Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Strategies for Dealing with Extension's Obscurity Challenge

These are my remarks after receiving the ACE Professional Award on June 9, 2015. Although I don't really blog anymore, it seemed like making them available at this site made some sense. They are undergoing another round of editing, so I will probably post an updated version in the next day or two. Anyway, I hope you find them of interest, and feel free to continue the conversation wherever that may take you. Just let me know where so that I can participate. :)

Thank you Joanne, and thank you Rhonda for that kind introduction, and thank you (audience)!  I’m quite honored, and was surprised to receive this award. When I look at the list of past recipients— many people who I have known and worked with, I’m also quite humbled.
I’ve been a member of ACE for a very long time over 26 years. But I’ve been associated with ACE for even longer than that. Some thirty years ago Gene Hettel and I, when we were both at Iowa State, won a C&A award for some innovative work we did on documenting spreadsheets. My first ACE meeting was in 1989 in Portland. I think that was when a decision was made to invite information technologists to join, and when the IT SIG was created? I’m thinking I might have even been the first chair of the IT SIG, but I’m not really sure.

All of this is to say, I’ve been around a long time, which is a distinguishing feature of the recipients of this award. I note that the last three winners have also mentioned their longevity. All of us are pretty old and in the twilight years of our careers.

My role in ACE and the Land-Grant system has, I’m guessing, been quite different than most of yours, and I think that maybe because of that I might offer a slightly different perspective.

One of the perks of receiving this award is that we get a chance to share our thinking with you through some remarks, or maybe that’s a last chance to share. I certainly hope it’s not that. Here goes.

Dr. Cathann Kress, the Vice President for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University spoke at the ESP meeting last October about the Land-Grant system and Extension being on the precipice of a new Golden Age. Being your basic technoutopian, I too believe that we are on the potential precipice of a new Golden Age, but my belief comes with a big “if” or perhaps a major “yeah but”.  It’s not going to happen if we keep doing the same old things that got us to where we are at today.  The tactics and strategies of the 20th century are not going to get us to where we need to be going in the 21st.

We have some big issues that we need to be addressing. I’m going to address one of those issues today, but it is the one which I believe is our most significant, it is the issue of our obscurity, and our inability to have our message heard.

Does anyone know who Joseph Garrett is? Also known as Swampy? Can I see a show of hands if you know who he is. (No one raised their hand.) He’s a person who is pretty good at playing the game Minecraft. He is also an educator. He has a YouTube channel where he shares videos of himself and his friends playing the game. He has 5.5 million followers. His videos have been viewed 3.5 billion times. That’s scale! That’s reach! Is it impactful? I don’t know, that requires a different sort of analysis, but his message is getting out, and it’s getting out in a big way. This is just one guy doing his thing online.

I often hear people tout our Web site numbers in Extension. These are mostly spoken of in regard to pageviews. I had some numbers shared with me just last night at dinner. These were from two of our very largest Land-Grants. If you were ranking our top Land-Grant universities these two would be in the top five on everyone’s list.  The metric that most of us use to gauge the success of our websites is pageviews. Both of these universities had almost identical annual pageviews at a little over 5 million, but the bounce rates for both of these sites was at 80%. Which means only 20% of the people stayed on their pages long enough to actually read something. To get the number of pages actually read, you would need to reduce the number of visitors to each site by some 4 million people. So basically, they were getting somewhere around 1 million pageviews a year.  Any way you slice it, those are not numbers for which we should be proud. We truly are obscure!
So today I’m going to give you my recommendations for how we might become less obscure. None of these recommendations will cost you a dime to implement, and they don’t require that you spend millions of dollars and countless staff hours implementing solutions. Here are my recommendations for combating our obscurity:

  • Embrace radical transparency - immediately start working outloud (you can google this term). Have every single person in your organization work in the open. Get out from behind your firewalls and work in full public view.  Do everything in the open. The only thing that shouldn’t be public are those things required by law to protect our employee’s privacy. We need to be asking ourselves, “What is our real time presence?”  There are some pretty powerful tools to help us make this happen. (Slack is one.)  Six of the top 10 mobile apps now are for real-time messaging.
  • Reorganize around social networks, not geography. The way we are organized is old-school. There is science to help us do this better.  We need to conduct Social Network Analyses of the entire organization nationwide, and even internationally. Our networks don’t stop at the artificial boundaries of counties, states, and countries. Geography made sense as a means of organization when information was not digital. When information and knowledge moved slowly. Local still matters, but we need to think radically different about our reach and strategies for enabling scale. This happens through networks, and yet we don’t even have maps of the networks we will have to traverse in order to reach potential new audiences.
  • We must get serious about diversity, and not in the traditional “legal” sense. We need to think about diversity differently. Once we know our networks, we need to get about reshaping them. There’s this thing called cultural fit, but maybe a better descriptor is cultural bias. It's where organizations hire people who look and act and think just like themelves, even though we know that more diverse teams make for higher performing teams. We have these absurd expectations in our organization that values harmony. We must all get along. Big ideas, and new thinking rarely come from homogeneous teams. Breakthrough thinking comes from the edges of our networks. We need more edglings, and they aren’t going to look and think like us. Today our edges look very much like our core.  My personal quest is to experience as many diverse sub-cultures as possible. To do so, you have to be willing to get outside your comfort zone. As an organization we need to get outside our comfort zone, and we need to get about this with some urgency.
  • Go to where the people are gathered. We do not live in a Field of Dreams world. If we build-it they will not come. They are never coming! The people are gathered in online social networks. We live in a pull world, but our primary strategies are still centered around push. There is a famous quote published in the New York Times a few years back where they were asking young people participating in a focus group where they got their news. One of the participants responded, “If the news is that important, it will find me.”  They get their news from their social networks. It’s very much like 100 years ago when Seaman Knapp delivered the science of controlling boll weevils to Terrell, Texas through a trusted local agent. Today, those trusted local agents are in someone’s social network, and they more than likely don’t work for us.
  • Embrace openness. We’re on the wrong side of the intellectual property divide.  We need to get about open-licensing everything we do: open access, open source, open data, open science, open content.  We need to give away the farm. This is essential if our information is to flow through networks.  In order for it to flow it has to be legal for it to flow.
  • Finally we need to embrace with open arms the user generated content, the makers, and citizen science movements. In the future, actually right now, we need hundreds of thousands of trusted agents to reach the people. These trusted agents can be found in these movements. These are very much like the populists movements that had education as a focus at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries when Extension was birthed. These are the modern day equivalents of the Grange, and the Farmers Alliance. (And btw, there are some very interesting things happening in some Grange’s today… look up the Grange in Philomath, OR, it’s not your great grandfather’s Grange anymore.)

In closing, how is this all to happen? How do we get from where we are today to where we need to go. Most of what we face in our obscurity challenges are information and media issues. These are the leadership challenges that our organizations look to us, the communication and information technology leaders to provide guidance. If we are to participate in this technoutopian future, and actually experience the Land Grant’s  new Golden Age,  it’s going to be up to us.

Thank you again for this award, and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today. I would love nothing more than to continue the conversation with any of you here or online if you would like to talk more.


Kevin Gamble said...

Lots of editing done. I think it's getting closer. Thanks for bearing with the rawness of the original posting-- I wanted to get this out fast before the conversation turned cold.

Vince Verbeke said...

Engaging. Thanks for the post. Agree with the comment on the "video star". Extension needs to fully embrace this means of reaching out.

Just read this today as well. Speaks to that point.

Peg Boyles said...


I can't count the number of times (when I still worked for UNH Extension), when I suggested to county educators and state program leaders/administrators that they find ways to join the vibrant conversations going on in the many social-media networks emerging throughout the state--none of which included any Extension voices, but many of which centered on topics typically associated with extension outreach.

The response was always: "That would be a waste of time. We want people to come to us."

The unspoken implication: Cooperative Extension will continue operating on the one-way "expert"model. "We're the most trusted source of what they need, and that's what we rely on to secure funding"

As a writer who's poked around hundreds of extension websites, subsites, and information pages looking for quality information and experts to interview, I've found and continue to find errors, outdated facts, or writing that's too confusing to understand.

When I've tried to track down the author, Dr So-and-So, more often than not, I learn that he or she has either died or retired, or even that the entire program area & staff have been cut because of budgeting cuts. But they still leave the old information up, complete with author credit and contact information.

I could rant on, but one critical issue that cries out for thoughtful exploration and change: the intellectual property contracts that many land grants impose as a condition of employment.

The most onerous specify that any work done on extension time, or as part of extension work, belongs to the university unless it's performed under the terms of a grant. That thwarts open collaboration, if only because the phenomenon of collective intelligence makes it impossible to sort out who came up with what part of an innovation. It also flies in the face of extension's mission to foster the rapid spread of new or unfolding knowledge.

In my view, the land grants should carve out exceptions to their IP rules for extension workers, and exult in the cooperative initiatives this engenders.

Sharilee10 said...

This is EXCELLENT, Paul!! You almost give me reason to restore a little bit of the respect for 4-H Extension that was lost when they allowed old school (and lazy) habits to squash and shut down the very thing you are saying we need. I would love to see Extension move into the 21st Century and become what it could be. Only time will tell if the leaders they have now are willing to step up to CHANGE and let it happen.

Kevin Gamble said...

Thank you Vince, Peg, and Sharilee. Agree with everything you all said. Where I do think we're on the "potential" precipice-- I have little faith that Extension will make the necessary changes.

Concerning the IP rules under which we currently operate, you'd think we were nuts when we bring-up the use of more open licenses. This is how clueless our leaders are about the IP world (and our history). For the first 75+ years of Extension's existence every piece of content created was in the public domain. People could do _whatever_ they wanted with our content, and we were powerless to stop them. Were we better off before or after we adopted all-rights-reserved copyrights? The new open licenses are conservative in comparison to how we used to operate.

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