December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA3

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Trials and Triumphs of Expanded Extension Programs

This paper discusses the background and experiences of a recently expanded Extension program. Discussions include initial challenges of a new program and tactics that were not wildly successful. Also discussed are tactics that have proven successful, some of which are tried and true Extension methods while others are relatively new. The tried and true methods include personal coaching, building partnerships, and providing a high level of service. The newer methods include database marketing

Scott Leavengood
Wood Products Extension Agent
Oregon State University Extension Service
Klamath Falls, Oregon
Internet address:

Bob Love
Wood Products Extension Assistant
Oregon State University Extension Service
Corvallis, Oregon

Introduction and Background

Oregon State University's (OSU) wood products Extension program expanded in mid-1994 as part of an Oregon legislative package to deliver educational programs specific to the state's value-added wood products industry. In the preceding 18 years, OSU's wood products Extension program consisted of one campus- based specialist primarily serving large sawmills. Between July 1994 and April 1995, five new faculty were added. Two of the new faculty are campus-based specialists; the others are county agents with "area" (multi-county) assignments.

This discussion is presented from the perspective of two of the new agents to assist other Extension professionals develop and expand program areas. Also, in presenting successful approaches, the paper serves to remind readers of the time-tested methods of successful Extension programs.

First Steps and Findings

The first steps included: Identifying the audience to be served, determining their educational needs, and building awareness of the new program. Numerous industry directories were used for audience identification. Agents made personal visits to owners and managers of approximately 200 companies to introduce themselves, the new program, and to determine educational needs. A formal educational needs assessment of the Oregon wood products industry (Hansen & Smith, 1997) was conducted during the first year in order to obtain information to guide program development. The needs assessment was conducted via questionnaires mailed to 1,286 companies, every identified wood product manufacturer in the state.

It was soon recognized that enormous diversity (products produced, processes used, company size, level of technology, raw materials), results in equally diverse educational needs. Discussions during personal visits revealed several issues common to a broad cross-section of the industry. These issues included: (a)the need for reliable sources of raw material; (b) trained entry-level employees, and (c) industry's desire to educate the general public about the wood products industry.

The educational needs assessment of the Oregon wood products industry revealed several distinctly different needs. The top ten educational needs, in order of priority, were:

  1. identifying new markets
  2. sales abilities
  3. plant management/finance
  4. product pricing
  5. motivating personnel
  6. total quality management
  7. quality/process control
  8. competitive positioning
  9. finding market information
  10. new product development

Trials - Initial Challenges

Serving the wood products industry via Extension agents is truly a "new product." As with all new products, several challenges were encountered. Though the list is long, please remember that challenges may also be viewed as opportunities not yet taken.

Industry diversity - To attract busy people to an educational program, the focus must be on solving a specific problem or building specific skills. For a diverse industry, this is a challenge. Very broad subject area programs have not been well attended. At the same time, focusing on a specific industry segment (furniture makers for example) in a specific region of the state, often leaves few companies to target for educational programs.

New clientele - Personal visits to manufacturers revealed that most industry personnel are unfamiliar with the Extension Service. Therefore, it is difficult for them to determine how to use Extension's services.

Numerous new assistance organizations - This challenge can be described as "alphabet soup" or "acronym overload." In just a few short years, numerous organizations have begun offering assistance to the wood products industry. In Oregon alone, the list includes:

  • Northwest Wood Products Association, (NWPA),
  • Oregon Advanced Technology Consortium (OATC),
  • Oregon's community colleges,
  • Oregon Economic Development Department (OEDD),
  • Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP),
  • Oregon State University Extension Service (OSUES),
  • Secondary Wood Products Training System (SWPTS), and
  • The Wood Center.

Though all the organizations offer different specific services, industry personnel often seem frustrated and confused by the apparent lack of coordination among organizations and the deluge of needs assessment surveys. Many industry personnel feel the time to analyze the situation has come and gone; it is time for action.

New program, old expectations - Organizationally, Oregon State's wood products Extension program is a subset of the Forestry Extension program. Herein lies another challenge; a new program faced with old expectations. Extension foresters serve the educational needs of the state's small woodland owners and resource professionals. OSU's Extension Forestry program has been in existence for over 30 years and clientele are aware of and value the service provided by forestry specialists and agents. Unfortunately, small woodland owners and resource professionals often do not understand or care about the distinction between a "wood products agent" and a "forestry agent." Thus clientele have educational expectations and feel alienated if those expectations are not met. The objectives of a woodland owner and that of a wood products manufacturer are quite different. It is difficult finding mutual areas of professional concern between resource management and manufacturing assistance programs within Forestry Extension.

Disconnects in Research/ Extension faculty - This is a universal challenge for all Extension program areas. The objective is for field agents to bring research needs of their communities to the research faculty on campus. The research faculty conduct the research, and the Extension faculty disseminate the results back to the people who can put the information to work. However, research funding is often the missing link. Research is expensive and therefore what often appear to be simple projects cannot be researched due to prohibitively high expenses for most small- and medium-sized manufacturers.

Distance to the clientele - Oregon is a large state (tenth largest in the U.S., over 62 million acres) with rural populations needing help with economic development. Many clientele are located in sparsely populated areas where the economy is less developed than urban areas. When success of an outreach program is often gauged in terms of number of firms reached, serviced, or adapting technology, the temptation is to work in the more densely populated areas where the time-distance factors are more surmountable.

Trials - Tactics That Were Not Wildly Successful

It has been said that the seeds of success are sown in failure. The following experiences are presented as lessons learned so that others can better adapt programs to fill their needs. Remember, solutions were adapted as discussed in the "Triumphs- Successful Tactics" section, from other seemingly unrelated disciplines. The intent is to help build on successful programs and ideas already implemented. Because "failure" is a natural part of the learning process, it is difficult to separate what does not work without discussion of what does work. Please refer to "Triumphs- Successful Tactics" for more detailed discussion of solutions.

"Conversation without demonstration"- This approach can be summarized as introducing agents and program without describing what can be done to help a firm. It is important to realize that everyone is tuned to WIFM, "what's in it for me?," especially busy small-business managers. Because of the clientele's unfamiliarity with manufacturing Extension programs, it is important to have an attention-gathering introduction illustrating accomplishments and describing what can be done for the firm. With this fast-paced clientele, it is important to break the preoccupation barrier and initiate a dialogue to begin to understand the needs of each individual firm. Only then can needs be identified and solutions found. The experience with conversations without demonstrations is that they end ambiguously with comments like "the next time you stop by bring a load of lumber." People naturally want answers to pressing problems or dilemmas.

Lack of contacts - Once a dialog is started, the next bridge to cross is gaining understanding of the client's unique concerns. Lack of effective contacts to address those concerns quickly becomes the next obstacle. Each firm has unique concerns. It is impossible for any one person to have expert knowledge of each niche product firm. Once each firm's unique needs are determined, the needs can be linked to resources. It takes time to develop this type of knowledge and a "tool kit" of resources. However, it becomes easier as experience is gained. In some cases, the answers may never be found. Yet, in most of the cases "the more you know, the easier it is to know more" and effective linkages can be made.

General subject area workshops - Very broad subject area workshops such as "Wood Tech 101" attracted few attendees. Discussions with clientele revealed that most small- to medium- sized manufacturers are too busy to attend a workshop regardless of when it is held. To draw them away from the mill, the workshop must address a critical challenge they are experiencing. For the lesser-populated regions of the state, travel distance is also a significant barrier to workshop attendance. Also, for small- to medium-sized firms, shorter workshops tend to be more attractive than longer workshops because of the opportunity costs associated with the time away from production. The smaller the firm, the higher the proportional short-term opportunity costs to attend workshops.

Triumphs - Successful Tactics

While this lengthy list of challenges and approaches that have not worked is daunting, several tactics having positive impacts have been found after four years of experience. Admittedly, many of these tactics are simply a return to the roots of Extension, methods that have made Extension successful for decades.

Personal coaching - Busy people are most receptive to "just-in- time" learning because of the uniqueness, limited resources, and comprehensive nature of the manager's work. It can be beneficial for people in a firm to "get out of the box" by accessing an outside person for questions, finding a connection, or getting a different perspective. Because of the diversity of firms, it is often difficult to know specific answers. By using a coaching style, it is often possible to find answers by helping do the homework once the assignment is clear.

Please note that the analogy here is one of a coach rather than a teacher to help find the answers. Industry, particularly the wood products industry, is composed of very individualistic, entrepreneurial people. As a general rule they want to learn, yet like many, do not like to be taught. Creating a learning culture in an organization seems to work best using the indirect approach. Creating a learning culture may be fostered via existing publications, programs, or institutions.

Another tactic is to link firms with other firms to help solve the problem. The Extension agent serves to facilitate communication between a number of people. This technique yields a higher probability of identifying the problem and finding a solution than does direct assistance. Similar to a team approach, a member of one linking firm is more likely to see the root issue and perhaps someone else may know how to make improvements or fix the problem.

Database marketing - By constructing an accurate and current database of information, it is possible to review conversations and meeting notes. Database information helps with follow-up and helps agents refer people to appropriate sources. Databases can help screen information specific to one type of company. For example there is little use announcing a workshop on "Painting and Finishing" to a facility that does not produce a finished product. Using flexible database marketing means sending the announcement only to firms making a finished product.

Database marketing also enables linking of "sushi bars and bait shops." In manufacturing, one firm's by-product or excess capacity can be another's treasure. Picture vertically integrating a combination bait shop and sushi bar. It would be environmentally friendly, trendy, organic, and nothing would be wasted. Face it, making raw fish appealing to pocketbook and palate is an art form. The problem is we are not in the best position to understand customer needs. The entrepreneur has the best knowledge of risks, appeal to a niche market, how to make, package, and sell the product. However, by understanding the manufacturing process and maintaining an accurate and flexible database, surplus raw material or plant capacity can often be identified and agents can help facilitate these underutilized inputs to firms who can create value for the customer.

Specialty workshops - To be effective, workshop topics need to be specific and relevant for the clientele. Not only can they reach existing clients but they can be useful in identifying previously undetected firms. Examples of workshops that have received significant interest are pricing, new product development, finishing, Internet marketing, and discussions of alternative sources of raw material supply ("new" or under-utilized species). The common thread is that all tend to be modular in nature and can be presented in a relatively short time, certainly no longer than one day. It is known that conducting the workshops during the summer months is not favorable. However, the best time to do workshops (evenings, weekends, weekdays, Friday afternoon), is still not apparent.

Specialized programs - This is easiest to explain with an example. The Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) Commercialization Project has increased exposure of OSU's new program and serves the needs of a broad range of clientele. Western juniper commercialization efforts serve the wood products industry by developing products and markets for an under-utilized species, and in the process, the agriculture industry benefits by the offset in range improvement costs (most Eastern Oregon ranchers consider western juniper to be a noxious weed). An agent assists by serving on the project's steering committee, by constructing and maintaining an accurate clientele database, and by distilling research and disseminating technical information. There are now over 800 individuals on the Western Juniper Newsletter mailing list compared to 150 individuals and organizations four years ago.

Pleasant persistence - This approach is analogous to drip irrigation. Like drip irrigation we are working with limited resources ("water") and can't simply saturate the market ("the field") in our outreach efforts. Services need to be presented to the clientele so that they can go back to the source of those outreach efforts once that pressing "just-in-time" piece of knowledge, information, or linkage is identified. Like starting a new business with a new product, our program is similar in that we need to sustain our efforts for the adequate response time to determine what works and does not, build credibility and relationships, and have the tenacity to allow time for an adequate response to be determined.

Distance learning - Relatively simple techniques such as publishing and distributing a very simple electronic newsletter or "e-zine" have been well received. Composed of short articles, alerting readers of resources and trends builds infrastructure as the industry evolves "on-line." Sent by e-mail, it does not require use of a Web browser and is a way to keep program efforts in the clientele's consciousness. It has opened up an avenue leading to questions, referrals, new clients, and forming discussion groups. It is low-cost and a way to leverage resources in reaching out to clientele, about half of which now have access to the Internet. New subscribers are added every day. Any subscriber who does not want the e-zine can be quickly removed, thereby keeping the "noise level" in check.

"Service, service, and more service" - Building a successful outreach program takes time and requires building the confidence and trust of industry personnel. Every effort has been made to go overboard to assist manufacturers when they ask for assistance. This may sound obvious; however like everyone else, agents get busy, and it is easy to hurriedly answer a request for assistance or refer clientele to someone else. However, making service a priority has resulted in continued contacts from clientele.

Partnerships - In the "Trials - Challenges" section, the problem of the initial lack of coordination among organizations serving the wood products industry was described. Over time, partnerships have been formed that have paid off in numerous ways. Some examples of the benefits include referrals for assistance, sponsorship of educational programs, assistance with advertising and delivery of educational programs, as well as increased confidence from industry as it sees the service organizations working together.

Summary and Conclusions

Expanding an outreach program requires patience as well as innovative and coordinated efforts. In the past four years in Oregon, several challenges have been faced resulting from the diversity of the industry, lack of familiarity with university outreach programs, and initial lack of coordination among service organizations. Several tactics have proved successful, including personal coaching, building partnerships, and providing a high level of service. These are tried and true Extension methods, revised to suit a new audience. Other methods, such as database marketing and distance learning are relative newcomers to Extension and are proving quite successful.


Hansen, E.N., & Smith, R. (1997). Assessing educational needs of the forest products industry in Oregon and Virginia, Forest Products Journal, 47(4),36-42