Category Archives: Technology

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.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Beaver

BeaverNote: This is an essay version of the notes I prepared for the the concurrent session “The Extension Educator’s Role as 21st Century Platform Builders” presented at the 2012 National eXtension National Conference, held Oct. 1-5 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Many thanks to my colleague and co-presenter, Dr. Anne Adrian.  I am deeply indebted to Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, for many of the ideas explored in this text.

Introduction

What do two preeminent physicists and the father of html (hypertext markup language) coding have to do with a beaver?  That’s easy: All four are platform builders.  They built things that other people — or, in the case of beavers, other species — build on and use.

What is a Platform?

There are a lot of different ways to define a platform.

One thing they all generally share in common: They typically begin as rather desolate places that are transformed into hubs of activities.

In biological terms, platforms, such as beaver dams and coral reefs, provide the building blocks for dense ecosystems.   Dam building not only enhances the life of beavers but also provides habitats or foraging opportunities for a number of species: wild ducks, geese, kingfishers and swallows, to name a few.

To an increasing degree, science writers and other social critics are gaining a deeper appreciation for how human-constructed platforms provide the bases for further tinkering and innovation.

Among techies, a platform is a computerized system on which other developers can add hardware devises and software applications for particular purposes.

However, famed science writer Steven Johnson also uses the term to describe the sorts of open, freewheeling communications environments that produce significant, often far-reaching intellectual, scientific or technological innovations.

There have been lots of them throughout human history.

One early forerunner of platforms: Seventh-century coffeehouses — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed from this interaction: 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.

Why Are Platforms More Important than Ever Before?

More than ever in human history, we are beginning to understand that the knowledge ecosystems that grow out of these platforms confer tremendous advantages in terms of creativity and innovation.   They have driven human beings to higher levels of achievement. In fact, building these platforms and assuring that they remain the most open and generative as possible will be critical concerns in the 21st century for all sorts of entities, public and private alike.

The last half century provides some remarkable insights into how platforms, by driving creativity and innovation, have contributed to huge leaps in scientific progress and achievement.   Some notable examples include the Applied Physics Laboratory’s response to the Sputnik crisis, and Tim Berners-Lees invention of html.

The efforts of a couple of physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, to tract the 20 megahertz signal of the orbiting Sputnik in 1957 led to the development of global positioning satellite technology, which, in turn, provided us with Google maps and even the ability to post restaurant reviews on yelp.com.

The work of Tim Berners-Lee is another prime example of the long-term advantages a platform can confer on humanity.

Berners-Lee essentially built a new platform by stacking a series of older ones.  His genius was using hypertext markup language to pull various computer applications together — or, invoking the platforms analogy, to stack one platform on top of another.

The Worldwide Web, which html made possible, is only one IT-related example of platform stacks.  Others include Youtube, stitched together from Adobe’s Flash platform, the programming language of Javascript and other Web elements.

Cooperative Extension can point to its own rather impressive history of platform building and stacking.  In fact, we were platform builders more than a century before this definition was conceived.  In our earliest days, we not distinguished for the innovation and creativity we could bring to bear on problems but also for the way these contributed to highly generative platform stacks.

Extension itself is one layer of a considerably dense platform stack, built upon the Experiment Station platform as well as farmer institutes, which, in turn, were constructed on the older agricultural society model.  Extension also borrows heavily from other platforms, including the “university Extension” model begun in England in 1866.

Extension educators also helped build some of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century.  Boll weevil eradication, which provided the basis for other platforms — crops entomology, crop dusting, crops scouting, to name only a few — is one of the greatest examples.  Other platforms that were built off Extension or that borrowed significantly from it include the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, 4-H, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and community resource development.

What’s Missing Today?

We have been building platforms, highly generative platforms, throughout our history.  The problem is that the kinds of platforms we have built and continue build are not open and generative enough to meet the building codes of the 21st century.

Why? Because we live in a world in which people are not only better educated but also better equipped to empower themselves and to build their own platforms without the assistance of highly credentialed educators.

The highly generative capacity of new information media have only accelerated the trend away from more conventional forms of conventional outreach forms of educational outreach.

That’s our challenge.

Online Engagement is Integral to Our Success but Only Part of It

Online engagement and the accelerating rates of social media adoption that accompany it are good things but we what we need most of all in Cooperative Extension is a change of mindset.  We’ve got to learn how to combine our traditional outreach methods with social media techniques to assure that our platforms are the most open and generative as possible.  But we’ve also got to understand how these new platforms will transform of clients from consumers into prosumers.   In fact, they will no longer be clients at all but people who are actively involved in the design and planning of our educational products — prosumers.

They will actively collaborate with us in building these new open, generative platforms.

Our 21st Century Charge: Transitioning from Programs to Platforms

While we have been platform builders from the beginning of our history, factors have forced us to deliver many of our products in linear ways.  We are currently defined by how we deliver programs  rather than by how  well we develop ecosystems — platforms — that assure optimal levels of sharing, serendipitous insights and innovative thinking can occur.

In the future, we increasingly will be valued for the quality of our platforms.  The more open and generative these platforms, the better.

We helped build a global scientific farming model that has fed billions over the past century using older platforms.  The human infrastructure we have provided within the last century has facilitated the sharing of critical knowledge in much the same way that railroads and interstate highways have facilitated delivery of the nation’s manufactured goods from place to place.

The good news is that there is a stronger emphasis than ever on building technological infrastructure to secure the most optimal levels of creativity and innovation.

The bad news is that we will no longer be a critical component of this infrastructure unless we find a way to build more open, generative platforms.

Simply put, surviving in the 21st century will require our developing a more open-ended approach to outreach.   We shouldn’t find that imperative all that threatening: historically speaking, we are simply being called to close the circle, to return to our roots.

One critical need we will serve in the future will be helping our audiences deal with the tidal waves of words, symbols and data pouring out of their laptops, iPads and smartphones minute by minute, hour by hour. One of the most prized skills in the future will be the ability to collect vast amounts of information and assemble it into forms that they can use — the reason why our learning to be aggregators and curators will be an important part of platform building in the future.

In the future, we will be valued more for the open-ended platforms we build than for the programs we create.

What Will an Extension Platform Builder Look Like in the Future?

Let’s imagine for a moment a techno-savvy 23-year-old Extension horticulture agent — we’ll call her Tamara — who determined to set the world her on fire her first day on the job.

Soon after taking the reins of her new job, Tamara developed a gardening blog that covered all aspects of her field — one, she hoped, would develop into a definitive source for gardening information in her region.  She links the blog to her Flickr account, which she uses to collect images of new varieties, planted diseases, and invasive species — anything of potential interest to her clients.

She also uses a social bookmarking web service, which has enabled her to compile a staggering resource list encompassing links to trade journal articles and online books.

In addition to operating a Facebook page with other local horticultural Extension agents, Tamara also has developed a hefty Twitter following.  She tweets throughout the day, passing along observations about emerging home gardening issues, responding to client concerns and questions and sharing links to timely articles.

With the zeal comparable to a 19th century Methodist circuit rider, Tamara started out with every intention of becoming the vanguard of the engaged, networked, 21st century Extension educator.  She was determined to disabuse her fellow educators and clients of all those outmoded, 20th century notions about knowledge dissemination.

Yet, she has not confined herself exclusively to virtual interaction with her clients — quite the contrary. Thanks to the influence of an older agent named Sam, what she initially undervalued — field days, conferences and workshops — she now prizes as valuable ways to connect with her clients and to articulate their needs.

She’s also learned how this intimate person-to-person interaction can enhance her social media outreach work.  Thanks to Sam, she now better understands how the real-life insights she garners through face-to-face contacts can help her refine the sorts of information she shares with her wider audiences through social media channels.

Without being fully aware of it, Tamara is transforming herself into a platform builder.

The serendipitous insights she’s gained from interaction among large global horticulture audience have also help Tamara cultivate a deeper perspective about ways to enhance profitability of her local fruit and vegetable growers as well as the local farmers’ market.

Conversely, she is beginning to appreciate how the global perspective gained through dialogue with her social media contacts will enable her to provide her local clients with a wider, multidisciplinary perspective. A number of older Master Gardener clients who are not adept at or are unfamiliar with the emerging communications technology are nonetheless impressed with the level of insight she brings to her conventional field days and workshops — insights she’s gained from working with a wider audience.

Both her conventional and virtual audiences alike are impressed at the skills Tamara has developed as an aggregator and curator.  Just as the two-way interaction with her diverse audiences has helped her refine her knowledge and to formulate new perspectives on age-old questions,  Tamara’s skills as an aggregator and curator have enabled her audiences to make connections and to gain new insights into their work.

Sam has provided Tamara with something equally valuable: a genuine reverence for the constellation of values that define Cooperative Extension work — as he sees them, values just as relevant to the 21st century as they were a century ago.  He has helped her understand that her success as a networked Extension educator will be measured by how well these traditional values are balanced with the demands of the wired world.

Once More into the Breach: A Response to the Techno-Skeptics among Us

It’s Friday morning, and I’ve decided to take the advice offered by a morning-drive DJ and “make Friday count” by wading once again into the social media debate.

I’ve decided to devote part of the morning to respond to the techno-skeptics, those professionals, wherever they may be, who are resolutely opposed to social media adoption in their organizational ranks.

“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,” to borrow from Shakespeare.

Anyone involved in social media adoption within a large and diverse organization inevitably deals with a measure of techno-skepticism.

Based on my own experience, this dissent about social media and technological innovation tends to be expressed four different ways.

I’ve listed these and added my brief responses.  For a wider discussion, see the response I posted to YouTube.

 “We already have a Website!”

Many in large private- and public-sector organizations alike seem to believe that a comprehensive Website resolves everything.  In other words, why bother with the added challenge of social media training and adoption when virtually everything that needs to be said is on the Website?

They mistake apples for oranges.  In many respects, the use or nonuse of a corporate Website is no longer relevant to the larger picture.  The Internet and, more recently, the advent of Web 2.0 have given rise to a diverse media landscape, corporate Websites comprising only a small part of it.

While it’s always important to know who is using our Website and how, it’s wrong to assume that upgrading a Website will substitute for a comprehensive social media strategy.

“Why bother with social media if our clients aren’t using it?”

You may be right: Your clients may not be using social media.  But if this is the case, you will not be in business much longer because you’re serving an increasingly marginalized and receding base.

Some professionals, particularly older ones, are still making a case for limiting our outreach efforts to nonadopters. Their argument goes something like this: “Over the course of the last century, we’ve perfected outreach methods that serve our traditional groups exceptionally well, so, instead of reinventing ourselves, why not stick to these?”

Imagine for a moment if a similar strategy had been adopted in the 15th century: “No need to set ideas to type because 95 percent of the population is illiterate.”

We all know how the printing press reordered everything and ultimately empowered billions around the globe.  Society underwent profound and lasting change. There is no basis for assuming that this emerging technology will be any different.

In one respect, these dissenters are right: We must continue to invest resources in serving nonusers.  However, this strategy should incorporate a kind of Hospice approach as we phase out these approaches over time to capitalize on emerging technologies targeted to younger audiences.

Make no mistake, though: Restricting our focus to nonadopters assures our eventual extinction.

What’s so compelling about media adoption?

I’ll answer that question with a question: What is so compelling about farm mechanization in the early 19th century or, for that matter, precision farming adoption in the 21st century?

The short answer: to assure farming’s survival by rendering it more efficient.

That is our professional charge today.  By rendering our workplaces and outreach efforts more efficient and equipping us to leverage our scarce resources, social media adoption enhances our chances for survival over the next century.

Part of our strategy as social media proponents should be providing tangible examples to the techno-skeptics among us of how social media adoption already is rendering both workplace and outreach efforts more efficient.

What not let corporate headquarters worry about social media adoption?

This is another way of saying, “We’re too busy out here to be bothered by all this innovation.”

Our employees need to acquire what I’ve come to call a platform mentality.  Within the last generation, the Internet, and, more recently, Web 2.0 have created a new information platform.  This platform is empowering people in radical ways, much as the printing press empowered tens of millions in the 15th century.

Failure to adopt social media consigns us to a snail’s pace in a future in which everything around us moves at breakneck speed.

To put it bluntly, techno-skeptics in our ranks are the 21st century equivalent of 15th century tonsured scribes. They don’t understand that technology is now equipping our clients to make end runs around us.

Technology is democratizing all of his, and the sooner we all understand this, the better off we’ll be to weather the challenges that inevitably await us.

“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?

Lessons from Campus Radio

“No one brings a radio to their dorm today.”

If any sentence best expresses the sweeping changes that have overtaken campus radio within the last 20 years, it’s this one.

The observation was made by a recent Yale graduate who helped his university develop its online-only campus radio station while he was a student.

In one sense, this almost seems inconceivable to me, a broadcast-film-communication major who cut his teeth on campus radio while a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the early to mid-1980s. It underscores one of the great realities of this new order: that no technology is sacrosanct no matter how seemingly ubiquitous or indispensable.

A generation ago, who would have imagined that a radio station could be perceived in any way other than as a jock sitting in a cramped studio amid mikes, mixing consoles and spinning turntables and broadcasting over a FCC-prescribed segment of bandwidth?

This stereotype has been all but shattered.  As the New York Times’s Kyle Spencer reported last Sunday in a fascinating account of the evolution of campus radio, stations are transforming themselves into “multimedia platforms they believe that students with unprecedented tech appetites actually want, and it’s changing the ethos, content and vibe of collegiate stations.”

Campus radio, like so many other media in these tumultuous times, is busily engaged in stitching together platforms or, as the case may be, stacking one atop another.  But why shouldn’t they? If, as the article relates, students are coming to campus with smartphones, iPods and tablets on which they can listen to music via a multitude of apps, shouldn’t these stations be evolving to meet these changing needs?

What does this possibly have to do with Cooperative Extension, an entity that in historical, temperamental and philosophical terms has little in common with campus radio?

Everything.

The less engaged Cooperative Extension is with Smartphones, Ipods, and tablets, the more these technologies will be tied up in other uses. Here’s another way of looking at it: Each of these technologies represents a potential diversion away from time that otherwise could be invested in Cooperative Extension-related subject matter and programming.

To their immense credit, many of those associated with campus radio have taken this critical lesson to heart.  They understand that within this new communications environment, “luring listeners and keeping them entertained is a matter of survival” — small wonder why they transforming their stations into multimedia platforms.

The times are calling on us to acquire a platforms mindset too. We must learn how to conceive and build platforms that work in tandem with others or, when the need arises, to build them on top of obsolete ones.

We must take other lessons to heart too, especially the critical understanding that these new platforms will create new challenges as well as opportunities.  They will alter our organizational “ethos, content and vibe” much as they have campus radio stations and in ways we can now scarcely imagine.

We not only have to be prepared for that new reality but also comfortable with it.

We must also learn how to improvise as we never have before in our history — when the need arises,  altering and even dismantling and rebuilding platforms to better conform with emerging technological needs.

Likewise, we must  learn how to conceive and design apps to meet our users’ rapidly evolving technological needs.

We’ll also learn how to tailor these platforms to reach niche audiences, whether these happen to be defined by special needs or interests.

One of our great challenges in the future will be learning how to balance the demands of our traditional stakeholders and clients with those who are reached, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through these new outreach platforms. Extension programs have been traditionally rooted in communities and states. Over time, though, these rapid changes will lead require a considerable rethinking of what defines local.

Another lesson that already has been driven home to collegiate radio will also be driven home to us with a vengeance:  Like techno-savvy college students, our clients no longer will be dictated to.

Why? Because technology has liberated them.

The Two Critical Concepts of the 21st Century: Generative Capacity and Collaboration

Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project has inspired calls for a more open, collaborative scientific model.

Okay, pardon this passionate outburst but I want to reaffirm something — something I’ve banged on about ad nauseam for the past couple of years: the absolutely indispensable influences generative capacity and collaboration will play in our future.

An article I devoured earlier this morning confirms why these two concepts will likely provide the standard on which public and private entities alike will rise and fall within the 21st century knowledge economy.

Oh, and pardon the unwieldy term “generative capacity.” I simply can’t come up with anything that better describes what will likely be one of the two principal preoccupations for the foreseeable future. I owe Steven Johnson for this term.

Simply put, the massive sharing and social collaboration that has accompanied networking has enabled all forms of thinking, formal and informal alike, to be generated at vastly accelerated volumes.

Much like the 15th century Gutenberg Press, networking is changing all facets of how we develop and share knowledge.  Even science, the principal source of refined, formal knowledge, is proving to be no exception.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University Tim Gowers engineered a remarkable demonstration of the significance of generative capacity to scientific inquiry when he used his personal blog to solicit the help of people around the world in solving a highly complicated mathematical problem.

His effort, cleverly dubbed the Polymath Project, proceeded on the relatively straightforward premise that online tools can be used to enlist disparate brains into a temporary but greatly enhanced cognitive intelligence.

Within weeks Gowers’s problem was solved as mathematicians from sundry perspectives and with varying levels of expertise weighed in with insights.

Granted, not all of Gowers’s collaborative efforts have met with similar success, but his efforts have been successful enough to lead a number of observers to conclude that this networked approach to problem solving represents the future of science.

As the title of an Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal article aptly observed, “The new Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share” — or, in other words, collaborate.

In fact, that rather clever title underscores how these two factors, generative capacity and collaboration, will be inextricably linked in the future.   Borrowing the lyrics from that beloved Sinatra classic, “Love and Marriage,” what unfolds over the next few decades will only underscore that “you can’t have one without the other.”

Collaboration is the critical guarantee of generativeness (again, excuse my digression from standard English).  They work hand in hand.  Optimal generative capacity can only be ensured within open, fluid networks, which are secured only through optimal levels of collaboration.  One of the principal preoccupation of all knowledge providers in the future will be building fluid learning environments — platforms as I prefer to call them — that strive to secure the highest levels of collaboration and generative capacity.

For what it’s worth, I’m personally convinced that science will prove no exception.   Yes, there is resistance.  Proprietorship has been a defining characteristic of science for the last three centuries.  It will take years to divest scientists of the increasingly antiquated notion that writing for professionally refereed journal articles is more valuable to the future of human progress than open sharing of knowledge within extended networks.

Even so, the advent of a new, open and networked scientific model that ensures the fullest measure of generative capacity by securing optimal levels of collaboration is inevitable. As the WSJ article stresses, the immense potential of “discoveries not yet dreamt of” is simply too valuable to ignore.

Generative capacity lies at the heart of this immense potential, and as growing number of scientists will learn, it will only be secured through maximum levels of collaboration.

The Incredible Shrinking Intellectual

The Libyan National Transitional Council flag flown from a communications tower in Bayda

What has happened to all the Thomas Paines — the revolutionary thinkers who provided intellectual substance and inspiration to every revolution in history beginning with our own in 1776?

They seem to be conspicuously missing in the recent Arabic uprisings, reports the New York Times.

To be sure, much of this absence may stem from factors unique to the Arab experience — as New York Times reporter Robert Worth observes, the intellectual’s perennial challenge of combating brutal repression and religious orthodoxy simultaneously.

Moreover, many Arab intellectuals, exiled for decades, have lost touch with the day-to-day struggles of their compatriots.

Then again we live in a post-ideological era.  There seems to be less demand than ever for “unifying doctrines or grandiose figures who provide them,” Worth conjectures, adding that the kinds of intellectuals in the forefront of the epic ’89 revolution s have been relegated to microblogging and street organizing in the present-day Arabic  struggles.

Yet, perhaps some bigger factor is at work — something I’ve discerned a time or two in my own work.

Could it be, as Worth observes, that “the ideological platforms of earlier revolutions are obsolete, given the speed of communications and the churn of new perspectives?”

Could it be that the late-20th century vanguard model is simply not generative enough?

One expert quoted in the article, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, thinks so.

He contends that the recycling of new perspectives in these revolutions simply have proven to be “too fluid, too fast-moving, too complex” for intellectual vanguards to supply an over-arching vision — a new paradigm.

I find the article fascinating because it strikes at the heart of something I’ve observed in my own work as a Cooperative Extension communications professional.

The revolutionaries of 1989 were struggling with bandwidth limitations.  There was a critical need for intellectuals such as Czech dissident Vaclav Havel to serve as information brokers, people who were not only equipped to provide an overarching rationale for their nation’s grievances but who also could serve as bridges between the discontented, isolated masses and the western media.

New media have essentially resolved the bandwidth problem.  Now more than ever rank-and-file revolutionaries are as much equipped to articulate their grievances as they are to demonstrate how these kaleidoscopic views are playing out within their ranks.

To put it another way, emerging media have empowered rank-and-file revolutionaries to learn, share and articulate on their own — without the acute need for the kinds of professionals who spearheaded earlier uprisings.

Is there a lesson here for Cooperative Extension?  Yes, in two notable respects: first, by demonstrating how new media have enabled ordinary people to leverage their own intellectual assets and, second, by confirming the awesome generative power of these new media.

Simply put, ordinary people no longer require the active intervention and participation of experts as they once did.

New media are enabling them to build their own learning and sharing platforms — platforms that have largely large superseded the need for experts, whether these happen to be revolutionary intellectuals or professional educators.

Yes, as I have steadfastly maintained, there is still a place for professional educators but only if we understand our new function within this drastically altered communications landscape.