Monthly Archives: May 2011

Extension’s Opportunity for Creative Sedition

Cirque Du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil is credited by many, including Harvard Business School's Youngme Moon, with reinventing the concept of circus.

In her brilliantly insightful book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon recalls the teacher’s advice regarding what she should send with her children on their first day of kindergarten: a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or toy — any familiar object that blunted the effects of the newness and uncertainty that awaited them.

This advice ended up serendipitously reinforcing what later provided to be a critical insight of her book.

During those occasional disruptive periods of life, we prefer the newness of our altered circumstances to be anchored as much as possible by familiarity — sameness — but in our day-to-day living, we like our monochrome sameness to be occasionally embellished by flashes of newness.

Indeed, Moon contends this passion for a sameness sporadically punctuated by eruptions of newness is an innate desire that defines the sum of human existence.

Therein lies a critical branding lesson: The most successful enterprises in the future will be those who produce the optimal amount of difference by  striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

I finished the last page of Moon’s book more convinced than ever that striking this balance will be the central preoccupation for public and private entities in the 21st century.

Extension will prove no exception — something of which I was reminded last night reading an especially incisive post on the Cooperative Extension System Facebook page.

As the poster observes, funding shortfalls are already forcing Extension to do more with less, namely less staff.  Sooner or later, these shortfalls, along with other social and economic factors, will force Extension to reevaluate what it does — or, more specifically, what it can and can no longer do. In other words, it will call for the formulation of a new organizational focus.

That raises the obvious question: What should that focus be?

For some, it’s a scary question.  For others, including yours truly, it’s a question that conceivably presents us with one of the greatest opportunities in our history — at least, if we view this challenge not as the severing of a limb but as an opportunity not only to redefine ourselves but also to differentiate ourselves in a meaningful and lasting way from our competitors.

As I see it, this challenge — redefining and differentiating ourselves — brings us back to what Moon perceives as the sum of human existence: striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

She cites a number of private companies that have risen to this challenge and succeeded spectacularly.  One especially noteworthy example is Cirque du Soleil.

As Moon and countless others contend, Cirque du Soleil has redefined the whole concept of circus.  As counterintuitive as it seems, they have succeeded by eliminating much of what has traditionally been associated with circuses — dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters — and substituting something entirely new, namely elements of dance, theater, music and gymnastics.

Among some critics, Cirque du Soleil, by eliminating the usual features of circuses, no longer qualifies as a circus.  But as Moon contends, that’s precisely the basis of Cirque du Soleil’s genius: there’s a certain “seditious advantage” in positioning oneself as a circus while venturing beyond stereotype.

I think the times present Cooperative Extension with a similar opportunity for sedition — creative sedition — an opportunity to position itself within the category of government/university outreach agency while venturing beyond stereotype.

This raises the inevitable question: What form should this transformation take?

How much newness do we introduce? How much sameness do we retain?

Here’s another way of considering it: What Extension versions of dance, theater, music and gymnastics will we employ to replace the dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters?

Rest assured that I’m formulating some answers to these questions that I’ll share in an upcoming post.

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In-N-Out: Another Lesson for Extension

In-N-Out Logo

Lessons for Cooperative Extension? Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon credits In-N-Out Burgers as one of the nation's most successful reverse brands.

What could the expansion of a West Coast burger chain into Texas possibly have to do with the future of Cooperative Extension?

In general terms, very little; in branding terms, possibly everything.

In-N-Out Burgers has mastered reverse-position branding like virtually nobody else’s business, says Harvard marketing expert Youngme Moon.

If reverse branding is a new term for you, think of Google, which Moon cites as the embodiment of this concept.  Before Google, the crowded textual landscape of Yahoo’s homepage was THE embarkation point for Web searches.

Google changed all that — and in a very unique and unexpected way. As Moon relates in her book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Google creators made a conscious decision to deliver the cleanest possible homepage, one free of the vast clutter that characterized the homepages of Yahoo and other search engines.

Google had determined to employ reverse position branding. They had undertaken a deliberate decision to withhold benefits that other competitors considered essential for survival.

So, one might ask, what differentiates reverse branding from run-of-mill stripped down, bare-boned discounters?

Extravagance, Moon says.  Reverse branders give something — some form of extravagance — even as they take away.  For its part, Google takes away a textually dense homepage but compensates with lightning fast searches.

In-N-Out Burgers employs a similar strategy — no Happy Meals, no children’s menus, no salads, no desserts — just a menu of only 6 items.

Yet, as legions of In-N-Out aficionados will attest, these six items, which have not changed in years, are special — extravagant. Each is made from scratch, using fresh ingredients.  In a dramatic break with common practice, customers can also request items off a secret menu, the contents of which have been revealed only through word of mouth.

It’s worked: Some In-N-Out enthusiasts eagerly confess to driving hundreds of miles for a taste.

Moon credits In-N-Out, along with a handful of other companies, with accomplishing something extraordinary: They have conditioned their customers into becoming active missionaries for their brand.

The brilliance behind reverse brands is its crystallizing effect, Moon says.

By eliminating all the extraneous stuff — in the case of In-N-Out, Happy Meals, Kids Meals, etc. — In-N-Out has cast new light on its fundamentals.

That’s what all successful reverse branders do, Moon says.

Is there a lesson here for Extension? Perhaps.

One key insight I gained from Moon’s book is that differentiation will be emerge as a critical branding consideration in the 21st century as consumers deal with a surfeit of messages of all types.

That raises the question: What can Extension do to differentiate itself from the rest of the competitive herd?

Are there advantages in reverse branding?  Could we derive some immense advantage for ourselves and for our clients by focusing on the fundamentals, those things we’ve done exceptionally well over the last century?

Of course, that raises another critical question: What are those fundamentals?

One facet of the book that especially piqued my interest was Moon’s treatment of the success In-N-Out and a handful of brands have had in enlisting their customers as active missionaries for their brand.

We’ve enjoyed an active commitment from our own clients, especially our volunteers — and most especially from our 4-H and Master Gardener alumni and volunteers — for decades.   They have been active missionaries for the Extension brand.

Incidentally, that brings me back to yet another issue I raised in an earlier piece about Moon’s book:  We began as a movement initially conceived and executed by volunteers — compared with other government entities, a unique legacy, to say the least.

How could this uniqueness contribute to future branding efforts? How could this uniqueness help us differentiate ourselves from others?

We Can’t Go On this Way, but We Never Do

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, author, futurist and philosopher of technology, who believes the current agricultural model ultimately will evolve into a more heterogeneous, decentralized model.

This has been a good week for deep, serendipitous insights.

Shortly after reading George Monbiot’s column attesting to the shortfalls of the green movement, I came across an intriguing passage by Kevin Kelly, one of the world’s renowned futurists and philosophers of technology.

His book, What Technology Wants, is one of a handful of books that should serve as operating manuals for Cooperative Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization and one that I highly recommend to my colleagues.

The passage further underscored to me that people even within our ranks are not fully aware of the benefits Extension secured for Americans and human beings in general by helping transform subsistence farming into the model that prevails today.

As Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food:  It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things, valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

“It feeds our longevity to keep inventing and, ultimately, this food system fuels the increase in population that generates increasing numbers of ideas,” Kelly says.

As I said, it’s a fascinating and important point and one of which few people, even Extension professionals, are fully aware.

Bear in mind, though, that this applies as much to the detractors of agriculture as it does the rest of us.  Even as they criticize modern agriculture’s overreliance on petroleum, they scarcely consider how much this model contributed to a social and economic order that, in addition to feeding them, also provided adequate levels of education to conceive and marshal such sophisticated critiques.

The current farming model has carried humanity a long way — a distance that would have been impossible via subsistence farming.

Even so, as Kelly is the first to concede, modern farming, despite its colossal achievements, is beset with challenges.  As he stresses, the current model is heavily dependent on a monoculture of only a few staple food crops, which have required “pathological degrees of intervention with drugs, pesticides and herbicides, soil disturbance and overreliance on cheap petro fuels for both energy and nutrients.”

In time, though, elements of a new, decentralized model will emerge, he says — one less monocultural and petroleum dependent than the current one and that perhaps even encompasses “hyperlocal, specialized farms,” manned either by a truly global workforce or by “smart, nimble worker robots.”

Again, most Extension agricultural experts likely would not find much with which to take issue in any of these statements.  Like Kelly, most could conceive of an emerging “convivial agriculture” sitting atop industrial agriculture, much as the current model sits atop older forms of subsistence farming.

Likewise, they, like Kelly, could conceive the current farming model, by remaining the most productive supplier of food on a global scale, as one that continues to fill a critical role for the foreseeable future and forming an integral part of the emerging model.

Speaking of passages, Kelly also shares a quote from another intellectual hero of mine, Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

“If we go on as we are, it’ll be very difficult to sustain things,” Ridley says. “But we won’t go on as we are. That’s what we never do.”

“We always change what we do and we always get much more efficient at using things — energy, resources, etc.”

These are valuable messages, ones that we should be sharing with our diverse users and stakeholders.

The current agricultural model is undergoing a significant overhaul to accommodate the demands of the emerging global knowledge economy of the 21st century.

So are we.

But that’s the business we’re in.  As Kelly says, “We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow.”

An Admission of Failure, an Opportunity for Extension

George Monbiot

George Monbiot, a green movement activist and public intellectual whose recent Guardian column about the failure of the green movement sent ripples through the ranks.

It may be remembered in the future as the column that changed everything.

On one hand, it amounts to an admission of failure — on the other, perhaps the basis for a reaffirmation of Cooperative Extension’s mission and its enduring value to this nation and the world.

Writing in his Guardian column recently, George Monbiot, one of the green movement’s most prominent activists and public intellectuals, essentially admitted to his movement’s failure.

Why? Because no green proposals for de-nuclearizing and de-carbonizing the planet are achievable, he says.

Replacing nuclear power is highly problematic because of the increased threats to humans and the added environmental destruction that inevitably would follow.  Likewise, de-carbonization would require an increase in infrastructure, which Monbiot decries as “ugly, destructive and controlled by remote governments and corporations.”

The problems that would follow de-carbonization only underscore self-contradictory nature of the green message, he says.

“These questions are so divisive because the same world-view tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business,” Monbiot says.

He even doubts if it’s possible to impose a green movement agenda on an economic system tailored for growth. Even if we somehow could attain a zero-carbon goal by 2030, economic growth would present humanity with the same problems in 2050 and 2070 and into the future.

All de-carbonization proposals run up against similar brick walls, Monbiot concedes.   For example, adopting charcoal as an alternative source would “throw industry into direct competition with agriculture , spreading starvation and ensuring that manufactured products become the preserve of the very rich.”

Add to that the even bigger challenge of summoning the public will. Advocating “a massive downsizing and return to a land-based economy” is one thing; persuading the public to embark on such a life-altering undertaking is quite another.

The malaise within green ranks is  further underscored by the realization that, despite the likely peak of crude oil production reached in 2006, economic collapse has not followed. Industry has compensated with substitutes such as natural gas liquids and tar sands.

As it turns out, the problem humanity faces is not having enough fossil fuels but too much, Monbiot concedes.

“Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything down with us,” he grimly observes.

He ends his gloomy confession with an appeal to realism.

“I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognize the contradictions we confront,” he says.

I think it behooves Monbiot and other green movement intellectuals to read a page or two out of Extension’s playbook.

We Extension educators can be faulted for a few things, but succumbing to magical thinking isn’t one of them. Our century of experience has taught us a thing or two about human complexity  — the immense contradictions often encountered in the course of fostering meaningful economic and social change.

Monbiot and others in the green movement apparently have just now begun to grasp what we learned in the last century working shoulder to shoulder with farmers:  Radically new ways of living and working cannot be imposed overnight or through government edict. They can only be adopted incrementally and incorporated into the prevailing working model.

This incremental, collaborative relationship between farmer and Extension educator, which formed the foundation of the 20th century farming model, will prove no less valuable in the 21st as we build a new hybridized farming model that incorporates both conventional and sustainable farming practices.

This is the reason why I confess drawing a measure of comfort and even optimism from Monbiot’s column.   As more green activists are won over to his hard-bitten realism, I believe they will come to appreciate the value of the incremental, collaborative change methods we helped develop more than 100 years ago.

In time, I hope, this will also carry over into an awareness of, if not a keen appreciation for, the Extension mission and for the role it will serve in the future securing a more sustainable nation and world.

Extension Lessons from Joe Friday

Joe Friday of Dragnet fame: I couldn’t get enough of the guy — or his unfailing partner, Bill Gannon — growing up.

I still chuckle a bit recalling those brass-tacks morality lessons Friday (portrayed by Jack Webb) and Gannon (played by Harry Morgan) freely imparted to whatever social malcontents they were dealing with at the time.

One of their most memorable appeals was served up in The Big Departure, an episode that first aired in March 7, 1968, about four aspiring teenagers who engage in petty larceny of local businesses to finance and provision their own anti-materialistic, utopian country on one of the islands off the California Coast.

In response to one teenager’s contention that they didn’t understand, Friday and Gannon serve a few choice words about how much better he and his collaborators fared in comparison to earlier generations.

“More people are living better right here than anywhere else ever before in history,” Friday says.

“You’re taller, stronger, healthier and better educated — and you’ll live longer than the last generation, and we don’t think that’s altogether bad,” Gannon adds, also pointing out to the kids that none of them had likely seen a quarantine sign in their neighbors’ door warning about diphtheria, scarlet fever or whooping cough.

“Probably none of your classmates are crippled with polio,” he adds.  “You don’t see many mastoid scars anymore.”

To be sure, this sort of optimism would strike many 21st century Americans as hidebound, if not threadbare.  In the midst of recent history’s longest running economic crisis, coupled with a seemingly intractable energy impasse, frustration and resignation seem to have trumped optimism.

Still, I think the two TV cops strike at an essential truth not only for the 60s but also for today: Scientific achievement has carried us a long way, and it will likely carry us an even longer way in the future.

While few advocate their own starter countries, plenty of technological naysayers remain in this century heaping scorn on practices that have secured all of us immense comfort and efficiency.

At the top of the list of these practices: scientific farming methods — yes, those very methods that have been promoted by Extension agents and specialists and other land-grant personnel for more than a century.

To be sure, these farming methods have created one of the most diverse, interdependent economic sectors in the world — a fact that causes some farm critics extreme consternation.

Yet, as Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, stresses, the interdependence and trade that has followed the adoption of these practices have ensured that all of us are immensely better fed and healthier than our 18th century forebears.

As an example, he compares the trebling of wheat prices that occurred between 2006 and 2008 to a similar price hike that occurred from 1315 to 1318.

During the early 14th century, when Europe was sparsely populated, farming was entirely organic and food miles were short, mass starvation and even outbreaks of cannibalism ensued.  Indeed, until the advent of railways, it was cheaper for people to become refugees than to pay the steep prices to transport food into a deprived district.

Today, consumers benefit from a global wheat market in which somebody somewhere has something to sell.  The end result: typically modest price fluctuations but no mass starvation.

The take-home message: The interdependence that has partly grown out of these scientific farming methods has helped spread risk.

To be sure, farming faces its share of challenges.  For the past generation, Extension educators throughout the country have been busily engaged helping the nation’s row-crop and livestock producers build a new farming model that merges scientific farming methods with sustainable practices.

We face challenges, daunting challenges.  Even so, it behooves all of us Extension educators not only to reflect on our achievements but also to defend them with the same zeal as Joe Friday.

More Thoughts on Fostering Emergent Platforms within Extension

Is Extension up to the task of helping build the emergent platforms of the 21st century?In spite of all the justified concerns about the economy and spiking fuel prices, we live in unusually exciting times.

I really mean that.  The rapid acceleration of intellectual exchange that has followed the advent of the Internet and, more recently, of Web 2.0 has enabled some of the world’s brightest thinkers to gain deeper insights into the factors that drive human progress.

I personally derive immense optimism from that fact.  I think the enhanced clarity garnered from these new insights not only will help us surmount these current challenges but will also help transform Cooperative Extension System into the 21st century knowledge organization it must become.

The factors that have contributed to this enhanced clarity are outlined in Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson borrows “platform,” a term commonly used in software programming, to describe those environments that provide the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

No passage in the book better expresses the optimal conditions required for the formation of such environments than the quote from William Guier and Geroge Weiffenbach, the two young scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory whose impromptu research in the midst of the Sputnik crisis contributed to one of the most influential platforms in human history.

The two credited their achievements to the open intellectual environment that prevailed at the APL in the 1950s:

APL was a superb environment for inquisitive young kids, and particularly so in the Research Center. I was an environment that encouraged people to think broadly and generally about task problems, and one in which inquisitive kids felt free to follow their curiosity.  Equally important, it was an environment wherein kids, with an initial success, could turn to colleagues who were broadly expert in relevant fields, and particularly because of the genius of the Laboratory Directorship, colleagues who were also knowledgeable about hardware, weapons and weapons needs.

As Johnson points out, “APL was a platform that encouraged and amplified hunches [and] that allowed those hunches to be connected with other minds that had relevant expertise.”

Of course, the APL is only one of many such platforms that have occurred at different times and places throughout history, though they have tended to share a few characteristics in common:  all provided environments in which diverse types of thought could “productively collide and recombine.”

As I see it, this is our 21st century organizational charge: to recreate open-source environments that secure the most optimal conditions for mutual exchange and recombination of ideas.

There is a strong emphasis among many public commentators and policymakers on building technological infrastructure as the most optimal way to foster creativity and innovation.

Without a doubt,  technological infrastructure has contributed mightily to American economic and scientific leadership throughout history, but so has human infrastructure — the kind of infrastructure Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We still have immense potential for providing human infrastructure in the 21st century. We Extension educators can still serve a valuable role  enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0-driven technological infrastructure.  But reaching this potential will require a complete reassessment and retooling of our outreach model.

In the end, our success will depend on how adept we become at optimizing those conditions that have been shown to foster the most generative emergent platforms.

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.