to a murky undersanding of our organizational mission within our ranks.  Even worse, the public’s grasp of who we are and what we do is even more tenuous.  And in an era of reduced funding at all levels, this is not a good thing.

This is Extension’s principal dilemma: a legacy that both helps and hinders.

What can we do about it?

More about that later…

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