Lessons from a Blogger

Picture of blogger, columnist and author Andrew Sullivan.

Famed blogger Andrew Sullivan has changed the media landscape as we know it more than once in his career. He appears to be on the brink of doing it again.

Famed blogger Andrew Sullivan has decided to leave The Daily Beast and go it alone, starting his own blog and charging subscriptions.

What does this have to do with the future of Cooperative Extension?  Everything.

Think for a moment about the implications of this in terms of traditional media.  As Mathew Ingram observed recently, if one of the nation’s preeminent bloggers can leave an online publication such as the Daily Beast and strike out on his own, who’s to say that other premiere bloggers and columnists —the New York Times’ Nate Silver and Thomas Friedman, for example — won’t soon follow?

As Ingram asks rather ominously, “at what point does it become more of a hindrance than a benefit to be associated with a traditional media brand?”

Within only days after announcing his split, Sullivan raised more $300,000 dollars for his new site.  More recently, he’s drawn closer to the $500,000 million mark.  There is every reason to believe that Sullivan, distinguished by his long history of media trailblazing, is once again primed to change the media landscape.

What we’re talking about here is creative destructionism on crack.  The arrival of new media a generation ago thoroughly democratized media usage partly by drastically lowering entry costs.

New media have empowered gifted writers such as Sullivan — good writers who also aren’t afraid to think out of the box and to challenge conventional thinking — to strike out on their own.

Small wonder why I and others get so frustrated with the people in our ranks who view new media adoption as just another skill set that must be added to one’s professional repertoire simply to pass muster at the next performance appraisal review.

They don’t understand how these new media are reordering everything in their wake, not only communications and business but every facet of our lives.

Within higher education, we’re already getting a taste what’s in store for us with the steady growth of Massive Online Open Courses.

That raises a rather fascinating but troubling question.  To paraphrase, Ingram, how much longer will it be before the majority of aspiring students view conventional higher education as a hindrance more than a benefit?

The skeptical colleagues in our ranks must understand that Cooperative Extension is no more immune to the effects of new media than any other facet of education.

I’ll leave my readers with another question: At what point will traditional Cooperative Extension programming and delivery methods be viewed more as hindrances than benefits?

To put it another way, how much longer before a handful of aspiring Extension educators strike out on their own and develop an outreach version of MOOCs?

The next time some of our Extension colleagues bang on about how all this talk of new media is wasting their time, they need to be gently — or, perhaps, not so gently — reminded of this new reality.

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The World Extension Agricultural Educators Made

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Tuskegee Institute’s famed Extension agricultural educator Thomas Campbell standing by the Movable School, one of the earliest and most successful examples of agricultural Extension work.

By all accounts, farming has traveled an astonishingly long distance in a comparative short time—a remarkable journey and technological feat owed in no small part to Extension educators.

In colonial America, farmers toiled some 78 hours a week and were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of back-breaking drudgery.  Growing in stature and strength required more food, but the physical limitations of farmers prevented them from growing it.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Extension educators helped show farmers how to produce a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.

The advanced scientific farming methods that grew out of land-grant university research and that were disseminated to farmers by the growing legions of Extension educators broke the unbreakable cycle associated with older patterns of farming and changed the course of agriculture forever.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the deaths of millions from mass starvation as other nitrogen sources approached exhaustion.

Bodies grew larger and healthier.  For example, the average American man in 1850 stood 5 feet and 7 inches, weighed only 146 pounds, and was expected to live to be only 45.  By contrast, in 1980, the typical American man was 5 feet and ten inches, weighed 174 pounds, and was expected to live beyond 75. These statistics are among the many compiled by a study published in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel titled “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”

The strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — was another critical factor behind this dramatic farming transformation.  Mechanization enabled farmers to transform millions of acres into productive cropland that had previously been tied up to feed draft animals.

The abundant and comparatively cheap food supply that many of us take for granted is one of the earliest and most tangible effects of Cooperative Extension work.

Environmental Gains

Yet, as Ridley also stresses in his book, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied the adoption of other modern farming practices also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

For example, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

More strides have been made in recent years with the adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, which have produced drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and use.

As renowned futurist Kevin 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 besides raising food — valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

The Road Ahead

What role did Extension play in these dramatic advances?  This technological revolution would not have been possible without the working relationships Extension agents cultivated with the nation’s farmers.

In spite of all these colossal achievements, modern farming is beset with challenges.  Even as farming transforms itself to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century, growing numbers of people around the world are calling for a new farming model that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, less soil disturbance and less reliance on nonrenewable energy resources,

Just as we did in the last century, Extension educators will be working hand in hand with farmers to build a new farming model that emphasizes both economic efficiency and environmental sustainability—a model, Ridley says, that not only will be fully equipped to feed an estimated 9 billion people comfortably but that also will achieve this using considerably less cropland, water, fuel, and chemicals.

It’s All about Extending the Virtuous Circle

Picture of man holding an Ipad.

In the end, social media adoption in Cooperative Extension is about empowering people, helping them understand that all of this adoption points to a movement rather than a fleeting technological trend.

There is all this frantic talk of social media adoption —and rightfully so.  A lot of this talk will generate more Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts within Cooperative Extension, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

The problem, at least, as I see it, is that amid all of this frantic adoption we’re missing the most critical point: Social media adoption is more about mastering a handful of applications; it’s about cultivating an entirely new mindset.

Actually, it’s about something more.  As rhetorically overblown as this may sound to some, it’s about our returning to the core principles that have always defined Extension work, at least, implicitly — inclusiveness and empowerment.

More about that later.

A Movement, Not a Tech Trend

I have to admit that in driving home this argument I’ve felt a bit like a member of a paltry handful of John the Baptists crying out in the wilderness — or, to use another analogy, a starry-eyed idealist stuck in the clouds.   This is precisely why I was gratified a few weeks ago to read a Google-Plus comment by the ever-resourceful and farseeing Bob Bertsch, who harbors a strikingly similar view.

Bob mentioned that his experience with the NetLit Community of Practice, of which we are both members, has driven home a similar conviction.  He argues that “instead of serving an audience or trying to change an organization, we should be inviting people to be part of a world of 7 billion interconnected teachers.”

Why? Because this is about a movement, not some fleeting technological trend, Bob says.

He gets all of this in a fundamental way.  He understands that our challenge is providing our people as well as our diverse audiences with a cosmic view of what’s taking place, because in a very real sense, what is occurring is cosmic — cosmic in the sense that it is reordering every facet of life on this planet, whether this is occurring in a relatively remote Sub-Saharan African city or in downtown Manhattan.

Our challenge is to show our professionals as well as our audiences how all of these changes reflect a movement that is unfolding globally.  Most important of all, though, we must demonstrate how they are empowering people by rendering all facets of life more inclusive.

“Why Nations Fail”

This brings me back to a visionary book I’ve read and re-read over the last few months: “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu, James Killian Professor of Economics at MIT, and James A. Robinson, David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University.

As these two professors contend, nations fail and ultimately collapse because of their elites’ unwillingness to provide fertile conditions in which inclusive economic and political institutions can develop.   One of the really tragic facts of human history is that only a paltry handful of nations have succeeded in building durable, inclusive societies.

Virtuous Circles

Inclusive societies emerge when elites are shorn of their incentives to deprive less advantaged groups with the means of improving their economic and political plight.  Over time, a kind of positive feedback system emerges — a virtuous circle, as Acemoglu and Robinson describe it — one that preserves inclusive institution in the face of attempts to undermine them.

Over time, this feedback system sets in motion forces that lead to even more disadvantaged groups becoming economically and politically enfranchised.

In the 19th century American elites did something truly remarkable: Instead of undertaking a futile rearguard action against the relentless march of inclusiveness, as previous generations of elites had done, they created a series of institutions with inclusiveness as the end goal.

What were the Homestead Acts and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 other than attempts to expand this virtuous circle.  Within the next few decades, these legislative acts were reinforced with passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established a national network of outreach programs known as Cooperative Extension.

Cooperative Extension represents something remarkable in human history: a cadre of educators charged with empowering people and, in the course of which, ensuring higher levels of inclusiveness.

This reality lies at the heart of our history, and it should comprise the defining principle of social media adoption within Cooperative Extension.

Yes, all this frantic social media adoption is a good thing. But we must understand these online technologies for what they really are: As powerful new ways to empower our diverse audiences—to extend the virtuous circle.

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.

Introduction to Open-Science Panel Discussion at the 2012 National eXtension Conference

MicroscopeNote: This is the preface I wrote to kick off the “Open Science and the Future of Cooperative Extension” panel discussion, which was held Tuesday, Oct. 2 at the National eXtension Conference in Oklahoma City.  Hopefully, it does an adequate job framing open science and it’s implications for the future of Cooperative Extension work.

Extension educators and professionals intuitively understand that we will be called upon to build new models to compete and survive in this new communication and economic order.

The question remains: What should these models be and how should they function?

Perhaps part of the answer lies with Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers. 

Several years ago, Gowers set out to solve what seemed to be an intractably difficult math problem by crowdsourcing it.

Much to Gower’s surprise, the problem was solved in a matter of weeks through this collaborative effort —and not exclusively by Oxbridge- and Ivy League-trained mathematicians.  Many people with varying levels of training and academic perspective weighed in with insights that ultimately helped solve the problem.

Gowers dubbed this the Polymath Project, an undertaking that produced a whole series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers and publications under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

Yet, the effort kick-started something that in historical terms may be even more significant: The open-science movement.

The potential of open-science already has been foreshadowed in other areas of science, notably the human genome project, the culmination of a series of pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Yet, this only scratches the surface:  Many of the most impressive strides have occurred in the computer industry.

What we’re arguably discovering is that science is no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life. With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, it is now possible for of the research that once required heavily funded research departments to be considerably scaled down.

The economic downturn as certainly contributed its share too.  Proponents of open science contend that this new scaled down approach to research may prove a more cost-effective alternative to conventional scientific discovery as many governments around the world slash conventional research funding.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound. Arguably, we have been involved in open science form the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we have done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, would steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it. 

Real research, they would contend, is not possible without the conventional methods of inquiry that have character science for centuries.   

That’s the purpose of this discussion today: to sort all of this out — to try and take the first steps to fleshing out Extension’s place in this new order.

How should Extension function within this new free-wheeling information order? 

How do we balance older, conventional forms of scientific inquiry and reporting with the emerging values of open science?

To what extent should we embrace this new order?  If we opt for a full embrace, how will this be reflected over time in our defining principals and organizational structure?

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The Coming Digital Tipping Point

The Coming Digital Tipping Point

Newsweek and other print media are not the only entities rapidly approaching the digital tipping point – the point at which the demand for digital sources of information trump traditional sources.
(Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

A few months ago, I was gung ho about the prospects of developing a sleekly designed publication featuring compelling stories about Extension that could be placed in doctor’s and dentist’s offices and other locations around my state to better ensure that people who had never heard of Cooperative Extension would.

After reading David Carr’s New York Times piece exploring the headlong decline of Newsweek’s fortunes, I’m not as sure about my idea’s prospects for success. But this only scratches the surface of the insights I gained reading this article. Many of the issues Carr raises are relevant not only to Newsweek and to print media in general but to the future of Cooperative Extension and, for that matter, higher education in general.

In exploring the future of print media, Carr touches on one of the central themes of this weblog: Nothing in this new information order is sacrosanct, not even those institutions, such as Newsweek, that seemed sacrosanct in the last century.

Consider what’s happened within the last generation: Magazine editors once imposed rather brutal discipline on staffs numbering in the hundreds to do what technology is now equipped to do in real time — to aggregate information.

Faced with this sea change, Newsweek and other print media have undertaken valiant and, in many cases, highly imaginative efforts to reinvent themselves. Even so, as Carr observes, Newsweek Editors’ Tina Brown’s recent decision to run a cover depicting two supple female lips primed for an asparagus stem, while clever, reflects — arguably, at least — a desperate struggle by Newsweek and other printed media for relevancy.

Despite all these efforts, though, Carr perceives that Newsweek and other print media may be lurching ever closer to “the edge of the cliff,” ominously reflected in a recent report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that news circulations are down 10 percent.

Many of print media’s brightest minds perceive something fundamental at work in the marketplace: the tipping point, the final shift from print to digital delivery.

Carr even speculates that Newsweek and other magazines may be on a downward spiral that not even its digital iterations may reverse, bringing them ever closer to what Carr, with a bit of Gibbonian flair, describes as “the imminent end of the print artifact.”

In the midst of this decline, as in all periods of decline, a handful of optimists express hope that this downward spiral will be reversed at some point.

Yet, this tipping point appears to be occurring in the places where news magazines like Newsweek once held pride of place: doctors and dental offices, until recently oases of magazine consumption.

Carr recalls a recent doctor’s visit in which he noticed that every waiting patient, without exception, was glued to a smartphone screen.

There are some ominous lessons here for Cooperative Extension, and not only because of our century-long investment in printed publications. Aren’t we rapidly approaching our own tipping point — the point at which people will opt for digital sources rather than the traditional forms of outreach delivery that have defined Extension work for the last century?

Among many memorable quotes, Carr serves up one that should give all of us pause: “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you put on the cover of your magazine if no one will look at it.”

Likewise, couldn’t someone argue just as legitimately that it doesn’t matter how Extension educators conceive and present their programs if growing numbers of information seekers are opting instead for digital sources?

Carr raised another point that has stuck with me: the insistence of one Newsweek financial analyst on the enduring value of the Newsweek’s brand.

“Every bit of this research tells us that it is a solid, global brand,” contends Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive Corporation, which remains the sole corporate underwriter of Newsweek.

Haven’t we heard similar arguments in our ranks? Haven’t we been reminded time and again that despite all our challenges that we still possess a brand name that remains viable?

Granted, I still place tremendous stock in our brand. But Newsweek’s dilemma nonetheless should serve as an invitation for a long reflective pause within our ranks.

Look at it is this way: If we, like Newsweek, are fast approaching a tipping point with no strategy for addressing what lies beyond how valuable is our brand name — really?

Japanese Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Japanese-designed Robot Assimo

A growing number of Japanese entrepreneurs, whether consciously or unconsciously, grasp the fact that building platforms and ecosystems lies at the heart of efforts to return Japan to the front ranks of technological innovation.

How does an article about a Japanese company’s decision to adopt English as its official business language possibly relate the future of Cooperative Extension?

Short answer: In every conceivable way.

The scramble by this company and many other companies around the globe to embrace English underscores why we must understand the absolutely indispensable role platforms and ecosystems will play in our future.

An article published in the Harvard Business Review titled “Global Business Speaks English,” related why the Japanese Company, Rakuten, which aspires to the world’s number one Internet company, has enthroned English as its official business language.

The part in the article that fascinates me most isn’t so much that English has ascended to the front ranks of world languages — needless to say, a remarkable story in its own right — but that the language is increasingly viewed by companies throughout the world, whether consciously or unconsciously, as a platform.

Company CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, who spearheaded the effort within Rakuten, understands that adoption will enable his company to lower transaction costs.  But he also appears to understand the value of English adoption in another important way: as the basis for creating a more highly diverse workforce, one better equipped to share multiple ideas and perspectives — a platform, in other words.

Over the long run, English will better enable his company to capitalize on the massive sharing and social collaboration that has been generated by the Internet and, more recently, Web 2.0 — generative capacity, as I’ve come to call it.

By capitalizing on this generative capacity, Rakuten better ensures that ideas shared among an increasingly diverse workforce will meet, mate and morph, increasing the likelihood for higher levels of creativity and innovation.

Therein lies one of the big lessons for Cooperative Extension.  We must understand that platforms are critical to our organizational future.  Extension professionals at all levels of our work must cultivate a clear understanding of platforms, how they work and the role they serve in optimizing the rate at sharing occurs with the ultimate goal of enhancing the likelihood of higher levels of creativity and innovation.

However, we can’t stop with platforms.  Platforms merely serve as the basis for the construction of dense ecosystems which, in human terms, provide contexts within which the exchange and recycling of ideas can occur more efficiently and at vastly accelerated rates.

As another recent article relates, a growing number of Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs are beginning to realize the important role ecosystems will serve in helping their economically beleaguered nation regain its innovative edge.

Cultivating these ecosystems is as much about cultivating a mindset as anything else.  Japan must break out of its self-imposed isolation to cultivate a newer, more open mindset that embraces creativity and innovation — the same sort of mindset that propelled post-war Japan to the front ranks of economic leadership in the last century.  This will call for a deeper awareness that even the most seemingly insignificant of innovations and insights within organizational ranks offer potentially far-reaching implications.

Within Extension ranks, this will call for a strong institutional commitment to openness and, equally important, an awareness at all levels that ecosystems thrive only within institutional contexts in which out-of-the box thinking not only is valued but actively encouraged and rewarded.