October 2003 // Volume 41 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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Assessing Extension Internal Organizational Needs Through an Action Research and Learning Process

A participatory action research and learning process was used to carry out an internal needs assessment for a statewide Extension organization in a western United States land-grant institution. Focus groups, a written questionnaire, and employee feedback sessions were utilized as a means of identifying strategic organizational issues, needs, and resources that the organization would prioritize based on a 5-year time frame. The research and learning process, discussion of the results, limitations of the study, and implications for similar use of this process are discussed in this article.

Michael Havercamp
Mediation and Group Process State Extension Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Internet Address: havercampm@unce.unr.edu

Elizabeth Christiansen
Research Assistant
Center for Program Evaluation and Partnership Development
Internet Address: echrist@unr.nevada.edu

Deborah Mitchell
Assistant Professor and Co-Director
Center for Program Evaluation and Partnership Development
Internet Address: debbiem@unr.nevada.edu

University of Nevada Reno
Reno, Nevada

Cooperative Extension (Extension) has a rich history of having designed educational programs based on community and organizational needs assessments. These assessments have included opinion surveys, focus groups, ethnographic, and individual interviews (Domaingue, 1989; Fishman, Pearson, & Reicks, 1999; Gamon, 1992; Guy & Rogers, 1999).

The study described here employed an action learning and participatory research process (Marquardt, 1999; Reason, 1994; Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R., 2000; Havercamp, 1985) as a means of ascertaining employee perceptions about organizational issues, resources, and educational programs for a statewide Extension system in a western United States land-grant institution.

This article describes the background and methodology for the study and concludes with the findings and a discussion of the study's limitations and implications for Extension organizations.


Many traditional research paradigms have tended to separate action research from the learning and education process. For example, someone designs the research, and another person implements the educational program. Perhaps this paradigm was most functional in the earlier years of Extension when the delivery of agriculture and home economics programs was a primary focus. Research through agriculture experiment stations (Stations) and education through Extension were instituted in land grant colleges of agriculture. The Stations carried out research and Extension "transferred" the research findings to community audiences. In the 21st-century where Stations and Extension are addressing a diversity of complex issues beyond traditional agriculturally delivered programs, leaders and practitioners struggle with more established paradigms hoping to find alternative approaches to data collection and learning.

This study integrates traditional approaches to research and learning into an action research and learning mythology. Although action research is widely recognized as a valuable research framework, there exists no single widely accepted definition of action research (Altrichter, Kemmis, McTaggart, & Zuber-Skerritt, 2002) or a single set of central assumptions to guide it (Peterat, 1997). However, key to many descriptions of action research is the concept of a participative, collaborative approach to problem solving, change, and learning (Coghlan, D. & Brannick, T. ,2001; Heron, J., & Reason, P. ,2001; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000; Levin, M. & Greenwood, D.,2001; Marquardt, 1999; McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J.,2002; Reason, 1994;).

For Extension, the value of action research and learning lies in its capacity to enable organizations to effectively respond to change. "Learning is what makes action learning strategic rather than tactical. Fresh thinking and new learning are needed if we are to avoid responding to today's problems with yesterday's solutions while tomorrow's challenges engulf us" (Marquardt, 1999, p.4). An active learning and research framework, based in part on Weintein's conceptualization (as cited in Marquardt, 1999) was used in Nevada as a means by which learning, organizational development, self-development, and organizational resolution occurred. See Figure 1.

Figure 1.
Action Learning and Research Framework

The Action Learning and Research Framework can be represented as learning contributing to organizational resolution and self development with both contribute to organizational challenges.

Why was an action learning and research framework chosen? As investigators, we felt that there would be psychological, emotional, and intra-organizational communicational benefits by involving the "beneficiaries" (employees) of research in the design of the components. Second, we believed that a "research process" should serve as a communication and learning tool by which employees would engage in a productive dialogue about their organization.


The action research and learning project resulted in the implementation of three major phases. These phases included:

  • Conducting focus groups (Phase I),
  • Administering a questionnaire (Phase II), and
  • Conducting employee feedback sessions (Phase III).

These tasks occurred in the year 2000. Prior to the implementation of these tasks, a decision was made in 1999 by the UNCE dean and three area directors to proceed with an internal statewide organizational needs assessment. It was agreed that the aim of the assessment would be to gather information about perceptions relating to UNCE future-oriented organizational issues, resources, and educational programs from faculty and staff who had a UNCE appointment. Additionally, perceptions about present employee concerns would be identified.

Why these components? The dean and area directors desired to initiate a study that allowed for employee participation in the study's design and produce findings that would help to support a climate for purposeful organization change.

In order to carry out this study, it was decided that employee focus groups and a questionnaire would be used. Initially, feedback sessions were not identified as integral. The planning stage, however, allowed for developing a living and evolving assessment design process, sufficiently flexible to allow for meaningful design changes and modifications.

Phase I. Focus Groups

Thirty-one percent (N=70) of UNCE salaried and funded project employees (N=226) participated in 10 focus groups, which were conducted by Michael Havercamp, an Extension State Specialist in Mediation and Group Process. Participation in the focus groups was voluntary, and all UNCE employees were invited to participate. Four focus group locations, which were determined by the UNCE area directors and dean, were selected to provide employees options with respect to location and time.

During the focus groups, which ranged from 1 hour to 1 and 1/2 hours, three main questions were asked. They were designed to identify strategic organizational issues, needs, and resources that UNCE employees believed would help build the future. Focus group participants were asked to describe their vision for UNCE for the year 2005 ("what would you like to have different and what you like to keep the same?"). Participants were then asked to articulate the needs and resources that should be addressed if UNCE were to become the organization they envision. Finally, participants voluntarily filled out a short questionnaire consisting of three open-ended questions related to self development:

  1. What competencies do you require to be successful in your job?
  2. What are the critical success factors for effective performance in your job?
  3. What are the main barriers to your success?

Each focus group room set up was arranged in a U-shape. Two flip charts (one displaying the process agenda and the other one listing the ground rules for the session) and a "magic" wall (sticky wall) were used to record responses to questions. Sessions ended by reviewing the next step in the needs assessment process, which was the development of a questionnaire based on focus group responses.

Attendee responses were placed in an envelope and given to a person who was not participating in a focus group. This person typed the responses on session report sheets. These report sheets were subsequently provided to the University of Nevada's Center for Partnership Evaluation (CPE) (renamed the Center for Program Evaluation and Partnership Development in 2003), contracted by UNCE for the questionnaire construction, delivery, data analysis, and report preparation.

Phase II. Employee Questionnaire

Based on the responses from the focus group participants, a draft questionnaire was reviewed in April by the UNCE administrative group for its readability and content relevancy. The final six-page questionnaire was mailed to all 226 UNCE employees in May, requesting them to return the completed questionnaire in a self-addressed envelope. A reminder postcard was sent to all employees 2 weeks later. The questionnaire included a cover letter and was organized to solicit responses to five major questions, an additional open-ended item, and two demographic questions.

  • The first major question asked the respondents to determine the amount of time and/or resources needed that Extension should devote to each of 23 organizational issues within 5 years (e.g., program evaluation).

  • The second question, also based on a 5-year time frame, solicited respondents' opinions about the level of need relative to 10 resource areas that Extension should address within a 5-year time frame (e.g., multi-lingual educational materials).

  • The third question asked those completing the questionnaire to determine the amount of time or resources that Extension should devote to each of 15 programs or programming issues (e.g., community development).

  • The fourth major question solicited opinions on the importance of 23 factors (e.g., negotiation skills) on the respondents' successful performance of their job.

  • Finally, the fifth major question invited respondents to determine their level of agreement with statements related primarily to the organization (e.g., "UNCE employees receive adequate guidance from administration in terms of what is expected of them by the organization").

Thirty-six percent (N=82) of the 226 employees completed the questionnaire (Christiansen, E., & Mitchell, D., 2000).

Phase III. Feedback Sessions

In July of 2000, the UNCE administrative group decided that feedback sessions would be conducted whereby the employees would be given the opportunity to create an organizational improvement action plan for their unit (e.g., Western Extension Area) based on the findings from the questionnaire. In November, a 2-hour feedback session was held with 90 employees (39% of the total sample. N=226) from the three state geographical areas (units), campus-based faculty ("state specialists"), and UNCE state administrative staff (Havercamp, M., 2000). During the session, employees reviewed 14 highlights from the survey (e.g., 88% of respondents believed that they have a "clear perception of UNCE").

Following this introductory activity, small groups then brainstormed and listed possible actions and strategies for enhancing their unit's organizational health. Following a discussion of small group reports, all participants secretly voted on the possible actions to take. The results of the voting were reported and discussed. The session concluded with a discussion of some possible next steps that need to be taken.

Discussion of the Results

Efforts to raise public knowledge of UNCE within the next 5 years was seen by 84% of the respondents to be an organizational issue to which time and resources should be devoted. Issues receiving the next highest respondent acknowledgement included simplifying the university grant process, employee rewards and incentives, university student involvement in UNCE, and partnerships with universities and community colleges in the UCCSN statewide system. In terms of those issues to which respondents felt that the current level of allotted time and resources were satisfactory, only two issues received more than a 50% respondent acknowledgment: the staff performance evaluation process and regularly scheduled meetings.

When compared to other resource needs, funded personnel received the largest number of affirmative responses, followed by distance education equipment, graduate assistants, cross-cultural educational materials, multi-lingual educational materials, and program funding.

Innovation in programming, using the media to educate, and distance education were seen as programs and programming issues upon which the greatest time and/or resources should be devoted in the next 5 years. Of the program areas, 4-H received the highest response, followed by children, youth, and families; community development; agriculture; horticulture; and natural resources.

Over 90% of the respondents viewed flexibility/adaptability and interpersonal/collaborative skills as highly important attributes for the successful performance of their job. Attributes rated as highly important by 80% of respondents included writing and time management skills, prioritizing/balancing multiple tasks, being aware of community needs, critical thinking, and a desire to make a difference. Cultural and ethnic sensitivity, evaluation, making community connections, public speaking, and teaching skills were seen as highly important by at least 70% of those completing the questionnaire. Between 51 and 65% of respondents viewed computer skills, knowledge of current technology, knowledge of UNCE policies and procedures, and research and supervisory skills as very important.

Nearly 90% of the respondents felt that they are making a "positive" contribution to the community. Communication does not appear to be a concern for the significant majority of the respondents. Eighty-one percent disagreed that they had a communication problem with co-workers, while 71% also disagreed that they had difficulty communicating with their supervisor. In addition, a significant majority felt that they had a "clear perception" of UNCE; conversely, they felt that the public's perception of UNCE was inaccurate.

The large majority of respondents also felt that teaching materials and equipment requirements were adequate, while there was a strong concern for the lack of time to complete job-related tasks. For a slight majority of the respondents, receiving administrative support, and resistance to "out of the box" thinking, and reaching critical audiences in the community were identified as potential areas of concern.

Action priorities (those items receiving the largest number of votes by unit participants in the feedback sessions) varied across units.

One unit, which represented the largest human population area in Nevada (southern Nevada), was most concerned with program expansion in natural resources; 4-H; children, youth and families; human health and nutrition; urban horticulture; and urban agriculture and alternative crops.

The second largest human population area (western Nevada) was most concerned with the lack of adequate personnel support, given the demands on their time. Thus, they sought additional personnel to meet the growing challenges associated with fulfilling work-related tasks.

The third Extension area, mainly rural and encompassing the largest geographical area of the state and the smallest human population, was most concerned with increasing funding options. This was especially so since some rural counties were experiencing restricted county budgets, on which Extension programs were dependent.

Hiring more campus-based faculty (state specialists) and funding them adequately with programming dollars was the top concern of campus-based faculty who had an Extension appointment.

The statewide administrative group was most concerned with improving the use of the media to educate, the increase of public relations efforts, and continuing efforts each year to meet with community stakeholders.

Limitations of the Study

Generalizability is limited to the 36% of Extension employees (N=82) who responded to the questionnaire. However, examination of the distribution of respondents across the five types of UNCE job classifications (county employee, state-classified employee, administrative faculty, campus-based faculty, and community-based faculty) demonstrated that it was fairly representative of the distribution of total employees within the organization.

The UNCE dean and area directors determined early in the study that every employee with a UNCE appointment would have the opportunity to participate in the design and implementation of the study phases. This decision was made with the knowledge that a random sample would not be employed for the administration of the questionnaire, but the information from the questionnaire would provide a platform for discussion and planning within UNCE.

A similar concern can be drawn with respect to the findings from the feedback sessions. No method was employed to ascertain that those attending feedback sessions represented the UNCE population; thus, caution must be taken in making conclusions and inferences based solely on the findings from the feedback sessions.

Implications of the Study on UNCE and Extension Organizations

Our observations are based on involvement as researchers in the process. When focus groups were conducted in Phase I, participants were given an opportunity to formulate questions for the administration of the questionnaire in Phase II. In doing so, participants had the opportunity to make personal investment in this aspect of the research design. By brainstorming questions about the future of the organization, participants were engaged in cooperative learning, sharing with each other their thoughts and ideas about UNCE. Such cooperative learning, in our view, enhanced participant understanding about organizational beliefs shared by other UNCE participants and also provided the participants with an opportunity to increase their understanding of the research process.

The questionnaire has a potential "long-term" benefit because it could be administered in a subsequent year to ascertain similarities and differences in respondent opinions about the organization. Such an assessment would require changes in the research design to allow for such a comparative analysis. The feedback sessions provided a forum for participants to carefully examine findings from the questionnaire in relationship to their administrative/governing unit and area. These sessions were generally very lively, often exemplified by a cooperative spirit.

The results of this study have been used by UNCE. One important example took place in 2002, approximately 1 year following the completion of the feedback sessions. UNCE and other colleges within the university were engaged in a major university-wide strategic planning effort. UNCE's statewide governing board, made up of unit administrators, the dean, elected faculty, and classified employees, met in November of 2002 to finalize a strategic planning document. This document, which is in part reflective of some of the study's results, included 4-H and elderly program utilities as strategic planning priorities.

Extension organizations interested in conducting "internal" needs assessments may consider using an action learning and research process similar to the one employed in this study. As we found in Nevada, it is important to engage Extension leadership, faculty, and staff in the design and implementation of the study.


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