August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Commentary // 4COM1

Issue Contents Previous Article

Framing the Future

During 1994, the national Extension system engaged in focused dialogue to position the organization for the future. Defining boundaries or updating the mission, vision, values, and strategic issues occurred through a search for "common ground." Eight challenges were identified and are key to a successful future. Three lessons for how the system might engage the total community evolved: (a) when asked--people respond, (b) create a climate for discussion, and (c) build on evolving changes. A quality product results when stakeholders care about the issues and know that their ideas are valued.

Carol L. Anderson
Associate Director, Cooperative Extension
Assistant Dean, College of Human Ecology
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
Internet address:

Peter Bloome
Assistant Director for Agriculture and Environment
Urbana, Illinois
Internet address:

Framing the Future: Strategic Framework for a System of Partnerships was created to help position the system for the next few years. The strategic framework establishes the overall boundaries for the national organization. Rather than develop a strategic plan, it was felt that a framework was more feasible in a system that extends from the Virgin Islands to Guam and includes both 1862, 1890, and now the 1994 institutions as well as the territories. A framework is a skeletal structure that determines overall shape and direction. Specifics are determined by the various partners. Developing the framework might be compared to the construction of a house. The framing of the structure determines whether or not the house is a one-story, two-story, split-level, or some combination. Individual rooms take shape and become functional based on intended purpose and desires of the involved people who inhabit the space.

Over the years, Cooperative Extension has engaged in strategic planning and about once a decade, time has been dedicated to charting the course for the next period of time. As society became more complex and the pace of change accelerated, the Cooperative Extension leadership encouraged the system to engage in more frequent planning activities. In the mid-1980's, for example, Cooperative Extension leaders recognized that the system needed to make substantial adjustments to remain a viable and timely force in society. At that juncture, issues programming and greater focus on interdisciplinary work was introduced. The current framework effort began with a belief that we should build on the past, recognize the value of today's work, and dream about the possibilities for tomorrow.

Looking back at the process resulting in Framing the Future, three lessons for future work are evident.

When Asked--People Respond

When appointed, the "framework team" was charged with completing the document in nine months or less while offering all 32,000 employees the opportunity to be involved. Our mature organization needs to listen to what people have to say as each person's experiences, expertise, and insights are valuable. Technology provides a greater range of options for timely communication and exchange to inform the outcome. People select the communication method with which they are most comfortable and this suggests a variety of methods are useful.

Technology has reduced the ability of a few individuals to control information. Even if an administrator prefers not to participate, staff have that option as they can link into appropriate networks, become updated on what is happening, and contribute their expertise and ideas. In the future, greater use of technology needs to be made in identifying and discussing topics as well as determining strategies for action. The framework process encouraged people to make initial input and then to respond twice to drafts of the document. Power was distributed so that the input from each person regardless of role and responsibilities was equally valued.

People tended to divide into groups in terms of what they thought might happen as a result of the framework. Some felt it would be business as usual and therefore their interests would be "protected." Another group saw the process as an opportunity to influence the system and were organized in how they approached each request for input. They articulated the societal changes and then said, "if this is what is happening, then Cooperative Extension needs to respond in this manner." Another group determined it was best to not become involved.

Create a Climate for Discussion

Past experience suggests that open discussion on complex and potentially explosive topics within the system may be difficult. Four multi-state workshops were held to gather input and they were structured so that all participants became actively involved in searching for "common ground" rather than attempting to find a single solution. Initially, some participants wondered whether their input would be valued. When they discovered that what they said would not be judged and that their ideas were valued, they readily contributed and struggled to find "common ground."

Finding common ground requires building on each others' ideas, avoiding judgement or criticism of ideas, and discussing those ideas that are common to the group. In each of the multi-state workshops, it became evident that as a group, we could not agree upon program areas but were able to find commonality in purpose, values, vision and strategic issues. In the workshops, the entire group had opportunity to agree upon what emerged and therefore were empowered to contribute and be involved in influencing the outcome.

Build on Evolving Changes

The framework process did not exist in a vacuum. Cooperative Extension continued to function and the context in which it went about the business of education was evolving. The final product was influenced by these changes. In the short time of the process, the funding mix continued to shift as more programming received grants and contracts. Historical support groups observed the action and became involved. They wondered whether their interests had eroded. Other federal agencies became more familiar with the capacity of the system and explored opportunities for collaborative relationships including the transfer of funds. Within USDA, the research and extension communities became one unit and began creating a common future.

Closing Thoughts

The framing process was the Extension System's first experience with system-wide involvement. This experience suggests that short-term, broad-based input can be successfully done. A climate for participation regardless of role and responsibilities can be created. Technology can assist in fostering meaningful discussion. Evolving changes both within and external to the system can contribute to the product. A quality product results when stakeholders care about the issues and know that their ideas are valued.

Author Notes

Copies of Framing the Future: A Strategic Framework for a System of Partnerships are available for $1.00 plus shipping from: ICES, 123 Mumford Hall, 1301 West Gregory, Urbana, IL 61801. For large orders, shipping may be estimated at $10 per 50 copies.