Winter 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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Clients Face Uncertainty, Too


Patrick J. Borich
Dean and Director
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

Roy Rauschkolb asks the very important question: "How can we as individuals or an organization deal with changes that are so rapid and of such magnitude, all of which contribute to the uncertainties we find ourselves facing?" His answer is to be sure Extension staff have strong scientific training and specialization. While I agree that Extension must be scientifically grounded, I want to add some caveats and conditions.

The clientele we're hired to help also face changes that are so rapid and of such magnitude that they feel uncertain about the future. A potential danger in staff specialization is that clients are left on their own to integrate specialized advice. Specialists have traditionally been poor integrators. Extension has an obligation to approach problems holistically from the perspective of clients and find solutions that integrate multiple knowledge bases. This will require genuine interdisciplinary, cross-program team efforts, not individuals acting alone out of their own specialized knowledge base.

To be effective, Extension staff need more than traditional subject-matter specialization. I'd like to see at least two specializations for all staff - one in some subject matter and the second in some aspect of adult education/change/human development. Staff need to work out of a knowledge of both scientific research principles and education/community development principles. Neither alone will suffice.

I agree that "the ability to see opportunities and willingness to take risks come from confidence in one's skill to apply one's disciplinary knowledge." But I also believe risk-taking and confidence come from seeing the results of helping people solve multifaceted problems and dealing effectively with a world that's increasingly complex. Staff confidence should be built on knowing that Extension is making a difference in people's lives on things that matter.

The danger in greater scientific specialization is that Extension staff will look more to their departmental colleagues for direction and recognition than to their clients. University reward systems make it quite easy for colleague recognition to overwhelm client impact as our primary criterion for evaluation.

Nor can we afford to await the results that come from new problem-solving research as our primary response to emerging issues. Extension must be able to respond, as necessary, to rapidly emerging issues from an existing knowledge base according to established adult education and development principles.

In many ways, the call for Extension to become more specialized and engage to a greater extent in problem-solving research is an indictment of Agricultural Experiment Stations and university departments, and our linkages to these sources of scientific knowledge. They're supposed to provide the scientific knowledge base for Extension technology transfer, problem solving, education, and development. As we strive to make sure that our staff operate from a strong scientific foundation, we must avoid becoming primarily applied researchers rather than extensionists par excellence.

Our mission is using and applying scientific knowledge to help clients develop resources, solve problems, and improve their lives. The danger in specialization is that we become overspecialized in generating and applying knowledge for a relatively small number of very specific problems and narrowly targeted clientele. Such overspecialization is detrimental to our responsibility to make a difference in the lives of people more generally by having an impact on the major issues of our times. In essence, I'm quite simply suggesting that we make sure that increased staff specialization serves Extension's primary mission.