Tag Archives: innovation

Now More Than Ever: Cooperative Extension

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[Note: This was prepared as a resource for Extension professionals searching for ways to explain our continued relevance to our diverse audiences and stakeholders during our centennial celebration. This may prove especially useful as the basis for newspaper op-eds.]

The digital demands of the 21st century present Cooperative Extension with a host of challenges —small wonder why Extension educators in every state are revamping their outreach methods, making greater use of online technologies to ensure that they continue to serve our clients in the most relevant and effective ways possible.

Yes, our methods are changing, but we remain true to the core principle of Cooperative Extension: to provide our diverse audiences with working knowledge, showing them how to use knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in their everyday lives and work.

Respect, Openness and Creativity and Innovation

This core principle encompasses other values that underscore life in this increasingly interconnected global society: mutual respect, openness, creativity and innovation. All of these values have formed the bedrock of Cooperative Extension work from the beginning of our history.

They were first affirmed in the farm demonstration efforts of pioneering Extension visionary Seaman Knapp, who encouraged feedback from and sharing among farmers participating in his crop demonstrations in Louisiana.

We’ve contributed our share of creativity and innovation, too. One notable example is the Extension-sponsored boll weevil eradication efforts in the South, which led to many other advances, including crop entomology, crop dusting and crop scouting, to name only a few.

Our outreach efforts spawned other advances — the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, soil conservation and community economic development, to name only a few.

We Are Human Infrastructure!

We hear a lot about how infrastructure — roads, railways and airport terminals — has contributed to our material progress. We have even seen renewed emphasis in recent years on the need to build more of this infrastructure to keep pace with the mounting challenges of the global economy.

The types of human infrastructure that Cooperative Extension has routinely provided for decades through its dense network of grassroots educators will be more important than ever in the 21st century as farming gears up to feed a projected 9.5 billion people by mid-century. The challenges farmers face are daunting: They are being called to meet these new demands even as they expected to develop safer, greener production systems with more emphasis on organically and locally grown foods.

But the enduring value of Cooperative Extension is not limited to farming. Nutrition educators are working to address one of the most serious health epidemics of the 21st century — rising levels of obesity among Americans of all ages and the chronic diseases that typically accompany it. Their counterparts in food safety are striving to educate Americans about the risks of eating from an international table comprised of some foods that are neither produced nor processed in accordance with the hygienic practices commonly taken for granted in the United States.

Forestry educators are equipping landowners will the tools to deal with increasing threats posed by invasive plant species to forestland understories and, ultimately, to trees.

Collaborative Knowledge and Our Role in It

Extension work in the early 20th century also foreshadowed the sorts of open-sourced, shared knowledge that is being adopted all over the world today.

But we bring another critically needed asset to the table. Despite the seemingly inexhaustible sources of information now available online, we still provide our diverse audiences with knowledge in deep, enriched contexts. And we show our audiences how to use this knowledge to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways — back to that core Extension principle: working knowledge.
We continue to succeed because we walk in the footsteps of the earliest generation of Extension pioneers who strove to be knowledge enablers — change agents who add value to knowledge by demonstrating how practical, meaningful and lasting use can be derived from it. They strove to be agents of working knowledge.

This is the proud and enduring legacy that we will carry through the 21st century.

 

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.

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.

Building Charter Cities in Our Ranks

Panoramic View of Hong Kong

Hong Kong, the precursor to the charter cities concept, a city whose openness to change and innovation has presented a historic challenge to what was until recently the lumbering, centrally planned economy of the People’s Republic of China

I love one educational reformer’s explanation for what ails higher education:  the presence of a pervasive “anti-innovation culture.”

Needless to say, a lot of the technological reforms sorely needed in higher education have been stymied by the dogged resistance of this anti-innovation culture within our ranks.

Even as they resist, a tsunami is washing over our landscape, reordering everything in its wake.

More than ever, we need a legion of change agents or, as Oregon State University Cooperative Extension administrator Dave King describes it, a “coalition of the willing.”

As descriptions go, my personal pick is charter city.  The New York Times ran an article recently about economist Paul Romer’s efforts to establish charter cities aimed at resolving the intractably difficult problems that have historically plagued developing countries — the highly extractive oligarchies and laws that prey on the less fortunate, the one’s striving to succeed.

Romer perceives these charter cities as being insulated from the prevailing laws of the host country. The underlying presumption is that as these charter cities grow and become more prosperous, the host countries will be presented with a sort of fait accompli — a successfully functioning development model that they no longer can ignore.

Charter city proponents cite the prosperous, westernized enclave of Hong Kong, which has pointed the rest of China toward a future of openness, innovation and prosperity, as an especially noteworthy precursor of this concept.

As I see it, this is what the innovators, the coalition of the willing, within higher education in general and Cooperative Extension in particular must do — to create something akin to charter cities within our ranks, to present anti-innovators among us with a kind of fait accompli.

As we act on new insights and adapt them to our everyday work, we build these charter cities brick by brick.

Actually, construction on these new charter cities is already well under way.  Examples within my own state include the Alabama 4-H Youth Development Program’s self-transformation into an inquiry-based learning model and the efforts of two grassroots community foresters to develop Cooperative Extension’s first lecture doodle.

Here’s another point worth considering: As we build these charter cities, we transform ourselves into — dare I say it — agents of creative destruction.

In other words, by increasing the speed with which new ideas are introduced and actively discussed, we challenge the status quo, and by challenging the status quo, we introduce creatively destructive forces into our ranks.

Creative destruction isn’t new to Extension. We played a major role in the course of the 20th century transforming the U.S. farming sector, rendering it more efficient and, consequently, more creatively destructive.

Our challenge now is to focus these creatively destructive forces inwardly, within our own ranks.

Creative destruction is not something from which we can flee. It’s the very basis of the information-driven global economic order that is emerging in the 21st century.

The charter cities that ultimately will emerge within our ranks are inherently creatively destructive. Our long-term organizational survival is closely bound with this concept. By increasing these speed with which new ideas are raised and debated within our ranks and among our clients (who are now co-creators in every sense of the word) we better ensure that higher education and Extension will be fully equipped to thrive within this radically altered information and economic order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Youngme Moon’s Anti-Creativity Checklist

Okay, I admit it: I’ve become an unrepentant member of the Youngme Moon fan club.

Watching this checklist, I was inevitably reminded of the struggles of a couple of close friends who are dealing with a similar collective mindset.

They are faculty members within a highly technical and applied field at a major U.S. land-grant university.  The outreach work they are undertaking on behalf of their department offers incalculable benefits to one of the fastest-growing segments of their state’s economy.  Their efforts already have garnered substantial private sector support and will undoubtedly set a benchmark for similar projects in other highly technical, applied disciplines throughout their university.  They’ve also developed a unique way to crowdsource their efforts.

The concept they’ve developed has the potential to place  their department and their institution on the political and economic radar in a way that comparatively few faculty members could conceive in the course of their careers.

Inexplicably, though, they have been stymied by other faculty members who have raised many of the same obstructive questions outlined by Moon. They steadfastly maintain that the department’s first priority should be keeping pace with their counterparts at other technological universities by enhancing the rigor of undergraduate and graduate admissions and teaching standards.

Therein lies the tragedy: As Moon would describe it, they’ve chosen to stick with the prevailing metrics rather than adopt behavior that has the real potential of distinguishing them in a uniquely different way.

There is a lesson here to Cooperative Extension professionals.  For a variety of reasons, our approach in the future must be creative – not only creative but also disruptive.