Spring 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 1 // Forum // 1FUT1

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The Extension Organization of the Future


Michael Quinn Patton,
Futures Editor
Minnesota Extension Service
St. Paul, MN

Extension is going through a period of transition. The symptoms are organizational soul-searching, strategic planning, reorganizations, retrenchments, and defining new priorities. On the surface, these symptoms of change and transition appear to be caused by the financial crisis of reduced resources. Beneath the surface, however, are more fundamental dynamics that reflect larger changes in our society. Although the financial crisis has accelerated these changes, the forces moving Extension from an organization of the past to an organization of the future are more fundamental than financial matters and reach well beyond Extension.

Organizational Trends

Each year scores of books appear advising managers and executives about how to run their organizations. It's interesting to note how that advice has shifted from the sixties and seventies to the eighties. By analyzing these trends, it's possible to identify the characteristics of the effective organization of the future as captured in the advice of those who think about demands on organizations in the changing information age.

These changes are particularly important to monitor and understand because most senior Extension administrators were trained under the principles developed for industrial organizations. Informationage organizations require a different organizational approach. The role of leadership has correspondingly changed.

To highlight the transition, it's helpful to begin with the characteristics of effective industrial-age organizations.

Characteristics of Effective Industrial-Age Organizations

Industrial-age organizations are organized in a rational and logical way to accomplish specific goals and objectives. Ideally, these goals and objectives are concrete, specific, and measurable. Managers and administrators monitor accomplishments of goals and objectives on a quarterly and annual basis and make adjustments as necessary. Thinking is linear. Inputs lead to outcomes in a direct relationship where causes and effects can be sorted out and controlled.

Given this image of the effective industrial-age organization, the structure of such organizations is also logical and linear. The organization is divided into carefully differentiated parts, each with a distinct function. In each part, specialists are trained in relatively narrow areas of competence and they have specific responsibilities to accomplish particular outcomes. They know what methods to use to accomplish these responsibilities and are highly competent to carry out their particular work.

Extension epitomizes this kind of organizationwith highly trained disciplinary specialists working in specific program areas to accomplish annual plans of work. Accountability focuses on individual performance in identifying problems within a determined area of responsibility and working locally to solve location-specific problems.

Characteristics of Information-Age Organizations

The information-age organization strives for excellence in attaining a strategic mission. That strategic mission is conceived in terms of long time frames, general qualities, and somewhat abstract impacts.

The structure of the information-age organization must be sufficiently flexible to move in new directions as conditions change. A strategic mission doesn't provide a blueprint so much as an overall sense of direction, and professionals are free to develop new approaches as they work creatively and proactively toward that direction.

Much of the work of the information-age organ ization is carried out by teams of people. Each comes with special knowledge, but also with an openness to and appreciation of other perspectives and competences. This team approach makes for a matrix organization in which different groups of professionals and technicians come together to work on a temporary basis on specific issues.

The team takes a systems perspective, where the parts of the problem are seen as interdependent and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This wholistic systems perspective takes into account complexities and changing dynamics quite different from simple input-output models. Problems and issues must be understood not only in terms of local concerns and solutions, but also in terms of a national and global framework, because local entities are interdependent with the rest of the world. In this regard, teams cut across disciplines, programs, and levels of responsibility from the county to the nation and beyond.

Accountability resides less in individuals than in teams. The organizational culture rewards team efforts in a climate where each member works with and respects others. Individuals depend highly on the competence and excellence of others.

The work of the organization is undergirded by a shared sense of values in which individuals come together to achieve common strategic purposes, purposes that have to do with the quality of life rather than simply quantities of outcome.

For Extension, the information organization means working across program areas, counties, and levels of responsibility in interdisciplinary teams taking a wholistic systems perspective on important issues of the day. These issues must be understood in a global context, with the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity without becoming overwhelmed.

Table 1 summarizes and compares the characteristics of both industrial-age and information-age organizations.


The transition from an industrial-age to an information-age organization is marked by contradictions and paradoxes. Extension isn't alone in struggling to resolve these contradictions and find solutions to these paradoxes.

The need for highly specific job descriptions to meet affirmative action criteria of fairness is in conflict with the need for positions that are flexible, adaptable, and responsive. The practice of concrete annual plans of work conflicts with the ability to take on a variety of tasks and make different contributions as a participant in a team charged with taking on complex issues.

The university system of individual accountability and performance evaluation is in conflict with the team and matrix organizations of the information age, where individual contributions vary by the nature of the problem and outcomes are the joint responsibility of those involved.

Table 1. Comparative characteristics of the industrial-age and information-age Extension organizations.

Industrial-age organization Information-age organization
1. Focus on measurable outcomes. 1. Focus on strategic issues.
2. Highly specialized knowledge base. 2. Interdisciplinary knowledge base
3. Individual accountability. 3. Team accountability.
4. Clearly differentiated and segmented organizational positions, roles, and responsibilities. 4. Matrix organizational arrangements-flexible positions, roles, and responsibilities.
5. Linear input-output thinking about programs. 5. Wholistic systems perspective on programming.
6. Reactive in solving problems as they emerge. 6. Proactive in anticipating issues before they become crises.
7. Local county perspective informs programming. 7. Global perspective informs local action.
8. Hierarchical, linear information flows. 8. Multiple interface information networking.
9. Attention to quantitative differences. 9. Attention to qualitative methods.
10. Staff training. 10. Staff development.
11. Achieving effectiveness through differences. 11. Achieving excellence undergirded by values.
12. Present-oriented, doing what is known now. 12. Future-oriented, operating on the cutting edge.

Paradoxically, Extension's strengths lie in the loyalty of specific and highly specialized constituencies, while the issues it needs to address cut across constituencies and counties.

It's also paradoxical that the strength of universities lies in the depth of knowledge of individual departments and disciplines, while the problems of the information age cut across those departments and disciplines. In so doing, they challenge the sufficiency of highly specialized knowledge when Extension is dealing with community and societal issues.

Organizational Culture

The transition from industrial-age to informationage organizations will involve creating a new organizational culture. Organizational culture is that collection of values, norms, rituals, shared beliefs, and metaphors that define what's important in the organization. The information-age organization has an integrative culture based on integrative thinking.

Integrative thinking that actively embraces change is more likely in companies whose cultures and structures are also integrative, encouraging the treatment of problems as "wholes, " considering the wider implications of actions. Such organizations reduce rancorous conflict and isolation between organizational units; create mechanisms for exchange of information and new ideas across organizational boundaries; ensure that multiple perspectives will be taken into account in decisions; and provide coherence and direction to the whole organization.1

The industrial-age organization is like the old model toy kits (model cars and airplanes), which come as a set of discrete parts with instructions on how to put those parts together one correct way. The information-age organization is like the new toy transformers-they come with linkages between a number of different parts that can be put together to look like one thing to carry out one purpose (an airplane), but with a few transformations of the parts can be reassembled to look like something else (a robot), with a new shape and a new purpose.

The challenge for Extension isn't only to create an information-age organizational culture, but also to communicate the appropriateness and necessity of such a new culture to traditional constituencies and funding sources that may be more comfortable with the old industrial-age way of doing things-even as they make demands on Extension for informationage relevance, effectiveness, and leadership.

Kanter's description of the "change masters " was written with information-age entrepreneurs in mind, but the spirit she describes is every bit as relevant to Extension as it is to effective corporate cultures of the future. Change masters exemplify a futures orientation by:

    ... the willingness to move beyond received wisdom, to combine ideas from unconnected sources, to embrace change as an opportunity to test limits. To see problems integratively, to see them as wholes, related to larger wholes, and thus challenging established practices-rather than walling off a piece of experience and preventing it from being touched or affected by any new experiences ....

[Change masters] always operate at the edge of their competence, focusing more of their resources and attention on what they do not yet know than on controlling what they already know. They measure themselves not only by the standards of the past (how far they have come) but by visions of the future (how far they have yet to go). And they do not allow the past to serve as a restraint on the future; the mere fact that something has not worked in the past does not mean that it cannot be made to work in the future. And the mere fact that something has worked in the past does not mean that it should remaind.2

Effective futures-oriented Extension staff are the ultimate change masters. To thrive, change masters need a supportive, adaptable information-age organizational culture.


1. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, The Change Masters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 28.

2. Ibid., pp. 27-28.