Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP3

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The Future of Futuring


J. David Deshler
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

The Futures Task Force Report has performed timely, emergency treatment on the Cooperative Extension System. The task force was charged to operate as a "think tank" focusing on a vision of future delivery. Their organizational vision and the rapid response of many Extension leaders to the call for immediate change may very well have saved the system from gradual extinction. However, several ideas in the report should be amplified if Cooperative Extension is to emerge in the future with a new expanded role in American society.

Futuring as a Process Must Continue. The system shouldn't expect a blue ribbon panel to generate a finished vision for the system. Who should do futuring? Everyone in the system must assume that they're on a continuing Futures Task Force if there's to be commitment to undertake relevant work on behalf of the public interest. Certainly, ES-USDA should have a permanent Futures Task Force-but national, state, and local dialogue is continuously required for organizational change. The task force report should be viewed as the beginning of a continuing dialogue among all segments of Cooperative Extension regarding future visions.

Participation in Issue Identification Must Be Broadened. The task force wisely suggested that the system should network with other private and public sectors and consult futurists outside the Cooperative Extension Service in the identification of issues. If this is not done, there will be a built-in tendency to identify only issues that easily match our present constitutencies' perspectives and special interests - an incestuous Extension family planning process that preserves the status quo. Issues programming will be only cosmetic if incestuous planning occurs.

Using Resources from the Total Land-Grant System. The task force strongly suggested that the past organizational boundaries be transcended. The resources of the total land-grant system should be made available to address issues. I'd take this one step beyond looking for resources in colleges other than agriculture and home economics. If we're to address some issues, we must think about using resources in land-grant universities in states other than our own- linking our universities closely together rather than perpetuating our competitiveness. Funding Sources Beyond Agriculture and ES-USDA. The report recognized that if issues were to drive the system, then resources to address these issues had to come from sources other than those that have traditionally supported the system. This means finding funds from a variety of agencies other than USDA. One contributor to the report suggested that "Extension should separate itself from USDA and form an independent agency in the executive branch similar to the National Science Foundation" (p. 4). This relationship between funding and the selection of issues deserves more dialogue and serious structural consideration.

The Language of Leadership. Geasler used the metaphor of Extension being caught in the rapids of change. I think that metaphor is unfortunate. It emphasizes being swept downstream by change. This image suggests Extension should change to avoid its own organizational catastrophe, a point that Lick warns against in the quote used by Geasler at the end of his update.

I believe metaphors are important to our organizational culture, and we should choose them carefully. Other metaphors could emphasize the proactive role that Extension can play. Extension can be a "catalyst" in bringing together critical elements to address major social, economic, and political issues. It can "broker" resources. It can "bridge" the dialogue between technology and citizen behavior in the popular critique of science. The metaphors we choose should be those that depict Extension's leadership role in bringing about change - building, creating, enabling, and shaping the direction of change - not just in reacting to it.

The Futures Task Force Report is now history. We must continue to engage in creating dynamic images of Extension's new leadership role.