Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Tools of the Trade // 3TOT2

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Discovering the Future


Arlen W. Etling
Assistant Professor, Extension Education and 4-H
The Pennsylvania State University-University Park

Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms. Joel A. Barker. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Filmedia, Inc., 1989. Video cassette (VHS, color), 38 minutes. $50 preview, $150 two-day rental, $250 one-week rental, $895 purchase. Also available in 3/4'" video format. Phone 1-800-328-3789.

We can increase our effectiveness as Extension professionals if we anticipate future changes in society and technology. We can make our organization more effective by anticipating future needs of clients. We can't even consider the future, however, if we allow ourselves to be trapped by the past. Barker's video can help us "discover our future" by breaking out of ruts that unnecessarily confine us.

We get trapped in the past because our "paradigms" limit our awareness of events and opportunities. Barker defines paradigm as "...a set of rules and regulations that defines boundaries." We all have paradigms about the way things are or the way things work. We hold staff meetings according to a set of rules and regulations (most are not written). When new workers challenge these rules, they're often told, "After you're here a while, you'll understand how and why we hold these kinds of meetings."

We develop paradigms about annual events: the county fair, the awards banquet, the judging school, the annual conference. The way we think about these events is influenced by our experience over the years. Sometimes we get locked into a particular way of conducting the event and refuse to consider suggestions for improvement.

The ways we define our clientele, advisory groups, and teaching methods are limited by our personal and group paradigms. Sometimes needs change and we fail to adjust accordingly.

Barker's video demonstrates how paradigms influence our judgments and our decision making. It shows how we see the world through our paradigms in everyday situations. The video makes us active participants. It calls for our observations, then shows us how we reject ideas and miss opportunities because the information we receive doesn't fit our present paradigm.

Paradigms shift when the old gives way to the new. This shift is often a "surprising, abrupt, unprecedented, rules-altering change." Examples of societal paradigm shifts in the last 20 years include changing from wasting energy to energy conservation, from big automobiles to economy cars, from copper wire communications technology to fiber optics and satellites. Other revolutionary changes include a redefinition of roles for minorities and women in society and the emergence of the personal computer. "These changes broke rules that we assumed were the only way to do things," according to Barker.

Paradigms can be useful. They can help us solve problems by making it easier to focus on information relevant to our needs. Paradigms make life a little more predictable. Changes in paradigms make us uncomfortable, at least for awhile, and some of us resist change. Barker observes that people who create new paradigms in an organization tend to be new members of the organization or outsiders who have no investment in the old paradigm. His observation suggests that we should carefully consider how we treat new workers.

The video gives examples of how individuals and organizations have changed old paradigms to anticipate the future and put themselves in a position of strength. "Made in Japan" was transformed from a label for cheap imitations to a label for top-quality products. Barker asks if the Japanese experience holds any lessons for our organization. In these times of change for Extension, such questions are particularly pertinent.

This video stimulates and entertains, but its chief value is subtle and much deeper than one might suspect. It can be used to set a climate of openness at a meeting. Getting people to be more creative is another use. When evaluating past failures to learn from mistakes your might want to consider the video. Setting the stage for problem solving is still another use. The video is entertaining enough to be used repeatedly with the same audience when confronting new issues.

A leader's discussion guide accompanies the video. Its format assumes group use, but it lends itself to individual self-analysis after viewing the tape. Seven exercises are described with discussion questions and suggestions for effective group management. The exercises could take as few as 15 minutes or as long as 3 1/2 hours. They guide a group in analyzing its present paradigms and in creating "paradigm flexibility."

Barker believes that the next 10 years are going to be filled with people coming around blind curves and yelling things at us. If we have "paradigm flexibility," the things they yell will be opportunities. If we have "paradigm paralysis" the things they yell will be threats. The choice will be ours.

NOTE: This edition of the videotape isn't significantly different from the first version (1986) to justify buying it if you already have the 1986 tape.