Summer 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Extension Excellence in the Information Age

Extension can continue to be excellent amidst all the innovation and change.

Michael Quinn Patton
International Programs Specialist and Project Director
Agricultural Extension Service and Office of International Agricultural Programs
Institute of Agriculture, Forestry, amd Home Economics
University of Minnesota - St. Paul

The beginning point for assuring excellence in Extension is to determine what Extension does well. The evidence from studies of organizational effectiveness suggests that organizations exhibiting excellence know what they do well and play to their strengths. The best selling book, In Search of Excellence, found that high performance companies "stick to the knitting."1 They stay close to what they know. "They are fanatic centralists around the few core values they hold dear."2

Innovation and Change

Extension is in danger of ignoring the core elements that have made it what it's recognized to be throughout the world-the most effective informal adult education effort in history. The danger lurks in the current fascination with innovation and change.

As I work with Extension programs throughout the United States on strategic planning and evaluation, the emphasis is almost exclusively on innovation and change. Field staff, specialists, and administrators are looking for new ideas, new target populations, new delivery mechanisms, and new Extension approaches. On all sides, there are reminders about the rapidity of change, the need to adapt to new conditions, and exhortations to try new things. Grant funds are oriented almost exclusively to "innovative projects."

Certainly Extension must be aware of and responsive to changed conditions and emergent needs. But that awareness and responsiveness should be firmly rooted in the basics-the traditional strengths and core values of Extension. Innovativeness for the sake of innovativeness is as nonsensical as doing the same thing over and over because "we've always done it that way." The issue is excellence, not innovativeness. The challenge is effectiveness, not change for the sake of change or tradition for tradition's sake.

Core Business of Extension

The father of modern management consulting, Peter Drucker, has devoted his life to organizational excellence and effectiveness. Whenever Drucker works with a new group, he begins with a single basic question: "What business are you really in?"3

The Future: Focusing on People

Most discussions of the future focus on how much things have changed, how today's society is different from what it was in the past, and how different the future will be from what society is today. I'm going to take a different approach by emphasizing the common thread that runs through all of these changes-the human being. Human beings haven't changed substantially despite the many changes in technology and society, for there's a basic nature or core to our humanness that will continue to make Extension's focus on people the right way to go in the future. In this regard, I want to make five observations.

Using Information Is the Key

Using information is the key issue of the information age. The real challenge of our times isn't producing information or storing information, but rather getting people to use information. In the fields of medicine, nutrition, education, agriculture, and other fields of knowledge, the technological advances have far outstripped the willingness of human beings to apply new knowledge. People use information. Computers and organizations store information, but people use information. Extension has a great deal to offer in pointing the way to increasing the use of knowledge in the future through its people-orientation.

Information Is Imperfect

Information use is constrained because information is imperfect. It must be interpreted and placed in a context. Again, then, people come to the forefront in dealing with the imperfections of information. Imperfect information need not keep us from planning and taking action. This observation simply means that we must be realistic and modest in planning, and recognize the law offered by General George S. Patton: "A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow." Perfect plans aren't.

Human Beings Are Imperfect

Constraints on knowledge use and the imperfections of information stem in part from the imperfections of human beings. The information-processing capabilities of human beings are quite limited. The capacity of computers to store information has far exceeded our ability to process and make sense out of information. Neurological limitations constrain our information-processing capabilities. Most of the time we act on biases and according to standard operating procedures, rules of thumb, and "human heuristics," all of which distort the information we take in and confound the "knowledge" we generate.4

The good news is that it's possible to become aware of our perceptual blinders and limiting habits. Through that awareness, we're able to exercise greater consciousness about our informationprocessing mechanisms and thereby improve, within limits, our information-processing and knowledgegenerating capabilities.

Asking the Right Questions

While we typically think of information as providing answers, the real challenge of the information age is asking the right questions. Figuring out the right questions makes it a lot easier to get useful answers. There's so much to know and so much to do that it's easy to dissipate energy in trying to know and do everything. In a complex and rapidly changing world, where we can't know everything and we can't do everything, it has become critical to learn how to ask the right questions, thereby focusing our efforts on gathering information and extending knowledge that's worth having.

Knowledge Is the Important Factor

The computer age and mass communications have made information cheap. It's knowledge that's dear. Knowledge is accurate, organized, and impor tant information. Knowledge is power only when knowledge includes knowing what information is worth having and knowing what to do with it. Information scientists tell us that 80% of what's worth knowing is contained in 20% of the facts.5 The challenge is figuring out what 20% is worth knowing, worth focusing on, and worth organizing, synthesizing, and extending as knowledge.

Trivial Pursuit

These five observations help explain the current therapy for information overload in American society. Unable to distinguish what's worth knowing, incapable of processing geometrically expanding data bases, unwilling to think hard about the relative merits of imperfect and conflicting research findings, and resistant to the work of real knowledge use, the public has turned to Trivial Pursuit. This new national pastime, one of the best selling board games, solves the problem of figuring out what's worth knowing by making everything equally trivial. It rewards the recall of isolated facts (data storage and retrieval) rather than the application of knowledge in problem solving. The current microcomputer mania in Extension borders at times on trivial pursuit, as do many fact-filled newsletters, "fact sheets," and one-day/one-session workshops.

The game of Trivial Pursuit is emblematic of the information age at its most mundane level. Research-based, people-oriented, and problemfocused Extension programs are manifestations of the information age at its best.

Shifts in Problem Focus

To avoid trivial pursuits, Extension must focus on important problems and questions. While the manifestation of concrete problems will vary by program area and community, some basic macro problems exist that cut across program areas and states. The core values of Extension remain highly relevant to these emergent problems, even though these generic shifts in problem focus have serious implications for what we do and how we do it.

Issues of Quality

First, we can expect to see less concern about the problem of how to produce more (that is, questions of increased quantity) and greater emphasis on issues of quality (for example, quality of information, quality of life, and quality of work). In essence, this shift from an emphasis on quantity (getting more) to quality (using well what we have) can be seen in the current concern about excellence-excellence in schools, businesses, and organizations. We used to ask how we could do more. Now we must ask how we can do better. The nuance in this question shift is subtle, but highly significant.

Problems of Distribution

A second and parallel concern will be less emphasis on problems of production and more emphasis on problems of distribution. Increasingly, we're seeing attention focused on the problems of marketing rather than the problems of production. Interestingly, this is as true for Extension as it is for farmers.

Multiple and Complex Choices

Third, we will see fewer problems focused on determining right versus wrong, fewer problems framed as a search for truth. Rather than directing our attention to a search for the one right way to do something, we shall have to learn to manage uncertainties, compare options, and recognize that we can never know for sure whether we took the single best path.

In describing the shift from either/or choices to multiple and complex options (1 of 10 modern "megatrends"), Naisbitt asks:

Remember when bathtubs were white, telephones were black, and checks green? In today's Baskin-Robbins society, everything comes in at least 31 flavors .... The either/or choices in the basic areas of family and work have exploded into a multitude of highly individual arrangements and lifestyles.6

The implication of this megatrend for Extension as a people-oriented organization is even greater emphasis on helping clients with problem solving, decision making, long-range planning, and total resource management-all of which are the antithesis of simple dissemination of facts (that is, trivial pursuit). This fundamental question often causes great difficulty for company executives. It frequently takes a lot of work to identify the core business. But effective, excellent organizations know what business they're in.

What, then, is the core business of Extension? I want to suggest that the business of Extension is getting people to apply knowledge and use information. Extension's well-deserved reputation as an American success story is built on getting people to use research findings. This means that Extension has been on the cutting edge of the emergent information age for some time. This puts Extension front-and-center in the information age today and in the future.

Extension professionals know about information and people. Extension has traditionally been peopie-oriented, knowledge-based, and problemfocused. Therein, I believe, lies its success. This same orientation will serve Extension well in the future-and in the face of change.

World Context

Fourth, the increased extent to which macroeconomic national and international forces shape opportunities and problems at the county level make it necessary to frame local programs in the context of the larger world.7 Failure to appreciate and take into consideration this larger context will result in piecemeal efforts with little lasting impact and only marginal effectiveness.

Implications for Extension

These problem shifts have organizational implications for Extension. It means there are no magic solutions for organizational change and no recipes to follow as Extension adapts to the future. Rather, I suggest we build the future on what we already know we do well. We have been well-served by the core values that have brought us this far, and those values have much to offer as we move into the future. I'd suggest, then, that future Extension programs be built on five characteristics.

First, we should use the tools of planning and evaluation to define and build quality programs. Quality programs in the future will have the same characteristics as quality programs in the past: they'll be people-oriented, knowledge-based, problem-oriented, and cost-effective.

Second, quality programs come from quality people. We must identify quality people, cultivate them, reward them, and support them. To support quality people is to build quality programs. I'm not saying anything new here; I'm merely reaffirming what we know from our past.

Third, there will be diversity in quality programs and quality people because quality comes from building on strengths, and different people have different strengths. Thus, the processes of decentralization and individualization are necessary to permit quality to emerge.

Fourth, diversity and decentralization prosper where there's openness and flexibility. Openness means a willingness to admit and learn from mistakes, work through catastrophes, and adapt to changed conditions.

Fifth, problems will need to be approached from a more holistic, interdisciplinary, and cross-program perspective. Our structures should emerge as responses to real world needs. Too often our disciplinary and program structures predetermine what needs and problems can even be considered.

The Human Factor

In summary, I've suggested that the future will be conditioned more by the human factor than by technological or environmental factors. The human factor consists of both strengths and weaknesses. Our strengths as human beings are our abilities to reason, to reflect, to persevere in the face of difficulty, to solve problems, and to change. Our weaknesses are our unconscious patterns, limited information-processing capabilities, biases, fears, and resistances to change.

Extension, with its traditional people-orientation, is well-poised on the cutting edge of the information age to help move people toward higher quality ways of living. In this regard, the high technology of Extension isn't machines and computers. Rather, it's a state of mind. The high technology state of mind is one that works with people in applying knowledge and information to solve important problems and thereby create a better world. That is the business of Extension. That is Extension excellence.


  1. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 15.

  2. Ibid.

  3. John J. Tarrant, Drucker: The Man Who Invented Corporate Society (New York: Warner Books, 1976).

  4. For an extended discussion of "human heuristics" and the limitations of human information processing, see Michael Q. Patton, Creative Evaluation (Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, 1982), pp. 29-39.

  5. Barry F. Anderson, The Complete Thinker (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 26.

  6. John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York: Warner, 1982), p. 232.

  7. For a discussion of the international dimension of Extension, see Michael Q. Patton, "Extension-A Citizen of the World," Journal of Extension, XXII (September/October, 1984), 37-44.