Tag Archives: Working Knowledge

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.

 

Cooperative Extension’s Axial Principle

Oklahoma State University Extension Agent with client

An Oklahoma State University Extension agent providing a client with working knowledge.

The question has been posed to me countless times throughout my career, one that is typically phrased this way: “Just what is Cooperative Extension?”

The whole concept of Cooperative Extension baffles most people. As I’ve pointed out a time or two, relating this concept to novices is as challenging as explaining all the complexities and nuances of the British Commonwealth.

As realities go, this is not good, especially considering the densely crowed, flattened information landscape on which we Extension professionals operate today.  Cooperative Extension’s murky image was luxury we perhaps could afford throughout much of the 20th century, when we occupied a much more conspicuous place within the American intellectual, cultural and public policy landscape.  Today, such murkiness is crushing burden that poses a genuine threat to our survival—precisely why I’ve argued more than once in this forum that the times are calling on use to go axial.  By axial, I mean that we Extension professionals are being challenged as never before to define what lies at the core of our being — to put it another way, to identify those attributes that constitute the essence of who we are and what we do.

Rest assured, though, that simply settling on a definition isn’t enough.  We’ve also got to communicate this definition to our diverse audiences as cogently and effectively as possible — not only to our external audiences but also to our employees.  (And rest assured that many of our employees struggle almost as much with our murky image as our clients and stakeholders do.)

Actually, I don’t think that identifying these core attributes is as hard as many people imagine it to be.

While some of my colleagues may write me off as delusional, I’m more convinced than ever that the essence of Cooperative Extension work can be expressed in this simple term: working knowledge.

Working knowledge is what Cooperative Extension is about — what it’s always been about — providing people with practical, beneficial knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in all facets of their lives, whether this happens to be at home or work.

This axial principal of Cooperative Extension, which has been employed to serve people from many different races and backgrounds in every corner of the planet, started out a preoccupation of farmers in frontier America — farmers who were seeking working knowledge to help them farm more effectively and profitably.

The perennial question remained how — how to disseminate knowledge to the widest number of farmers at a time when the farming population was growing and spreading rapidly across a vast continent.

Farmers’ meetings and institutes, the Morrill Act of 1862, Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots, Booker T. Washington’s Movable School, corn and tomato clubs  — all of these efforts and many more have essentially comprised a running dialogue about the most effective ways to put practical, beneficial knowledge to work on behalf of farmers where they live and work.

All of these efforts coalesced into the Cooperative Extension movement, which was formalized with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Through this legislation, states were provided matching funds to establish statewide networks of county farm educators, each network functioning under the aegis of its state land-grant college, each the byproduct of an earlier national effort to provide farmers with working knowledge: The Morrill Act of 1862.

Simply put, passage of the Smith-Lever Act marked the culmination of a century-long movement that from its beginning sought to impart working knowledge to farmers.

As it turned out, the movement didn’t stop with farming: It underwent further refinement and adaptation.  Ultimately the working knowledge concept was re-engineered to address the needs of many people from many walks of life with many diverse needs.

In time, it developed into one of the most grassroots educational movements in history, emulated the world over.

Working knowledge: that, as I see it, is the axial principle of Cooperative Extension, the essence of who we are and what we do.

What is Extension’s “Commander’s Intent?”

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.

Random Thoughts on the Value of Serendipity

Cooperative Extension’s working knowledge model is as much serendipitous as it is purposeful —one of the reasons why I’m more convinced than ever that the Extension model still has a valuable role to serve in the future, despite all of the nay saying.

Working as an Extension news and public affairs professional in the Deep South, I’ve seen firsthand how advances in cotton entomology have provided an ongoing testimony to the value of this serendipitous approach.

Cotton farming has moved ever closer to a sustainable farming model — one that uses pesticides far more judiciously than it did a few decades ago.   But this has not been by design.

Money — namely widespread concerns among farmers about the lack of it — is what moved cotton farming ever closer to a sustainable model.   Back to that word again — serendipity.

Farmers were concerned that numerous seasonal applications of pesticides to control crop pests threatened their long-term economic viability.

However, cotton research revealed at the time that well-timed applications were not only more effective against pests but also could possibly enable farmer to reduce the number of chemical applications, thereby reducing operating expenses.

To impart these ideas to growers, the University of Arkansas devised what ultimately proved to be an ingenious concept — cotton scouting.  Working with their local Extension agents, cotton growers pooled their resources to hire scouts to monitor their field for insects throughout the growing season.  The scouts’ careful monitoring of these fields enabled growers to apply chemicals far more judiciously.  As a result, application costs decreased.

Cotton farmers’ manic desire to reduce operating costs also led to the adoption of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and the subsequent adoption of transgenic cotton varieties engineered for pest resistance —both of which have contributed to steep reductions in pesticide applications.  All of these strides have had the unintended effect of moving farmers ever closer to a sustainable farming model.

One of the values of an open society, such as the United States, is that it provides an environment in which free inquiry and discovery yields a host of unanticipated benefits — serendipity by any other name. Cooperative Extension, particularly the role it has played in cost-effective farming, testifies to the astonishing effects that typically follow when these conditions are in place.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Cooperative Extension should not feel threatened by the emerging knowledge economy and particularly by the wikinomical approaches to knowledge generation and transfer that have accompanied it.  In many respects, we anticipated this approach more than a 100 years ago.

Instead of fearing the advent of this new age, we should welcome it — not just welcome it but embrace it.  Most important of all, we should identify the myriad of ways in which our unique experiences with collaborative knowledge can enhance it.  As Extension educators, we have as much to teach as we have to learn.

Yes, I’m remain more convinced than ever that Extension’s working knowledge model will continue to serve our clients, albeit in a form that makes greater use of social media tools, especially wikinomical-related methods of knowledge transfer.

What Should Comprise a Cooperative Extension Grand Narrative?

Late last week, I mentioned the value of grand organizational narratives and why constructing such a narrative is critical to the success of the Cooperative Extension mission.

We Cooperative Extension professionals have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, many of us, especially the younger ones, are not fully apprised of our history and the role it can and should serve in helping us understand where we have been and, most important, where we should be going.

That raises an important question:  What should constitute this grand Extension narrative?

I’ve formulated a few initial thoughts.

Working Knowledge

First, Extension educators and professionals should develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has served in advancing practical knowledge.

To a significant degree, Americans put practical knowledge on the map — a considerable feat in its own right.  Not too long ago, the humanities were regarded, especially by Europeans, as the sole hallmarks of learning and culture, even as practical sciences, such as chemistry or forestry, were derided as “hick” knowledge.

Cooperative Extension educators played a major role in elevating practical knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Yet, we accomplished something even more significant:  We added value to practical knowledge.  We transformed it into working knowledge by showing ordinary people how to make use of it to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods.  By improving their quality of life, we also empowered them.

Simply put, working knowledge is value-added knowledge that enables our clients to improve their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.

It’s a form of practical knowledge that has been expressed many times and in many ways throughout our history.  Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act establishing formal Cooperative Extension programs, the working knowledge concept was embodied early forerunners of Extension work — in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration projects and in Booker T. Washington’s farm demonstration wagons.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us with much greater organizational clarity.

Likewise, it is a concept that we Extension educators should closely bear in mind as we strive to distinguish ourselves from among the legions of other knowledge providers on this increasingly flat world — a world that now includes nonhuman knowledge providers in the form of search engines.

We can’t compete with search engines. On the other hand, we still offer something that search engines 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.

Wiki Knowledge

This working knowledge concept also positions us in another unique way.

Too 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.

Isn’t working knowledge, the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the last century, a forerunner of this approach?  Equally important, doesn’t this longstanding experience with working knowledge uniquely equip us for the future?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes — yet another reason why I believe the working knowledge concept should form the bedrock of the Cooperative Extension narrative.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Finally, I believe this unique approach to working knowledge puts us in another especially advantageous position.

Over the last few decades, 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.

Consequently, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the federal or state level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages individuals and groups to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Working knowledge should play an integral part in this approach.

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 distinctive working knowledge approach.

For the sake of our future, emphasizing this unique Extension experience and facility with working knowledge as well as the dialogue and empowerment that goes with it should comprise an integral part of our grand narrative.

Creep-Proofing Our Features — and Our Mission and Image

A couple of days ago, I promised that I would offer some suggestions aimed at resolving the feature creep challenge within Extension.

Summarizing my earlier remarks, I believe the longstanding Extension penchant for improvisation has been both a good and bad thing — good in the sense that it’s enabled us to bring our vast sources to bear over long stretches of time on seemingly intractable problems, such as the boll weevil; bad in the sense that our yen for winging it has tended to contribute to organizational feature creep.

And this feature creep, in turn, has contributed to a murky organizational vision and public image.

So what do we do about it? We do what Palm Pilot has done: we construct a wooden block — mentally speaking, that is — a block that will help us define who we are and, equally important, who we are not.

We do nothing less than creep-proof our features —and with it our organizational mission and our public image.

Granted, this requires some organizational navel-gazing — something we in Alabama have been doing as part of our marketing efforts.

So what defines our wooden block?  We believe it can be explained in two words: Working Knowledge.  This short phrase summarizes the mission of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System during the last century.

Since the early 20th century, we have empowered people through working knowledge. To one degree or another, every Extension educator throughout our history has empowered his or her clients by providing not just knowledge but knowledge with a practical understanding — working knowledge that enables them to improve their lives or livelihood in some meaningful way, whether tangible or intangible.

In a manner of speaking, our wooden block is the Tuskegee farm demonstration wagon, commonly known as the Jesup Wagon, which was equipped by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and sent to far-flung regions of the state to reach farmers who, for whatever reason, were not attending Washington’s annual farm conferences.

In equipping these demonstration wagons, Washington and Carver evinced an intuitive understanding of the working knowledge concept.  They didn’t equip these wagons with leather-bound transcripts of classroom lecturers but with simple items of immediate practical benefit to farmers — items such as a cream separator, a milk tester, a revolving hand churn, a one-horse steel power and a cultivator.

The movable school became a form of working knowledge on wheels.

Yes, the working knowledge concept is only that — a concept — though we do believe it is one with the potential of providing our employees with much-needed organizational clarity.

We consider it an effective standard for guarding against feature creep.

Every outreach effort, whether it involves a twitter or a blog, a field day or a workshop, a publication or a television appearance should be predicated on this question: Does it advance working knowledge?  Does it enable our clients to improve their lives or livelihoods — or those of their families — in some meaning way?