Tag Archives: Future of Cooperative Extension

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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?

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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.

Lessons from William and Kate

I’m an American.  Like many of my compatriots, I have a hard time grasping the appeal of the monarchy in this democratic, egalitarian age.

Nevertheless, desiring to spend some quality time with my daughters, I bounded out of bed this morning at 3 a.m. to watch the Royal wedding.

I ended up drawing some lessons from it — the wedding, that is — lessons for Cooperative Extension’s future.

To be sure, there are some interesting parallels between the British monarchy and Cooperative Extension.

The monarchy once wielded an immense amount of power and influence, much as we did within a different context.

Now it’s striving to adjust to a new era in which it commands considerably less power and influence.

To a significant degree, so are we.

The monarchy has been improvising furiously since at least the English Civil War.

They’ve improvised their way through all manner of social, cultural and political upheavals and through a series of murky, unwieldy institutional arrangements that would make an ordinary American’s head spin.

Despite it all, they have secured an enduring institutional presence throughout the world. The monarchy even managed to adapt to the decline of the British Empire by carving out new realms and new working relationships within the Commonwealth context that eventually emerged.

That’s part of the genius of the monarchy, I suppose, and that’s partly why I ended up drawing lessons and even a measure of inspiration from the wedding.

We are an old institution — granted, not as old as the British monarchy — that has been improvising its way through murky institutional arrangements for more than a century.

We started out a patchwork of outreach movements that was  cobbled together and joined with the nation’s land-grant universities.   Eventually, we evolved into one of the most successful outreach programs in history, one that ultimately formed an integral and vital component of the land-grant mission.

As it turned out, these murky institutional arrangements provided rather ideal conditions within which we could adapt and grow over time.

In a manner of speaking, we’ve constructed our own realms reaching from the grassroots all the way up to the national level.

Much like the 21st century monarchy, we are being called upon again to rethink our identity and our mission as we forge new partnerships within a radically altered context.

It’s also worth reflecting on how the wedding marks a significant departure from the past: the first union between a senior royal prince and a commoner in some 350 years. The sight of the young prince marrying an attractive, assertive, self-confident commoner has breathed new life into a millennium-old institution.

“The monarchy is back!” proclaimed one obviously delighted British-born CNN correspondent.

I hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, a journalist or columnist will offer a similar characterization of Cooperative Extension. That, of course, will depend on whether we learn to improvise — to blend old with new  — to build a 21st century outreach model that incorporates the very best elements of the model we constructed during the previous century.

That is the take-home message I carried away from this early morning event: that the times are  not only changing but are also calling on us to undertake a radical departure of our own — a radical departure from the way we currently view  the world and our place in it.

Will we summon the courage to undertake that departure?