Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Futures // 1FUT2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Extension Management in the Information Age


James A. Buford, Jr.
Management Scientist
Cooperative Extension Service
Adjunct Professor, Department of Management
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama

A recent article in this journal forcefully pointed out the need for Extension to create a new culture as we make the transition to an information-age organization.1 I'll try to establish where we are now in this transition and outline a way of thinking about management to move us from here to there.

Whence It Came

In a less-complicated time, the Cooperative Extension Service was simpler. The land-grant university research findings were disseminated directly to rural people by agents in the counties. With a small administrative staff and few subject-matter specialists, management was done largely through face-to-face communication. Little thought was given to motivation and job satisfaction. The work itself was motivation enough, and the job mobility that exists today was unheard of.

Today, the administrative staff is much larger with multiple hierarchical levels. The day when an agent in the county was in close contact with the director's office is a fading memory. The number of specialists has increased, while their areas of specialization have narrowed. We have, as Jay pointed out some time ago, come to depend on the patronage of complex organizations for our livelihood and on the behavior of their leaders for the quality of our work life.2

The question is whether management can adapt sufficiently to attract, motivate, and retain the human resources Extension will need to effectively carry out its programs in the years ahead. It's commendable, of course, that increasing attention is being given to human resource development (HRD) activities.3 But, more fundamental issues must be addressed.

Tradition, Obsolescence, and Opportunity

Our existing industrial-age, organizational structures are derived from such institutions as the Roman Catholic Church and the 19th century Prussian general staff. This framework sees the manager as "the boss" and everyone else as "the subordinate."

Extension can no longer be organized and managed this traditional way if the goal is to retain and motivate our best agents and specialists, for two reasons. One is that people's work-related expectations have changed with a much higher value placed on the intrinsic rewards of achievement, personal growth, challenge, and less on traditional rewards like promotion. The second reason is a shift to what Drucker calls "knowledge work."4 Productivity of knowledge workers relates more to quality than quantity of work. The critical factors for productivity are attitudes, relationships, and job enrichment.

Do We Measure Up?

In that Extension work is knowledge work and that the leadership of CES is made up of former knowledge workers, is Extension moving toward the information-age organization? On the managerial side, administrators pay lip service to the information-age organization. But, they, like me, tend to think and act in terms of effectively performing the traditional management functions. The irony is that when I wrote my book, Management in Extension, I covered information-age topics like dual hierarchy and matrix organization...but it was still a standard management text. As Patton correctly noted, Extension is still, by and large, an industrial-age organization.5

Is the staff doing anything to nudge management? Let me put on my specialist hat and make a confession. I know what I want from my job - those intrinsic rewards I mentioned. And let me stress that they're present to a far greater degree than when I started work as an Extension specialist almost 25 years ago. After only a few years, I accepted an administrative position to meet my perceived needs for career growth and development. Recently, I returned to a specialist position for the same reason. Even so, I do a rather poor job in communicating to the leadership of my own organization how my job could be made more rewarding and challenging. It's pleasant, pays well, and has the "golden handcuffs" of a vested retirement. So, I go along and get along.

What Can Management Do?

To move Extension toward an organization of the future will require both a new way of thinking and a management style that's unfamiliar, and even threatening, to Extension administrators.

Here are some particularly critical needs.

Lick suggests that Extension management is "...more concerned with doing things right rather than in doing the right things."6 Changing this mindset can be difficult and even painful, because of many long-held beliefs of middle- and upper- level managers in Extension. But knowledge workers need to discipline and direct their own performance. Managers must begin to shift their focus from command and control to creating a culture of productivity - one which challenges, rather than reinforces, established practices.7

In knowledge work, the workers are the "bosses" and the administrators and managers are facilitators.

An example of this relationship can be found in a hospital. While a hospital administrator occupies the apex of the management pyramid, he/she doesn't exercise medical leadership. Staff physicians are more concerned with input from colleagues in their speciality (surgery, internal medicine, obstetrics). Their success or failure is a matter to be decided by their patients and their peers. Extension work is fundamentally similar. Agents and specialists need to be empowered to do their jobs as they need to be done.

Meaningful rewards, recognition, and career opportunities should be developed for agents and specialists. Most compensation structures in Extension are heavily biased toward administrative titles. A top-performing specialist shouldn't necessarily be paid less than his/her department head. The same goes for those agents whose contribution may be several times the maximum rate for their position. Continuing with the hospital analogy, a physician may have little interest in "advancing" to the position of hospital administrator. He/she may be more concerned with the status hierarchy that exists within each medical specialty. Accordingly, a much improved alternate hierarchy is necessary with more emphasis on Extension contributions to the appropriate professional field. A promotion to a management job may be the wrong reward.

Both the number of managerial levels and the number of managers should be reduced. Layers of management neither make decisions nor lead. As Drucker points out, their main function "is to serve as 'relays' - human boosters for the faint, unfocused signals that pass for communication in the traditional pre-information organization."8

The ECOP Futures Task Force Report finds a perception that Extension organizations are "grossly over-administered" at all levels.9 Support departments in particular grow into self-serving bureaucracies where internal rules, procedures, and forms are valued more highly than service to the organization. These "bookkeeping" activities are only a means to an end. This needs to be pointed out to the bookkeepers when program activities encounter procedural delays.

Performance should be accurately measured and rewarded. While most Extension Services have some kind of formal performance appraisal system, ratings often are vague, subjective, and impressionistic. Performance appraisal should focus on contributions to specific, well-defined objectives. Desired performance must be clearly linked to rewards or both performance and motivation will be diminished.

The leadership of Extension must provide a view of the "big picture," while maintaining the concept of self-direction for the knowledge worker. Drucker suggests that top administrators could take cues from a symphony conductor.10 A large orchestra with hundreds of musicians playing dozens of instruments plays together because they and their conductor (the administrator) all have the same score. It tells the piccolo player when and what to play and it tells the conductor when and what to expect. It's the conductor's job to focus the piccolo player's skills on the orchestra's performance according to the score.


The points I've outlined are the concepts of "entrepreneural management," which is inner-directed, market-driven, and comes with a certain amount of risk.11 If agents and specialists are allowed to have more discretion over how they do their jobs and experiment with new ideas, some will fail; in fact, some will fail spectacularly. But what's the alternative? It's not "business as usual." The best people will leave, while those remaining become experts in following procedures and not rocking the boat. Extension has little choice but to become information-based. But it's clear that the task of building this new organization is still ahead of us. It's the challenge of Extension management in the 1990s.


1. Michael Quinn Patton, "The Extension Organization of the Future," Journal of Extension, XXV (Spring 1987), 22-24.

2. Antony Jay, Management and Machiavelli (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), Introduction.

3. See, Richard W. Clark, "Human Resource Development: Key to Extension's Survival," Journal of Extension, XXV (Spring 1987), 25-26.

4. Peter Drucker, "Goodbye to the Old Personnel Department," The Wall Street Journal, May 22,1986.

5. Patton, "The Extension Organization," p. 22.

6. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1987), p. 1.

7. Peter Drucker, "The Coming of the New Organization," Harvard Business Review, LXVI (January-February 1988), 45-53.

8. Drucker, "Coming of the New Organization," p. 46.

9. ECOP, Extension in Transition, p. 7.

10. Drucker, "Coming of the New Organization," pp. 48-49.

11. Larry Reynolds, "Entrepreneurial Management in the Public Sector," Management Review, LXXVII (May 1988), 34-37.