June 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Perceptions of Extension's Desirable Future and the Role of IT

A demonstration project studying the perceived futures for the Washington State Extension system was conducted as a way to investigate the role of IT in the core activities of the organization. Six forward-thinking leaders from Washington State Extension were interviewed using a hybrid methodology known as "Ethnographic Futures Research." Findings revealed include the themes of communication and mission and the domains of opportunity, including personnel, organizational structure, community engagement, and funding. Also discovered were composite descriptions of perceived barriers to desirable future conditions and areas of influence that can be leveraged to make an optimistic future more probable for Extension.

Matthew Mitchell
Senior Associate
Spokane, Washington

Bill Gillis
Pullman, Washington

Center to Bridge the Digital Divide
Washington State University


As a network of state systems, Extension enjoys a long and celebrated history of promoting meaningful and beneficial development in the communities it serves (Peters, 2001). From its inception, Extension professionals have helped individuals and communities make good decisions that affect current and future conditions. However, the environment in which Extension operates has changed, and will continue to change (McDowell, 2004).

Recently, many of these changes are driven directly and indirectly by modern digital information technologies (IT) and the resultant information revolution (Garibaldo, 2002). To remain relevant and responsive to its stakeholders, Extension is challenged to react to, and act in anticipation of, the accelerating pace of change driven largely by the convergence of IT with the social and economic structures embedded in our communities (Bull, Cote, Warner, & McKinnie, 2004).

Like most organizations, Extension is dramatically affected by information technology, a profoundly powerful tool that can bring about often unforeseen and unintended results (Tenner, 1996). The future of Extension will be determined, in part, by the IT strategy implemented by the organization for both its internal processes and external services. To determine an appropriate IT strategy for Extension, a holistic approach is warranted that considers aspects beyond technology itself and examines the socio-cultural contexts of the organization.

This article describes a small-scale demonstration project studying the possible, probable, and preferred futures as perceived by a small "snowball" sample of "IT early adopters" including both local and state-level leaders in Washington State Extension. Participants were interviewed using a specialized method of inquiry known as "Ethnographic Futures Research" (EFR); each was asked to give emphasis on the role of IT in Extension's past, current, and future activities. EFR as a tool for Extension's work was originally suggested by Robert Domaingue (1989). Motivation for this study was to demonstrate the potential value of EFR as a tool to enhance and advance the processes and practices of Extension. Analysis of these reflections and projections are reported here in the forms of:

  1. An interpretation of project data as themes and domains,

  2. A description of desirable future conditions for Washington's Extension system,

  3. An assessment of perceived barriers to a desirable future, and

  4. An articulation of how the barriers can be mitigated and desirable future conditions can be made more probable.

The Extension EFR Demonstration Project

The purpose of the demonstration project was to assess how local and state Extension administrators in Washington State envision the future use of IT in the educational, research, outreach, and management activities of Extension. Because the project's scope is limited to a demonstration of the potential value of EFR as method for visioning and planning rather than a full scale EFR study, the sample size was limited. Six persons from Washington State Extension were included in the pilot study. A full-scale EFR study would require a substantially larger sample.

Among this initial sample were persons from Washington State Extension's senior leadership, state specialists, and local faculty leaders. Each one-on-one interview averaged 2½ hours and produced a summary that was reviewed with the respective interviewee. The results and analysis have been condensed into composite descriptions of desirable future conditions organized into common themes, domains, barriers, and mechanisms of change. Should the leaders of Washington State Extension determine a more comprehensive EFR project is needed, the study can easily be expanded to include a much larger pool of interviewees. Ideally, all of Washington State Extension's administrative team and county office directors would be included in the sample.

How Can the Future Be Studied?

Because the future does not exist, it cannot be studied directly. It is possible, however, to investigate current perceptions of the future as articulated by a defined set of forward-looking thinkers from within the socio-cultural system being studied. One such method capable of studying perceptions of the future set within a holistic socio-cultural frame is Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR).

Ethnographic Futures Research is designed to elicit and analyze scenarios of possible, preferred, and probable futures relevant to a specific socio-cultural system (Textor, 1990). This method solicits an "insider's perspective" of contextual current and future conditions relevant to targeted topics such as issues, phenomena, structures, policies, trends, and mechanisms of change.

For purposes of this demonstration project, the EFR process (depicted in Figure 1) elicited from key Washington State Extension leaders detailed descriptions of three scenarios in the year 2020. The scenarios focused on an optimistic future, a pessimistic future, and a most probable future.

Figure 1.
EFR Process

Ethnographic Futures Research Process shows scenarios focused on an optimistic future, a pessimistic future, and a most probable future.

In developing their future scenarios, participating Washington State Extension leaders were first asked to look back 15 years and then articulate within their future scenarios the driving forces, mechanisms of change, and trends that shaped the present. For example, in 1990, the World Wide Web had just been invented. Extension budgets have generally tightened over the past 15 years. Articulating factors such as these help to frame perceptions of what is most likely in the future.

After reflecting on the past and articulating some of the factors that have led to the present, the Extension leaders were asked to imagine that there are 100 possible future scenarios arranged along a continuum where the most desired possible scenario is at position 100 and the most feared possible future is at position 1. To frame their thinking about the future within the range of realistic possibility, the interviewees were asked to consider the optimistic scenario on this continuum at position 85 and the pessimistic scenario at position 15.

Keeping within the EFR framework, each interviewee was asked to describe the future scenario they feel is most probable, drawing comparisons with and making contrasts between the most probable scenario and those described as optimistic and pessimistic. Finally, the interviewees were asked to explain what could be done between now and the horizon date (2020) to make the optimistic scenario more probable.

The basic premise of the EFR method is straightforward: experience has amply demonstrated that without adequate and appropriate visualization of possible and desirable futures, the future that eventually becomes the present is not likely to be seen by the affected population as one they truly desire.


The six interviews conducted in the project produced over 15 hours of data. Each person interviewed was provided an opportunity to validate, correct, revise, and amend their descriptions of the past, present, and future of Extension. Analysis of the interview summaries was performed with a computer-aided tool designed for qualitative data. An interpretation of the data (illustrated in Figure 2) was made from an aggregation of the six summaries and organized into two central themes (i.e., communication and mission), four common domains (i.e., personnel, organizational structure, community engagement, and funding), a list of perceived barriers to the desired future, and a description of key activities that can be leveraged to influence the future.

Figure 2.
Interpretation of Data

An interpretation from 6 interviews which yielded over 15 hours of interviews.

Common Themes of Communication and Mission

Each Extension professional interviewed shared in common a perception that both "communication" and "mission" are central components of the past, present, and future of Extension. The rationale and motivation driving both the communication practices and pursuit of mission by Extension were revealed as key determinants of how the future of Extension will emerge.

Typically, the optimistic scenario was described in terms of a consistent practice of clear and open communication within Extension's organizational structure where ideas, information, and knowledge flow up, down, and side-to-side, and flow freely back and forth between Extension, the communities it serves, and external partner organizations, including Extension systems outside of Washington State. Open and free flowing communication at all levels was recognized as a core element of successful Extension programming in the past and in the future. IT was described by all interviewees as a key enabler for facilitating communication.

Mission was described by the Extension leaders as the goal and rationale driving the work and influencing the approach of Extension. All of the interviewees were strongly concerned about Extension's mission as an important element of the desirable future. In the optimistic scenario, Extension will remain focused on its traditional commitment to the public good. Most interviewees noted that service to private interests as a way to attract extramural funding can be consistent with the Extension mission within reason. However, on this point the interviewees stressed the importance of keeping the service to public interests well ahead of service to private interests. IT was directly and indirectly mentioned by the interviewees as an essential tool for both refining and achieving Extension's mission.

Domains of Opportunity

The themes of "communication" and "mission" run through nearly all aspects of Extension. In the pilot project, interviewees commonly described four aspects that are relevant to the future of Extension and presented below as domains of opportunity.


Extension leaders interviewed as part of the pilot project articulated several aspects of personnel hiring and support important to the future of Extension:

  • Strategic Hiring--Decisions to attain needed human resources by carefully choosing employees based on a blend of skills, experience, and motivation.

  • Educational Generalists--Educators who possess expertise in a knowledge area balance serving as content specialists with the facilitation of educational activities in areas beyond their specialization.

  • Continuous Development--Provision of opportunities for skills training and knowledge exchange for Extension personnel.

In general, the interviewees described the importance of hiring persons who are talented educators and are committed to deepening their own skills and knowledge to the benefit Extension and its stakeholders. In the Optimistic scenario, interviewees identified four policy opportunities important to achieving their desired future including:

  1. Enable better accountability of tenured faculty.

  2. Emphasize more hiring from outside Extension.

  3. Facilitate Extension's leadership in modeling proactive and innovative behaviors.

  4. Reward personnel who demonstrate commitment to the public good, active collaboration, and innovation.

Organizational Structure

Extension's organizational structure within the land-grant system was also identified as a key element that will affect Washington State Extension's success in achieving its desired future. Specific topics raised by interviewees relevant to organizational structure include:

  • University Engagement--The endorsement of, and support from, WSU's administration to the mission and practices of Extension directly affect the level of interaction between the University and Extension.

  • Organizational Policy and Rules--The way in which Extension personnel conduct both internal and external work processes is largely defined by Extension's governance systems articulated in policies and rules.

  • Hierarchical Relationship--Channels through which information and knowledge are communicated among and between Extension's hierarchical organization of personnel (i.e., status, rank, and areas of responsibility).

  • External Partnerships--Extension collaborates with a broad network of external partners in order to leverage resources (information, human, and monetary) to accomplish project and mission objectives.

Interviewees described how Extension's organizational structure is critical in the formation of Extension's organizational culture. In the Optimistic scenario, interviewees articulated several specific changes needed in Extension's culture in order to achieve the desired future conditions:

  1. Increase integration of Extension throughout the University system.

  2. Ensure Extension's work processes remain responsive to stakeholders and maximize the beneficial use of IT where appropriate.

  3. Increase multi-way interchange across hierarchical structures.

  4. Broaden the scope of partnerships with other state Extension systems and non-Extension organizations.

Community Engagement

Washington State Extension "engages people, organizations and communities to advance knowledge, economic well-being and quality of life by fostering inquiry, learning, and the application of research." To accomplish this mission, Extension seeks to deliver needed educational programming and information dissemination as well as to respond to local needs. Specific topics raised by interviewees relevant to community engagement include:

  • Education--Formal and informal training and development opportunities provided at the local level by Extension personnel.

  • Information Distribution--Provision of high quality, research-based information relevant to important concerns of constituent populations.

  • Responding to Local Needs--In-depth understanding of, and formulation of appropriate responses to, the contextualized needs of communities served by Extension.

Interviewees described a strong tie between Extension's continued relevance and active engagement of stakeholder communities. In the Optimistic scenario, interviewees call for important changes in how Extension engages communities:

  1. Become more proactive in assessing the educational and information needs of specific communities.

  2. Broaden the channels of engagement beyond the physical "store-front" to take more advantage of available technologies.

  3. Expand networks of information gathering to include other Extension systems beyond Washington State as well as other non-Extension organizations (e.g., community colleges, non-profit organizations, industry, and government).

  4. Where appropriate, actively include community stakeholders in gathering information and knowledge for action research purposes.


Extension's funding base is diverse. Monetary support of Extension flows through local, state, and federal budgets as well as through extramural sources such as grants, contracts, and fees. Specific topics raised by interviewees relevant to funding include:

  • Annual Appropriations--Some of Extension's budget resources are provided through allocations by federal, state, and local government budgets.

  • Grants & Contracts--A growing portion of Extension's funding sources comes through the extramural channels of competitive grant programs and contract bidding opportunities.

  • Fee-for-Service--The charging of fees for the delivery of certain services based on whether the benefit is meeting private or public interests.

Interviewees described a strong connection between Extension's ability to attract needed funding and Extension's ability to be relevant and provide beneficial impact at the local level. In the Optimistic scenario, interviewees envision need for several changes in how Extension attracts needed funding:

  1. Improve the communication of Extension's beneficial impact at all levels (local, state, regional, national, and international).

  2. Purposively pursue grant and contract opportunities that are consistent with Extension's mission (i.e., avoid the unprincipled practice of significantly tailoring projects and programs to specific funding opportunities).

  3. Carefully determine which services can and should be provided on a fee-for-service basis.

  4. Establish and maintain an appropriate balance between serving private and public interests.

Perceived Barriers

In achieving a desirable future for the Extension organization, interviewees described in their most probable and pessimistic scenarios several barriers that must be resolved:

Resistance to Collaboration--At state and local levels, there is a notable level of resistance to share ideas, exchange information, and experiment with others in the provision of services, collection of data, and engagement with community members.

Attachment to Past--As Extension responds to the new realities of the present and future, the preference to return to the objectives and practices of previous eras will hinder Extension's ability to evolve and remain relevant.

Inability to Proactively Change--For any entity, change is difficult and often threatening. Change is often made as a delayed reaction to new condition, which can result in a pressured environment with limited options.

Failure to Serve the Public Good--As Extension experiments with a move toward entrepreneurialism, there is a threat that the organization will realign its activities to serve private interests and neglect services that benefit the public good.

Lack of University Support for Outreach--While Extension at Washington State University has adopted a university-wide strategy, there are fears that the university's leadership will narrow its focus to advance only research and teaching activities and withdraw its support for an outreach mission.

Loss of Local Trust & Support--If Extension fails to serve local level stakeholders or is seen to be favoring private interests over the public good, local support for, and trust in, Extension will erode resulting in the compounding problems of diminished local level resources, loss of relevance and impact, and failure to accomplish mission.

Lack of Funding--A lack of funding could drive Extension more towards a model where private interests are pursued over public interests.

Sphere of Influence

Within each elicited vision of a desirable future for Washington State Extension, interviewees described several areas over which considerable control can be exerted to bring about desired change:

Information Technology--By itself, IT is merely a tool; however, when guided by a firm understanding of the organization's values and goals, IT can be applied in such a way to bring about desired change.

Innovation--As Extension grapples with strategies to adapt to the changing environments, Extension personnel at all levels of the organization can help build creative and proactive approaches to ensure the organization remains a responsive and relevant to all stakeholders.

Commitment to Public Good--To be consistent with its mission, Extension's leadership can assess its activities and processes by the simple criterion of whether it is serving the public good for the greatest number of people over the greatest length of time.

Engagement with Stakeholders--To be responsive to stakeholder needs and to deliver relevant services, Extension can regularly engage stakeholders using an appropriate blend of high-tech (IT enabled) and high-touch (face-to-face) techniques.

Engagement among Personnel--Communication processes can be adopted that actively engage all Extension personnel in important activities such as the affirmation of University support for outreach, the development of inclusive organizational strategies, the assembly of information and knowledge, and the provision of needed services to the local level.

Multi-State & International Collaboration--At the state level, Extension needs to overcome issues of branding and ownership in order to harness the potential of multi-state and international collaboration in research, education, and outreach.

Desired Future for Extension and the Role of Information Technology

The interview data documents a perception that the needs of those served by Extension, the skills of the organization's personnel, the institutional environment in which it is situated, and the availability of funding have changed significantly over the past and will continue to do so in the future. As Extension moves through the next 15 years, it is clear that the organization will have to change in many ways. A question articulated by the interviewees is whether Extension will handle change well.

A consistent message communicated by each interview participant is that Washington State Extension needs to become more proactive and inclusive in its management of change. This broader holistic perspective on the challenges and opportunities in the pursuit of Extension's desired future sets the stage for considering the role of information technology in providing relevant programming to stakeholders and our own effectiveness as an organization.

Information technologies can (and should) play a vital role in achieving the desired Extension future in Washington State and other states. IT has indelibly influenced the services provided by Extension and the work processes that support its operations. Careful consideration should be applied to the future uses of IT in supporting desired communication practices. As depicted in Figure 3, the role of IT in

Extension's future needs to be applied to both the content (solid wrapping line) and delivery (dashed line) of its internal and external communication practices and its execution of mission.

Figure 3.
IT's Influence on Mission and Communication

Represents how the content and delivery are wrapped around the mission and communications practices.

In the future, IT will affect how personnel connect with each other as well as with its external stakeholders and partners. Extension personnel will likely find themselves helping other learn how to collect, interpret, and disseminate information using IT. Examples of IT already in use by Extension's early adopters include IP-telephony, email, instant messaging, blogs, Web pages, interactive video, teleconferencing, application sharing, and mobile data communications. Regarding the content of Extension's future communications, Extension needs to expand the type of educational programming and information collection/dissemination processes for both its personnel and grassroots community members to be closer to the cutting edge of the IT revolution.

IT will affect the way in which Extension performs its service to the public by leveraging integrated IT systems to deliver customized and contextualized services. As the needs of communities respond to the growing integration of IT into community life, Extension's mission should correspondingly broaden to meet these changing needs by developing new and more interactive methods to engage its stakeholders.

As described by one interviewee, Extension is like a cake, and IT is like the baking powder. Without the baking powder (IT), the cake (Extension) will never rise. Despite the dramatic impacts IT can make on Extension's future, it is important to keep in mind that IT alone will not enable desirable conditions. Extension is an organization of people for people, and the future depends on how well the people of Extension manage the accelerating pace of change. The six people interviewed in this demonstration project believe Extension can and will be successful in mitigating the challenges that stand between the present and future. However, considerable proactive change produced through broadly inclusive processes is imperative.



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