Fall 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP1

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Crossing Lines


Edgar J. Boone
Assistant Director, Staff Development and Evaluation
North Carolina Agricultural
Extension Service
Raleigh, North Carolina

The Extension System faces a challenge as we move into the last decade of the 20th century. In my opinion, this challenge will continue to confront our system, as a publicly supported educational organization, for many years to come. That challenge involves crossing lines.

Lines within Extension provide for division of responsibilities, structure, and orderliness. However, these same lines can become barriers in a world of change. Critical issues, such as improving water quality, revitalizing rural America, sustaining the competitiveness and profitability of American agriculture, improving nutrition, and protecting youth at risk, will require Extension workers in traditional program areas, disciplines, and administration to cross lines and function as teams. Geographic lines will have to be crossed. Lines between Extension and significant other organizations may need to be crossed to create networks and temporary coalitions, a practice that should be encouraged!

We must become more involved in interacting and crossing lines both within Extension and within the larger land-grant university community. In this way, we can bring to bear our total resources, regardless of discipline or program area, in achieving maximum impact on targeted public issues.

Elected officials who manage public funds expect public, tax-supported organizations - including Extension - to find ways to eliminate duplication of programs by cooperating and collaborating. In many instances, people must function as teams in planning and implementing jointly conceived, cost-effective programs that will achieve maximum impact in resolving major public issues.

Staff Development

Success in crossing lines will require Extension to institute a strong, responsive, and sustained staff development program. Extension personnel at all levels need staff development to acquire basic concepts and skills critical to functioning as teams in leading and facilitating change through issues programming.

The idea that staff development is crucial to meeting the challenge of crossing lines is based on five observations:

  1. For the most part, state and county Extension workers are used to and feel more secure in working within their respective disciplines and assigned area(s) of program responsibility. This compartmentalized system has been encouraged through Extension's reward systems, as well as by leaders in university administration, disciplines, and Extension program areas.

  2. The performance appraisal systems now used don't cover interdisciplinary activities. They simply aren't geared to assess the quality of or reward the performance of professional educators who "cross lines" to work on interdisciplinary teams, even though such teams are essential to resolve major public issues.

  3. The trend toward employing professionals who hold research-oriented and highly specialized advanced degrees to fill Extension positions at both the state and county levels seems to be accelerating. While it's essential to have the best possible technically prepared personnel in all of Extension's professional positions, it's equally important that these people thoroughly understand the Extension System as a human system, not just a technical system. Extension education is a human process in which technical, scientific, and other forms of human knowledge are integrated and used to help human beings achieve their aspirations and potentials.

  4. Crossing lines for issues-based programming requires expertise, personal capabilities, and intellectual skills that differ from those currently used in Extension. These differences tend to produce some discomfort and insecurity. It's natural to resent a new approach that has neither a model nor a track record to indicate that it has been tested and demonstrated to yield more positive results than the current approach.

  5. Organizational renewal and change in daily functions will occur only if those affected are intensively involved in the decision-making process and are provided opportunities to understand, accept, and become experienced in the new work behaviors (competencies and skills) needed to function effectively in crossing lines.

Power of Teamwork

Our staff is the most potent weapon we have in our arsenal! I feel strongly that staff development is one of Extension's most powerful and effective management functions. It can make a difference in Extension's capacity, motivation, and leadership in resolving issues through teamwork that beset our troubled society.

Make no mistake. I'm stating that now - and into the 21st century - our continued recognition among the American populace as the most respected and valued force for people-oriented change will depend on our ability to function in teams with significant others. That means to cross lines.

The continued segmentation of our faculty's programming efforts and their compartmentalized concepts of programs that deal with only one aspect of an issue or problem no longer works. Issues can be dealt with only through practicing teamwork. By this, we mean making it possible for staff members who represent different disciplines and traditional program areas to learn how to become deeply immersed in a team effort to understand an issue from a holistic perspective. Only through observing and experiencing how their expertise blends with others' expertise in putting into place and implementing issue programs can our faculty fully appreciate and accept the concept of teamwork or crossing lines.

To achieve this goal of effectively crossing lines, we must make better use of staff development in socializing new workers into the Extension culture and system. This is especially critical for new personnel whose major orientation is research. Further, we must use staff development to "rekindle the flame," the enthusiasm, and the dedication of our veteran Extension faculty to Extension's mission and the need for them to adapt to a changed and changing environment. This can be done only if the new Extensionist and the seasoned Extension veteran, together, can be helped to experience the positive results of their efforts.

What All Extensionists Should Know

The major target of the Extension worker's change efforts is the human system - a system in which individual behavior and motives in real situations are difficult to understand, control, and treat. In real human systems, it's impossible to predict absolute outcomes. The variables that affect the behavior of the human system are many and complex.

Given this complexity, all Extensionists must continue throughout their professional careers to be self-directed learners in seeking a better understanding of the practice of Extension. Toward this end, I propose a set of general competencies for all Extensionists that staff development should support:

  • The Extension System and its uniqueness in translating and extending technical expertise in the land-grant university and the USDA for use in its nontraditional "classrooms," which are accessible to all the people in the 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the six territories.
  • The uniqueness of the educational process that Extension uses to translate this knowledge so it may be understood and accepted within the many and diverse human systems.
  • The role of Extension professionals with different responsibilities and how they, as a whole, function to achieve maximum results in producing intended positive change in Extension's publics.
  • The significant and essential role that leaders of intended learners (publics) must play in issue and need identification to secure their commitment to the change(s) that we're trying to produce.
  • How to cultivate personal contacts, network, and, when appropriate, involve representatives of significant other agencies, systems, and groups in the planning process, thus eliciting their commitment and willingness to devote resources and energies to jointly addressing specific public issues or problems.
  • How to design programs that target specific problems, issues, or needs that have been identified collaboratively by both our Extensionists and their publics, and representatives of significant other agencies, systems, and groups.
  • How to make the best use of both human and technological resources in implementing a program (using volunteers, professionals, all forms of instruction, including traditional as well as advanced instructional technology).
  • How to market a program.
  • How to develop human resources and involve them as fully as possible in all aspects of program implementation.
  • How to master the continual monitoring of program activities and, based on that monitoring, give help when needed.
  • How to obtain and use feedback collected through scientific, systematic, and guided inquiry that can and should be used to modify or change program directions, when needed.
  • How to assess the relative effectiveness of learning resources and activities in relation to outcomes achieved.
  • How to assess the cost effectiveness of resources used in producing targeted, intended outcomes.
  • How to interpret and report results for yourself, your publics, Extension, and county, state, and national governmental bodies.
  • How to become a self-directed learner, always seeking as your professional goal all there is to know about your job, your publics, Extension, the land-grant institution, and the environment in which you and the Extension System function.

Realizing Extension's Mission

Extension's missionary zeal and commitment to developing and empowering human systems through education is unparalleled throughout the globe. My plea is that we continue to expend every effort to understand our changing environment; develop our staff resources to their maximum; cross lines; function as teams, as needed; and keep uppermost in our philosophy and minds that our work is concerned with developing human beings and human systems to their maximum capacity.