June 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Using the Program Life Cycle Can Increase Your Return on Time Invested

Carefully timing revisions to educational programs can yield valuable returns on the time invested. Extension educators can use simple quantitative and qualitative measures to identify a program's life cycle. Letting programs go beyond their maturity phases into decline and termination is not a good investment of time. Making necessary program revisions between the maturity and the decline phases can save Extension educators both time and effort while simultaneously maintaining quality programming.

Chester J. Bowling
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist
Community Leadership and Management
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address: bowling.43@osu.edu

Quality Programming Is the Key to Success

People have them (Bleichrodt & Quiggin, 1999), plants have them (Woodward, 1984), projects have them (Kim & Bejaj, 2000), movements and corporate initiatives have them (Hutchins, 2000), industries have them (Pyka, 2000), products have them (Rink & Fox, 1999), organizations have them (Fletcher & Taplin, 1999), shopping centers have them (Lowry, 1997), even technology has them (Oliver, 1999). Life cycles can be seen virtually everywhere, and Extension programs are no exception. But why should Extension educators care about the life cycle of their programs?

When asked to "prove our worth," Extension educators respond by sharing "program achievements" (Graf, 1988). Maximizing the quality and quantity of programs is key to an Extension educator's success. But producing quality programs requires time, a resource of which there never seems to be enough. Therefore, methodologies that improve Extension educators' program production efficiency or return on time invested have value. The program life cycle is one of those methodologies.

Program Life Cycle

The five-phase program life cycle discussed here is illustrated in the figure below and explained in the following sections.

five-phase program life cycle

Viewing programs through a life cycle model provides the opportunity to increase program production efficiency. The efficiency comes through catching a program at the end of its maturity phase, before it reaches the decline phase.

Conceptualization Phase

In the conceptualization phase, the program springs from the educator's current knowledge base. During the first phase of the program life cycle, an educational opportunity is identified, ideas are generated, and rough drafts of the program are produced. During this phase, "thoughtful planning with innovative program design and development and promotional strategies to accommodate client needs are primary." (White, 1988).

Mallilo and Millar (1992) have identified 14 program development factors that affect program success. "Several of the highly rated factors related to developing programs [that addressed] the needs of various audiences." During the conceptualization phase, program developers should work collaboratively with the program stakeholders.

Stakeholders are people who have knowledge about the subject, people who will participate in the program, and people who will be affected by what is being learned in the program. For example, during the conceptualization of a program on community development, it's a good idea to invite Extension and non-Extension professionals who have experience doing community development work, community members who want to do community development work, and community and organization leaders who will need to work with the people doing community development work to participate in the process.

Lots of methodologies exist that allow stakeholders to have voice in the program conceptualization or for that matter the revision of programs. Quality educators will use everything from focus groups (Ducan & Marotz-Baden, 1999) and surveys to direct collaboration (including co-teaching) to involve interested stakeholders.

Development Phase

In the development phase, the program parameters and rough draft generated in the conceptualization phase are refined and solidified into a final product ready to be tested with participants. In this phase, the level of detail is increased significantly. A program on leadership, which in the conceptualization phase is described as "9 months long," gets specific time and material parameters, such as "nine 8-hour sessions held on the first Tuesday of the month starting in September and finishing in May." Content is finalized, and aesthetics are considered.

Using again the example of a leadership program, an agenda for each class day is created, with specific content to be covered and time frames for each portion of the day. The development phase is best thought of as an iterative process. For example, after each use of the leadership program, the participants complete evaluations. These are added to presenter's evaluation of "program model fit, quality of program implementation and appropriateness of expectations of outcomes/impacts" (Decker, 1990), and appropriate revisions are made. After several "trial runs," the revision process will slow to a crawl, and the program moves to the maturity phase.

Maturity Phase

In the maturity phase, programs are at their highest efficiency. Although minor tweaking or customization for a specific audience may take place (for example, teaching leadership to elected officials is different from teaching leadership to community volunteers), the program is ready to be used at a moment's notice.

All significant bugs have been eliminated, and the presenter is familiar with the content and the flow of the program. Evaluations and attendance are high. Presenters' enthusiasm is strong. Life is good. This is where educators are sometimes lulled to sleep.

Decline Phase

There are multiple factors that make an educational program successful. Watching both presenter indicators and participant indicators can help Extension professionals monitor these factors. When the indicators begin to drop, the program is entering the decline phase.

Participant Indicators

  • Declining number of program participants attending sessions.
  • Pre-program surveys showing high levels of program practice adoption.
  • Degeneration in quantity and quality of participant questions.
  • Falling evaluation ratings. Evaluations should include more than just new knowledge gained. (See Steele (1995) for a more complete explanation of other important gains.)
  • Declining program impact measurements.
Presenter Indicators
  • Declining presenter enthusiasm.
  • Increasing interest in new subject material beyond the current program.

Extension educators should keep a log of program numbers. A declining number is the first sign that it is time to renew, revise, or redefine a program. Educators should pay attention to their own enthusiasm when the program is requested and presented. A decline in either is a good sign that the program is in the decline phase. The quantity and quality of questions that participants ask is also a good indication of the program phase. In the earlier phases, lots of good questions are asked. As the program matures, the number of questions declines, and the questions are less interesting. Program evaluations can also be a good tool to use. If evaluation ratings are declining for no apparent reason, it may be time for program revision, redevelopment, or redefinition.

Termination Phase

Once program participation has dropped to levels that make presentation either difficult or severely inefficient because of lack of participant interaction, the program should be terminated. This is not always easy. Sometimes small but important groups of Extension clientele become attached to programs that have reached the termination phase. This is where program advisory committees can be very helpful. Sharing participation results with advisory committees and working with them to select and implement appropriate actions improves the quality of the decision-making process and builds support for difficult decisions.

Once the decision has been made to terminate a program, it is often helpful to have a "final offering" of the program. As part of the instruction, an explanation for the termination of the program and a brief introduction to its replacement are given. This actually gives long-time faithful program participants the opportunity to let go of the old program and warm up to its replacement. It should also be noted that removing terminated programs from marketing literature and/or resource lists is critical. Not doing this will create confusion and frustration for clientele and hinder a smooth transition between the old program and the new.

Program revision, redevelopment, or redefinition takes less time if initiated at this critical point in the life cycle. Letting a program go beyond the maturity phase and into decline and termination is both inefficient and tiresome. Substantial time and energy are required to sustain a program that is in the decline phase. Although we do not often think about it, cleanly and professionally terminating a program also requires a high level of energy.

It can be argued that program conceptualization and development phases also require significant resources and a high level of creative energy. However, it should be obvious that the first two phases of the life cycle cannot be eliminated, while the last two can and should be avoided if Extension educators want to maintain a high return on time invested.

Program Revision, Redevelopment, and Redefinition

The revision, redevelopment, or redefinition of a program should take less time than the original conceptualization and development stages. But which process should be selected?

revision, redevelopment, or redefinition of a program

That depends on the program, how far it went beyond the maturity phase, and what new information, knowledge, and wisdom is available. The revision process is the most involved and therefore most time consuming of the three choices. To revise a program, the developer goes back to the conceptualization phase and checks with stakeholders to determine what current material should be deleted and what new material should be included in the revised program. For example, moving a community leadership program from the concept of leadership as an individual act to the concept of leadership as a community process will require significant re-conceptualization that will best be accomplished with the help of stakeholders.

Redevelopment involves incorporating new information and knowledge, and can be done quickly by updating or adding new handouts. It may also require the elimination of some basic information and knowledge, which have become too elementary for the participants. For example, a leadership program may eliminate basic skills of parliamentary procedure in favor of advanced facilitation skills.

Redefinition is the easiest. To redefine a program, the educator shifts the emphasis. If the program was originally designed for rural gardeners, it could easily be redefined as part of a program for urban youth development. Although just as important as the other two processes, redefinition is more of a change in style than substance.

But can a program really go back into the creator's head and be born again? Of course it can. Unless program creators have been playing Rip Van Winkle since their programs were originally created, they will have new information, knowledge, and wisdom that they are eager to incorporate. They simply are not in the same intellectual place they were when the program was created.

This is the time to step back and understand how the new information, knowledge, and wisdom can be infused into the program. The amount of new information, knowledge, and wisdom that have been acquired since the conceptualization of the program will dictate the level of program deconstruction and reconstruction. Moving from contour plowing to no-till farming is a good example. The new knowledge and wisdom gained required a major shift and therefore significant preliminary explanation before the new information could be shared. Reflection on what the program creators knew when they created the programs and what they know at this stage will help in the process selection.

The Bottom Line

Describing the specific changes that will need to be made to any given program is impossible because of the number of variables and varieties of content. However, the opportunity to achieve a high return on time invested is increased if Extension educators pay attention to the life cycle of their programs. Letting programs go beyond their maturity phases into decline and termination is not a good investment of time. Noticing when a program begins to decline and recreating, redeveloping, or redefining it can save both time and money. Making relatively minor revisions or eliminating the program before it requires a major investment of time is both efficient and effective. It also leads to consistently high-quality programs, the major goal of an Extension educator.


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