October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA4

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Examining Extension's Product Development Dilemma

As agents decide which programs to develop and implement, they are also deciding how precious Extension resources such as time, money, and space, will be expended. They must select the ideas that will best serve Extension's mission and provide a good return on the taxpayer's investments. How do they decide? Successful businesses have an organized way of deciding, involving comparing key elements of a new idea to an established set of product and service with elements that are based on the values and goals of those businesses. This article adapts that systematic approach and applies it to the selection of Extension programs and introduces the process of assigning weighted values to specific characteristics that commonly describe Extension programs. It offers agents a way to begin to make calculated guesses about which ideas will make the wisest use of the organization's resources.

Jacqueline E. LaMuth
Interim Leader
Evaluation, Grantsmanship, and Product Development
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet address: lamuth.1@osu.edu


As U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials watched the 1904 cotton crop and the economy of Texas and neighboring states being devastated by the boll weevil, they decided they needed to take action. Researchers for the USDA, land-grant colleges, and agricultural experiment stations had developed an effective control measure, but there was no way to get that information to the farmers who needed it. USDA hired 20 agents who demonstrated the knowledge to their target audience. Farmers gradually tried the new approach and it worked as promised (Vines & Anderson 1976).

Since the time when Extension agents "sold" a single product to a very specific target audience, Congress, state legislatures, and Extension agents have added educational programs and services to Extension's product portfolio each year. This portfolio includes a product line that is both wide and deep. It includes educational workshops, classes, fact sheets, bulletins, displays, and presentations grounded in science-based information. The target audience has broadened from cotton farmers to include just about everyone.

Agents work to meet the endless needs of their community audiences by adding more and more projects and programs, often occur without much thought of how each fits with the organization's mission, how many resources are required, or if the targeted audience is large enough to merit the investment of resources. Agents typically fail to think carefully and strategically about the process of selecting and developing new products. Adopting an organized product development model could help agents make better choices and, perhaps, improve the numbers of participants who utilize their products.

For-profit companies that make money directly from the kinds of products Extension typically offers do not make decisions or changes without significant customer analysis and survey work. They know they risk losing their business by making decisions without adequate information. Similarly, Extension risks losing its credibility, audiences, and local funding if it makes too many poor choices (King, 1993). Extension needs to know if it is making the best product choices it can. To do this, agents must be aware of who their local competition is. Agents can study and learn from competitors who offer better products.

Background factors that impact agents' selection of local educational products

Ideas for local Extension products come from many sources including national and state partners. Local advisory committees help agents identify relevant issues by providing firsthand knowledge and ideas of real problems. They offer insights of why those problems exist(Vines & Anderson, 1976).

Different kinds of program agents use different methods to determine which products they will offer. Some rely on discussions with current participants (Scholl, 1989). Most, however, base their product decisions on personal knowledge of community resources and people. Regardless of how thorough the process of generating new products is, some agents refuse to believe anything that challenges their personal opinion of what local residents need. For example, a Nebraska Extension study looked at how agents determine programming needs. It found agents had difficulty accepting that the greatest concerns of an agricultural county, were problems that extended beyond its own economic interest areas related to agriculture (Adelaine & Foster, 1990).

Extension products are influenced by current events, new research, and requests from local organizations and agencies. Agents believe they are being responsive to community needs. There is some evidence that this may not be the case, however. Nebraska Extension administrators believed they had been receiving exemplary comprehensive clientele input throughout their state. They were surprised at the results of a 1990 study, "Who Really Influences Extension Direction?" That study revealed that the primary audiences of Nebraska Extension perceived that they had only "slight influence" on Extension program direction. The clientele believed that faculty and staff had the most influence on program direction and planning.

Sadly, this is a common scenario. Extension products continue to be offered without trying to learn if there is a demonstrated need. Dwindling demand is seldom acknowledged or even noticed. But, warehouses filled with unused printed materials and poorly attended and sometimes canceled meetings are evidence of a lack of demand for Extension products. So much is wasted. In addition to the lost resources of time, postage, energy, printing, travel, and supplies, agents experience disappointment and sense of failure.

To minimize unproductive outcomes, it makes sense to learn why product failure occurred. Agents should ask themselves, "Was the presentation of the program appropriate? Was it carried out as prescribed? Or, did it differ from the plan? Were expectations of outcomes/impacts unrealistic and therefore, unattainable? Was the underlying program design faulty?" Extension needs to be more careful and precise in articulating program models and be more willing to hold these models up for scrutiny by peers (Decker, 1990). When agents take the time to develop a prototype during the planning stages, they are better prepared to customize the delivery and content for a specific audience when they actually present the program.

Generating Ideas

There are always plenty of good ideas for new programs. In The New Products Workshop, Barry Feig (1993) explains how for- profit businesses select new products. He recommends starting any idea generating session by stating the organization's mission statement, and then repeating it again and again throughout the session. It is important for an organization with a quality focus to include customers in the search for new ideas. Among the techniques for generating new ideas, several fit easily with the way agents work specifically, the Delphi, unique properties, benefit analysis and use analysis. The Delphi has been recommended to Extension professionals on several occasions as an effective way to assess needs and analyze future offerings (Gamon, 1991) (Gross, 1981).

Feig says, "If you can't sell the product in a single sentence, you really don't have a product, no matter how excited the developers get. When it takes more than that you actually dilute the message. Having five mediocre product benefits is not as effective as having one strong one." (1993, p 129). To determine a product's potential, answer a few simple questions.

  • Who is the product for? What will the product do for their consumer?
  • Why would the consumer want it?
  • When should that person use it?
  • Where should the product be used?
  • Where can the consumer find it (which store? Which section?)
  • How does it work?
  • How will it affect the purchaser's life?

Evaluating Ideas

After many ideas have been generated, agents need to evaluate them. They should consider several questions:

  • Does pursuing the idea makes wise use of the rganization's strengths?
  • Is the idea within or outside Extension's area of expertise?
  • Is the idea within the scope of its mission statement?
  • Would a developing a strategic alliance with another firm be worthwhile? Extension has learned the value of partnerships and cooperative teaching and participates frequently.

If the new product is similar to something presently offered, its impact on already existing ones should be critically considered. This is seldom done, however, because there is no effective way to compare several ideas. The Extension Product/Program Checklist, adapted from Product Innovation and Development, presents factors that agents might use to assess a program's potential by analyzing it and comparing it to others.

Conducting an Organizational Analysis

Ideas that survive the evaluation stage must be subjected to further testing and analysis. The costs of developing and launching the idea as a new product must be quantified. Agents can use the Extension Product Checklist to compare several products ideas and aid in deciding which products to develop and deliver.

A for-profit company does not tie up resources that are being used effectively to launch a new product. It "buys" or "borrows" the technology/knowledge from somewhere else. Extension should do the same. Even with agent specialization, an agent can not know everything about a specific program area and be instantly ready to teach. Rather than spend countless hours preparing for a single presentation or writing a bulletin, it makes more sense for an agent to secure an outside resource person who already possesses the knowledge/ technology (Feig 1993). Costs must be carefully calculated when real dollars will be spent "hiring" experts to handle certain functions. When the product has a somewhat predictable track record, the technology/ knowledge can be brought inside.

Predicting Demand

Agents must have some idea of how large the potential market is for the new product being considered. They should ask:

  • Is the market potential big enough to make the new product investment worthwhile.
  • Is the new product concept going to be attractive to these potential buyers?

Trying to put themselves in the shoes of their potential customers could give agents insight into the idea's real potential. Concept testing could be used with advisory committee members and individuals who identify themselves as wanting that kind of product. If potential audiences can be easily identified, they could be asked to assist. Their reactions to the product idea could be used to modify and improve it while it is in the development stage.

Predicting Costs

No product should subsidize another. Estimate the number of customers who will pay for the product and the price they will pay. The estimated costs of room rental, meal charges, speaker fees, and handouts needed for the product need to be included. Expenses such as facilities, salaries, and some free publications included in the product should be estimated even if they are not included in the price that is charged.

Part of the evaluation of a program's viability is noting the balance between the price that can be collected based on who the target audience is and what the program will do, and the price that should be charged to cover the out-of-pocket costs (Allen, 1993).

Ask questions about the technical feasibility of an idea in the early stages.

  • Has a similar concept worked elsewhere?
  • Is expert knowledge available (people, research, designs)?
  • What has been the time and cost for previous comparable projects?
  • What is rough estimate of the main tasks and resources required?
  • What are the risks? The unknown features?
  • What experimentation is needed to prove them?
  • What tasks are likely to require more than one try? (Berridge, 1997).

Developing the product and marketing mix

Extension is learning a team effort during product development can be beneficial. Teams add special skills and knowledge to the creative process. The careful and critical involvement of a multilevel team increases the chances that the organization's production resources will be utilized efficiently.

Extension does not generally test market its products because of the expense and time it requires. When it is done, agents usually think of it as practice teaching or program rehearsals for large programs. A few products such as videos and other interactive teaching materials are occasionally previewed by small audiences for their reactions before the videos are completed.

Extension favors two methods of launching its products: full-scale production and a gradual phase-in. Seasonal products are commonly evaluated after they have been utilized and the information is used to make changes in next year's products.


As agents consider adding a new product, they would find it helpful to follow the steps of the new product development process. Doing so would allow them to gather and organize important information, provide a clearer profile of each idea's merits and deficiencies, and make it easier to compare ideas more equitably. Each of the steps when applied, even in a general way, can help the agent stay focused on their organization's mission as it guides them along a logical course that goes from general concepts to specific details. It offers a standardized approach that could be applied formally or informally depending upon the potential magnitude of the proposed product.

Generating new ideas and narrowing the possibilities based on pre-selected criteria would allow them to concentrate their resources on products that have a greater chance of being successful both in quantity and quality of participation. Conducting systematic evaluations of the better ideas would provide a mechanism for them to use to reject and/or set aside projects that would not further the various components of the organization's mission.

Involving potential customers, other professionals and knowledgeable people in this process would bring greater depth to the evaluation step and increase the chances of finding weak spots that need further definition or clarification before continuing. Thinking about the potential target audience as the agent forecasts "sales" and predicts costs associated with developing and delivering a particular product would provide details that could help them design a more affordable product. Working in a team setting and correcting deficiencies during the development process would bring a better product to the target audience faster (Churchill & Peter, 1995). For bigger, riskier products, it would be appropriate to actually develop a prototype or test the market by practice teaching with reviewers, or send a final draft of printed materials for peer or audience review.

There is every reason to think that the number and range of offers and requests for Extension programming will continue to increase. Agents will continue to be approached and urged by community organizations and individuals to deliver products that may or may not be fit into Extension's mission. They will continue to be pulled by their desire to accommodate the public they serve. They will continue to face the dilemma of not being able to do everything and of needing to make choices. Even if the rate and range of opportunities were to decrease there would still be strong justification for agents to utilize the new product development process as they select ideas. It would help them make more informed choices and would increase the likelihood that resources would be allocated for efforts falling within the organization's focus.

New Product/Program Checklist

     The following checklist is adapted from a commonly used
product development checklist. It contains items that represent
items or elements of a new product that affect how many resources
an organization utilizes during that product's development. Each
item has two opposing qualifiers that represent resources that
will be needed.

     1. Determine the weighted value or importance of an item.
Look at each item and determine how much influence or weight it
should have on an agent's decision to proceed with a new idea.
Choose 1 if it is not very important, 2 if it has some
importance, and 3 if it is very important.

     2. Underline the qualifier and the number beside it that
best describes how that item will be used or needed. For example:
For item A on the checklist, if the idea will be aimed at a new
audience, circle 1. For item B, if the idea is not clearly within
Extension's priorities, circle 2.

     3. Multiply the weighted value you have circled for that
item times the number of the qualifier you have selected. This is
the weighted value of that item for that product idea.

     4. After marking all items, total the weighted values for
all the items to find the summed score.

     5. The higher the total score, the more important the item
is and the fewer resources it will require.

     6. Compare this idea's total score with the total scores of
other ideas to aid in the selection of products that maximize
Extension's impact relative to the resources used.

                    Potential total audience size

A.   The potential audience for this idea will be
     Existing   (1)                    New   (2)
     weighted value (x1 2 or 3               Item score _______

B    Relevant to Extension priorities, this idea is
     Not within priorities   1    Within priorities   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

C.   Expertise needed to implement this idea
     Staff needs new knowledge   1  Staff has knowledge   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

D.   The personnel needed to implement this idea will be
     New staff must be hired   1      Existing staff   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

E.   The equipment needed for this idea is
     Must be purchased or rented   1  On-hand/available   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

F.   The supplies and equipment needed are
     Unfamiliar               1    Familiar                   2
     Weighted value   1    2     3           Item score _______

G.   To introduce this idea, we will need a
     Long lead time   1      Short lead time   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

H.   Regarding the life of this product, it will be used
     Once   1                Many times   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

I.   On-going work in the office will be
     Interrupted   1        Unaffected   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

J.   Competition for the audience
     Others are doing it   1    No one else is doing it   2
     Weighted value 1  2  3                  Item score _______

                         Total Score              _____________

Action to be taken
          Continue _______                Discontinue ________



Adelaine, M. & Foster, R. (1990). Who really influences Extension direction? Journal of Extension 28(2) Available on-line at http://www.joe.org

Allen, D. (1993). Developing successful new products London: Pitman Publishing.

Berridge, T. (1977). Product innovation and development London: Business Books Limited.

Churchill, G.A. & Peter, J.P. (1995) Marketing: Creating value for customers. Homewood, IL: Austin Press.

Decker, D. J. (Fall 1990) Analyzing program 'failure.' Journal of Extension 28(5) Available on-line at http://www.joe.org

Feig, B. (1993) New Products Workshop: Hands-on tools for developing winners. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc. 129

Gamon, J.A. (1995) The Delphi An Evaluation Tool. Journal of Extension 33(1) Available on line at http:///www/joe.org

Gross, J. G. (1981) Delphi: A Program Planning Technique. Journal of Extension, 19(2) pp. 23-28.

King, D. (1993) Facing the Image Deficit Journal of Extension 31(5) Available on line at http://www.joe.org.

O'Neill, B. M. (Summer 1993) Gaining 'Repeat Customers' for Extension Journal of Extension 31(4) Available on-line at http://www.joe.org

Scholl, J. (1989) Influencing Program Planning: What determines What you do? Journal of Extension 27(3) Available on line at http://www/joe.org

Vines, C.A. & Anderson, M.A. (Eds.) (1976) Heritage Horizons: Extension's commitment to people. Journal of Extension 14 pp. 59, 54-55.