December 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM1

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Fundamentally Flawed: Extension Administrative Practice Part 1

The first of a two-part series addressing Extension administration, this commentary challenges traditional Extension administrative practice, arguing that current techniques are fundamentally flawed and inappropriate in the modern work place. The classical school of management is defined, and its underlying foundational assumptions are examined and ultimately rejected.

Thomas F. Patterson, Jr.
Lecturer and Extension Associate Professor
Department of Community Development and Applied Economics
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
Internet Address:

No one would base their professional career on assumptions made over a hundred years ago, right? Wrong. Most Extension administrators fall into the trap of doing what their superiors did before them by not questioning the underpinnings of their administrative practice.

This commentary is the first of a two-part series to address Extension administrative practice. This first-part argues that Extension's current administrative techniques are fundamentally flawed and inappropriate in the modern work place. It will explore the underlying hypotheses that form the foundation of these practices. A second commentary will follow in the next issue of the Journal, suggesting new ways of administrating in the workplace--ways that will lead to new levels of productivity and satisfaction for all.

The Nature of Extension Administrative Work

The administrative tasks that Extension managers perform today would show a remarkable consistency throughout the history of Extension. A recent state Extension director job posting lists the following responsibilities under the umbrella of administration: leading, developing, monitoring, coordinating, staffing, and evaluating -- essentially the same functions that have been carried out by generations of administrative predecessors.

The majority of these activities are focused on "managing" subordinates and are, for the most part, measures of control, with the work of employees seen as an outcome that can be manipulated by management through such means as annual plans of work, periodic activity reports, target goals, verbal reprimands or praise, probationary periods, performance appraisals, and merit systems. Although the term "management" is conspicuously absent from most Extension literature, this commentary argues that the overriding activity of Extension administrators is, simply, to manage.

History of Management

Few Extension administrators are professionally trained in the field of management, rather they have been promoted to administration because they excelled in their subject matter discipline. It is not uncommon to see former agricultural engineers, nutritionists or youth specialists serving as Extension administrators. Being promoted from a subject matter discipline into management is certainly not unique to Extension and is, in fact, commonplace throughout the industrialized world.

Like most new managers, Extension administrators learn about and exercise their new craft by emulating those who proceeded them, thus perpetuating existing management practices. This on- the-job training approach is often supplemented with short courses and specialized training programs in such subjects as "how to deal with problem employees" or "how to develop and administer a budget." The training of newly minted managers is a multi-million dollar business.

The context in which Extension administrators perform also plays a key role in shaping their behavior. Much of what Extension administrators do is required of them by the organizations that fund Extension work. Funding agencies all seek to accomplish their goals by prescribing and controlling how their resources are spent, and Extension, with its reliance on several funding sources in the public sector and, now, increasingly from the private sector, is unique in this aspect. Extension administrators are universally called upon to balance the "cooperative" nature of university, governmental (often on several levels) and private funding agencies.

An Incredible Legacy: The Classical School of Management

The theoretical basis for such administrative action comes from the deep and venerable classical school of management, established around the turn of the twentieth century and anchored in the work of Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor (1856-1915) is best remembered for developing the principles of scientific management in which he called for an objective scientific analysis of the work place to determine the "one best way" to perform a task. Under Taylor, management was responsible for determining the science of each job. Employees were then trained and supervised to execute each task according to management's "one best way." Many of the time-honored management tools still used today, such as time/motion studies, job descriptions and management by objectives, are rooted in scientific management.

Henry Fayol (1841-1925), another founding member of the classical management school, described five functions of management as: 1) to forecast and plan - examining the future and drawing up plans of action, 2) to organize - building up the structure, materials and human capital of the undertaking, 3) to command - maintaining activity among personnel, 4) to coordinate - binding together, unifying and harmonizing activity, and 5) to control - seeing that everything occurs in conformity with policy and practice. A comparison of Fayol's functions and the activities listed for modern day Extension administrators reveals a stunning similarity.

Max Weber (1864-1920) described the ideal character of bureaucracy -- adding a structural component to the classical management school. According to Weber, bureaucratic organizations were defined by such features as hierarchy of control, specialization of function, centralization of information and control, and formal rules, policies and procedures. The bureaucrat's employment contract offered lifetime job security in exchange for loyalty to official policies and procedures. The "machine-like" nature of this model required employees to leave their individuality at the work place door, their roles and expectations being clearly laid out for them by managers. The principal structural operating domain of Extension -- universities and governments -- are often cited today as prime examples of bureaucracy.

Classical Management School Assumptions

The classical management school is based on a number of assumptions about employees and the work place:

    The average human being will avoid work if (s)he can. The best way for a manager to get things done is to use his or her authority to direct people. Good managers should strive for rationality and the elimination of emotional factors on the job. The average human being has relatively little ambition and prefers to be directed. Most people are by nature indifferent or antagonistic toward the goals of the organization. (McGregor, 1960)

Although these statements may seem ludicrous and silly to many people today, they form the foundation for much of current management practice. It must be remembered that these assumptions about human nature and the work place were formulated over a hundred years ago, when many workers were illiterate first generation immigrants, working conditions in industry were often dangerous, the hours long, and the work often physically demanding. There were few laws to regulate the work place and the abuses of child labor were rampant.

Today's Work Place

Fortunately, we have witnessed dramatic changes in the work place over the past hundred years. Federal laws prohibit many of the abuses that permeated the past. The very nature of work has changed, with knowledge having replaced muscle power; psychology has open new doors into the worker psyche; the work week has been shortened; and the educational level of the average employee has skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, the mindset of managing people in the workplace has not kept pace with these changing demographics and work force trends, and, as has been pointed out above, Extension administrators continue to manage people using unexamined and antiquated 100 year-old assumptions. Part two of this commentary will follow in the next issue JOE and will discuss new ways of managing for Extension administrators.


Fayol, H. (1929). General and industrial management, translated by J. A. Conbrough. Geneva, Switzerland: International Management Institute.

McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Taylor, F. W. (1911). Principles of management. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Weber, M. (1946). Essays in sociology, translated by H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.