Fall 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 3 // Futures // 3FUT1

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Extension's Partnership with the Future

What motivates volunteers?

Michael Quinn Patton
Futures Editor
University of Minnesota - St. Paul

Extension's future role in partnerships may be substantially different from the present norm. The special focus of this Journal of Extension certainly demonstrates that Extension is now fully engaged in partnership efforts. The very idea of partnership is deeply entrenched as a fundamental Extension commitment. But Extension's future may lie increasingly in creating, facilitating, and mediating partnerships rather than in actually being a partner. This is a subtle, but crucial, distinction. To understand the importance of this distinction, it will be helpful to consider how the information revolution may affect Extension's partnership role in the future.

Obstacles to Partnership

The future will bring much greater individual access to information and knowledge of all kinds. Television will play an even greater role in disseminating information. The proportion of the population with postsecondary education will increase, making it possible for more people to make sense out of the information to which they have access.

Microcomputers will become commonplace, providing direct access to all kinds of knowledge. (It's worth recalling that in one generation, television has gone from being viewed as an interesting novelty, to being a luxury, then a convenience, and is now thought of as a necessity in the modern world. The next generation will see a similar pattern for microcomputers in the home.) This will mean that individual households, as well as organizations, will have access to up-to-date information on virtually any topic of interest.

Yet, this increased direct access to information can be a mixed blessing. It can contribute to greater isolation of people from each other as they no longer need to have face-to-face interaction to obtain information. This, in turn, may contribute to atomization within communities. Communities can't thrive under such conditions. Where people function separately from each other, or experience others primarily as competitors, they may not appreciate how much they need each other. They may believe that they can operate autonomously. This can occur at individual, household, organizational, or community levels.

Overcoming the difficulties in fostering genuine interagency cooperation for collective action is one of the greatest challenges of the modern age of public service organizations. Interagency partnerships, like interdisciplinary research and crossprogram Extension work, is something everyone believes in, but few are able to deliver in practice.

For the larger good of the community, new mechanisms will be needed to counter the trends toward individual isolation, community atomization, organizational autonomy, and interagency conflict. Here's where Extension will have an opportunity to create new partnerships using the very technology that fosters individual and organizational separation.


Imagine a day, not very far away, when every household, every organization, and every business in the community has its own microcomputer. All of these computers will be compatible and able to communicate with each other. This makes it possible for diverse individuals and groups to centrally share information about activities, problems, needs, and new ideas.

For such sharing to work, some entity must sit at the center of this network sorting out common interests, identifying shared problems, and facilitating collective problem solving and action. For such facilitation and coordination to work, that entity at the center of the action and information must be trusted by all concerned, must be highly skilled at facilitating collective action, and must be able to create working partnerships as needed. Extension can be, and increasingly will be, that partnershipcreating entity.

Ironically, the increased importance of creating and facilitating partnerships among others is likely to reduce Extension's ability to enter into those partnerships as full, participating partners. Marriage brokers around the world are most effective when they're perceived as operating in the interests of the bride and groom, or the parents of the bride and groom, but not on their own behalf. As a partnership broker, Extension will need to be perceived by potential partners as operating in the interests of those partners and not in the interests of Extension. This neutrality may reduce Extension's direct participation in partnerships and increase the importance of facilitating the partnership process among others.

I don't want to suggest that there's an either/or choice between partnership mediation and partnership participation. It may be more helpful to conceive of partnership possibilities along a continuum from total involvement and full participation at one end to total facilitation and neutral mediating at the other end.

Clearly, then, lots of room exists in the middle where Extension can be involved both as facilitator and participant. While I'd expect Extension to continue to be a fully participating partner in many community efforts, I also expect the roles of broker/ mediator/catalyst/facilitator to take on increased importance in the future. As this occurs, some role conflicts will emerge, which will involve choices between being facilitator or full participant-but not both.

The skills involved in creating and nurturing partnerships among others are different from those involved in participating as a partner. Full partnership participation requires leadership, commitment to common goals, a willingness to share resources, and the capacity to engage in a shared process. Extension has excelled in all of these areas.

By way of contrast, nurturing and facilitating partnerships among others may draw on different capabilities to meet different needs. Leadership for action is replaced by skills in mediation. Commitment to common goals is replaced by neutrality to establish trust among groups with different goals. A willingness to share resources becomes a skill at mobilizing the collective resources of others, using Extension resources to support the partnership process but not in direct action on partners' goals. The capacity to engage in a shared process becomes the capacity to facilitate a process among others without becoming personally and politically involved to the detriment of the mediator/catalytic role.

Technology of Partnership Creation

Fostering partnerships will have a technological foundation in the future. Collective problem solving, planning, and action will be facilitated by technology-based, decision-making hardware and software. Each Extension office will have hardware consisting of individual, hand-held, remote control devices (like a hand-held calculator) that can communicate with microcomputer. The display monitor for the microcomputer will be a portable large screen television. The microcomputer will be able to instantaneously process individual input from as many as 500 people, each using a separate remote input device to express opinions, priorities, and preferences. Each individual privately presses a number on his or her remote control device to express an opinion or input into the computer.

In a group session, it will be possible for the Extension agent to enter questions or proposals onto the screen and for participants to immediately enter their reactions, with the results displayed for all to see within seconds. It will be possible for large groups to provide ratings or rankings for a set of alternatives and for everyone to immediately see the results of those rankings and ratings analyzed by any number of individual and group characteristics. This will provide an instantaneous feedback and assist in consensus-building.

There will be some problem solving and mediation processes where only the Extension facilitator will monitor the screen. This will permit knowledgeable and trusted facilitation of differences towards a consensus-based partnership. Considerable skill and sensitivity will be needed to facilitate such a process aimed at generating collective action and establishing community partnerships. In the future, Extension staff will be skilled specialists in problem-solving and community decision-making technology.

It will also be possible to facilitate collective decision making without people coming together in a group. Using the office microcomputer, the Extension agent can simultaneously communicate with a large number of people in different locations (households or agencies) all hooked into a single network. As with the group process, people at remote locations can respond to standardized questions, react to ideas, rate proposals, and rank goals through a collective decision-making or problemsolving process facilitated and directed by the Extension agent.

Extension's Unique Position

Extension is in a unique position to sit at the center of a community information network and facilitate collective action through partnership creation. No government agency could be fully trusted to take on this role because government agencies inevitably become involved in support of whichever group is in power at a point in time. No business entity could be completely trusted to fulfill this function for the full range of groups in a community because businesses ultimately operate to support their own financial interests. Nonprofit organizations typically have their own particular agendas, which limit their ability to be perceived as fair or trustworthy with regard to the interests of others.

Extension, more than any other organization in modern and future society, sits at the center between the government sector, the public nonprofit sector, the private nonprofit sector, and the private business sector. With its university base and its roots in local communities, Extension is uniquely poised to play the role of partnership creator, mediator, broker, and facilitator.

To realize the full potential of this role, it will be critical that Extension maintain political neutrality and community trust. Extension walks a tightrope with regard to political neutrality when, in times of rapidly shrinking resources, Extension becomes more heavily involved in political lobbying and interest group politics. Community trust and effective partnership brokering will depend on the continued perception that Extension operates in the interests of the larger community and not primarily for its own interests or the benefits of any particular special interest group.

Extension's partnership with the future may be increasingly one of creating partnerships, nurturing partnerships, and acting as the primary information/ partnership broker in local communities. New communications and problem-solving technologies will be part of Extension's partnership-building methods. By being at the forefront in using technology in the service of partnerships, Extension will be leading the way in creating a world that's both high tech and high touch-using high technology to keep people in touch with each other for their mutual benefit.