April 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 2 // Commentary // 2COM1

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Cooperative Extension: Its People At Risk

Constancy of change and the accompanying unsettling effect on people is causing distress throughout the CES system as salaried and volunteer staff are "at risk" of not becoming all they can be. The purpose of this article is to encourage readers to ponder the situation and dialogue with concerned others to collectively find ways to reduce risk and increase the likelihood that CES can be sustained well into the coming century. The ideas contained in the article were developed by a group who used its own resources to explore concerns and seek a common vision through the leadership of Chuck Lofy.

Bonnie Braun, Ph.D., C.H.E.
Associate Dean for Outreach
College of Human Ecology
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota
Internet address: bbraun@che2.che.umn.edu

Since the mid 1980's, the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) has explored alternative futures and taken steps to reinvent, redesign, and re-engineer itself. The wake up call which moved CES toward "New Directions" came from a threatened federal budget. CES initiated efforts to become a more viable, relevant organization for the rest of the century and beyond (Extension Service-United States Department of Agriculture & Extension Committee on Policy to the Cooperative Extension Service, 1989). The need for this self-examination and re-creation is documented in the report of the Futures Task Force appointed by ECOP (Futures Task Force to the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, 1987).

The need for renewal continued into the early 1990s as evidenced by the late l992 nationwide "Listening Post" exercise and a panel discussion via satellite broadcast followed by the National Leadership Round Table held in 1993. Participants considered the challenges and concerns of the past and present, then prepared recommendations for the future (M. Geasler & R. Fowler, personal communication, August 23, 1993). With reorganization occurring at USDA and among many of the state land-grant universities, it is clear from the comments gleaned during these activities, that change is constant--and unsettling.

The constancy of change and the accompanying unsettling effect on people is causing distress throughout the system, as the impact of change is felt personally and professionally. Agent, specialist, and administrative faculty and volunteer staff are "at risk" of not becoming all they can be. They are "at risk" of not becoming the kind of staff identified by the ES-ECOP Strategic Planning Council (SPC) which cited the importance of employees to maintaining a dynamic organization. In the March 1991 publication, "Patterns of Change," the SPC called for the system to include: "...faculty and staff who are sensitive, creative, flexible, forward looking, risk taking, and professionally competent to serve a diverse clientele who relate to the issue identified; and who appreciate and recognize the valuable contributions of volunteers" (Strategic Planning Council, 1991, p. ii). "At risk" staff exhibit any or all of the following:

  • Experiencing front-line isolation.
  • Trying to respond to multiple constituencies.
  • Exhibiting co-dependent tendencies with difficulty in setting limits, saying no, maintaining boundaries and balance.
  • Resisting and/or sublimating responsibility.
  • Engaging in difficult and/or dysfunctional relationships with colleagues, teammates, supervisors, boards, and clients.
  • Coping with many changes at one time.

If CES is to become the kind of system continually valued by people for helping them solve the persistent problems of life, then it must turn inward and address its own health. In short, it must heal itself. CES must dissolve the fragmentation and reconstitute a whole--an entity fully capable of surviving changing economic, social, political, and technological conditions.

The attainment of such a state of well being was the driving force behind a group of people who gathered together over a two year period to discuss the challenge of change and possible responses. The group (Appendix A), using its own resources, met to explore common concerns and to seek a common vision. From our discussions emerged various hypotheses and beliefs which we offer via this article for further exploration and testing for validity.

The group members came together because of the work of Dr. Chuck Lofy, a consultant in organizational change, who began to work with various state Extension systems in the late 1980s. All were turning to him as they recognized the indicators of ill- health in their organizations. In some states, Dr. Lofy worked intensively to help the leaders locate causes of their troubles. In so doing, Dr. Lofy began to identify some commonalities and possible solutions. He also found people who sincerely wanted to make a difference--to lead--but who were at a loss for what to do. With his extensive experience in change, Dr. Lofy generously gave of his time and money to guide the group through our explorations.

During the course of our dialogue, we explored current research and literature about organizational change, transition, and transformation. We came to the conclusion that CES is undergoing all three simultaneously. We also began to understand that transformation is a necessary step for solving the complex nature of problems facing both the system and the people the system is commissioned to serve.

Within CES, a profound paradigm shift about the nature, purpose, functions, structures, clients, and funding of the system is occurring. Some individuals within the system are personally transforming. Indicators of this phenomenon can be found in the language contained in the documents cited in the opening paragraphs of this paper, as well as in the speeches and writings of leaders of the organization. Yet, collectively, there remains little understanding of the concept or process of transformation, much less an ability to incorporate into professional practice.

In fact, the gap between what was and what is, generated by transformation, leaves individuals, who are not themselves transforming, lost and bewildered. The impact is profound. The impact disempowers individuals to be all they can be. It prevents staff from becoming the kind identified in the "Patterns of Change" document.

By virtue of an implicit agreement, an organization has an obligation to its employees to help them through the changes that occur as a result of its own transformation. The reciprocity between individual and organization lies in the exchange of human time, energy, and talent for financial and other currency. Both give; both receive (Adams, 1986).

If CES is indeed going through transformation, it owes the employees and volunteers within mechanisms for dealing with the occurring shifts. CES has an obligation to help its people increase their consciousness--to transform themselves or exit with dignity. And to its credit, through ES (now CSREES) and ECOP, some actions are occurring.

In l993, a self-instructional guide was created by CES professionals and their university colleagues with assistance from people in private industry to help CES staff accommodate, facilitate, manage, and evaluate change. The manual and audio tape are entitled "Meeting Change in the 21st Century" and are available at cost from Cornell Cooperative Extension. Another attempt to help was the national "Human Resource Management Forum" held in March, 1994 by the Personnel and Organizational Development Committee of ECOP.

These efforts are heartening to those of us who met privately to explore common concerns about the future of the system we want to see remain viable and relevant--an organization in which we can continue to practice our educational and administrative arts. The timing seems right to share a portion of our thinking with the readers of the Journal. We sincerely believe that learning organizations, like CES can, and should be, self-empowered to collaboratively bring about change.

Effective collaboration is brought about using the "dialogue" approach recommended by Senge in "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization" (Senge, 1990). Dialogue can occur between individuals, small and large groups, and via the writer-reader relationship. Thus, we offer our proposition, produced via dialogue, that the people of CES are "at risk." We hope that readers will ponder the situation presented and dialogue with concerned others, and collectively find ways to reduce risk and increase the likelihood that CES can be sustained well into the coming century.


Extension Service-United States Department of Agriculture & Extension Committee on Policy to the Cooperative Extension Service. (l989). New directions for a new decade. Washington, DC: Author.

Futures Task Force to the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. (l987). Extension in transition: bridging the gap between vision and reality. Blacksburg: Virginia Cooperative Extension Service.

Strategic Planning Council. (l991). Patterns of change: A report of the Cooperative Extension System strategic planning council. Washington, DC: Extension Service & Extension Committee on Policy.

Adams, J. D. (Ed.) (l986). Transforming leadership from vision to results. Alexandria, VA: Miles River.

Senge, P. M. (l990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.

Appendix A

List of Group Members
(Note: Several members moved since we gathered)

Eddie Amend, Retiree, University of Wyoming
Bonnie Braun, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech
Michael Brazzel, ES-USDA
Marilyn Corbin, North Carolina Extension Service, North Carolina State University
Dan Godfrey, North Carolina A & T State University
Janet Usinger-Lesquereux, ES-USDA and University of Nevada
Chuck and Mary Lofy, Lofy Associates, Minnesota
Wayne Keffer, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech (deceased)
Elwood Miller, Nevada Cooperative Extension, University of Nevada
Steve Scheneman, Kansas Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University