Category Archives: innovation

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.

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Transforming Cooperative Extension into a Platform-Ready Knowledge Organization

condo-constructionSitting in on a media interview recently filled me with some new insights into the critical need to render Cooperative Extension not only platform friendly but also platform ready.  And by “ready,” I mean an organization that is not only congenial to platforms but also fully equipped to be early adopters and, in some cases, innovators of open-source platforms.

Indeed, this interview not only filled me with new insights but also with a resolve to drive home this critical truth: Cooperative Extension’s very survival depends on our transforming ourselves into a platform-ready organization.

What Are Platforms?

In human terms, platforms are the outgrowth of open, freewheeling communications environments.  One notable example: the coffeehouses that emerged in 17th century Britain.  These coffeehouses turned out to be fluid environments of information exchange that provided the basis for new ways of thinking and acting.  Over time, they gave rise to a host of open-source platforms, conceptual foundations on which far-reaching intellectual, scientific and technological innovations were built over the course of years, decades, even centuries. The effects of these platforms are still felt today, r

William Hogarth's painting of a spirited 18th century political dinner at a restaurant tavern.

William Hogarth’s painting of a spirited 17th century political dinner at a restaurant tavern.

oughly 500 years later.

Needless to say, the increasing levels of social networking that have followed the advent of Web 2.0 have significantly enhanced the conditions out of which these platforms emerge.

The Interview

The interview that prompted these new insights into platforms involved a reporter from a major Alabama news outlet and Dr. John Fulton, a highly respected Alabama Extension specialist and Auburn University and precision farming pioneer, who discussed the implications of data-management to farming — not only how it will affect farmers but also how it will transform the work of Cooperative Extension educators.

Precision Farming Tractor

Land-grant educators exploring a fully equipped precision-farming tractor

Fulton contends that 2012 will be remembered as the watershed year of farm data management — the year when companies began investing significantly into improving their product and service offerings by providing farmers with ways to aggregate and curate the reams of data generated by farm-related technologies, particularly those associated with precision technology.

To put it another way, the immense amounts of data generated by all these farming technologies have reached a critical mass. In fact, farmers don’t know quite how to assimilate all this data — little wonder why a growing number of entrepreneurs have not only begun noticing this trend  but are also formulating ways to aggregate and curate it on their behalf.  The impression I get is that it has the makings of an entrepreneurial free-for-all, sort of like the mad dash for land and wealth that followed the European settlement of the Americas, Australia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Makings of an Open-Source Platform

At some point during the interview the realization struck me: This critical mass of farming data constitutes a platform, the basis on which a growing number of entrepreneurs hope to conceive and develop profitable innovations and technologies.

A Lesson for Cooperative Extension

The exchange prompted few random thoughts about the implications of platforms to the future of Cooperative Extension.

First, the data-management issue in farming is a prime example of emergence, basically how a handful of unintentional interactions eventually contribute to great leaps in thinking, which, in the course of leading to new ways of looking at things, provide the basis for new ideas and concepts and, in a few cases, to full-blown innovation.  These new insights sometimes form the basis for highly generative platforms, much as coffeehouses did in the 17th century.

Second, this farm-data trend has been playing out for years.  Yet, even many of the best and brightest in Cooperative Extension, including Fulton, scarcely noticed it until now. Consequently, this development, entirely unforeseen, has presented Cooperative Extension with some real challenges.  If everyone and his brother are trying to build off this platform — to aggregate and curate this data for the benefit of farmers — where does this leave Extension?   What will happen to us as other players manage to capitalize on this platform and others that follow, becoming better equipped along the way to aggregate and curate this data on behalf of farmers?

Third, do our current 20th century linear programming models blind us to change?  Are they preventing us from seeing platforms that are emerging all around us? I think a strong case could be made that they do. These obsoleting programming models —obsoleting is probably a too generous word in this context — are hampering our ability to adapt to the demands of this highly generative information landscape emerging around us.

These points prompt a series of questions, some rather thought-provoking:

  • Could professional training enable us to recognize a platform when we see one?
  •   Is it possible to equip Extension educators with the skills to perceive platforms in the making?
  • Through heightened awareness, is it possible not only to recognize these emerging platforms but also to capitalize on them before they develop into full-fledged platforms?
  • For that matter, is it possible to recognize the environments in which these platforms are likely to emerge so that we can build platforms ahead of everyone else?

Some Parting Thoughts

I suspect that an ability recognize and emerging platforms when you see one is s skill, arguable a critical 21st century job skill, which can be cultivated as readily as other job skills. For the sake of our survival, I think it is incumbent on Extension educators to cultivate an ability to recognize emerging platforms.

This begs the question: If the ability to identify emergent platforms represents a critical new job skill, what kind of professional training would enable Extension professionals to readily acquire these skills? For that matter, how could Extension’s work environment be reconfigured to foster these skills?

One thing of which I’m reasonably certain: We need to formulate ways to incentivize platforms-based thinking — for starters, to reward people who develop the capacity to know an emergent platform when they see one. And remember: This is not something that we can opt to do but that we must do for the sake of our survival.

We must also focus on the specific ways that linear programming models hamper us not only from seeing but also from fully capitalizing on the emerging platforms around us. Likewise, we should identify the most optimal ways to instill our employees with an understanding the nuts and bolts of platforms, not only how these provide the basis for all manner of innovation but also how many of these innovations may ultimately form the basis for even newer, more generative platforms.

What are some of the things that can be undertaken immediately to render Extension not only more platform-ready but also more platform-friendly?

Aside from extensive retraining within our ranks, I think we also should explore ways to create more innovative physical space — in other words, transform Extension working environments to more closely resemble the open, free-wheeling environments that drive innovation.

All of us must also understand how potentially disruptive all of this will be and how it will affect our day-to-day work.  While some of us this sort of talk unsettling, we shouldn’t be surprised by it at all. Platforms not only provide the basis for far-reaching innovations but, in some cases, sweeping transformations, a few of which many threaten many, if not all, facets of our work.

Granted, it’s a bitter pill for many of us, but like it or not, that is the new reality of the 21st century.

Why Alabama 4-H Understands the 21st Century Like Nobody’s Business

Alabama 4-H educators are mastering inquiry-based learning methods to provide Alabama young people with the fluid learning environments they will need to succeed in this new globalized economy.

The further I advance into middle age, the more I’m convinced that a few things in life really are simple — not necessarily easy, mind you, but simple in terms of understanding their fundamental nature.

For example, I think a few very gifted and insightful science and tech writers, notably Steven Johnson, have successfully identified the key factors that account for the West’s technological triumph over the past century.   At the heart of all lies a strong commitment to openness.

As Johnson contends, the roots of this openness can be traced to the coffeehouses of the 17th century — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed: The ideas exchanged within those highly fluid environments ended up mating and mutating into new ideas.  Many of these ideas formed the basis for huge strides in scientific innovation which, in turn, secured immense material benefits for billions of human beings over the next 300 years.

Unfortunately, within the last few decades, American education has lost sight of this fundamental insight.

Fortunately for us, a few educational trailblazers, Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra and educational speaker, author and adviser Sir Ken Robinson are pointing the way back to them.

I’m proud to report that another group of educators much closer to home are also pointing the way: Alabama Extension 4-H administrator Lamar Nichols and the educators and professionals of Alabama 4-H.

Having spent the last couple of days at their annual priority team meeting, I think it’s highly likely that they will be remembered decades from now as vanguards — people who set the standards for youth educators in the 21st century.

They understand the implications of this emerging information/technological order as few others do.

The world is changing. We all know that.  Digitization is the reason for much, if not most, of these changes.  We know that too.

Yet, contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not only about adopting iPhones or learning how to tweet.

Technological adoption is only part of what we must do.  At the heart of it all is the critical need to understand the different kind of society that is emerging from all these technological changes.  While it’s partly about technological adoption, it is most of all about learning to think and act in a fundamentally different way.

To put it another way, it’s mostly about how to create optimal learning environments— ecosystems of knowledge in which people are to able share ideas freely and openly and that bear a strong resemblance to those raucous coffeehouses of the 17th century.

Alabama 4-H understands the dire importance of restoring this understanding of the fundamental factors that drive human innovation and progress.   What 4-H educators call inquiry-based learning provides the same thing as 17th century coffeehouses: fluid knowledge environments where ideas can be exchanged freely and with the greatest chance of their mating and mutating into even bigger ideas.

4-H educators understand that creating these kinds of environments among young people will be critical to ensuring that rising generations of young people develop a working knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, to use a highly appropriate acronym — factors that will be key to this nation’s global competiveness over the next century.

They’re creating these fluid learning environments to complement what is being taught in the state’s science and math classrooms.

The introductory material presented to each participant set the tone of the meeting:  “For our economic future, it’s not sufficient to target college grads and advanced degree holders for the STEM workforce — our nation’s economic future depends on improving the pipeline into STEM fields for high school grads as well.  As a nation, we need to strengthen the STEM workforce pipeline and in Alabama, we just need to strengthen workforce pipeline — period.”

By addressing this critical need, Alabama 4-H educators, in addition to setting a benchmark for other 4-H youth development professionals, are drawing us closer to a vision of the new model Extension educator of the 21st century.

Four Defining Traits of the New Model Extension Educator

Seeing, setting and articulating goals within networked, collaborative settings will be critical skills of 21st century Extension educators.

I’m not one to oversimplify, but I’m beginning to believe that the four most desired traits of Cooperative Extension professionals in the 21st century will be the ability to see, to set goals, to articulate, and to innovate.

To increasing degree, Extension educators in the 21st century  not only will be challenged to perceive emerging trends but also how they relate to current challenges — to see, in other words — then to set goals and to articulate them in ways that inspire others.  Finally, they will collaborate with others to develop and to achieve the most innovative solutions.

(Note: I’m highly reluctant to use “client” in this context because I’m more convinced than ever that there is no such thing in this networked world — only collaborators.)

One of this nation’s leading innovators and achievers, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, helped me see this.  Indeed, if anybody deserves credit for laying out a clear vision for 21st century Extension educators — new model Extension educators, as I prefer to call them —it’s Donovan.

Incidentally, to all you young Extension professionals who aspire to attain the front ranks of your fields: Donovan’s interview with New York Times features editor Adam Bryant should be considered required reading.

Donovan related in the interview how he taught himself over many years to draw on the talents of others while simultaneously inspiring them — a skill he first began honing when he was elected captain of his hockey team.

You must “look at a landscape, characterize it and set a framework for action, then be able to articulate it clearly” — simply put, to see, to set goals and to articulate.

As I see it, this will be the essence of Cooperative Extension work in the future: perceiving the emerging trends and challenges that likely will grow out of them, then inspiring and working with others within extended, mostly virtual, networks to develop creative solutions.

As Donovan observes, “You have to have the antennas for picking out what’s important.”

That’s where our specialized training and unique perspectives will benefit us.

Most of you have heard my old saw about Extension educators undergoing a transformation from normative to nodal professionals within the next few years.  They will no longer be the norm setters they have in the past but nodes operating with vast networks.

Even so, within this new networked environment, our backgrounds, coupled with the fact that we are temperamentally extroverted people working within a historically extroverted organization, uniquely equip us to function in this new nodal role.

We will be much better equipped than others to perceive trends and to work with others to flesh out workable solutions.

Yet, as Donovan stresses, there’s more to it than simply perceiving trends and setting goals.

At some point in their careers, successful innovators learn to develop team skills — as Donovan says, they learn that “giving credit away, deflecting credit, [is] an effective thing to do.”

It’s not about keeping score, it’s about playing for results, he says.

Donovan’s interview also underscored the enduring value of two other traits: working hard and drilling deep.

Needless to say, hard work has and always will be a distinguishing trait of outstanding professionals, but so is drilling deep — as he describes it, viewing every experience as an opportunity “to gain the broadest set of experiences I can.”

He’s absolutely right: Those who take the time to develop multiple perspectives — or borrowing from Dan Pink, those who cultivate right-brained in addition to left-brained cognitive skills — will be the best-positioned, best equipped professionals of the 21st century.

“Nanovating” the Cooperative Extension Mission

The Nano, developed by Tata Motors, has revolutionized Indian car ownership and should serve as a lesson to U.S. car manufactures - and, for that matter, to Extension.

Several years ago an enterprising Indian automaker achieved the unthinkable: It  found a way to make a car as cheaply as a motor scooter — an awesome feat in a nation that had looked to scooters as a principal means of transportation.

The tiny car, developed by Tata Motors and known as the Nano, sells for a mere $2,100.

Tata Motors, in the course changing the face of Indian car ownership, also drove home some vital lessons that American companies had best take to heart, argue Kevin Frieberg, Jackie Frieberg and Dain Dunston, authors of Nanovation:  How a Little Car Can Teach the World to Think & Act Bold.

So should we in Cooperative Extension.

Indeed their article about nanovation, which ran recently in the Washington Post, is every bit as pertinent to the future of Cooperative Extension as it is to American auto manufacturing.

Few public or private entities see paradigm shifts in the making.  What little of it we see, we regard with vague dread.

As the three authors stress, though, like it or not, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, one that is calling on us to undertake three critical steps: to question the unquestionable, to do more with less and to go to the intersection of trends.

Questioning the Unquestionable

In all professional honesty, the first step usually is one of the most dreaded within Extension ranks. As much as I love this organization, as much as I cherish its longstanding commitment to change and innovation, I’m often troubled by the legions in our ranks who are not only risk-averse but question- averse.

They don’t grasp one of the emerging truths of this new information order:  Questioning the unquestionable, far from being a frivolous waste of time, more often than not constitutes a way around organizational impasse.

That’s right: outlandish questions produce serendipitous insights, which, in some cases, even lead to great conceptual leaps. If you doubt that, read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, especially the section dealing with the immense insights that emerged from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University following the Sputnik launch in 1957. (I’ll say no more in hopes that it prompts you to read the book!)

Outlandish questions should be encouraged in our ranks.  Indeed, I can only imagine how much further down the road we would be if more of us were willing to question the unquestionable.

Never forget that Cooperative Extension is the product of a series of outlandish questions that challenged the conventional, not to mention elitist, educational thinking of the 19th century.

Doing More with Less

We hear it constantly: All that ceaseless carping about how budget cutting is forcing us to do so much more with less.

Here’s where I will go out on a limb and question the unquestionable: Why not regard these losses instead as creative spaces in which to develop with new ways of innovative thinking?

If Tata Motors has demonstrated one thing, it is that we can do more we less.  Working with fewer resources does not mean we have to be less creative. As the authors stress, Land Rover, which is now owned by Tata Motors, found a way to reduce their vehicles by 1,100 hundred pounds without reducing interior space.

Crises offer opportunities to undertake the first step: to question the unquestionable — to ask probing, sometimes unpalatable, questions about how we do business.

We  should view doing more with less as not as calamities but as opportunities to become creative by exploring new ways of engaging and serving our clients and in ways that are not only more relevant to their needs but that also complement the technology already available at their fingertips.

It’s a tall order, I know, but by asking the right questions — and by that I mean asking outlandish questions — we can achieve the unthinkable.

Going to the Intersection of Trends

As the Nanovation authors stress, those who survive will be those who not only concede a paradigm shift in the making but who also strive to understand how it will play out.

Granted, as any automaker would concede, it’s currently impossible to get 50 percent efficiency out of a gallon of gas. Even so, they can’t deny what’s happened with computers: the electricity required to run a computer has halved every 18th months.

As the three authors stress, the best positioned car manufacturers are those who already conceive of future in which in which fuel efficiency increases by the same geometric rates.  They’re already looking ahead to the intersection of the trends critical to their future.

As it turns out, Extension professionals aren’t required to make such a conceptual leap, because the factor that drives our future — the rates of knowledge transfer — are already occurring at such a pace.

We have already arrived at our intersection of critical trends.

In one sense, our next step is simple — not necessarily easy but simple.  Our outreach methods must be transformed to complement this new reality.

But the question remains: Are we primed to take the next critical step?

Better Living through Realism

The late Dr. M. Scott Peck observed that the healthiest people tended to be those most grounded in reality.

Over the course of his career, the late psychiatrist and bestselling author M. Scott Peck noticed a recurring pattern among his patients:  The ones most likely to recover tended to be those most grounded in reality — realists, in other words — while the patients least amenable to his help were those furthest removed from reality.

He also noted that the most unreachable clients tended to suffer from acute forms of narcissism, often in the most extreme form: malignant narcissism.

Peck’s insights have stuck with me for more than a quarter century after reading his first book, “The Road Less Travelled,” which I highly recommend to those of you who have not yet had the good fortune of reading it.  In fact, they’ve proven to be some of the most valuable insights into human nature I ever acquired in the course of my reading.  Getting real — striving to conform one’s daily life as closely as possible to reality — isn’t necessarily the key to happiness, but I’m fully convinced that it’s a hallmark of sound mental health.

Recently, I came across two items, one that highlighted the personal philosophy of one highly successful executive, the other that explored the traits of the most conspicuously unsuccessful executives.  Both, I believe, underscore the enduring value of Peck’s insights.

All of us Extension professionals would do well to read them and take their lessons to heart.

The first item, a New York Times interview with AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, demonstrated the strong correlation between realism and long, highly successful careers.    Successful executives, like mentally healthy people in general, don’t fear reality but embrace it. They invite criticism and surround themselves with talented subordinates who do not cringe from offering straight talk.

Donovan was fortunate enough to have acquired an appreciation for realism relatively early in his career.  He also developed an enduring appreciation for another trait closely associated with realism: Selflessness.

In terms of creativity and innovation, he ultimately learned that fretting over accolades proves entirely self-defeating.

“If you figure there’s a karma pool out there floating around for credits, you have to stop playing for credits,” he says. “I remember the day I realized that, and I probably never again need to involve scorekeeping in anything I did.”

Along the way, Donovan also developed an affinity for giving away roles.  He began assigning roles with which he had grown comfortable and proficient to other members of the team.   His gratification came from seeing the results that followed as more people stepped up to the plate to contribute their own unique insights and talents.

“I sort of see myself over time as needing to play the game less, but I’m becoming better at getting even better results by that combination of the right framework and the right people in the right positions.”

Okay, I’ll admit it: My throat tightened a bit when Donovan related the stages of his career.  Early in his career he set out to be smart, while later in life he has striven to be wise. It’s a critical distinction.

At roughly the same time I read Donovan’s interview I also surfed onto another piece that complemented it — actually, contrasted would be a better term within this context.

In “The Seven Traits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives,” Forbes contributor Eric Johnson discusses the eight traits cited by Dartmouth College Business Professors Sydney Finkelstein that typically consign CEOs and their companies to mediocrity, if not extinction.

I was struck by how all of these maladaptive traits all stem from an failure to grasp reality.

Finkelstein noted that the most unsuccessful executives typically overestimate the degree to which they control events.  Not surprisingly, they also tend to view others in their companies as agents responsible for implementing their personal company vision — little wonder why they often viewed their companies as extensions of themselves rather than as enterprises that should be carefully nurtured.

Delusional thinking and behavior are often expressed in other ways too, Finkelstein noted.  Poor executives tend to be enamored with those stereotypical superhuman CEOs who deal with multiple crises through independent snap decision-making on their own, seldom consulting knowledgeable associates.

Another troubling hallmark of these executives: Their ruthless elimination of anyone whose views didn’t conform to their own.

Fortunately for us, there has been a strong, longstanding institutional disliking within Cooperative Extension for these types of  traits. We have always valued selfless collaborators and team builders over lone narcissistic wolves.  Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then that the values that Donovan and other visionaries have embodied over the course of their careers will likely be the defining traits of the new information order.

The better we understand these values, take them to heart and practice them in the course of our everyday work, the better equipped we will be to navigate our way through this new order.