June 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Effecting Extension Organizational Change Toward Cultural Diversity: A Conceptual Framework

No state Extension organizations have achieved effectiveness in a culturally diverse society. To become effective, Extension needs an organizational culture that incorporates multiple perspectives that reflect varying values and belief systems. Extension organizations have been designed within the dominant European-American cultural paradigm, which reflects one perspective. Because culture changes very slowly, changing the organizational climate, which is integral to an organizational culture, is one method to achieve effectiveness in a diverse world. A conceptual framework for identifying an Extension organization's diversity climate is a useful step for effective organizational change.

Ann C. Schauber
Diversity Leader
Oregon State University Extension
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet Address: ann.schauber@oregonstate.edu


"A healthy organization is one in which an obvious effort is made to get people with different backgrounds, skills, and abilities to work together toward the goal or purpose of the organization. While we have not accomplished this at a societal level, it is achievable at an organizational level," says the Dean and Provost of Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, John Bruhn (1996). Very few organizations in the United States have become effective in incorporating culturally diverse backgrounds, skills, and abilities in their organizational culture. In the case of Extension, this author does not know of any state that can claim to have an effective, culturally diverse Extension organization.

An effective, culturally diverse organization is one whose culture is inclusive of all of the varying groups and constituencies it intends to serve, that is, in the case of the Extension Service, the people of the state. The organization's values, vision, mission, policies, procedures, and norms constitute a culture that is manifested in multiple perspectives and adaptability to varying values, beliefs, and communication styles.


People from differing cultural groups in the U.S. have differing perspectives, manifested in their values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. There are many studies that specifically describe these differences. In one significant comparative study of values within five cultures in the Southwest U.S. (Navaho, Zuni, Mexican-American, Texan Homesteaders, and Mormon), Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961) explored value orientations around which they assumed all people seek meaning. One of those orientations is in how people regard nature. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck found three distinct ways in which people related to the natural environment: harmony with nature, subjugation to nature, and mastery over nature. A people or cultural group may relate to nature in all three ways, but they will vary in their order of preference.

Generally, the dominant European-American culture, from which the Extension Service evolved, primarily values mastery over nature, while many Native-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans primarily value living in harmony with nature (Ting-Toomey, 1999). This core value affects the decisions that people make in their daily lives.

If Extension's educational programs in agriculture, natural resources, and human development emerge from the value orientation of mastery over nature, then several cultural groups who may value harmony with or subjugation to nature will not find these programs relevant to their lives.

In other research, Edward T. Hall (1983) found a difference in the way people perceive time. Some cultures, such as the mainstream European-American culture, see time as linear and sequential, called "monochronic." Other cultures, such as Native-American, Latino, African-American, and Asian-American, perceive time as many things happening at once and with people, called "polychronic." Polychronic people see time as a plentiful resource, and relationships tend to take priority over schedules. Thus, you may find polychronic people to be often late to meetings, while the monochronic people may be more accustomed to punctuality. Monochronic people may tend to believe that "Time is money," while polychronic people may see time as an opportunity to be with others.

These few examples of variations in values and beliefs point to the magnitude of the potential differences among us, as our nation's population has become more culturally diverse. How can we work together with such large differences? Is it better to try to accommodate these differences or to maintain uniformity in our organizations and ask others to adapt to our norms?

The Case for a Culturally Diverse Organization

University of Michigan professor Taylor Cox suggests four compelling reasons why becoming an effective culturally diverse organization is important.

  • It enhances the creativity and problem-solving abilities of the organization. Once an organization can incorporate difference, previously untapped talent and energy will be focused on achieving organizational goals.
  • It is morally, ethically, and socially the right thing to do. As humans, we have a tendency to favor in-group members over out-group members, which results in dominant-subordinate issues. At the same time, one of the core values of our country is equal opportunity. A conscious effort to address in-group and out-group favoritism will enhance equal opportunity.
  • It affects performance of minority-group employees. Cox's research (1994) shows that if an employee believes that he or she is undervalued, regardless of what the organization says, then the employee's work performance will be affected. This leads to a higher turnover rate for an organization.
  • It is a legal requirement. In the U.S., equal opportunity is supported through laws such as the Civil Rights Act, Equal Pay Act, Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Age Discrimination Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act. Organizations, especially the ones that receive government funding, maintain affirmative action programs in an effort to comply with these laws (Cox, 1994).

There are two more reasons why organizational cultural diversity is important.

  • It may be more economical in the long term. When an organization is perceived as not complying with equal opportunity laws, fines and costly litigation are often the result. In the long run, it may be more economical to invest in incorporating multiple perspectives in an organization before the need for litigation arises.
  • It will result in better service to a changing clientele. In the light of the rapid increase in minority-group populations in the U.S., while the majority-group population growth steadies, service organizations will need a new set of skills to better meet the needs of changing clientele in communities.

Thus, incorporating multiple perspectives, which reflect varying values and beliefs, can make an organization such as the Extension Service more effective by adding a richness of increased creativity and an adaptability to change.

If working to become an effective, culturally diverse organization is seen as a desirable goal, how does an organization change to become more multiculturally effective? Essentially, the culture of the organization has to change to become more inclusive of other value and belief systems that exist among the people the organization intends to serve.

"Organizational culture" can be defined as an organization's values, beliefs, principles, practices, and behaviors. One can find evidence of the organizational culture in its public language: the printed documents such as brochures that describe the organization's vision, values, and mission, and the policy and procedures manual. Organizational culture changes very slowly. The deeper values and beliefs implied in the language of the organization's culture may not be within the conscious awareness of the organizational members and leaders (Denison, 1990).

"Organizational climate," which is integral to and yet only a part of an organization's culture, is easier to change than its culture (Figure 1). Organizational climate is found in the private language of the organization, such as the conversations about work among staff during coffee breaks. Climate is manifested in the observable routines and rewards of the organization. The routines are the events and practices of an organization; the rewards pertain to what behaviors get acknowledged, supported, and rewarded.

Organizational culture

As the private language of an organization changes, the public language slowly begins to change as well (Schneider, 1990; Schneider, Brief, & Guzzo, 1996). Thus, the key to changing the culture of an organization toward an effective multicultural perspective is to change the organizational climate.

If a mainstream organization wants to incorporate cultural diversity as a resource, it needs to begin by strategically focusing on what the current organizational climate toward diversity is. Organizations are made up of the people in them. Therefore, if the people do not change, then the organization cannot change. Determining an organization's climate involves three levels of analysis: the individual (employee), the groups (departments, units, program areas), and the overall organization (Schneider, 1990; Cox, 1994).

Gibb's study of organizational climate as it relates to communication is especially relevant as one examines the private language of an organization in relation to diversity. Gibb found that small groups in organizations have communication patterns that can be defensive or supportive.

A defensive climate is one in which the individual feels threatened or anxious when in communication with others. Outwardly, the conversation may appear normal, while inwardly the person is putting mental energy into defending himself or herself. The defense may consist of thoughts about how one appears to the other, how one can be seen more favorably, or how one may end up a winner in the conversation through domination, by impressing the other, or by avoiding punishment or attack. In a defensive climate, the other in the conversation picks up the verbal and non-verbal cues and, in turn, listens defensively (Gibb, 1979).

The opposite of a defensive climate is a supportive one. The more supportive the climate, the less threatened the individual feels, and the more emotional and mental energy is put into the content and meaning of the message rather than in composing a defensive response (Gibb, 1979).

In essence, a defensive climate shuts down communication, whereas a supportive climate opens communication to make room for learning from multiple perspectives. An organization's climate will most likely consist of both supportive and defensive dimensions. An overall supportive climate is necessary in order to build an effective culturally diverse organization.

A Framework Toward Measuring Extension's Diversity Climate

By integrating the work of Cox (1994), Schneider and associates (1996), Gibb (1979), and Schauber (1999), a framework for measuring the Extension Service's diversity climate can be designed (Figure 2). The dimensions of the diversity climate might be found on a continuum of supportive to defensive, with uncertain (which is neither supportive nor defensive) found at the midpoint. An example of a supportive dimension is Extension professionals' openness to ongoing learning. When professionals are open to new ideas, the diversity climate is supportive of the possibility of incorporating multiple perspectives into the organizational culture.

Organizational diversity climate

An example of a defensive dimension is Extension professionals' perception that there is no organizational commitment to cultural diversity. As a result, professionals would avoid reaching out to culturally diverse audiences for fear that they would not be supported for doing so. An example of an uncertain dimension is Extension professionals' fear of embarrassing the self or offending others who are culturally different from them. This fear leads to a hesitancy to approach culturally different groups (Schauber, 1999).

These dimensions can be measured in relation to the routines and rewards of the organization. The routines relate to the nature of the interpersonal relationships in the organization both at work and with clientele and to the nature of the work. The rewards relate to the nature of the organizational hierarchy and the focus of support and rewards in the organization. The climate must be measured at the individual, group, and organizational levels and then integrated for an overall sense of the state Extension Service's diversity climate.

Tools for measuring Extension's organizational diversity climate might include written questionnaires, focus groups, and/or interviews. They should address all three levels of the organization (individual, group, and organizational). They are used to explore participants' definitions of diversity and what they think an ideal diverse organization is. Perceived benefits and challenges of working with people from differing cultural groups for both the participants and the organization are explored.

The findings that emerge can be used in moving the organization toward change in the following ways.

  1. Presentations on the dimensions of the diversity climate to organizational members can enable them to see their organization in a new light, which in itself is a catalyst for change.
  2. Dimensions of the diversity climate can be used to develop strategic plans to move the organization toward diversity.
  3. The diversity climate results can stand as a benchmark in time, a place from which to measure progress of change in the organizational culture toward diversity.


Changing a state Extension organization to become effective in a culturally diverse society is a strategic and deliberate process of fostering change in the organizational culture. Extension's culture can be changed by identifying and then changing the Extension diversity climate. Diversity climate is manifested in the organization's private language. A conceptual framework for identifying Extension's diversity climate is thus a key to changing its organizational culture.


Bruhn, J. G. (1996). Creating an organizational climate for multiculturalism. Health Care Supervisor, 14.4, 11-18.

Cox, T. (1994). Cultural Diversity in Organizations: Theory, Research, and Practice. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Denison, D. (1990). Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness. New York: Wiley.

Gibb, J. R. (1979). Defensive Communication. Basic Readings in Communication Theory. New York: Harper and Row, 201-208.

Hall, E. T. (1983). Dance of Life. New York: Doubleday.

Kluckhohn, F. R. & Strodtbeck, F. L. (1961). Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston: Row, Peterson and Company.

Schauber, A. (1999). Assessing organizational climate: First step in diversifying an organization. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Schneider, B., Ed. (1990). Organizational Climate and Culture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schneider, B., Brief, A. P., & Guzzo, R. (1996). Creating a climate and culture for sustainable organizational change. Organizational Dynamics, 24.4, 7-19.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating Across Cultures. New York: Guilford.