Monthly Archives: November 2014

Cultivating the Introverts in Our Ranks

Le Penseur

Extension must employ more introverts – moreover, it should cultivate the skills of introverts already employed in its ranks.

Extension administrators: Listen to your introverts. They may save you in the future.

In fact, Cooperative Extension’s unwillingness to listen to the introverts in its ranks may come at a very heavy cost in the future.  It may even prove to be a factor that drives Extension to extinction.

To be sure, Extension is and ever shall be an extroverted organization. Extroversion is its lifeblood. Up to now, our primary support has come from sources that require a helluva lot of, well, schmoozing. We owe a significant debt to generations of super-changed, highly extroverted directors, county directors and rank-and-file agents who have forged lasting, highly lucrative relationships with legislators, commodity group leaders, county commissioners and sundry other supporters — stakeholders in Cooperative Extension parlance.

And, yes, the efforts of these extroverted schmoozers are the reason why Extension is distinguished throughout our nation and even the world as a high touch organization.

The Price of Extroversion

But this this almost obsessive organizational focus on extroversion has come at a price.

Too many times throughout our history, this emphasis on extroversion has come at the expense of the introverts in our ranks — the thoughtful people who not only stay abreast of current trends, but also think about them, discuss them with other Extension professionals, typically like-minded introverts, and, in the course of which, gain a deeper, more refined understanding of the long-term trends that will shape Extension’s future.

Years ago, an Extension colleague of mine who had recently announced her retirement asked me a point-blank question: “Why do I feel that I’m being pushed out the door?”

I knew her well enough to know that she expected a straight answer.  So, with as much tactfulness as I could muster, I replied, “Because you are an introvert within an extroverted organization.”

She had poured her life into Extension work.   And she was an asset to the organization, albeit a woefully under-appreciated one.  If she had managed to win over a sufficient number of decision-makers in the course of her career, Cooperative Extension would be far better prepared to meet the challenges of the digital age.

A Luxury We No Longer Can Afford

And that brings me back to my original point. A couple of decades ago, Extension administrators could afford the luxury of ignoring the introverts in their midst.  There were ways that big strategic problems could be glossed over by schmoozing the right funding sources.  But this was before the advent of digital technology and federal, state and local revenue shortfalls.

Extroversion will only take Extension so far in the 21st century.  In fact, I think that our extroversion works against us in several notable ways.

Extroverts, for example, do workshops, field days and other other traditional face-to-face outreach well, exceedingly well — and, so easily.  Sometimes it also seems that Extension professionals cover up their anxieties about the future with more frenetic activity — more workshops and field days. Reporting tools, still deeply immersed in the plan-and-push methods of the last century, only reinforce these behaviors.  These traditional outreach methods are like the Sirens in Greek mythology.  They are distracting us from cultivating a new mindset, one that takes full account of the digital imperatives of the flat world.

Yes, we always will be a high-touch organization.  And, yes, extroverts will always occupy the highest and most visible rungs in our ranks. But the kind of high-touch outreach organization that we must become in the 21st century will require the sort of deep, refined thinking that the introverts within our ranks are the best equipped to provide.

The Debt We Owe Introverts

As counterintuitive as it seems to many extroverts, the introverts of the world conceived and developed the technology that made the highly networked and interconnected world of the 21st century possible, and the only way Extension will survive in the future is by bringing more of these introverts into its ranks, even as it cultivates the ones it already has.

These under-appreciated introverts are not only the best equipped to build these technologies but also to show how these disparate digital trends will intersect within an outreach context in the years to come.

Without more of these analytical minds in our ranks, I don’t think that Cooperative Extension will be fully prepared to compete in this new digital environment  — I really mean that.

The Coming Extension Extinction

tar pit

What must Cooperative Extension do to avoid consignment to the digital tar pit?

There is a longstanding and very cynical corruption of the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules.”

In the digital learning world, it works a little differently. Only those who build the most fluid and adaptive digital networks — networks that are highly reciprocal, generative and, most important of all, responsive to the needs of contemporary learners — will survive and rule in the future.

As a few of you may know, I retired last September from the Cooperative Extension System.   Frankly, I don’t regret my decision. It appears, based on some experiences within the last few years of my career, that Cooperative Extension, despite its long and illustrious history, is one of those entities consigned for for digital extinction.

Frankly, as I consider all that is happening, I hold out little hope.

A Lumbering Dinosaur

Quite honestly, Cooperative Extension is a living, breathing dinosaur lumbering around only because there is still an available food source within its reach: a few legislators and funders still willing, however reluctantly, to support antiquated delivery methods.

Shortly before I retired, my very gracious department head called me into his office to conduct an impromptu exit interview. “If you could reinvent the Cooperative Extension System, what would you do?”

“That’s easy,” I replied.  “Devote the overwhelming bulk of funding within the next decade to transform Extension into a bona fide digital delivery system.”

As I see it, this transformation should be undertaken with the same seriousness with which an emergency room staff struggles to resuscitate a dying man.

The future of Cooperative Extension lies in developing the apps and other online digital technologies that will engage a new generation of learners within highly fluid networks — learners who consider traditional forms of delivery as passe or, at the very best, enhancements to digital delivery methods.

For most Extension educators, the next question is likely to be this: “What happens to the Extension grassroots educators?”

A Newly Conceived Role for Educators

Quite honestly, I think the times are calling on us to completely reconceive the role of grassroots Cooperative Extension System professionals.  As painful as this new reality may seem, the primary role of grassroots Cooperative Extension professional in the future will be serving primarily as technical professionals supporting the apps and other digital technology conceived, designed and distributed via their state headquarters or in cooperative with other Extension and land-grant university entities.

To be sure, an agent’s educational background in, say, agricultural education, will be helpful in this new role.  And, yes, there will still be the need for traditional Extension agents to continue reaching older client groups with traditional methods.  And, admittedly, there will be the continuing need for Extension professionals to lend a hand to clients who, for whatever reason, occasionally must go off the grid and experiment with some technique or learning methods for which digital delivery methods are unsuited.

But make no mistake: Digital delivery methods are the future.  Either Cooperative Extension undertakes a wholesale transformation very soon, or it will be completely swamped by this digital tsunami.  I’m reminded of that riveting scene of the astronauts in the new science fiction thriller Interstellar who have a difficult but essential technical task to complete before they are completely swamped by the extraterrestrial tsunami-force wave.  Cooperative Extension is in a remarkably similar predicament.

Will We Adapt Quickly Enough?

But will we adapt soon enough?  Frankly, I have serious doubts.  A couple of years ago, a close friend related an unusually unsettling story to me.  While she was paying a visit to her state Extension director, she pointed out an Extension specialist who had gone to great lengths in warning other Extension professionals about these threats to Cooperative Extension’s survival.

Through blogging and other digital techniques, he had managed to carve out a reasonably large national following and, along with a handful of other intrepid Extension professionals, had even managed to spark a dialogue in Cooperative Extension ranks.

“Well, that’s good,” the Extension director replied, “but we don’t pay him to do that.”

Reflect on that statement for a few moments: “We don’t pay him to do that.”

If one phrase in the future is likely to constitute the most fitting epitaph for a failed educational movement, it is that one. At the risk of sounding exceedingly blunt, if not impertinent, state Extension directors all across this country had darn well better start paying people to think their way through these challenges — and soon.

But again, I harbor serious doubts that they will.

Attend any Extension planning meeting anywhere in the country and the main topic of discussion is inevitably about workshops — workshops, workshops, workshops — and, oh, mind you, check your e-mail for accompanying pdf forms and press releases!

And, if these workshop planners are really technically savvy (for Extension professionals) they’ll remind everyone to be sure “to report these workshops through their appropriate social media channels.”

As I said, our leadership and much of our rank and file are lumbering dinosaurs inching their way to the tar pits.

Is there a way out?  We had better get busy finding it.