Fall 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 3 // Futures // 3FUT1

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Why Wait Until 2010?


David W. Dik
Assistant Director
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Ithaca, New York

J. David Deshler
Futures Editor
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

How will Extension market its programs in the year 2010, just 22 years from now? What will happen in the next 22 years in the information/communication age in which we live that will affect the way we market Extension? We believe that the forces of change are unstoppable-the speed of change will continue to accelerate and our approaches to marketing, particularly need analysis, will have to take into account these changes.

Theobald,1 in his book The Rapids of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Turbulent Times, has projected increased complexity, diversity, and uncertainty in the years ahead. As the title suggests, the future will be like riding the rapids. What implications do these increasing characteristics of the future have for marketing Extension's programs? We'll focus on implications of increased complexity, diversity, and uncertainty for the analysis of needs for learning.

Increased Complexity

We already recognize that our world has become increasingly complex. By the year 2010, the world will be wired more tightly. Fiber optic networks will abound, satellite transmission will be old hat, and we'll have moved to smaller, more independent/dependent communities existing within a shrinking, global community environment. Most homes in North America will be equipped with televisions, optical disks, videorecorders, computers, and a countless number of new, powerful inexpensive, usable electronic products. Video phones and cellular phones will abound and the fifth generation of computers will be remarkable. The advent of miniaturization will allow everyone to carry a smart card for communications, computing, financial transactions, shopping, record keeping, and accessing information databases.

Because people will have immediate access to information electronically, they'll experience what Theobald calls infoglut.2 He suggests that to be effective in the future will require the capacity to filter and screen the incredible amount of stimuli that will exist. He thinks learners will destroy themselves if they try to look at all the available information and take advantage of every opportunity.

What learners will need help with in the year 2010 isn't only more effective ways of keeping out unwanted signals and controlling unwanted infoglut, but help with selecting key information and discerning meaning in the midst of complexity.

What are implications of information complexity for the analysis of learning needs? Will we analyze educational need as the provision of technical information that may be available through many sources electronically, or will we identify learning needs associated with increased complexity, such as helping our potential learners to:

  • Know how to access and use complex knowledge systems so information can be found that's applicable when it's needed.
  • Evaluate knowledge bases and their appropriateness for application to specific problems.
  • Search for new responses to emerging questions and issues.
  • Learn how to learn through critical thinking and reflection.
  • Become aware of patterns of perception and the meaning of complex information.
  • Make sense out of unstructured sets of realities.
  • Select information that has leverage to solve specific complex problems.

Perhaps our need assessments in the year 2010 will be assessments of the learners' ability to see the big picture in the midst of complexity. Perhaps our needs analyses will be evaluations of the adequacy of knowledge systems for addressing major social, economic, and cultural problems. Technical knowledge from land-grant universities will probably be accessible to learners electronically in the year 2010, but that information may be useless unless we can cut through and make sense out of infoglut. Could it be that the mission of Extension in 2010 will shift from adding to infoglut to making sense and meaning out of it?

Increased Diversity

Theobald suggests that the future will bring greater diversity and awareness of conceptual, cultural, language, and value differences. Serving a monolithic clientele will be over. Being everything to everybody will be a distant memory. Geographic, political, and international boundaries will be porous, allowing the world's diversity to challenge our assumptions of what constitutes quality of life. No longer will it be helpful to speak about what our homemakers, farmers, or 4-H parents want as a whole. Greater diversity presents new challenges to facilitate learning. It means that learners will have a need to:

  • Discover diversity as an asset and appreciate the creativity that can come out of diversity and conflicting perspectives.
  • Engage in dialogues to understand the nature of conflict among groups.
  • Increase sensitivity to cultural languages of diverse groups, and a need for cultural and technical interpreters to bridge differences.
  • Appreciate visions of creative behavior different from our own.
  • Generate our own visions of the future in the midst of diverse competing interests.
  • Engage in learning about public decisions that emerge from conflicting perspectives of diverse groups and their various solutions to problems.
  • Make ethical decisions in a complex, interdependent world by sorting through competing claims and trade-offs as they affect diverse groups.

Our analysis of need, in the year 2010, will challenge our habit of generalizing about "people" and our tendency to ignore differences and diversity and will help us focus on demographic, geographic, psychological, and cultural specificity in targeting audience differences. Needs analyses will help us make hard choices in deciding which of hundreds of diverse groups deserve our attention, which groups are going to be served by other organizations, and which groups will be served through linkages and networks.

We will pay close attention to conflicts between groups, equal access to information sources, demands among diverse constituencies, and ethical choices that require our attention. In addition, our need analyses will help us select issues that deserve education for public decisions and will provide us with maps of the territory of unique learning needs of groups.


Many people assume that change in the future will occur gradually rather than abruptly. Theobald, however, forecasts greater uncertainty in the future because he thinks that many changes will be discontinuous with the past and require rapid preparations, adaptation, and inventing. For example, he says that climatologists have discovered that sharp shifts in climate can occur over only a few short years. Recently, Extension has had to respond to the unanticipated "farm crisis."

Theobald states that "discontinuities provide us with many opportunities to challenge individuals, institutions, and cultures to look at change in new ways."3 In the year 2010, we all need to be aware of possible crises so we can use them to create opportunities for building new directions. The future will be, as always, a race between education and disaster.

What are the learning tasks required for coping with uncertainty due to rapid discontinuous change? People in the year 2010 will have to:

  • Learn that uncertainty and rapid change can provide teachable moments of unprecedented opportunity for creativity and new ways of viewing reality.
  • Learn to read early warning signals of impending danger or opportunity.
  • Know several emergency strategies or backup systems for coping with rapid transitions.
  • Be able to distinguish what's essential to be done in emergencies rather than just working harder or more frantically.
  • Learn to invent rather than retreat or merely react.

What does increased uncertainty from discontinuities and rapid unanticipated change imply for needs analyeis in the year 2010? It first means that Extension will conduct need analysis beyond the scope of existing traditional program categories that impose tunnel vision about what constitutes a need. Needs analyses will serve as: (1) early warning systems, (2) alarm bells that will awaken us out of hypnotic states to discover the sprouting of the seeds of the future, (3) monitors of the environment on a continual basis-interpreters of global conditions and fluctuations and their potential impact on local constituencies, and (4) reconnaissance expeditions that scout the territory ahead for potential danger, strategic opportunity, and leverage points for averting disaster or creating alternatives never before considered.

Responding to unanticipated change means Extension must free up to at least 50% of its resources for investment in flexible, short-term programming to take advantage of emerging conditions.


The future, 2010, will bring increased complexity, diversity, and uncertainty. Needs analyses will help us design learning systems to help learners in finding meaning in the midst of "infoglut" complexity, address specific situations of diverse groups, and challenge learners to creatively use the opportunities of uncertainty. Needs analyses, in the year 2010, will help us escape our conceptual "booby traps" and assist us in providing inventive education.

Why wait until the year 2010 to address learning needs related to increasing complexity, diversity, and uncertainty through need analysis? In this case, the future is now!


1. Robert Theobald, The Rapids of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Turbulent Times (Indianapolis, Indiana: Knowledge Systems, 1987).

2. Ibid., p. 41.

3. Ibid., p. 159.