Monthly Archives: March 2011

Brooks on the “New Humanism”

We are at the cusp of a revolution in consciousness, argues author and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

This revolution could be summed in roughly as “David Hume was right: the British Enlightenment trumps its French counterpart.” Essentially, what we’ve learned is that our emotions count for much more than we ever imagined – insight that holds major implications not only for us as individuals but as Extension professionals.  Problem-solving is not just about bringing rational thought to bear on a problem.  As Hume contended, emotion informs rationality.  Even more significant, these two sides of human nature are inextricably linked.

Brooks’s TED lecture is informative, inspiring and even a little sublime, as corny as this sounds.  One caveat, though: viewing this is no substitute for reading his book “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.”

As I said, the implications for Cooperative Extension work are profound.

A Call to Action (for the Sake of Our Survival)

I’ve just completed what I consider to be one of the most important publications I’ve ever written as an Extension professional:  “A Social Media Call to Action.”

The role of Extension educators as knowledge providers, innovators, and change agents is under threat unless we learn to operate effectively in the increasingly crowded information landscape. This call to action outlines how Extension professionals can stay relevant by becoming engaged, networked educators using the latest technologies to maintain the charge that is ours to keep.

Advice to Young Extension Professionals


“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Stickiness.”

Okay, I’m a huge fan of The Graduate.

But there is a reason for this rather cryptic remark. I’m approaching 50 and entering the last stretch of my Extension career.

A quarter century ago, I never thought I would be one of those old codgers compelled to offer unsolicited advice to younger professionals about how to make the most of their careers.

Now I can’t resist the urge.   I’m like the cryptic, slightly daffy middle-aged guy who confronts Benjamin Braddock.

I’ve even felt compelled a time or two to prepare a list.  At the top of that list — if I ever get around to it — would be a word or two about the importance of mastering the science of stickiness.  By stickiness, I mean the importance of learning how to present messages in ways that distinguish them from the thousands of other messages that bombard  our clients day after day after day — that stick in their minds, in other words.

That’s why I heartily recommend writing instructor Andy Selsberg’s March 19 op-ed. With the explosion of social media firmly in mind, he’s foregoing standard essays and assigning his freshman comp students more mundane tasks, such as writing two-liners to market eBay merchandise or  posting “coherent and original comments for youtube videos, quickly telling us why surprised kittens or unconventional wedding dances resonate with millions.”

Writers of the future, Selsberg says, should learn to set their “sights not lower, but shorter.”

I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.

Of course, as I’ve said time and again, there will be far more to a successful Extension career than concise writing.  But Selsberg is onto something: the need to package messages successfully.

To borrow a memorable phrase from Howard Beale, Extension professionals are living, working and competing in what has become the “most awesome g*****n force in the whole godless world”: the global knowledge economy.

Concise writing is only the beginning of a massive intellectual retooling effort in the ways we conceive, design and deliver Extension educational products to ensure that every item is readily distinguishable from the countless other knowledge products.

Back to that word again — stickiness. Everything we do really relates to that concept. We’ve got to ensure that all our products connect with our users.  And by securing stickiness, we better ensure that our products remain competitive.

Granted, the preceding paragraph is not exactly an example of concise writing, but believe me when I say it comes from the heart.

Are you listening? Stickiness.

What is Extension’s “Commander’s Intent?”

Extension professionals would be well served by taking a critical military lesson to heart.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that “commander’s intent” has become a deeply ingrained facet of American military tactics.

Over the last 200 years, U.S. military planners have come to value simplicity deeply. That’s because the core message of a tactical objective is apt to be ignored, forgotten or replaced in the noise and confusion of battle.  Based on years of trial and error, military planners have gotten around that by developing the commander’s intent concept.

Commander’s intent is essentially a stripped down statement that appears at the top of every mission plan.  The statement outlines what the planners expect to accomplish at the conclusion of the military operation, regardless of what happens along the way.

To put it another way, the details of the plan may change but the end goal doesn’t.

That raises an interesting question: As we carry on with our own battle to convince our clients and stakeholders of our continued relevance, what is our commanders intent?

To put it another way, what is the tactical objective that must be remembered at all costs?

One thing that has surprised me time and again in the course of my Extension career is the number of employees who simply lack a clear grasp of what we do — what we’ve always done: transform practical knowledge into working knowledge, showing our clients how they can use this practical knowledge to secure lasting and meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.

It’s ironic, especially considering that we’ve being doing this for a very long time and, until recently, exceptionally well.  As far back as a century ago, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington already had anticipated the critical role collaboration between the Extension educators and clients would play in ensuring that this transformation from practical to working knowledge occurred.

In one sense, they were brilliantly prescient because they anticipated the wikinomical approach to learning that forms the bedrock of 21st century learning within this increasingly wired world.

What is our commanders intent? To show our clients and stakeholders that despite all the changes that are occurring around us, we will continue to do what we’ve always done: ensure that the working knowledge model that has distinguished us in the past will comprise the very best of what we offer in the future.

The informal, collaborative Extension model — the one that put so much value on face-to-face and hands-on learning — will be merged with emerging social media technology to build an even better 21st century model.

This transformation is critical to our organizational survival.

In the end, though, it will enable us to do something even more effectively: to demonstrate to even larger numbers of people how to transform practical knowledge  into working knowledge.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us — Extension educators, clients and stakeholders alike — with a clearer grasp of what is expected of Cooperative Extension in the 21st century.

Yet, it enables us to do something even more important: to distinguish ourselves from the legions of other knowledge providers across this flat knowledge landscape.

Granted, we no longer can compete with search engines and other forms of artificial intelligence. That is one of the hard truths of the 21st century.  On the other hand, we still offer something that virtual sources of knowledge lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge.  We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

What is our commander’s intent? Working knowledge — the collaborative, hands-on knowledge that we pioneered more than a century ago and that, combined with the right amount of foresight, creativity and innovation, is still relevant today.

Making It Stick: Telling Our Story With a Story

The Challenge

Story Telling

Even in this wired era, there is still a place for old-fashioned storytelling.

Imagine that you’ve been asked by your local civic group to describe Extension’s mission and your role in it. What would you say to keep your audiences actively interested and engaged for 20 minutes?

This question may seem trivial, but it isn’t. More and more, we’re being called on to tell our story in a way that our clients, stakeholders, and policy makers will remember. Simply put, telling our story effectively is critical to our survival as an organization.

Increasingly, we find ourselves competing with other agencies for a slice of the dwindling funding pie. And we’re now competing in a knowledge-driven, global economy. New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman describes this new environment as the “flat world” —a level playing field on which all knowledge providers on the planet compete equally, whether located in Huntsville, Seattle, or Sydney, Australia.

This flat world requires us to be innovative. How? Partly by ensuring that our messages stick with our audiences.

The Response

Stickiness is the gold standard of effective communication, especially in this flat world. Chip and Dan Heath, brothers, educators, and world-renowned experts on stickiness, have spent years trying to determine why some messages stick and others don’t. They even wrote a New York Times best seller appropriately titled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

According to the Heaths, sticky messages are simple, center around a story, and evoke an emotional response in the reader.

Keep It Simple

No one understands the value of simplicity more than the U.S. Army. Military orders have to be simple. Yet, after more than two centuries of experience, military planners know that despite the best advanced planning, actual battlefield conditions can change dramatically in the course of a mission.

Planners have come to value simplicity, which now forms the basis for a military concept known as “commander’s intent,” a stripped down statement that appears at the top of every mission plan. The statement outlines what the planners expect to accomplish following the operation’s conclusion, regardless of what may happen along the way. The details of the plan may change, but the end goal does not.

The most critical of military messages—the mission plan—has been stripped down to its barest essentials. By sampling this message, planners better ensure that it sticks with the audience—in this case, soldiers in battlefield conditions.

If you think about it, simplicity is a time-honored Cooperative Extension concept.

For more than 100 years, we’ve adapted this basic concept to a wide variety of audiences and settings, especially individuals and families with limited resources.

Center It Around a Story

Dan Pink, author of another New York Times best seller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, credits storytelling as one of the most effective ways to distinguish one product from another in this increasingly crowded global marketplace. How? By sharpening audiences’ understanding of one thing by presenting it within the context of another.

“Stories are easier to remember because, in many ways, stories are how we remember,” Pink says.

Why is storytelling so valuable from our perspective? Partly because our history is replete with stories—stories that provide us a compelling way to illustrate Extension’s mission and our role in it.

Here’s an example: the pioneering Jesup Wagon concept. Its creators, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, understood that the farming advances generated at Tuskegee were valuable only if they could be effectively communicated to farmers. In one respect, they faced the same challenge we do today: packaging and communicating a message that will stick with clients.

Enter the Jesup wagon, a movable school on wheels dispatched to remote locations to provide farmers with a practical grasp of the latest agricultural research. This story is invaluable for two reasons: 1) It helps us present our mission within a wider context; and 2) it allows us to present the mission in a compelling, sticky sort of way.

In equipping the first movable school, Washington and Carver included items of immediate practical benefit to farmers—a cream separator, a milk tester, a revolving hand churn, a cultivator, and a one-horse plow. If you think about it, the Jesup wagon concept embodies the basic idea that connects earlier generations of Extension educators with us: showing our clients how to understand and make practical use of knowledge—sometimes highly complex knowledge—to improve their lives.

Yes, we have just presented our basic organizational message—working knowledge—within the wider context of a compelling story. And in the process, we’ve made it sticky.

Evoke an Emotional Response

When you tell stories, don’t limit yourselves to basic historical facts. Weave in the emotional element—the human dimension. After all, the Jesup wagon concept was a response to a specific human struggle: farmers and their families surviving the grim conditions of the rural, post-Civil War South.

This emotional component can be found in other personal and historical accounts. Look for them and use them! Here are a couple of examples from recent Extension annual reports. These examples demonstrate how to tell Extension stories by combining the working knowledge theme with highly compelling—and sticky— human dimension components.

In Anniston, Urban Extension Agent Hayes Jackson uses his vast knowledge of plants to enrich the social and cultural life of his community and to broaden the scope and admirations of a group of disadvantaged teenage girls at the Coosa Valley Youth Attention Center. Working with Master Gardeners, Jackson operates a greenhouse as a living classroom, using horticultural instruction to provide the girls with a practical grasp of science-related principles. The plants propagated by Jackson and the girls are also used to instruct local gardeners and nursery operators in all facets of horticulture, from plant selection to drought-resistant landscaping.

Here’s another example: Many years ago, Debra Glenn, a young girl growing up in a Birmingham housing project, underwent a life-changing transformation while attending weekly 4-H DOT training. For the first time in her life, she was shown how to prepare simple, affordable recipes from scratch—recipes she could take home and prepare for her mother and brothers. This working knowledge—planning and preparing meals for her family—opened the door to a lifetime of self-mastery and empowerment. After completing high school and college, Debra went on to pursue a career in the medical industry, while spending part of her free time counseling delinquent youth.

Our Message: Working Knowledge

Working knowledge forms the bedrock of our mission. As Extension educators, we use working knowledge to empower the lives of Alabamians—a lesson reflected in the personal stories of Extension educators from the first decade of the 20th century to present day.

By sharing these stories, we enhance the effect—the stickiness—of our basic message. And by enhancing our message’s stickiness, we ensure that future generations of Alabamians will continue to benefit from our unique product—working knowledge.

To learn about other attributes of sticky messages, take a look at the Heaths’ book, Made to Stick.

Please Note: This piece, written by me, originally appeared as Alabama Extension publication EX-00855.

4-H as Seed Corn

4-H'ers raising flag at the Alabama 4-H Youth Development Center, Coumbiana, Alabama

Following is a significantly revised rework of a piece I uploaded a couple of weeks ago about 4-H serving as vital seed corn for the future.

If you happen to be an Extension educator, please feel free to copy and use the material freely in newspaper columns, social media outreach and other measures aimed at heightening public awareness of the value of Extension programming.

Seed Corn for the Future

Folklore abounds with accounts of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times, with predictably disastrous results.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks observed recently, this era of budget cutting appears to be one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: young people.

“In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries,” Brooks writes. “In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.”

Add 4-H to that list. For more than a century, 4-H has fostered skills that not only keep kids in school but also busily and happily engaged in learning.

In response to impending and especially stringent federal budget cuts, Cooperative Extension professionals all over the country have been relating some of the tangible ways 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on kids staying in school, going to college and pursuing lifetime passions acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

Yes, 4-H offers immense opportunities for enriching the learning experience at a critical juncture in this nation’s history.

In an earlier column, Brooks stressed how much the success of this nation in the 21st century will be determined by how closely it hews to the traits that have long distinguished it: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only a few.

Likewise, the longstanding American reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which vaulted this country to the forefront of scientific and technological leadership in the 20th century appears to be steadily eroding.

As Brooks observed in an earlier column, Americans have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

What youth organization is better equipped than 4-H to provide young people with a renewed appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

4-H arguably has another critical role to fill: putting young people squarely on the path toward acquiring the levels of immersion in learning and related skills considered crucial for high achievement in life — what social critic Malcolm Gladwell has described as the 10,000 hour rule.

“If we’re trapped within the walls of a learning environment, reading, writing and arithmetic don’t spawn the creativity to go out and do great things,” says Wes Laird, an Opp, Ala. attorney and 4-H alumnus who has spent his legal career defending the economically disadvantaged.

Laird lauds his 4-H involvement as his social networking experience that enabled him to see beyond his rural Alabama hometown to the larger world beyond.

“Extracurricular activities that lie beyond classroom walls and that allow freedom of mind are crucial for excelling in any field,” Laird says.

In fact, research has confirmed that outstanding creators and innovators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours — roughly 10 years — learning and perfecting their skills.

This insight speaks volumes about the sort of role informal, unstructured learning activities serve in putting kids squarely on the road to lifetime success.  It also underscores why so-called frivolous school activities such as art, music, cheerleading —and, yes, 4-H — should be valued for what they are: critical pathways to lifetime self-mastery and achievement.

Let’s not allow these valuable lessons to be lost on our policy makers, those who are threatening to consume all of our seed corn.

4-H is seed corn for the most critical crop of all: young people.

Driving Home the Sustainability-Plus Theme to Funding Sources

Alabama youngsters greeting an alligator at the 4-H Environmental Center in Columbiana.

Following is a considerably revised version of a piece I wrote on sustainability-plus earlier this week in response to the federal funding crisis. This version was written specifically for our Extension county coordinators to use in their local media.

I’ve felt strongly for some time that Extension’s growing emphasis on sustainability-plus is one of our greatest assets — certainly during this critical time as we work to remind funding sources of our continued relevance. Increasingly, our efforts are no longer devoted solely to sustaining natural resources but also to sustaining social, cultural and financial assets.

Interestingly, many of the state’s governors are grasping the sustainability-plus concept, using sustainability to encompass a much wider public policy range.

For a number of reasons, Extension is uniquely positioned to benefit from this changed perspective.  This issue is more widely explored in an earlier piece: Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming.

Feel free to use this material in any way you please.

Help Us Sustain a Critical Resource

If these lean times have done one thing, it is to put Americans into what one New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, describes as a “different mental place.”

If you doubt that, undertake a Google search of recent state-of-the-state addresses around the country.  It would reveal the extent to which this new mindset has taken hold of Americans from one end of this country to the other.

In many of these addresses, governors used “sustainability” to underscore in these austere times how effective stewardship must encompass all aspects of our lives, not just the environment.

Newly installed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder used his address to roll out a new sustainable business model, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stressed the urgency of putting unemployment policy on a “long-term sustainable path.”

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a Cleaner, Greener Communities initiative to provide competitive grants to encourage grassroots sustainable growth strategies.

Yet, these are only a few examples among many of how these lean times are calling for new ways of thinking.

Farmers are struggling to adopt new technologies to feed an estimated 9 billion people by midcentury with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being pressed to develop safer, greener food production systems that emphasize organically and locally grown foods.

Meanwhile, growing strains on the U.S. healthcare system are forcing a greater emphasis on preventative health measures.  Americans increasingly are being called on to adopt effective dietary and exercise practices to safeguard against obesity-related diseases, such as hypertension and type-2 diabetes.

Fiscally-strapped communities are scrambling to develop sustainable growth strategies for housing, transportation, emissions control, and energy and efficiency.

In a sharp departure from previous decades, all levels of government are challenging Americans to address change directly rather than waiting for things to happen.

Cooperative Extension is uniquely equipped with the skill set to meet these new policy requirements and to provide Americans with critical tools for self-empowerment.

In our state, Extension already is actively engaged in grassroots efforts to help these groups and many other people follow through with the environmental, economic and lifestyle changes that these lean times require.

Yet, in the midst of this crisis, Extension is dealing with one of its own.

Looming federal budget cuts, especially to the Smith-Lever program, which supports nationwide Extension efforts, would seriously undercut efforts to transform the American agricultural sector in this critical time in history and to ensure that Americans eat healthier, nutritious foods.

Moreover, proposed cuts in the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would drastically scale back the competitive grants that support critical efforts aimed at securing healthier, more sustainable food production systems.

We in Cooperative Extension are passionate about our role in helping Americans through these lean times.

Yet, even as government searches for cost-effective solutions, these reductions threaten to undermine ongoing efforts to help Americans meet some of the most critical challenges in our history.

Extension has a charge to keep in this age of austerity, not only in demonstrating the value of recycling and adopting greener production systems but also in showing how sustainable principles relate to every aspect of our lives.

Help us sustain this critical resource.  Contact your local congressional member and ask him or her to restore this funding.