Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Futures // 4FUT1

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Staffing Extension for the 21st Century

Future Extension staffing patterns should reflect the difference between clients' needs for information versus education...As Extension's viability increasingly depends on program accountability and research-based programming, staff must also further their skills in scientific investigation and program evaluation.

Lynda C. Harriman
Associate Dean/Assistant Director
Cooperative Extension Service
Oklahoma State University-Stillwater

Renee A. Daugherty
Education Methods Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
Oklahoma State University-Stillwater

Rebirth, renewal, and rightsizing describe organizational changes occurring in the Cooperative Extension System. No state is exempt from restructuring.1 Cooperative Extension, like other organizations, faces an era of "discontinuous futures." Life in the future will be very different from the past-more difficult to predict yet requiring greater and faster adaptation. Organizations will face an end to the business they've perceived themselves to be in and a need to redirect human and financial resources.2 The challenge is to chart a course compatible with the changing environment and drop programs and activities that deal with obsolete situations.

State Extension Systems have always had some differences in structure and staffing patterns. Some have moved toward more specialized roles for county staff. In others, counties share staff through clustering.3 Several are experimenting with area centers of excellence. Some of the small Northeastern states share state specialists.

Those in Extension who try to preserve the past miss the big picture. Success will depend on dedicated Extension faculty and staff empowered to be innovative and take risks. It will also require a clear vision, with careful attention to a market niche within a defined mission. Unwillingness to continue evaluating structure and staffing roles could lead to "paradigm paralysis," an inability to see the organization any differently than it is today.

Impact on Structure and Staffing

The information explosion and accompanying communications technology have hit head-on with the way Extension has traditionally done business. The computer has transformed education as radically as the printing process once did. Extension publications may become an archaic method of delivering information. Satellite communications make it possible to bring national experts into local communities at little cost. Telecommunications networks have barely been tapped by Extension as tools for information dissemination.

What impact do delivery systems have on our structure and staffing decisions? Envision Extension information centers that provide immediate access to national subject-matter databases to answer both common and uncommon questions. Retrieval and information services will automatically gather and send new information to users whose profiles were stored in their systems.4 The professional expertise needed to run these Extension information centers will be different from the skills required of county workers in the past. Extension may find its information dissemination and teaching functions can no longer be handled by the same staff.

The critical problems of clientele will still require specialized knowledge and collaboration among experts in various disciplines. The information explosion suggests more specialization will be required of field staff to provide the latest education. Content specialists may become scarce, but distance learning via audio, video, or computer conference will make them increasingly available. State and field staff must be adept at using communication technology both to access and disseminate current information.

The global economy will also affect the way Extension does business. We're in an era of tremendous opportunity for farmers, home-based businessowners, and rural businesses to produce, process, and export-particularly value-added products. Clientele need to know and understand how to participate in the world economy, including help in identifying and evaluating markets and connecting with appropriate distribution channels. International marketing requires knowledge of other cultures, compliance with laws and regulations, and skill in handling currency exchange. Extension can position itself and staff the system to provide the needed technical help, education, and training programs the global economy requires.

A shifting population and workforce will also have an impact on the 21st century Extension System. The U.S. population has already shifted from rural to urban, family farms to commercial farms, and young to older. Minority populations are growing rapidly. These changes in the population point to the need for a culturally diverse Extension staff and suggest a move away from a staffing pattern dominated by those with expertise and skill mainly in production agriculture, although meeting the needs of agriculture will continue to be important. Based on population centers and changing workforce patterns, where the system will need expertise and who can best provide that expertise must be carefully assessed.

With less than two percent of the nation's population engaged in production agriculture, Extension must be seen as an organization staffed to meet the needs of a broader, more diverse population. Even largely rural states will find with the 1990 Census that their urban centers contain the majority of the population and gain more legislative representation. Extension's rural legislative support base-legislators with rural backgrounds -is quickly disappearing.

Maintaining Traditional Strengths

Extension must also identify and preserve what has made it strong and viable for 75 years. It has always practiced a grassroots approach to programming based on the clients' needs. People know, trust, and rely on Extension professionals. These relationships have produced a strong support base and need to be retained as new ones are fostered. Staff with excellent communication, personal relations, and public relations skills will continue to be critical.

Extension is also known for its ability to identify an issue, develop a program to address it, and evaluate the program's success. No doubt the demand for accountability will increase, requiring the system to document program impact on critical local issues. The ability of staff to develop issues- based programs and conduct impact evaluation studies will be vital.

Respect for the integrity of the Extension employee and volunteer is another Extension strength. It's exemplified by the system's emphasis on staff and volunteer development and the autonomy granted to staff and volunteers as they work on local issues. Finally, Exten-sion's research base brings credibility to the system as a source of unbiased information that clients can trust to be impartial. Staff with skills to conduct applied research will become increasingly important. Today's Extension staff need to continue to develop and hone these skills that have strengthened the organization.

Strategies for Change

As the system struggles to redesign itself, innovation and clearer direction with issues-based programs is evident. For Extension professionals, however, restructuring has often meant chaos, stress, resistance, and conflict. In some states, restructuring has focused on state positions versus county positions. In others, people in 4-H, home economics, and agriculture have been pitted against one another resulting in despair, fragmentation, scapegoating, and a weakened system.

In trying to rightsize, states may use a staffing formula based on county indexing. States using indexing are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Common indexing factors include the number of households per $1,000 of agricultural production, family or commercial farms, 4- H age youth, rural residents, urban residents, adults 18-64 years of age, and low-income families with children under age 16.

State Extension organizations appear to use a mix of two basic approaches, with variations to deal with structure and staffing changes. We have labeled these approaches historical/reactive and futuristic/visionary. Although each approach has unique elements, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Most states use elements of both to redesign their Extension Systems.

Historical/Reactive. Maintaining current structure and staffing patterns in the face of reduced budgets is the driving force behind the historical/reactive approach. This often means cutting budgets and positions across the board. Critical positions may be lost. Support services, maintenance budgets, and staff development are also reduced.5 Staff reductions come from attrition and/or freezing vacant positions. Counties are combined, with the hope of a return to full staff when funding is regained.

The historical/reactive approach is often a stopgap based on the fervent hope that conditions will improve. Some state organizations may be so trapped in history and steeped in tradition, so committed to the way things are done, that the leadership is unable to respond to the needs of a new age.6 Downsizing usually leads to low staff morale and increased stress. Staff may feel insecure. Mobile staff leave the system. Roles and responsibilities are in a constant state of flux, as a smaller staff tries to maintain the same level and types of programming a fully staffed system provided. Staff may feel powerless and victimized. Some go outside the organization to power brokers to try to force change in organizational decisions.

Futuristic/Visionary. The futuristic/visionary approach assumes that in the face of a reduced resource base, Extension professionals can design a different yet viable 2lst century organization. The strengths and weaknesses of the current organization are analyzed. Oklahoma Extension, for example, used surveys for input from all staff, then had a representative task force analyze results and move the planning process forward. In a planning task force, the process of deciding what to retain and what to leave behind begins. By developing a clear, challenging vision, the organization determines where it wants to go. Staff are empowered to develop strategies to move ahead within the mission and toward the targeted vision. Staff in states such as Minnesota recognize that moving from the current structure to a targeted goal takes time.7

The futuristic/visionary approach involves all stakeholders in the planning process, and keeps communications continuous, two -way, and free-flowing. In using this approach, the leadership of Illinois CES worked closely with county boards to reconcile the strengths of Extension with the needs of a changing world. Considerable effort by planning groups involving staff at all levels is required to clearly establish where Extension is and where it should be and to identify specific strategies to get there over time. It involves risk and will lead to some resistance both within and outside the organization.

The futuristic/visionary approach is cumbersome and time- consuming. It requires careful planning to involve all stakeholders. Oklahoma and Illinois have used hearings in different locations to give local citizens and leaders an opportunity to be involved in planning. This approach can also be undermined by people who believe today's structure is sacred. The approach requires that leaders build on positive forces and carefully analyze barriers to change so new staffing plans aren't defeated before they can be tested.

Toward the 21st Century

Future Extension staffing patterns should reflect the difference between clients' needs for information versus education, and provide for a staff with skills, facilities, and strategies to meet those needs effectively. Extension professionals must have or acquire expertise in communication and computer technologies. Along with high-tech skills, "high-touch" skills, interpersonal communication, and public relations will continue to be critical.

As Extension's viability increasingly depends on program accountability and research-based programming, staff must also further their skills in scientific investigation and program evaluation. Extension programs will be enhanced by hiring more people with cross-cultural experiences and foreign language skills, and those who represent populations to be served.

Dealing effectively with changing Extension staffing patterns means making wise decisions about how to deal with external forces having an impact on the system and its clients. It also involves analyzing the internal environment, to retain that which is valuable and will continue to serve Extension well into the next century. Equally important is a willingness to leave behind that which will cause Extension to become an antiquated system. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter so aptly said, "The change master is partly a historian who knows which pieces of the past to honor and preserve while moving toward a different future, but that is not the same as letting the past define the future."8


1. Strategic Planning Council, Patterns of Change: A Report of the Cooperative Extension System Strategic Planning Council (Washington, D.C.: ES/USDA, March 1991).

2. J. W. Pfeiffer, L. D. Goldstein, and T. M. Nolan, Shaping Strategic Planning (Chicago: Scott Foresman & Co., 1989), p. 10.

3. G. K. Hutchins, "Agent Specialization and the 4-H PRK Model," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Winter 1990), 12-14.

4. M. P. Ezell, "Communication-Age Trends Affecting Extension," Journal of Extension, XXVII (Fall 1989), 11-13.

5. G. J. Applebee and M. W. Duttweiler, "Positive Leadership for Dealing with Limited Resources," Cornell Extension, (August 1991), pp. 1-10.

6. B. Nanus, "Resources for Future Creation," The Futurist, XXIV (May-June 1990), 16-17.

7. G. K. Hutchins, "Evaluating County Clustering," Journal of Extension, XXX (Spring 1992), 17-19.

8. R. M. Kanter, The Change Masters: Innovation for Productivity in the American Corporation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).