Tag Archives: Booker T. Washington

Back to the Future: A Training Strategy for Cooperative Extension

We have a saying here in Alabama that proclaims our happiness at not occupying the rock-bottom place on every state list:  “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Granted, as far as most state lists go, Alabama, historically speaking, hasn’t fared that well.  Even so, we Alabamians have always been a bit of an anomaly.  We figure high on some lists — music, athletics and colorful political figures, to name only a few.    Alabama also has the high distinction of pioneering much of what is known today as Cooperative Extension work, thanks to the diligent efforts of Alabama educators, such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Luther Duncan and P.O. Davis, to name only a few of Alabama’s many Extension luminaries.

Of course, Alabama’s Extension history comprises only a part of an unusually ample treasure trove — something that should be mined every Extension program in the nation.  Indeed, gaining a better understanding our early 20th century past will better equip us to become effective educators and professionals in the future as we reengineer our mission and outreach methods to the challenges of the 21st century.

How? By helping Extension become an axial organization.  By axial organization, I mean one in which knowledge of our past — namely, knowledge of how our past uniquely equips us for the future and, equally important, how it distinguishes us from our competitors — informs everything that we do.

There are several reasons why I think this knowledge is so important.

Our Murky Image

First starters and partly through no fault of our own, Cooperative Extension has struggled with a murky organizational image.  That’s not surprising: The Extension mission has evolved in many different ways over the past century.  Simply put, we’re multifaceted.  In fact, the multifaceted nature of our mission arguably should be regarded as one of our operating costs.

There is a need and a place for marketing to dispel some of this murkiness among our diverse audiences, but our employees often lack a clear understanding of Cooperative Extension too. 

Organizational Building

Extension methods are a highly nuanced and developed, albeit evolving, set of skills.  They have had to be. We are, after all, the ultimate educational improvisers.

Older employees have often pointed out that mastery of these highly nuanced skills and principles have been one o f the most rewarding aspects of Extension work.

Even so, for a variety of reasons, many younger Extension educators lack an adequate grasp of these methods, and, most important, how they must be refined to ensure that Extension outreach work remains relevant among 21st century audiences.

This dovetails closely with more recent insights associated with that perennial question that has occupied management experts and social psychologists for decades: What motivates us and, equally important, what are the factors that produce professional contentment and achievement?

Bestselling author Dan Pink, writing in “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” explores the how the need to grow, to develop and realize our fullest potential has emerged as a major motivator in the 21st century.

In the course of demonstrating to our employees the continued relevance of our history and mission, we can go a long way toward instilling them with a renewed passion for Extension work.

Surviving in a Global Knowledge Economy

Readers of my weblog are fully aware of how much worry, not to mention, prose, I’ve expended on implications of the emerging knowledge economy to Extension’s future.

At one time, we were one of the dominant knowledge providers within a comparatively sparse knowledge landscape. But as the 21st century progresses, our once commanding presence has steadily eroded.  The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, namely print and broadcast media, as traditional sources of knowledge is being steady supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge — search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies — all of which can be accessed at virtually the speed of light.

We must underscore to our educators and professional the critical need to distinguish ourselves from other knowledge providers within what Thomas Friedman has aptly described as “the flat world.” Much of this will depend on how successfully we adopt social media strategies as a way to distinguish ourselves from other knowledge providers.

Training’s Focus

So, we’ve outlined the challenges.  What do we do next?  We develop training — training to acquaint our participants with the three essential insights they will need to be fully equipped for 21st century Extension work.

These include our close association working knowledge and wiki (or collaborative) knowledge and our historically strong emphasis on dialogue and empowerment.

Extension’s “Working Knowledge” Legacy

Extension educators and professionals must develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has historically played in advancing practical knowledge to a preeminent place in American life. 

We must remember, though, that Extension educators accomplished something even more significant: they added value to practical knowledge, transforming it into working knowledge by showing ordinary Americans how to use it to make meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.  It is a unique form of knowledge reflected in the work of early Extension forerunners, Seaman Knapp and Alabama’s own Booker T. Washington. 

Providing employees with a deeper understanding of this working knowledge legacy will secure a greater organizational clarity, not only internally but, ultimately, also externally.

Equally important, it will help them understand that while our educators can’t compete with search engines, they are still equipped to provide their clients with deep context, showing how practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

Wiki Knowledge

 To an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

But isn’t working knowledge — the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the past century — a forerunner of this wiki approach?  Wasn’t this kind of knowledge first foreshadowed in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s Farm Demonstration Wagon?

This long institutional commitment to collaborative knowledge is yet another example of how Extension is uniquely equipped to rise to the challenges of the 21st century knowledge economy. 

Underscoring our longstanding organizational commitment to collaborative knowledge will instill our employees with a keener understanding of and appreciation for the role social media techniques will play in leveraging their outreach efforts.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Over the last few years, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.  

For example, British sociologist Anthony Giddens has observed that the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the central, provincial or local level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages clients to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Largely because of its history, Cooperative Extension is uniquely equipped to operate within this changed public policy landscape.  Indeed, this change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase our distinctive outreach legacy, which is reflected in historic emphasis on working and collaborative knowledge.

Summary

Some Extension professionals may deride this approach as a protracted form of navel-gazing.  To be honest, it is.  Even so, we believe a productive form of navel-gazing is long overdue in our ranks.  A heightened understanding our history will help us meet two critical challenges in the coming years: It will help us achieve a stronger grasp of the skills and insights required for our survival in a 21st century knowledge economy and, equally important, it will help us distinguish ourselves from millions of other knowledge providers on an increasingly crowded landscape.

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What Should Comprise a Cooperative Extension Grand Narrative?

Late last week, I mentioned the value of grand organizational narratives and why constructing such a narrative is critical to the success of the Cooperative Extension mission.

We Cooperative Extension professionals have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, many of us, especially the younger ones, are not fully apprised of our history and the role it can and should serve in helping us understand where we have been and, most important, where we should be going.

That raises an important question:  What should constitute this grand Extension narrative?

I’ve formulated a few initial thoughts.

Working Knowledge

First, Extension educators and professionals should develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has served in advancing practical knowledge.

To a significant degree, Americans put practical knowledge on the map — a considerable feat in its own right.  Not too long ago, the humanities were regarded, especially by Europeans, as the sole hallmarks of learning and culture, even as practical sciences, such as chemistry or forestry, were derided as “hick” knowledge.

Cooperative Extension educators played a major role in elevating practical knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Yet, we accomplished something even more significant:  We added value to practical knowledge.  We transformed it into working knowledge by showing ordinary people how to make use of it to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods.  By improving their quality of life, we also empowered them.

Simply put, working knowledge is value-added knowledge that enables our clients to improve their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.

It’s a form of practical knowledge that has been expressed many times and in many ways throughout our history.  Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act establishing formal Cooperative Extension programs, the working knowledge concept was embodied early forerunners of Extension work — in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration projects and in Booker T. Washington’s farm demonstration wagons.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us with much greater organizational clarity.

Likewise, it is a concept that we Extension educators should closely bear in mind as we strive to distinguish ourselves from among the legions of other knowledge providers on this increasingly flat world — a world that now includes nonhuman knowledge providers in the form of search engines.

We can’t compete with search engines. On the other hand, we still offer something that search engines lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge.  We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

Wiki Knowledge

This working knowledge concept also positions us in another unique way.

Too an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Isn’t working knowledge, the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the last century, a forerunner of this approach?  Equally important, doesn’t this longstanding experience with working knowledge uniquely equip us for the future?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes — yet another reason why I believe the working knowledge concept should form the bedrock of the Cooperative Extension narrative.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Finally, I believe this unique approach to working knowledge puts us in another especially advantageous position.

Over the last few decades, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.

Consequently, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the federal or state level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages individuals and groups to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Working knowledge should play an integral part in this approach.

This change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase distinctive working knowledge approach.

For the sake of our future, emphasizing this unique Extension experience and facility with working knowledge as well as the dialogue and empowerment that goes with it should comprise an integral part of our grand narrative.

Beyond Search Engines: The Cooperative Extension Educator as Catalyst

Behind every early adopter is a catalyst, quite often a Cooperate Extension educator.

This has been the case from the beginning of formal Cooperative Extension work.  Seaman Knapp’s work with demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s introduction of Jesup Wagons serve as two of the earliest and most enduring examples of our longstanding role as catalysts.

We should never lose sight of this role or the value of it, especially amidst all this talk of Internet search engines and the dire threat they pose to the Extension educator’s traditional role as knowledge provider.

Granted, there is cause for concern: If presented by her English instructor with an assignment to write about some horticulture topic, my 16-year-old daughter undoubtedly would refer to her laptop rather than to her local Extension agent or Master Gardening for background information.

Yes, Internet search engines are steadily eroding the image of the Extension educator as an immediate source of knowledge — that’s the bad news.  The good news is that our longstanding role as catalyst is far from dead.

It’s one thing to impart knowledge; it’s quite another to act on it.

Just ask Beau Brodbeck and Eve Brantley, two young but seasoned Extension educators.

While trained in different fields, the work they do on a day-to-day basis is remarkably similar.  In terms of their disciplines, they are walking encyclopedias — effective knowledge providers by every standard of measure.  But they are also catalysts.  Like any effective Extension professional, they perceive their most important role as sparking collective action.

What they’ve learned through their own experiences speaks volumes about how Extension educators are viewed and valued in the future.

Brodbeck, an Extension urban forestry educator based in southwest Alabama, says he’s had little difficulty garnering agreement from community leaders about the value of trees.  After all, who doesn’t like trees?   Based on his experience, though, liking trees and adopting practices that promote them are two entirely different things, especially, as in the case of cash-strapped communities, where cost is involved.

Despite his immense knowledge of urban forestry, Brodbeck has learned that he’s valued more for demonstrating time and again the practical effects of his knowledge, showing communities how trees  secure long-term cost savings by reducing storm run-off and water pollution.

He’s learned that facts alone aren’t enough: They must be marshaled in a way that compels community leaders to act.

Brantley, an Extension resources specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of agronomy and soils, has had similar experiences encouraging municipal leaders to introduce sustainable water management practices into their communities.

“When I started work, there already were bookcases full of water quality and storm water management-related texts,” she says.

“The science has been there and continues to develop.”

Like Brodbeck, she’s learned the value of “buy-in.” Success in her job rest every bit as much on how well she convinces one or more influential people in communities to buy into the desired change — early adopters by any other name.

Brantley readily concedes that her lesson are not new: They originated with the pioneering work of sociologist Everett Rogers, who not only popularized the concept of early adopters and but also demonstrated their role in transmitting new ideas.

These are old lessons, yes, but lessons that nonetheless underscore an essential but egregiously underappreciated fact:  The role we serve as catalysts remains one of our greatest assets but also one that is indispensible to quality of life, if not the long-term success, of every community in America.

A local mayor, council or city planner may be equipped with all the information available through search engines, but it often requires a catalyst to provide the incentive to act on this knowledge — someone equipped not only to put the issue into sharper perspective but also to make a compelling case for change.

For this reason, the enduring value of catalysts should never be discounted.

Creep-Proofing Our Features — and Our Mission and Image

A couple of days ago, I promised that I would offer some suggestions aimed at resolving the feature creep challenge within Extension.

Summarizing my earlier remarks, I believe the longstanding Extension penchant for improvisation has been both a good and bad thing — good in the sense that it’s enabled us to bring our vast sources to bear over long stretches of time on seemingly intractable problems, such as the boll weevil; bad in the sense that our yen for winging it has tended to contribute to organizational feature creep.

And this feature creep, in turn, has contributed to a murky organizational vision and public image.

So what do we do about it? We do what Palm Pilot has done: we construct a wooden block — mentally speaking, that is — a block that will help us define who we are and, equally important, who we are not.

We do nothing less than creep-proof our features —and with it our organizational mission and our public image.

Granted, this requires some organizational navel-gazing — something we in Alabama have been doing as part of our marketing efforts.

So what defines our wooden block?  We believe it can be explained in two words: Working Knowledge.  This short phrase summarizes the mission of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System during the last century.

Since the early 20th century, we have empowered people through working knowledge. To one degree or another, every Extension educator throughout our history has empowered his or her clients by providing not just knowledge but knowledge with a practical understanding — working knowledge that enables them to improve their lives or livelihood in some meaningful way, whether tangible or intangible.

In a manner of speaking, our wooden block is the Tuskegee farm demonstration wagon, commonly known as the Jesup Wagon, which was equipped by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and sent to far-flung regions of the state to reach farmers who, for whatever reason, were not attending Washington’s annual farm conferences.

In equipping these demonstration wagons, Washington and Carver evinced an intuitive understanding of the working knowledge concept.  They didn’t equip these wagons with leather-bound transcripts of classroom lecturers but with simple items of immediate practical benefit to farmers — items such as a cream separator, a milk tester, a revolving hand churn, a one-horse steel power and a cultivator.

The movable school became a form of working knowledge on wheels.

Yes, the working knowledge concept is only that — a concept — though we do believe it is one with the potential of providing our employees with much-needed organizational clarity.

We consider it an effective standard for guarding against feature creep.

Every outreach effort, whether it involves a twitter or a blog, a field day or a workshop, a publication or a television appearance should be predicated on this question: Does it advance working knowledge?  Does it enable our clients to improve their lives or livelihoods — or those of their families — in some meaning way?