A Clarion Call for Revolutionary Thinking

If any recent writing constitutes a clarion call for social media adoption by Extension professionals, it is the article that appeared Dec. 13, 2009 in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlining the severe Cooperative Extension budgetary cutbacks throughout the nation.

In an especially telling observation, Oregon State University Extension administrator A. Scott Reed, stressed that the cuts move Extension beyond “evolutionary change” and toward “revolutionary change.”

Equally telling are the recent changes within the nation’s oldest Extension program, Iowa State University Cooperative Extension, which decided to replace its 100 county-based districts with 20 regional centers.

“The choice we had to make was to lessen the administrative structure if we wanted to save programs,” said Jack M. Payne, vice president for Extension and Outreach. “But it takes away our high-touch face-to-face service we offered.”

If this wasn’t troubling enough, what I found especially troubling was the utter absence of any discussion of social media adoption.   The only statement that even came close dealt with state Extension programs’ increasing reliance on Web site and toll-free help lines.

To a degree, web sites and toll-free lines will fill the breach created by these funding shortfalls, but I’m more convinced than ever that social media adoption will play the most critical role among Extension professionals in the future.

How?  Primarily by leveraging our depleted resources, providing the level of high-touch contact — engagement— that Web sites and toll-free lines woefully lack.

Revolutionary changes call for revolutionary measures — nothing short of a paradigm shift.  Let’s not forget that by its nature, Extension is a high-touch, engaged outreach organization.  High-touch outreach is as integral to our mission as handshaking is among politicians. If money shortfalls are steadily eroding our ability to maintain face-to-face interaction with our clients, then social media offers the only other viable option.

In many ways, social media actually offers Extension an opportunity to enhance the levels of engagement with its audiences.

Make no mistake about it, though: The mere adoption of social media techniques will not go far enough.  It must be accompanied by a new set of values — 21st century values that will not seem all that unfamiliar to most Extension professionals.

Understanding and trust must comprise an integral component of these values.

Extension professionals also must become more adept at working across disciplinary lines, not only helping their clients grasp complex information but also showing them the implications of this new learning within a wider context. Likewise, professionals must learn how to work more adeptly across organizational lines, using social media to enhance working relationships with public and private partners.

The high-touch, enriched relationship with clients afforded by social media must also be anchored in a deep passion for new ways of thinking, coupled with a desire to employ even newer technologies to enhance this high-touch effect.

Extension professionals will also learn to view their diverse audiences less as clients and more as collaborators, fully aware that to an increasing degree, knowledge products will be created and altered by peers and clients alike.

Yes, Reed is right: Evolutionary change is a luxury in these lean times, one that Cooperative Extension can no longer afford.

Revolutionary times require revolutionary thinking — the reason why social media adoption should be at the top of the Extension agenda.

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