Tag Archives: P.O. Davis

Steven Johnson’s Lessons for Cooperative Extension

William Hogarth painting of a spirited political dinner at an 18th century restaurant tavern.

After reading Steven Johnson’sWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” a third time through and taking meticulous notes, I’m more convinced than ever that it should serve as one of the manuals, if not the principal manual, for Extension’s transformation into a 21st knowledge organization.

I hope you are as equally convinced after reading this.

Johnson devotes much of the book to debunking the longstanding notion that good ideas stem from eureka moments.

Ironically, we humans have invented all sorts of metaphors to describe these eureka moments — aside, of course, from “eureka moments,” “flashes of insight,” “strokes of genius” and, my favorite, “epiphanies.”

As it turns out, though, this understanding is far off the mark, Johnson contends.

“As rhetorically florid as these [metaphors] all are, they don’t strike at the truth because they depict ideas as a single thing — something that happens at an illuminating moment,” he says.

Actually, ideas begin as networks at the most elemental level — our brains.

A new idea is essentially a network of neurons firing in sync within a human brain — “a new configuration that has never formed before.”

That’s only half the story.  As Johnson and others have discovered, good ideas emerge within similar sorts of external networks, which mimic the internal environment of the human brain.

The trick — that is to say, the optimal way to ensure the formation of ideas — is to place oneself into an environment where new external networks are likely to form.

Johnson describes these environments as liquid networks, rather boisterous places which closely resemble William Hogarth’s painting of a densely crowded tavern room where a political dinner is being held.

“This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas are likely to come together, where people from different backgrounds were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions,” he says.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, research has supported this view.

For example, researcher Kevin Dunbar employed a “Big Brother” approach to determine whether monumental breakthroughs in scientific laboratories really were the result of eureka moments — those sparks of brilliance that allegedly occur as scientists peer through microscopes.

As it happens, most good ideas occur around the conference table — the weekly lab meetings where everybody assembles and shares their latest data and findings.

Indeed, Johnson says one of the challenges of the future will be building more of these spaces — spaces where individuals behave much like those in Hogarth’s classic painting.

For my part, I’m both inspired and disturbed by the views Johnson presents in his book and his TED lecture (posted below).

He’s right to argue that one of the preeminent concerns of organizations in the future will be creating the optimal conditions in which these sorts of liquid networks can thrive — that’s the inspiring part.

The part that disturbs me is best expressed by this question: Is Cooperative Extension up to the task of building liquid networks in the 21st century?

I’ve stressed a time or two in this forum how Extension once dominated the knowledge landscape.  Borrowing Johnson’s terminology, we once excelled in building optimal networks, not only among ourselves but on behalf of our clients.

What were the agricultural societies of the 18th and 19th century other than attempts to build these optimal learning environments?   For that matter, what were Seaman Knapp’s experimentation with cotton demonstrations, Washington’s use of farm conference’s and P.O Davis’s development of radio listening clubs other than attempts to optimize not only the spread but also the cross-fertilization of ideas?

Even so, how well equipped are we to nurture these environments in the 21st century?   Granted, we are still constructing networks but are we making adequate use of emerging Web 2.0 technologies?  Even more important, are these networks as efficient, open and responsive as they should be — efficient, open and responsive enough to merit continued support from our stakeholders?

As I see it, that remains the million-dollar question — literally.

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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.