February 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB4

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Ohio State University Extension Agents' Perceptions of Agent Support Teams

The researchers investigated OSU Extension county agents' perceptions of the importance of agent support teams in assisting them with professional growth, program planning and development, and performance evaluation feedback; and the level of support their team actually provided them. The researchers developed a mailed survey to collect data. Findings suggest that Ohio county agents perceive support teams as being important. However, with one exception, mean scores for level of support provided by the teams were consistently lower. This research suggests that the eight conceptual constructs comprising the support team concept could serve as a conceptual framework for Extension education curricula and agent professional development.

Chris Zoller
Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources
Ohio State University Extension
The Ohio State University
New Philadelphia, Ohio
Internet address: zoller.1@osu.edu

R. Dale Safrit
Associate Professor
Human and Community Resource Development
Extension Specialist, Leadership Education
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
Internet address: safrit.1@osu.edu

In 1991, Ohio State University (OSU) Extension created the concept of agent support teams to assist county agents in planning and developing programs, appraise agent performance, and encourage agent professional growth and development. A support team is comprised of the agent's county chair, appropriate district subject matter specialist(s), and district director (who serves as an ex-officio member). The support team is responsible for providing direction and guidance to an agent by helping plan and evaluate educational programs, assisting with the development of the yearly plan of work, observing agent teaching sessions, serving as professional role models for the agent, and providing feedback to the district director for performance appraisal purposes. OSU Extension initially developed the support team concept based upon the concept of self-directed work groups or work teams (Barra, 1983) and later incorporated principles of quality circles (Manning & Curtis, 1988) and 360 degree feedback (Edwards & Ewen, 1996; Lepsinger & Lucia, 1997).

Prior to the implementation of the support team concept, only the district director and county chair evaluated an agent's professional progress and completed the agent's performance appraisals. However, this system had many problems. There was no real team involvement between the district director, district specialists, and county chairs in supporting an agent, and there were often disagreements between the district director and the county chair regarding criteria used to evaluate an agent. Because the prior system was based on numerical ratings, an individual agent could receive two entirely different scores because the respective district director and the county chair could have entirely different opinions regarding the agent's programmatic priorities, activities, and performance.

Purpose and Methodology

The purpose of this study was to investigate OSU Extension county agents' perceptions of (a) the importance of the support team concept in assisting with professional growth, program planning and development, and performance evaluation feedback, and (b) the level of support the team actually provided the agent in each of these three functions.

The researchers used a concept paper developed by Fourman, Ludwig and Stitzlein (1994) that identified eight constructs that comprise the support team concept. These eight constructs include (a) personal and interpersonal skills; (b) program promotion and public relations; (c) program implementation and teaching; (d) chair and support team responsibilities; (e) program planning and development; (f) professional growth; (g) program evaluation; and, (h) faculty research and scholarly responsibilities.

The researchers identified individual action statements for each of the eight constructs, resulting in a total of 60 statements. The researchers used the 60 action statements to develop a mail questionnaire. In addition, they utilized a panel of experts consisting of OSU Extension Administrative Cabinet and two OSU Extension faculty to establish the face validity of the statements.

The survey contained three sections. Section I gathered information from respondents related to their perceptions regarding both the level of importance and extent of support for each of the action statements. This section utilized a four point Likert-type scale to measure agents' perceptions ranging from 1 = not important to 4 = very important and on current level of support from 1 = not supported to 4 = highly supported. Section II gathered information on professional characteristics of respondents. Section III gathered subjective information from respondents related to the support team concept.

The researchers established the face and content validity of the instrument using a panel of experts that reviewed the survey and concluded that the individual action items were representative of the eight constructs. The test-retest method was utilized to establish the reliability of the survey; all item reliabilities were greater than 60%.

The researchers used a census to mail the survey to 298 county agents on April 21, 1997 and included a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Participants were asked to respond by April 30, 1997. Each questionnaire contained an identification number to assist in follow-up with non-respondents. On April 23, a reminder e-mail message was sent to all participants. Those who had not responded by May 5 received a second copy of the instrument and were asked to respond by May 16. The final study response rate was 68% or 203 responses.

All data were collected and analyzed using the SPSS statistical program (Norusis, 1988). The researchers calculated descriptive statistics to satisfy the objectives of the study. Non-response error was controlled by randomly selecting 10 names to interview by telephone a random number of questions (Miller & Smith, 1983). Non-respondents' answers were compared to those of the respondents and found to be no different than study respondents


Table 1 lists overall mean scores and individual rankings for respondents' perceptions regarding (a) the importance of each of the eight constructs comprising the agent support team concept, and (b) the level of support their team actually provided them in each of the eight support team constructs. For each construct except "faculty research and scholarly responsibilities", mean scores of importance were greater than corresponding mean scores for support. However, rankings of the eight individual constructs did not correspond between importance and support.

Table 1
Mean Scores of OSU Extension Agents' (n=203) Perceptions of the Importance of Eight Support Team Constructs and the Level of Support their Team Actually Provided Them (on a scale of 1-4, 4 being highest).
Mean Score Mean Score
Std. Dev.Rank-
Std. Dev.Rank-
Overall Mean Scores 3.29 .320 (n/a) 2.9 .575 (n/a)
Personal and Interpersonal Skills 3.55 .336 1 3.01 .575 4
Program Promotion and Public Relations 3.45 .336 2 3.04 .568 1
Program Implementation and Teaching 3.40 .348 3 3.00 .587 5
Chair and Support Team Responsibilities 3.38 .381 4 2.88 .611 8
Program Planning and Development 3.26 .367 5 2.96 .550 7
Professional Growth 3.21 .413 6 3.02 .528 6
Program Evaluation 3.10 .523 7 2.96 .604 7
Faculty Research and Scholarly Responsibilities 2.90 .642 8 3.03 .630 2

Conclusions and Implications

The study data indicate that all eight support team constructs, and the support team concept as a whole, are considered important by study respondents. This suggests that OSU Extension administration should continue to provide opportunities for agents to further develop their competencies in these eight constructs. The eight support team constructs could be used by undergraduate Extension education programs to develop new or strengthen existing curricula, and by graduate Extension education programs to support current agents in pursuing advanced degrees.

The constructs could be useful to Extension personnel responsible for new agent recruitment as an interview or screening tool. Extension staff development personnel could use the constructs as a conceptual framework to plan ongoing professional development in-services. County Extension agents should use the eight constructs as a holistic framework for ongoing professional development as well as targeted personal development. OSU Extension administration should share the study findings with district director and county chair support team members to reiterate the importance agents place on each of the eight constructs.

In a relatively short period of time, the OSU Extension agent support team concept has created more open communication and assistance related to professional growth and development, performance appraisal, and program planning and development between agents, administrators, and district specialists. The study data indicate that agents consider each of the eight support team constructs as being supported by administration. However, since seven of the eight mean scores for levels of support were consistently lower than those for levels of importance, OSU Extension administration and support team members should critically reflect upon their actions and activities in better working with each individual agent they support. An individual agent's support team members should be cognizant of and dedicated to that agent's unique personal interests, programmatic responsibilities, and professional development needs.

The fact that the majority of the mean scores for support is less than those for importance indicates that, although positive, agents' perceptions are that they are not receiving the degree of support from their support teams they would like. If agents view these eight individual constructs as being important, but do not believe they receive ample support for accomplishing their goals, they may decide it is not worth the effort to concentrate on the constructs as a whole and focus only on the areas favored by their support team.

The fact that "faculty research and scholarly responsibilities" had the lowest mean score for level of importance of the eight constructs, yet ranked second of the eight constructs in mean score for level of support, is also noteworthy. OSU Extension county agents may elect to pursue university faculty status (requiring both daily programmatic leadership and scholarly and creative research), or they may elect to pursue an administrative and professional university status (which does not require the faculty research). During the past several years, Extension administration has emphasized research and scholarly responsibilities for county agents with faculty status, yet the agents must maintain the expected level of county programmatic responsibilities. Thus, this finding may reflect frustrations of county faculty agents who are trying to balance state expectations for research productivity with county demands for programming expectations.

The study findings provide OSU Extension administration an opportunity to provide consistent training that is developed around and built upon the eight support team constructs. If support team members are trained to understand the needs of agents, the effectiveness of the support team concept will improve and will do a better job of assisting agents with program planning and development, performance evaluation, and professional growth and development. Although the study findings are limited to county agents in Ohio, they do have important implications for all county Extension agents regarding critical and fundamental components of our work.


Barra, R. J. (1983). Putting quality circles to work: A practical strategy for boosting productivity and profits. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Edwards, M. R. & Ewen, A. J. (1996). 360 degree feedback. New York: American management Association.

Fourman, L. S., Ludwig, B., & Stitzlein, J. (1994). The Ohio State University Extension support and performance evaluation. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Extension.

Lepsinger, R. & Lucia, A. D. (1997). The art and science of 360 degree feedback. San Francisco: Josses-Bass Pfeiffer.

Manning, G. & Curtis, K. (1988). Group strength: Quality circles at work. Cincinnati: Vista Systems.

Miller, L. E. & Smith, K. L. (1983). Handling nonresponse issues. Journal of Extension, 21(5), 45-50.

Norusis, M. J. (1993). SPSS for windows: Base system user's guide (release 6.0). Chicago: SPSS Inc.