Spring 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA6

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Managing Innovative Programs

This article briefly describes five case studies of successful Extension program development methods.

Philip Favero
Extension Specialist
Center for the Study of Innovations
University of Maryland-College Park

Daryl K. Heasley
Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development
Pennsylvania State University-University Park

Extension workers face a common challenge-how to develop and manage innovative educational programs. This article briefly describes five case studies of successful Extension program development methods. These cases were chosen because they'd gained reputations as innovative Extension programs in economic development.1 Programs selected were: community services (Oklahoma State University), home-based businesses (Alabama A & M), Ferry County Forward (Washington State University), biotechnology transfer and industrial innovations (Cornell University), and the Tourism Center (University of Minnesota).

Field studies of the programs were conducted by interviewing program managers, program clients, and Extension Service administrators and analyzing relevant reports and other written materials. The four questions that guided the case studies were:

  • What were the beginning challenges and specific events leading to Extension intervention?
  • Who got involved and how did they get organized?
  • What have been the impacts of intervention and the lessons learned?
  • What are remaining problems, emerging opportunities, and anticipated actions?2

Three program development strategies were identified as common to all five cases. The strategies were: valuing research, being pragmatic, and coordinating with others. This article examines the three strategies and shows how they were applied.

Valuing Research

In all the programs, the managers demonstrated they valued research highly. Their research focused on identifying client problems, what needed to be taught, and how programs should be adapted over time.

The managers initiated their programs by assessing the educational problems of clients. These assessments used both formal and informal research methods. For example, the community services effort at Oklahoma State University began with a formal survey of education and information needs among the state's local public officials. Initially, the officials expressed strong concerns about replacing ambulance services that were being discontinued by funeral homes in Oklahoma. Therefore, the Extension program focused first on teaching budgeting methods and suggesting alternative means for providing ambulance services. Subsequently, services such as fire protection, water, and school bus systems were added. Managers have made decisions to add new services to the program by paying close attention to requests for new information and by carefully considering the advice of state agencies and other program partners.

The home-based business program at Alabama A & M also began with a formal survey, in this case a study of low-income families-a special concern to the mission of the university. The survey, developed and administered by specialists and field faculty, revealed a strong client interest in obtaining information about initiating and expanding home-based businesses.

At Cornell University, the biotechnology program began with an educational needs assessment of small biotechnology firms in New York State and a literature review of the technology transfer process. Results of these activities were incorporated into a grant proposal to the New York State government.

The case studies also revealed that the managers carefully secured a strong research base for their programs. This was done in a variety of ways by:

  • Collaborating with researchers to develop program content.
  • Sharing the programs with partners who contributed complementary research bases.
  • Incorporating the knowledge of Extension clients.
  • Hiring Extension educators with extensive technical credentials.
  • Combining research-Extension appointments.
  • Conveying information on research problems encountered in the field to colleagues at their base universities.

Several examples illustrate these methods. The Tourism Center at the University of Minnesota skillfully incorporated recent research findings of faculty from many of the university's departments into its publications, videotapes, and presentations. In Ferry County, Washington, program managers incorporated the knowledge, values, and skills of a cross-section of community members by using a self-designed, self-administered community survey.

At Oklahoma State University, program managers stress the effectiveness of split research-Extension appointments to ensure a research base for the Extension program. Cornell University hired highly trained specialists in biology, business management, and engineering for the biotechnology and industrial innovations projects. By design, the specialists collaborate with researchers in various departments and organizations at Cornell, both within and outside the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Being Pragmatic

Each of the case study programs focused on a specific practical problem of a certain client group. The goal was to help the group solve a problem. Program managers pragmatically used the problems they found to determine end objectives and the means to reach those ends. Practical problems included:

  • Absence and expense of important public services in Oklahoma's rural communities.
  • Low family incomes in northern Alabama.
  • Severe economic difficulties in rural communities with natural resource-based economies in the western United States.
  • Low productivity in small manufacturing firms in southern New York.
  • Absence of communications linkages between academic biotechnology researchers and small businesses in New York State.
  • Inadequate knowledge base for Minnesota's tourism industry.

After the program managers assessed clients' problems and determined educational objectives, they searched for relevant disciplines and resources that could help reach the objectives. For example, Cornell's engineering specialists who worked on the problem of manufacturing productivity established several objectives, including: strengthening management methods, increasing child-care provision, enhancing interpersonal communications, and improving management-labor relations. To reach these objectives, the engineers looked beyond their discipline for concepts and ideas. They became articulate advocates of the view that engineering is typically only part of the answer to the productivity problem. They argued that multidisciplinary teams are necessary for providing an Extension program to their clients.

In another example of multidisciplinary work to solve a problem, Extension Service specialists from anthropology, economics, sociology, and other disciplines came together in the Western Rural Development Center to develop the "Hard Times" workshops for the region's communities. The Ferry County Extension chairman and other local leaders drew from a Hard Times workshop experience and community resources to improve their local economy.

Coordinating with Others

In keeping with their pragmatic philosophy, the managers of innovative programs have established close partnerships with other agencies and organizations concerned with solving client problems. The most dramatic example of coordination is in Oklahoma State's program. There, the process for research, educational materials development, and teaching incorporates a different set of partners for each of the 10 services currently in the program. No service becomes part of the program without a partnership of the relevant major agencies and organizations in the state. Across all the services included in the program, the partners represent six state agencies and five other organizations. Specialists assert that the community services effort can't be accurately termed an "Extension Service program." Rather, the effort should be called "a program in which Cooperative Extension is the lead organization."

Coordination, the case studies found, is based on how program managers relate to other organizations that have common interests. The managers exploit opportunities for sharing the benefits of combined resources, benefits such as client appreciation, grants, and political support. When common benefits are possible, incentives for coordination exist.


The three program development strategies are outlined in Table 1. We suggest the outline contains some strategies that may help meet the challenge of developing and managing innovative Extension programs. Extension professionals should test the strategies in the outline against what has worked well for them. Do the strategies add new ideas to your professional tool kit? Can they be combined with other ideas to meet some of your program development and management challenges?

Table 1. Strategies for Extension program managers.

1. Valuing research:
    a. Assess client problems.
    b. Secure a research base.
    c. Evaluate and adapt.
2. Being pragmatic:
    a. Use client problems to determine program objectives.
    b. Use client problems to identify relevant disciplines and resources.

3. Coordinating with others:
    a. Identify common interests.
    b. Share benefits to encourage coordination.


1. Directors of the four Regional Rural Development Centers and the Extension Service National Program Leader for Economic Development selected the programs for study as part of "New Alliances for Economic Development," an effort designed to strengthen relationships between USDA and land-grant universities in support of rural economic development. The four centers, the directors, and locations are: North Central, Peter Korsching, Iowa State University; Northeast, Daryl K. Heasley, Pennsylvania State University; Southern, Doss Brodnax, Mississippi State University; and Western, Russell Youmans, Oregon State University. Beth Walter Honadle is the Extension Service National Program Leader for Economic Development.

2. For a complete description of the case studies, see Philip Favero and Daryl K. Heasley, Cooperative Extension and New Alliances for Rural Economic Development: Five Case Studies, Publication Number 58 (University Park, Pennsylvania: Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, 1989).