Monthly Archives: June 2010

Time for Navel Gazing in Cooperative Extension Ranks

Several years ago, a young, brash and, as it turns out, astute, intern submitted a paper to our Extension director stressing one of Cooperative Extension’s perennial challenges: it’s murky image.

While he was referring exclusively to Extension’s murky external image, the thought has occurred to me that our organization’s self-image is just as murky and that this internal murkiness contributes in large measure to our nebulous external image.

We can talk about marketing our organization to stakeholders and clients until we are blue in the face — and, granted, there is plenty of merit to such a discussion.  But aside from the marketing issue lies the equally pressing challenge of banishing the murkiness within— of instilling our own employees with an adequate understanding of our legacy and mission and, equally important, of helping them understand how these must be fine-tuned and adjusted to meet the myriad of challenges we face today.

The Need for Protracted Navel-Gazing

I’m not ashamed to admit it: Navel-gazing — and, by that, I mean big-time navel-gazing — is long overdue in our ranks.

I’ll even go one step further: I believe that far more of our organizational resources should be focused on helping Extension educators and professionals at all levels undertake a spate of protracted navel-gazing.  Without this introspection, we will never be fully equipped to understand our role within the wider context of the emerging knowledge economy.

Back to a word I employed in a previous post: axial.  Deep immersion is a crucial step in our efforts to transform ourselves into an axial organization, one in which a clear understanding of our history and mission comprises our organizational axis, which, in turn, should inform everything that we do.  And make no mistake about it: This organizational axis must comprise an indispensable element in our efforts to transform ourselves into an organization equipped to survive in this new 21st century knowledge environment.

Training, Training, Training

Here’s what I’ve proposed to my own administration: A series of training sessions dealing with Extension’s mission and legacy.  Through this training, we will set out to reverse engineer the whole Extension mission and legacy on behalf of our educators.  We would use this series not only to show  how this mission and legacy was built on the uniquely American emphasis on practical knowledge but also how generations of our educators have added value to it by transforming it into working knowledge.

 A Deeper  Lesson

But we would also use this forum to drive home an even deeper, more valuable lesson:  How this historic mission and legacy uniquely equip us for this 21st century knowledge environment.  

After all, to a significant degree, early 20th century Extension educators were forerunners of the sorts of collaborative knowledge that comprises so much of what we know today as social media — the kind of collaborative knowledge techniques that government, businesses and educational institutions are adopting to succeed in this emerging knowledge environment.

Additional Lessons

There’s another lesson that must be driven home, especially to younger Extension professionals: that Extension work is a highly developed set of practices, which have been refined and perfected over more than a century.  As older Extension educators have observed, many younger professionals carrying teaching and research responsibilities in addition to their Extension appointments sometimes fail to develop even a tenuous grasp of these practices, much less an adequate understanding of how these must be refined to serve us effectively in the present-day knowledge economy.

Yet, there is even more to be gained from this training — an insight best expressed by Dan Pink in his latest book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.”  Drawing on the wealth of research undertaken in recent years on personal motivation, the book drives home an important insight: that once our survival needs are me what motivates us is our ability to grow and develop and realize our fullest potential.

A measure of navel gazing not only will help us build an axial organization:  Equally important, a concerted effort to inform and enlighten our people about the continued relevance of our mission and legacy  will also instill them with a passion for Extension work as well as an added incentive to attain their fullest potential as Extension educators.

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Transforming Cooperative Extension into an Axial Organization

Earnestly and repeatedly — and, perhaps  from the perspective of my Alabama Extension colleagues, ad nauseam — I’ve expressed the need for Cooperative Extension to transform itself into what I call an axial organization.

By axial, I mean an organization in which a clear understanding of our history, our mission and our continued relevance comprises our organizational axis.  As psychoanalytical as this may sound to some readers, we must become an organization in touch with ourselves.

The understanding must become axial in the sense that it informs everything we do, from planning for the future and lobbying for funding to developing new and effective outreach programs.

Based on my own experiences as a 25-year veteran of Cooperative Extension, I’m convinced that this axial vision is every bit as important to our survival as our transformation into an agency of fully engaged educators.

Working Knowledge

At the heart of this axial vision lies the  longstanding Extension tradition of working knowledge.

While this concept has never been explicitly recognized as working knowledge until now, it is nonetheless something to which we can claim primary ownership.

Over the course of the last century, we have refined this concept to a significant degree by showing ordinary Americans how to make use of practical knowledge to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.  By improving the quality of their lives, we have also empowered them.

This working knowledge concept has the unique potential of providing our organization with much greater organizational clarity as we transform ourselves into fully engaged Extension educators.  It’s especially important for the role it serves in underscoring one enduring truth about Cooperative Extension outreach: While we can’t compete with search engines, we still offer something search engines lack — the ability to enrich and empower lives through working knowledge by providing our clients with practical knowledge in deep context.

Wikinomical Knowledge and The Cooperative Extension Legacy

Our working knowledge approach also uniquely equips us in another way.  To an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki (or wikinomical) knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.  Cooperative Extension outreach represents an early forerunner of this approach, reflected in the pioneering cotton field demonstration work of visionary Seaman Knapp.

This fact underscores why our historical mission and 21st century imperative to transform ourselves into a fully engaged organization go hand in hand.  As we approach our 100th anniversary in 2014, we must grasp the importance of how an enhanced understanding of our historic mission and working knowledge outreach model enables us to become a fully engaged agency of outreach fully equipped to compete in the 21st century knowledge economy.

Towards a Fully Engaged Cooperative Extension Model

Rockwell's County agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Portrait of an Extension agent at work.

Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and that saving your life will involve adopting a series of far-reaching lifestyle changes.

Would you adopt these changes?  Considering that your survival is at stake, yes, you probably would.

Cooperative Extension faces a disturbingly similar set of circumstances.  Yes, we’ve faced many challenges over the past 100 years, though nothing like we face today.

A Radically Altered Knowledge Landscape

A few decades ago, we were the dominant feature on the knowledge landscape.  But as the 21st century progresses, our once advantageous command of this landscape has steadily eroded.  The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, such as printed publications and mass media  as the primary sources of knowledge has been almost entirely supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge— search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies —  that can be accessed literally at the speed of light.

According to New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman, we now operate in a flat world, a informational level playing field in which knowledge providers, no matter their location, are able to compete equally with other knowledge providers across the planet. 

For Extension educators, one of the immediate effects of this new flat world is the steady loss of the competitive advantage we took for granted throughout the 20th century.   Consequently, we face the real risk of organizational decline and possibly even extinction unless we learn how to compete within this crowded — and flattened —knowledge landscape.

The Engaged Extension Educator

The challenges call for nothing less than an organizational transformation — a transformation of Extension professionals into fully engaged educators who not only disseminate knowledge but also build collaborative relationships among people who share common interests.

The new approach will be characterized by both a high degree of collaboration and reciprocity — one in which the client becomes an active collaborator in the production of our knowledge products.  By including our clients as active collaborators, we develop valuable social capital, which, in turn, will enable us to further enhance the value of our products while also allowing us to reach out to even newer audiences.

Yes, traditional Extension methods — field days, conferences, workshops, newsletters and broadcast programs — will remain vital to our mission.  But despite our long and successful use of these methods, they alone will not be enough to help us survive within this radically altered landscape.  

To put it another way, these methods are no long sufficient enough to accommodate our audience’s growing demand for knowledge.

The Value of Social Media

Social media — Facebook and Twitter, to name the two most obvious forms of this technology —will enable us to expand our outreach efforts and audiences in dramatic ways. 

These new social media approaches will enable us to expand our outreach efforts far beyond our traditional role of teacher.  In a manner of speaking, we will use these new technologies to expand our organizational portfolio, thereby enhancing our competitive advantage over other knowledge providers.

We will use these new tools to leverage our abilities, functioning as part teacher, part explainer, part problem solver and, to an increasing degree, as a catalyst whose daily observations not only spark discussion but prompt a growing number of our clients to solve problems on their own.

We would be remiss if we failed to take note of how so many Extension educators are already availing themselves of these new approaches in a myriad of ways.  Horticulture educators who work closely with Master Gardeners employ blogs to update their clients on horticulture-related news and other issues between monthly Master Gardener meetings, workshops and field days.  Likewise, they use social networking tools such as Twitter to supply their clients with daily observations about home gardening, to respond to client questions, to share links to timely online articles, and to connect with others who share these interests.

Among some educators, applications such as Flickr and youtube, often in conjunction with blogs, Facebook and Twitter, are used to alert clients to emerging plant varieties or to potentially threatening diseases.

Blending the Old and the New

In the midst of these changes, we must not lose sight of our traditional roles methods, which, used in conjunction with emerging social media techniques, will distinguish us from other knowledge providers.

We should understand that traditional methods will simply be enhanced and strengthened, not supplanted, by these new technologies.  In fact, our success as 21st century Extension educators will be measured by how effectively we balance traditional organizational values and methods with the new demands of flat world.

For example, we must continue to build collaborative educational partnerships with other public and private entities to enhance the effect of programs and to reach new audiences.

Research-based knowledge must also remain an integral part of our outreach efforts.  This is an asset that historically has enabled us to distinguish our knowledge products from others.  We must never lose sight of how this kind of refined knowledge enables people to make lasting, meaningful changes in their lives. 

The applied research that formed the bedrock of the Extension outreach in the 20th century will be just as indispensible in the 21st.