February 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 1 // Ideas at Work // 1IAW2

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Cluster - A Great Way to Work

Adams, Brown, and Highland counties in Ohio use the concept of clustering to deliver specialized programs to reach clientele needs. A needs assessment helped the faculty in the three counties find common issues that became major areas of focus. Clustering allows faculty members to develop their specializations to a greater extent and to foster volunteer and clientele interests. Some projects became multi-discipline endeavors and others were done by agents in specific program areas. The cluster applied basic management skills in team building by addressing staffing patterns, looking at their organizational structure, and changing the program focus where needed. The team continues to conduct needs assessments in their communities to strengthen their delivery and to address those issues that effect their citizens. For these counties, the concept of clustering has been a positive example of multi-disciplinary efforts that develop specialization skills.

Rebecca J. Cropper
Assistant Professor
Ohio State University Extension
Brown County
Georgetown, Ohio
Internet address: cropper.1@osu.edu

Rose Fisher Merkowitz
Assistant Professor
Ohio State University Extension
Highland County
Hillsboro, Ohio
Internet address: merkowitz.1@osu.edu

Extension faculty always look for ways to increase efficiency while continuing to offer new education programs for local clientele. In the late 1980s the Ohio State University Extension Service looked at clustering counties to increase program delivery. The Adams, Brown and Highland Counties Cluster was established in 1987. The strength of this cluster has been the interdisciplinary efforts among faculty members. Through an intensive needs assessment the cluster was able to identify long- term program goals that enhanced members' specializations and program delivery.

Faculty members represent all program areas: Family and Consumer Sciences, Agricultural/Natural Resources, 4-H/Youth Development, and Community Development. After ten years in the system, faculty members have been able to address a multitude of issues.

County commissioners were involved in the beginning. Their support was needed to nurture the cluster formation. Commissioners helped address county needs and provided a vision for the three counties as a region. Cluster members worked in groups and individually to map out strategies to support this vision.

Another factor contributing to the success of this cluster is the geographic location and the demographic similarities of each county. The population is comprised of rural towns and villages with outlying agricultural areas. The three counties are in the Ohio Appalachian region. Clientele are accustomed to traveling to the other two counties to purchase needed goods and services.

How can other counties model this cluster success? One method is to involve team members in formal team-building opportunities. An extensive amount of time was devoted to team- building exercises, resulting in long-term cluster goals and professional collaboration. Team building provided the stimulus to build a high degree of trust, which is necessary for a team to be successful. District and state administration supported the cluster and its members from the inception by providing resources and administrative support.

Another method that helped the team focus was a tri-county needs assessment. As data was gathered from this assessment, common threads appeared. Each program area was able to identity its own clientele needs and the entire cluster identified those needs on a broader scope. With this type of data, cluster members were able to prioritize specific programs and to mesh faculty specialization skills that would enhance educational programs. Team members reduced replication of programs and increased content by joining forces with their peers. This effort has increased both professional and personal support for team members since the beginning.

Faculty members have conducted other needs assessments to be sure they are meeting local clientele needs. These assessments help the cluster redefine goals. New members are oriented to help them appreciate the cluster's goals and mission.

The third method of this process was to develop interdisciplinary teams to work on specific program issues. This encouraged new audience identification and resulted in new Extension program efforts. Other Ohio counties have since developed similar clusters.

Since the inception of the cluster, programs have focused on:

  • Parenting Education Newsletters: Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Nutrition Education: Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Backbones for Career Education: Interdisciplinary project
  • Backpack Buddies: Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Water Quality Workshop for Teachers: Interdisciplinary
  • Forage Evaluation: Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • 4-H Committee Boardsmanship Training: Interdisciplinary
  • Leadership Conference: Interdisciplinary
  • Women in Agriculture Conference: Interdisciplinary

Through the cluster, grant dollars have been secured to support these projects. Combining the three counties builds the demographic base that is often needed for different grants.

One aspect that cannot be measured is the cohesiveness of the team members. Team members have become mentors, friends, and professional colleagues through the implementation process of this cluster. The result is a high functioning team that addresses local clientele needs in the county and in the local region. Extension benefits from clusters are:

  • increased agent specialization
  • increased networking among clientele in the three counties
  • development of cutting edge programs
  • enhanced perception of Extension's role in the community
  • professional growth and development of agents

The Ohio State University Extension mission says "Our mission is to help people improve their lives through an educational process using scientific knowledge focused on identified issues and needs." The cluster embodies this mission by its use of need assessments that lead to the development of program priorities. Other counties can replicate this same process through personal introspection and professional collaboration.