Extension professionals would be well served by taking a critical military lesson to heart.
I mentioned in an earlier piece that “commander’s intent” has become a deeply ingrained facet of American military tactics.
Over the last 200 years, U.S. military planners have come to value simplicity deeply. That’s because the core message of a tactical objective is apt to be ignored, forgotten or replaced in the noise and confusion of battle. Based on years of trial and error, military planners have gotten around that by developing the commander’s intent concept.
Commander’s intent is essentially a stripped down statement that appears at the top of every mission plan. The statement outlines what the planners expect to accomplish at the conclusion of the military operation, regardless of what happens along the way.
To put it another way, the details of the plan may change but the end goal doesn’t.
That raises an interesting question: As we carry on with our own battle to convince our clients and stakeholders of our continued relevance, what is our commanders intent?
To put it another way, what is the tactical objective that must be remembered at all costs?
One thing that has surprised me time and again in the course of my Extension career is the number of employees who simply lack a clear grasp of what we do — what we’ve always done: transform practical knowledge into working knowledge, showing our clients how they can use this practical knowledge to secure lasting and meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.
It’s ironic, especially considering that we’ve being doing this for a very long time and, until recently, exceptionally well. As far back as a century ago, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington already had anticipated the critical role collaboration between the Extension educators and clients would play in ensuring that this transformation from practical to working knowledge occurred.
In one sense, they were brilliantly prescient because they anticipated the wikinomical approach to learning that forms the bedrock of 21st century learning within this increasingly wired world.
What is our commanders intent? To show our clients and stakeholders that despite all the changes that are occurring around us, we will continue to do what we’ve always done: ensure that the working knowledge model that has distinguished us in the past will comprise the very best of what we offer in the future.
The informal, collaborative Extension model — the one that put so much value on face-to-face and hands-on learning — will be merged with emerging social media technology to build an even better 21st century model.
This transformation is critical to our organizational survival.
In the end, though, it will enable us to do something even more effectively: to demonstrate to even larger numbers of people how to transform practical knowledge into working knowledge.
As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us — Extension educators, clients and stakeholders alike — with a clearer grasp of what is expected of Cooperative Extension in the 21st century.
Yet, it enables us to do something even more important: to distinguish ourselves from the legions of other knowledge providers across this flat knowledge landscape.
Granted, we no longer can compete with search engines and other forms of artificial intelligence. That is one of the hard truths of the 21st century. On the other hand, we still offer something that virtual sources of knowledge 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.
What is our commander’s intent? Working knowledge — the collaborative, hands-on knowledge that we pioneered more than a century ago and that, combined with the right amount of foresight, creativity and innovation, is still relevant today.