Yesterday I participated in a national study of innovation in extension, and I have to say that I ended the day feeling less confident that I understand innovation, its role, and what supports it than I did before. Uh-oh.
It started with the first question I was asked: “How do you define innovation in extension?” I know. That sounds like an easy question until they follow it by asking you to give three examples. Where do you start?
I don’t know how your thought process goes, but how do you talk about innovation in extension in the first place? Do you mean an innovative program? Do you mean an innovation that we helped diffuse to the larger population? Do you mean an innovation in how extension is structured and delivered?
In some ways, answering this question is like being in a house of mirrors. Extension was essentially created as a targeted innovation diffusion structure. The role of extension was to provide the trusted adviser and create the social process through which innovations could spread. I think sometimes people misunderstand the role of extension and think we are just information dissemination, and if that’s the case, then there is good reason to worry with the Internet and other means for accessing information 24/7. People who think this way often believe that important innovations will spread quickly, now that we’ve got the Internet. Some do, such as innovations related to communication technologies and YouTube videos.
However, according to Atul Gawande there is a long list of vital innovations that don’t catch on just by sharing the information. The puzzle is, why? Gawande studied whether innovation diffusion was negatively impacted by economics, technical complexity, and other factors. What Gawande learned is that there is a pattern with stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious and requires effort that may not yield its full impact until much later. In other words, they are “wicked problems” that have complex solutions and require changing social norms. Gawande notes that truly changing norms requires nearly one-on-one, on-site mentoring — which doesn’t sound like much of a solution. Gawande states, “It would require broad mobilization, substantial expense, and perhaps even the development of a new profession.” (Hmmm. Sounds like extension work.)
Gawande, who works in the medical field, continues: “Think about the creation of anesthesiology — it meant doubling the number of doctors in every operation, and we went ahead and did so. To reduce illiteracy, countries, starting with our own, built schools, trained professional teachers, and made education free and compulsory for all children. To improve farming, governments have sent hundreds of thousands of agriculture extension agents to visit farmers across America and every corner of the world and teach them up-to-date methods for increasing their crop yields. Such programs have been extraordinarily effective. They have cut the global illiteracy rate from one in three adults in 1970 to one in six today, and helped give us a Green Revolution that saved more than a billion people from starvation.”
Gawande then goes on to quote one of Iowa State’s own, Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas spread. Rogers wrote, “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.” Media can introduce an idea, but people look to other people they know and trust when they decide whether they will pursue that new idea. Extension — innovation and relationships. See you there.
P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Gawande’s article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/slow-ideas.