Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP2

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A Whack on the Side of the Organization


Gail M. Skinner
Associate Director-Programs
Minnesota Extension Service
ECOP Futures Task Force Member

The Futures Task Force Report, when it was published almost two years ago, provided what I've come to think of as a "whack on the side of the organization" for Extension. Unlike most previous national Extension reports, this one raised some serious questions about Extension and recommended some major organizational changes. As a result, the "Silver Bullet," as this report has been nicknamed in some circles, has caused a stir in the system.

That, in itself, has been healthy and positive for Extension. We've begun to think in new ways about how we can address important societal issues, how we can draw on the total resources of the land-grant university, and how we can be more flexible, more relevant, and more current. Admittedly, much of this is still rhetoric rather than practice, but it's an indication that a national momentum is building and change is starting to take place.

This momentum reflects the major themes of the Futures Task Force Report, themes that are right on target today - that to be relevant and effective, Extension must (1) focus its attention on critical societal issues; (2) be more adaptive and flexible in its structures, staffing, and funding; (3) be more future-oriented in its planning; and (4) draw on broader university resources in its program delivery. The positive reviews this report has received from critical decision makers outside of Extension, such as the Office of Management and Budget, are further reinforcement for the importance of these changes.

But, the report isn't without flaws. The biggest is the apparent incongruence between recommendations early in the report that critical issues should drive decisions about program delivery and clientele and later recommendations focusing on traditional clientele groups and traditional program delivery structures. As a result, the report reflects and leaves unaddressed one of our most difficult dilemmas - to what extent do we let go of traditional programs and audiences to shift our emphasis to more pressing program needs and targeted audiences. Certainly, we must balance programs that address enduring important issues with those that provide rapid response to issues of the day. But, we're far from that balance now and, unless we can detach ourselves from some traditional programs that in the broad scheme of things just aren't very relevant or important, we simply won't be able to move our new organizational vision into reality.

Our biggest challenge is how to inject more flexibility into our system - in our staffing, organizational structures, and funding. If we want to tap into the knowledge base of the entire land-grant university, we have to reallocate resources. If we want to be more responsive on critical issues, we have to reallocate time quickly. If we want to make a visible difference, we'll need to provide a critical mass of staff resources, cutting across organizational boundaries. Most of all, we'll need to see flexibility and change as business-as-usual from now on.

The title of the Futures Task Force Report is apropos. Under the leadership of ECOP and ES-USDA, we've created a new national vision. Our challenge is to make that vision a reality.