Spring 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA1

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Extension's Crossroads in Turbulent Times - Downsizing or Downgrading?


Jane Schuchardt
North Central Region Educational Materials Project
Iowa State University
Ames, IA

Clarence J. Cunningham
Associate Director
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH

This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it. Emerson

A decade ago, Boulding,1 among others, predicted an age of slowing in the education business. The shrinking economic pie is now affecting many institutions, including Extension. An era of scarcity has ushered in staff reductions, program curtailment, office closings, and other mechanisms designed to help weather turbulent times. Many managers, experienced only in responding to conditions of growth, find themselves ill-equipped to handle major budgetary cutbacks while maintaining or improving productivity. After all, our American value system equates growth with success. The antithesis-stagnation-signals failure. Just as the Chinese depict the word crisis with two characters (one for "danger " and one for "opportunity "), Extension managers can react to the current economic climate with knee-jerk negativism or meet it with calculated and positive action.

Downsizing vs. Downgrading

Lippitt and Lippitt write:

It is generally wrong to predict that, in an atmosphere of limited resource management, quality must automatically suffer-that downsizing clearly leads to reduction in service and quality, in personnel and production .... The challenge is to accept confrontation with downsizing as an avenue to upgrading.2

Our strategies should result in positive downsizing (diminishing in size) rather than negative down grading (diminishing in effectiveness). Generally, the concepts can be differentiated this way:

Downsizing Downgrading
effectiveness efficiency
innovation conservatism
outward focus inward focus

Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

Efficiency is easily measured by computing the ratio of output to input (for example, cost per Extension home-study course completed). It calls for reducing organizational "fat " and doing the same things with fewer resources. Alternatively, effectiveness isn't easily measured and even less easily defined. It focuses on "doing the right things "rather than "doing things right. " Unfortunately, cutbacks generally take the form of trimming fat from existing programs to make them more efficient.3 Such across-the-board cuts are more politically acceptable in the short term, but seldom make significant contributions to long-term effectiveness. To determine effectiveness, McConkey advocates positioning individual components (Extension programs) on a strategy grid. As Figure 1 shows, the axes pit demand for services against an organization's strengths and impacts.4 Demanded Extension programs with high impact fit in Quadrant A. They're the "stars " and deserve arduous grooming for the future. Sufficient resources should be allocated for the programs to grow as quickly as possible. The "fat cats " fall in Quadrant B. These Extension programs are making an impact, but subject areas show little indication of growth in demand by the public. Selective cost-cutting is recommended. Quadrant C houses the "question marks, " programs that aren't making much of an impact, perhaps due to other competition, but the topics are strong and growing. The recommendation for action is best stated bluntly - get it together or get out. Is the cost of improving the impact worth it or should Extension graciously relinquish the turf to those more ably equipped? Obviously, Quadrant D shelters the "dogs. " These programs aren't making headway and the field is static or declining. Although seldom easy to do because of traditional dedication to a speciality, it's recommended to handle these programs with ruthless cost-cutting or shutdown. Specific examples were purposely omitted from this discussion, but certainly programs come to mind that fit each quadrant. Even without management encouragement, the perceptive Extension specialist/agent can take steps to allocate resources away from "question marks " and "dogs. " The perceptive manager will also realize that efficiency concerns can't be ignored under conditions of decline. Cameron writes that, in general, administrators tend to encourage efficiency and take protective, even conservative, approaches. However, "it is in not considering other, more externally focused strategies-those that place effectiveness ahead of efficiency concerns-that adaptability is threatened. "5

Figure 1. Strategy grid for positioning programs.
Figure 1

Innovation vs. Conservatism

One common result of budget cuts is out-migration of the best employees, who see greener turf on the other side of the fence. Innovation anemia is a common aftereffect. This is especially true when management opts for conservative, passive tactics. Conservatism is characterized by centralized, topdown decision making, which can lead to conflicts of jurisdiction down the road. Slashing flexible resources is another of its characteristics. Yet, Peterson says the best tactic is to use the pressure of scarcity to spur innovation.6 This isn't the time to remove what some might term "organizational slack. " Instead, expend more resources for staff training and professional development. Here are some ideas we think you should consider:

  • Send more than one staff member to a professional meeting; a team can get a new idea accepted more quickly than an isolated individual.
  • Assign trainer agents in the field to work with, and instill some basic Extension values in, new specialists BEFORE they meet the public.
  • Provide more sophisticated staff support, such as career- and life-goal planning sessions.
  • Teach courses on management during decline.
  • Give employees professional tools to make the shift.

Positive downsizing requires managers to encourage staff revitalization and innovation. Maintain mechanisms that reward and support innovation. Retain provisions for adding new staff, wherever possible. Avoid giving employees conflicting demands and too much work, which stunts the time and incentive left for innovation.

Chinese symbol for danger.
Chinese symbol for danger

Outward Focus vs. Inward Focus

Extension has always looked to constituents for program development directives; now isn't the time to turn inward. Peterson writes: Environmental conditions are viewed not as trends-they are constraints or opportunities; . . . the values of constituents are not just patterns of support or resistance-they are sources of potential for compromise and target groups to convince.? He emphasizes the need for strategic choice that links the organization to its environment. Part of this linkage can be with support groups that lobby decision makers at local, state, and federal levels. However, consider these efforts as buying time to deal more effectively with later budget cuts.

Chinese symbol for opportunity.
Chinese symbol for opportunity

Prepare for Bright Future

Opting for downsizing turns a potentially negative outcome into constructive opportunity. Lippitt and Lippitt say it best:

A negative reaction to unaccustomed curtailment of resources often leads to "problem depression, " heightened levels of frustration and stress, and perhaps serious losses in productivity. A creative approach, however, can produce such benefits as greatermotivation, less duplication of effort, reduced overhead, discovery of under-utilized resources, and elimination of low priority (even unneeded) services ... 8

Extension has a niche in America's educational system. Although that advantage may alter slightly or significantly as the economic downturn runs its course, it will remain if Extension professionals make concerted efforts to downsize, not downgrade. Nurturing a climate for effectiveness, innovation, and outward focus must be the beginning of a brighter future.


1. Kenneth E. Boulding, "The Management of Decline," Change, VII (June 1975), 8-9, 64.

2. Gordon Lippitt and Ronald Lippitt, "Downsizing - How to Manage More with Less," Management Review, LXXI (March 1982), 13.

3. David A. Whetten, "Organizational Responses to Scarcity: Exploring the Obstacles to Innovative Approaches to Retrenchment in Education, " Educational Administration Quarterly, XVII (Summer 1981), 80-97.

4. Dale D. McConkey, "Strategic Planning in Nonprofit Organizations," Business Quarterly, XLVI (Summer 1981), 24-33.

5. Kim Cameron," Strategic Responses to Conditions of Decline," Journal of Higher Education, LIV (July/ August 1983), 374.

6. Marvin W. Peterson, "In a Decade of Decline: The Seven R's of Planning," Change, XVI (May/June 1984), 42-46.

7. Ibid., p. 43.

8. Lippitt and Lippitt, "Downsizing," p. 10.