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.
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.