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University Extension and the next generation: Innovate, or wait and react?

By jenjensen | October 20, 2014

by Paul Hill, Utah State University Extension assistant professor and 4-H agent

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

Whether some choose to believe it or not, it is a critical time for Extension.

As we celebrate a century of success, it becomes essential to pause and contemplate the future. As a national system we face budgetary realities, workforce demographics, as well as social and technological advancements. Now, the questions we must answer are, “What do we do next? Do we innovate? Or wait and react?”

I may be a cynical Millennial working in a sea of baby boomers, but even so I believe Extension is needed as much today as it ever was.

Regardless, change is inevitable. You’ve heard it before, but I believe “the best defense is a good offense.” Therefore, actualizing an offensive approach to change will best secure our organizations in providing remarkable service over the next 100 years.

I follow North Carolina Cooperative Extension on Twitter and was impressed by their leadership’s transparent, offensive approach to the organization’s visioning initiative. Soon after North Carolina launched a strategic vision and planning initiative, I’m proud to say Utah State University (USU) Extension began its endeavor to act swiftly by looking towards the future.

Recognizing that change is an ever-present possibility, the leadership of USU Extension formed a visioning team in 2013 to improve the way our Extension service functions in Utah. As a member of this team, we were tasked with developing recommendations for organizational impact, relevance, and sustainability.

After reviewing our charge, guiding principles, current structure, programs, and business, we sought the collection of data. We did this by first compiling and reviewing the organizational plans of other Extension services. Next, we conducted an internal survey with our own workforce and stakeholders.

Paul Hill collecting ideas from a fellow USU Extension colleague about objectives for the visioning initiative. Photo courtesy of the author.

Paul Hill collecting ideas from a fellow USU Extension colleague about objectives for the visioning initiative. Photo courtesy of the author.

Based on the data collected and analyzed, the following key strategic objectives were determined:

  • Increase employee fulfillment and satisfaction/improve retention
  • Develop distinct “information” and “experience” delivery models
  • Reduce the number/replication of tenure track faculty in each county
  • Increase teaming/programmatic partnerships
  • Increase Extension productivity/accountability of specialists
  • Increase technology-based delivery and communication
  • Increase urban impact
  • Increase name recognition and Extension brand

I’m in love with these objectives and our vision for the future!

Specific tactics were outlined for each strategic objective and the leadership of USU Extension is forming working groups tasked with carefully overhauling and improving our current system.

From our internal survey, we learned that the most significant concern of our workforce is the implementation of a mentoring and retention program.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Really? Mentoring?” I asked the same snarky question.

In my shortsighted perspective, I was very surprised as I reviewed the survey results. Of course, you guessed it; my primary concern for the future is the widespread use of technology in teaching and marketing our programs…as if technology can solve all problems. I admit it, I think “technology first” when it comes to problem solving. Is it just me? Or it is the flaw of much of my fellow Millennials?

BUT…after further study and discussion, here’s why I now agree with a mentoring program:

Baby boomers make up the majority of Extension’s workforce in Utah and many are set to retire very soon. After reflecting over this impending turnover I envisioned the possibility of us missing a huge opportunity. The baby boomer generation possesses years of experience, knowledge and insight – all of which is invaluable. A mentoring program would facilitate the transfer of knowledge to the next generation. But, before they retire, there are also countless opportunities for boomers to learn from and engage Millennials.

USU Extension faculty discussing the implementation of visioning initiative objectives. Photo courtesy of the author.

USU Extension faculty discussing the implementation of visioning initiative objectives. Photo courtesy of the author.

Another challenge we have is retaining Millennials (this means engaging us). I’ve found the work of Claire Raines Associates, a firm that provides professional generational training, very useful. They have identified their eight most frequent requests of Millennials at work:

  • Help us learn
  • Believe in us
  • Tune in to our technology
  • Connect us
  • Let us make it our own
  • Tell us how we’re doing
  • Be approachable
  • Be someone we can believe in

We all know generational differences are real; addressing these differences by effectively connecting people through a mentoring program should enhance the culture and development of our organizations. I believe this is something we all want for the very near future.

Change will happen. If we wait for it, we can only react as creatures of circumstance. A far better choice is to change on our own terms, as creators of circumstance.

We in Extension have the ability to design our own future depending on the choices we make and our willingness to do what it takes. What will you do next? Innovate? Or wait and react?

 

Paul Hill is himself a Millennial as well as a 4H Cooperative Extension educator. He spends a lot of time thinking about STEM and the future of both his community and Extension. Read his blog, Soft Leadership: Lighten up, lead, and do work that matters, at http://www.paulallenhill.com/, including posts like “Extension is Broken” and “How to Fix Extension.”

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.