Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA2

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Strategic Planning in Extension

The key lesson to be learned from strategic planning is the importance of looking outward as we define our future. That idea is under continual threat in an academic world characterized by increasing specialization and the compartmentalization of knowledge.

Ellen L. Fitzsimmons
State Program Leader for Family Living Education
Cooperative Extension Service, University of Wisconsin-Extension, Madison

Gerald R. Campbell
Vice Chancellor
University of Wisconsin-Extension, Madison

Not too many years ago, the words "issues programming" were new to Extension. The national Extension System conducted training sessions on issues programming to help us learn where we should go, and offered organizational transition training to help us while we were on the way to getting there. State faculty and administrators went home and assessed how their own planning processes measured up. Most found some reasons for change and everybody at least talked about it.

In Wisconsin in 1989, the dean of Cooperative Extension appointed a small work group to design and implement a strategic planning process. This group was given a free hand and designed a process different from, yet related to, past planning efforts. In approaching strategic planning, the group examined literature from business and government strategic planning.1 That literature supplemented the issues programming training to emphasize the necessity for an externally focused planning process.

Planning Process

The strategic planning process was guided by a task force of 20 administrators, county- and campus-based faculty, led by a seven-person steering committee. Each steering committee member chaired a subcommittee that was responsible for the design of a major component of the process. Components of the process are discussed below.

Twenty-four county Extension agents attended a three-day training session on strategic planning. They then served as the leadership/training team for county agents in each of the six districts. Each county office received a detailed "how-to-do-it" manual with sample agendas, letters, and recommended procedures to complete the planning process. Each county office identified a lead agent for strategic planning.

One strategic planning subcommittee had as its task to describe key forces influencing the environment in which Extension works. The committee's environmental scanning process involved a broad array of Extension and other university-based scanners. The committee also conducted interviews with key leaders in the private and public sectors. Members developed a videotape and print outlook report that were used to help county level committees think beyond their local communities to the broader environment.

State specialists gathered trend data and distributed local information to each county office. Counties received visuals and background information about trends related to demographics, income, working, agriculture, business, food, nutrition and health, children, and the elderly. County committees used the materials to bring local and state dimensions to the broader environmental scan and learn more about their own communities.

Each county formed a citizen advisory committee for the strategic planning effort-1,849 citizens were involved. Fifty- eight percent of the citizens were nonusers of Extension, and it was the first experience with Extension programs for many. The county planning groups were charged with identifying the 10 priority concerns facing them. An informational meeting was followed by another meeting to identify, prioritize, and clarify concerns. Some form of nominal group process was typically used to facilitate the ranking of priorities. The county concerns were sent to district caucuses to develop district priorities.2 The district and county concerns were advanced to a state caucus involving campus- and field-based staff. The state caucus compiled the county and district concerns into a list of priority issues that were recommended to the dean of Cooperative Extension, who was responsible for selecting the final set of issues.

Having identified the issues, the dean nominated issues teams to specify the issues in clear enough detail so county and campus faculty could define related programs in the development of four-year and annual plans of work. At faculty conference, county and campus faculty were given guidelines for program planning, heard presentations on issues and base programs, and participated in discussions of how they'd confront the educational opportunities before them.

Planning Outcomes

Three statewide issues were identified: managing society's wastes, improving the quality of water, and families and youth at risk. The issues were targeted for special attention and the acquisition of additional resources to supplement existing institutional capacity to respond. No base reallocation of funds has been, or is expected to be, made to the statewide issues. Thus, educational programming around issues must grow out of the individual faculty members' decisions to change and bring their expertise to these issues.

Faculty members still work in the four base program areas, and respond to high priority base programs, which include:

  • Food safety, quality, and human health.
  • Competitive and profitable agriculture.
  • Changing families and youth development.
  • Community and economic development.
  • Natural resources and environmental stewardship.

Base programs aren't static. In many cases, strategic planning helped to shape the focus of base programs as well as define issues. Some of the issues clearly emerged from base programs and will return to the base later.

Lessons from the Process

Strategic planing can create fears. Concerns about the planning process included fear of fiscal reallocation away from existing programs, too much staff time and energy would be absorbed, nothing new would be learned, the importance of traditional programs and relationships with their support groups would be threatened, and faculty would lose control of the basic educational decisions.

The process in many cases allayed these fears and most faculty and staff now view the process and outcomes as positive. Reallocation fears were eased by a series of strong messages from the dean that the process would be used as a banner under which supplemental resources could be sought, if needed, from a variety of sources. It helped that during the process, Cooperative Extension received a new state allocation for recycling programming and also received federal water quality and youth-at- risk funds. While some traditional support groups were initially concerned about the process, the administration's commitment to strong base programs and continuing relationships with traditional advisers has also helped to limit those concerns.

Some people will change and others won't. Many of the skeptics, especially at the county level, were genuinely influenced by what they heard in the local planning meetings. In some counties the program was empowered by the local involvement to a degree it never has been. However, the process and outcome hasn't been accepted by all. Some simply refused to believe results that challenge their expectations. For example, it was difficult for some to accept that in an agricultural county the priority concerns weren't agricultural. It was obvious that citizens see problems beyond their own economic interest areas.

The process takes money, time, and energy. Staff at all levels in the organization contributed. The materials development process alone, including development of the environmental scan, the videotape, and the county trends data were costly tasks.

County involvement reaps local rewards. Every county-based Extension agent was involved in the local process. This time and commitment enriched the process and was a vital part of university life. In addition, those who were a part of the process learned a new set of skills useful in their professional careers. At the local level, the interest and support for the process has been overwhelming. As a result, Extension has a network of over 1,800 citizens who are better informed about their world, have an image of Extension as a future-oriented institution, feel they have a stake in how we respond, and may become some of our strongest supporters.

Issues identification is revealing. The process contained some reaffirmation of current program direction, such as youth at risk. It breathed new fire into some longstanding program directions, such as local community and economic development, and helped to identify a few things that might have been missed. For example, broad-based concern about access to and affordability of health care emerged with enough force that it caused Extension to begin planning how the issue can be addressed in a more comprehensive way. The process didn't identify issues that were truly ahead of the curve, underscoring the need for continued environmental scanning. Throughout the process, we kept referring to a quote from NHL hockey star Wayne Gretzky that he "skated to where the puck was going to be." We aren't confident we know "where the puck is going to be." But, the planning process allowed Extension to see much more clearly that what's of concern to Wisconsin citizens doesn't necessarily match the current "knowledge set" possessed by the faculty.

Not everything gets done. Most of the strategic planning literature looks at the process as being simultaneously external and internal. A rigorous internal look at our current capacities wasn't done. Allowing existing faculty and staff to respond to the statewide issues before a judgment is made that new resources are needed may be a major advantage. Wisconsin has a pool of very creative and talented people. It would have been easy to underestimate the talents and interest they bring to the issues. Administration will, however, need to continue to evaluate the additional resources needed to effectively confront statewide issues.

The process must be institutionalized. For planning to succeed, it should be incorporated into ongoing activities. A futures committee has been charged with keeping the organization aware of emerging issues. Local planning committees are expected to meet annually to follow up on local progress in confronting issues. The program planning and reporting process has been redesigned to allow opportunity for more team planning and to allow agents to share plans through an electronic database. An annual statewide video conference with all strategic planning committees is planned.


The key lesson to be learned from strategic planning is the importance of looking outward as we define our future. That idea is under continual threat in an academic world characterized by increasing specialization and the compartmentalization of knowledge. Cooperative Extension and the Wisconsin Idea both grew out of a commitment to educate people where they were so people could solve their own problems. Extension faculty must continually build that external orientation and promote it to campus colleagues. This strategic planning process has helped Wisconsin Cooperative Extension rediscover its heritage in the Wisconsin Idea and see how that heritage is a guide to the future.


1. John M. Bryson, "An Effective Strategic Planning Approach for Public and Nonprofit Organizations," in Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement, John M. Bryson, ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988), pp. 46-70; James C. Hearn and Richard Heydinger, "Scanning the University's External Environment," Journal of Higher Education, LVI (July/August 1985), 419-45; and Kim Cameron, "Strategic Responses to Conditions of Decline: Higher Education and the Private Sector," Journal of Higher Education, LIV (July/August 1983), 359-80.

2. The county concerns were accumulated in a booklet widely distributed to collaborating agencies and others in Wisconsin. That booklet identified the names of each county's local planning committee along with a general identification of interests they represented.