November 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 6 // Forum // 6FRM1

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In Search of Excellence. . .in Extension


Bonnie Braun
Associate Director, 4-H Youth and Home Economics
Virginia Cooperative Extension Service
Associate Dean, College of Human Resources
Virgini Tech - Blacksburg

Peters and Waterman made it to the top of the best seller list with their search.1 For over 60 weeks, they stayed on the list. They found the secret of successful companies they describe as "eight attributes of excellence." As an Extension professional, you're probably searching for excellence, for measures of success in programming. Engage your mind in analyzing the questions raised, in answering them, and in discussing them with your colleagues.

A Bias for Action. In excellent companies, a willingness exists to experiment, to try, to tolerate failure, to go for hits-not just home runs. Do we try or do we allow lethargy and inertia to make us unresponsive? Do we support others who try or do we knock their efforts? The authors say there no more important trait among excellent companies than action orientation.

Close to the Customer. This attribute is characterized by professionals listening intently and regularly to their customers and learning from those they serve. We say we listen. Many of us have advisory committees who apprise us of people's needs and program directions. Are we including the right people? Often enough? Are we actively seeking their ideas? Do we learn from those we serve?

Autonomy and Entrepreneurship. In large organizations, innovation can be lost. Innovation made them successful in the first place. Excellent companies have the ability to think big and act small. The individual member is encouraged to innovate. Do we have the big picture in mind, but act locally? Weren't we built on grassroots response? Can we balance centralization of certain goals with decentralization of certain actions?

Productivity Through People. Confronted on all sides to do more Extension programming-to meet more client needs, prepare more reports, measure more impact, convince more public decision makers of our worth-the hue and cry is often, "Give us more resources and we'll do just that. Give us more operating dollars, more secretarial services, more computers and we'll do more-we'll increase our productivity."

At the excellent companies, more resources were not always better. "Better" rested in respect for people, in support of their desire to do well. Is that true for us? Do each of us seek to regularly improve our competencies and our productivity? Do we foster increased performance among our colleagues? Do we want to do better and more ... perhaps with less?

Hands On, Value Driven. Excellent companies know what they stand for and foster that philosophy. Do we know our missions? Do we make decisions based on what we value as an organization? Are our leaders creating and maintaining exciting environments through continual articulation of what's important? Do our values show in our programming and in our reports of impact?

Stick to the Knitting. Now, lest some of you agriculturalists (and some of you home economists) think this isn't for you, read on. This attribute describes companies that stay close to what they know and do well. What is our base? Research, the land-grant universities, people's needs, cooperative funding and programming? What do we do well? In what do we excel?

Simple Form, Lean Staff. The best companies organize and reorganize, arrange and rearrange. They stay flexible and fluid. But, do we view change as negative, threatening, something to be lived through or do we, as the excellent companies, view change in staff and structure as positive, helpful, something to be desired to become and stay excellent?

Simultaneous Loose. Tight Properties. Excellent companies hold tight to core values, but leave implementation and operation up to teams, units, departments, individuals. In Extension, is it possible to integrate program directions coming from local, state, and federal sources? To have agents going different directions and at the same time have a statewide program? To have specialists responding to both agents and program leaders or department heads? For administrators to do the same and still be one as an Extension Service?

If we're willing to seek answers to these questions, then surely Extension will survive and succeed in these times of shifting economic, political, social, and technological conditions. But, if we don't seek to optimize conditions that permit excellence in Extension, then perhaps future generations will know us not as "their" agent, specialist, staff, but only as a footnote in history books reading something like this:

During the 20th Century, the Cooperative Extension Service was created and funded to serve the people of the state through informal education to meet their need for continued learning. Apparently, those responsible for the organization failed to apply the principles of excellence that could have made them great.


  1. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1982).