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.