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Whatever the future holds

December 11th, 2014

Last week I blogged about listening with purpose and how in 2014 we heard from our partners as well as young Iowans, ages 18 to 35. Well, we also listened to really young Iowans, elementary school age. We asked them what they thought the future would be like, and oh boy, they told us. Imagine flying cars and jet packs and travelling through time to give dinosaurs a second chance. On a more serious level they talked about becoming scientists, taking care of the environment, and embracing differences.

Now some of the things they predict may sound far-fetched to you (fish ham?), but I’m old enough to recall when a hand-held portable “communicator” was Star Trek science fiction and now most of us carry smart phones around, or when the idea of GPS-driven farm equipment would have been unthinkable, just to name a couple.

The point is — some things change and change rapidly and will keep changing as we watch the future unfold.  We need to accept that, prepare for it, and yes, even figure out how to embrace it.  And some things — like a simple desire that we all be kind to each other — never change.  We’ll hang on to some of those no matter what comes our way.

So, here’s to the future. May Iowa’s children continue to inspire us with their dreams and wisdom, may we stay open to the possibilities, and may the squirrels never organize and attack.  Iowa State University will be ready to serve as a lifelong partner — whatever the future holds. See you there.

–  Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Communication, Partnerships , , ,

Listening with Purpose

December 4th, 2014

One of my favorite family events is coming soon. To kick off our holidays, members of my family gather and light candles, bake a Buche de Noel, and then proceed to eat and talk until most of the candles go out. Stories are told, and retold, often embellished. Sometimes myths are corrected or new stories emerge. My favorite part of the event is watching everyone’s faces in the candlelight and listening — really listening to our family lore from the silly to the sublime and hearing it told from different perspectives. It’s been fun to hear about the escapades of my elderly uncles as young rapscallions, to hear younger members tell a new story, or remember with fondness tales of those we’ve lost. I always gain strength from listening and it broadens my understanding of my family.

Sometimes we just need to get someone else’s point of view, to gather different perceptions, to see issues from other angles. To limit the future to only what we know shrinks our capacity. It’s easy to fall into patterns of preserving our view over all else — but this is how important listening is — it is the beginning of learning.

That’s why in 2014 we called upon potential constituents and long-time partners to listen to their perspectives firsthand about how to best serve the needs of Iowans. We heard from Iowa Millennials and Gen X’ers during our Young Iowans Speak forum. It was the first in a series of “Extension Reconsidered” forums held throughout the nation to mark the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act. The young Iowans, ages 18 to 35, were from both urban and rural places. Some had prior experience with us, while others knew nothing about our work. We asked the young Iowans to share their views and visions of the future and Iowa State’s role in that future.

From May through November, West Pottawattamie, Kossuth, Warren, Dubuque and Linn county extension councils hosted town meetings. Participants in these sessions included rural economic development groups; community college presidents; Councils of Governments; representatives from K-12 schools, public health, and local nonprofit organizations; and other community leaders. We asked our partners about why they engage with ISU Extension and Outreach, how we can improve our relationship, and ways we can further collaborate.

Then we listened. Intentionally. Respectfully. With purpose.  Because here’s the thing: listening makes us stronger and it broadens our understanding of our work.  See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. Watch the video, get the story, and print the report to learn more about Young Iowans Speak and Partner Perspectives. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Law of Least Effort

November 20th, 2014

This week, I was considering some of our programs and I found myself wondering: When we need to get new information, how do we find it? A whole bunch of ideas came to me (after all, I do work in education). However, I decided to spend a day noting how I, as well as the people around me, sought and obtained new information. Here’s what I discovered. Most of the time, we ask whoever is handy. I’m serious. Take my daughter for example, who is in physics this semester. She asked me for clarification on a problem she was working on with her homework. Was it my reputation for being a physics wiz that compelled her to seek my help? Nope. I happened to be in the kitchen at the moment she had a question.

According to Daniel Kahneman, and a slew of other brain scientists, a general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

This law or principle is a broad theory that covers fields from biology to Web page design. We are like water; we choose the path of least resistance. Research has shown that information-seeking clients will tend to use the most convenient search method, in the least exacting mode available. Information seeking stops as soon as MINIMALLY ACCEPTABLE results are found, in most cases. In other words, seekers will use tools that are most familiar and easiest to use to find results, even if the results only meet the minimum of what they need. Or like my daughter demonstrated, humans are more likely to ask the person sitting next to them – who may know very little – than to consult a specialist a block away as long as the person sitting next to them gives an answer within a basic threshold of acceptability. Hmmm. This has implications for our work.

Much of this research has been used in library science to redesign search tools, but it’s also shaped Web design and educational methodology. That got me wondering if in Extension and Outreach we have kept up with how information seekers want to access information. How have we adapted to make it easy, convenient, and handy to get information from us? Fifty years ago, “convenient and handy” was a physical location; how about today? Clearly, we believe we provide both information and an experience for our citizens, but if we don’t modify systems to address how humans seek information, will they seek us out for the experience? Essentially, how do we ensure we’re “handy” when our citizens are seeking information? See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Communication ,

The Real Golden Age

July 10th, 2014

If you’ve been around Extension and Outreach for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard someone refer to the past as if it were the “Golden Age of Extension.”   I know ever since I was a 4-H Educator in Benton and Tama counties, I’ve had this impression that once upon a time extension was characterized by peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During that time, we assume working in extension was easy and wonderful, with plenty of resources, and the unflagging appreciation of the public. But when was that, exactly? Was it a hundred years ago as extension began? When early extension pioneers made their rounds by horse and buggy with little value placed on a university which few citizens understood? Given the struggles those educators had just communicating, not to mention encouraging adoption of research-based techniques – I wonder. Maybe it was in the 1930s — the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? Maybe not. How about the 1940s and 1950s — after all, isn’t that when Norman Rockwell painted that iconic painting of the County Agent? Oh, wait — with the recovery following World War II? Hmmmm.

I do believe there is a golden age of Extension — it is before us, right now. At no other time have we had the resources and technology at our disposal, the ease of communication and networking, or the recognition of the importance of access to the educational resources of our university.

Think about it: Our faculty and staff are about 1,000 strong, working with families and youth, farmers and agribusiness professionals, and businesses and communities all across the state. Each year nearly 1 million people directly benefit from our educational programs. We’re communicating with each other, our partners, and our clients face-to-face, as well as using computers, iPads, and smart phones. We can videoconference, teleconference, or still meet for coffee at the Ivy Bake Shoppe. Last year Iowans connected virtually with us through more than 1.5 million website visits and downloads of educational materials and courses. Can you imagine how our early educators would marvel at our technology and envy the resources we have in our program portfolio?

We must continue to build on this work, to widen the circle of our reach throughout the state, to live up to the legacy and the dreams of those extension educators who preceded us. Every dollar that Iowans invest in Extension and Outreach pays back dividends — when entrepreneurs start businesses, families make healthy choices, youth become leaders for the future, and communities become better places to live. We are lucky enough to be stewards of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach when a golden age is upon us. See you there.

– Cathann

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It’s Kind of a Big Deal

January 16th, 2014

2013annual-SYTWe recently published our 2013 annual report online. It’s amazing how much time it takes to shoot a 4-minute video. When you combine various locations (Hilton Coliseum, Jack Trice Stadium, and central campus), students walking into the shots, and yes, some flubbed lines by yours truly, it takes a while to get the end product “just right.”

So why do we do it? Because Extension and Outreach puts Iowa State University’s research and resources to work throughout the state of Iowa. That’s kind of a big deal. And it’s well worth talking about. Our stakeholders – clients, citizens, partners, funders, and public policy leaders – hold us accountable. They want to know that their investments in ISU Extension and Outreach are making a difference in Iowa. We have to tell our story in a way that they will remember and share with others. This is critical to our ability to survive and thrive. That’s why our 2013 annual report is part of the “Our Story” website and includes a video message, financial charts, and – new this year – infographics to show our impacts.

We’re serious about serving our fellow Iowans. So not only do we operate as a 99 county campus, we have to show and tell our clients what we’re doing to make a difference. Because what Extension and Outreach helps people do for themselves, achieves the greatest results. See you there.

– Cathann

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Full Brains on Continuous Beta

July 11th, 2013

One of my favorite Gary Larson Far Side cartoons features a classroom full of adult students. A student with a rather small head raises his hand and asks the teacher, “May I be excused? My brain is full.”  (Just Google “gary larson brain is full images” to see the cartoon.)

Perhaps you felt like that student after reviewing the learning objects, meeting with your team, and participating in the synchronous part of our annual conference. I’m guessing Extension IT had a headache from the technical difficulties we encountered with Ann Adrian’s keynote. (Her recorded presentation, script, and slides can now be found on the conference website.)

In her keynote, Ann asks us if we are ready to perform, produce, learn, connect, communicate, and make a difference in a “continuous beta environment.” The term comes from software development. Beta software is usable, but not completely tested and finalized. All the bugs or kinks haven’t been figured out yet. The advantage of operating in continuous beta is that you can change quickly, allowing for continued development.

Ann acknowledges that continuous beta isn’t appropriate for mission critical systems. However, it may make sense for some of our work in Extension and Outreach. We’re trying to make a difference while working in a complex environment — with information coming at us quickly and profusely from almost limitless sources. A system that operates in continuous beta is agile and better able to listen and assess needs in new ways, delve into multifaceted problems, and try solutions to discover what works.

As our very full brains absorb all the information presented during annual conference, how will we use what we’ve learned? When we think in terms of continuous beta, improving our ability to anticipate and adapt to change isn’t as overwhelming. We can try new applications of technology to improve communication and programming, and to enhance how we address our signature issues. We can learn together to improve ourselves, our teams, and our organization. See you there.

– Cathann

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Communication Breakdowns

June 20th, 2013

As I’ve said before, my children are now past the children stage and really in the older teen or youngish adult stage. Periodically, we actually speak in person to each other, which usually consists of me asking questions and them grunting responses or staring blankly at me. However, most of our communications these days are by text. My children can text at the rate of about six words per second and, well, I can’t. As a result, sometimes our text conversations are a bit one-sided, like this:

Daughter: Can I go to Trina’s house?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: You there?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Yes, you’re there, or yes, I can go to Trina’s house?

Daughter: Mom?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Ok. Byeeeeeee.

After one conversation when I unwittingly gave permission for my daughter to dye her hair purple, I immediately called her phone number to clarify. No answer. Seriously? She just texted and now was far enough from her phone that she couldn’t hear it ringing? When I finally tracked her down, her response was, “Oh, I thought we were done communicating.”

This makes me ponder how, with all our technology, real communication can be tricky at times — especially if you’re in a situation where you need to address difficult topics or discuss hard-to-grasp ideas. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I guess he knew my daughter.

For this year’s virtual annual conference, a whole track of learning objects about communications was compiled, ranging from creating social media communities to understanding organizational communication and keeping communication open and organized. If you didn’t get a chance to view these learning objects, the conference site is still open and available as an ongoing resource. As for the purple hair, I’ll save that story for a future blog on choosing your battles. See you there.

– Cathann

Communication

Best Kept Secrets

February 8th, 2013

For years, some of our colleagues here in Iowa and many more throughout the nation have remarked that extension is a “best kept secret.” Just last week, Representative Bruce Bearinger referred to us that way when tweeting about our hotlines.  Type “extension best kept secret” into Google and most of the top 10 results refer to extension work. (The others deal primarily with hair extensions, where I imagine a secret is a good thing.) But being a secret is nothing to be proud of for us. I’ve heard the reasons why for years – we tend to be busy and don’t like to promote ourselves.  Most extension professionals don’t like the spotlight.  It’s hard to fully understand all the variety of work we do.

To reverse this situation, we need a game plan. We need equipment, drills, plays, and strategies. (Sort of sounds like football, but then again, the Super Bowl was just last Sunday.) We need a playbook and our Organizational Advancement team is preparing one right now. You’ll receive your copy in time for Extension and Outreach Week, March 24-30.

The Advancement Playbook is a guide for our organizational marketing efforts. It contains plans to promote and advance Extension and Outreach and advocate to external partners about our educational mission and program impact. The Playbook will make it easier for all players in our system — statewide, on campus, and within counties and regions — to function as one team with one game message: We are a community-based education unit providing the state with educational goods and services that benefit many.

And therein lies the trick, which a playbook is designed to help address – to sort through the clutter, learn fast, and communicate faster. See you there.

– Cathann

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Many Parts, One System

November 1st, 2012

My daughter recently asked me – what was the largest living organism?  She thought it might be the blue whale, but that title is claimed by a quaking aspen estimated to be possibly a million years old. Covering 106 acres just south of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, the aspen named Pando looks like 47,000 different trees. However, he really is one tree with one common root and a whopping 47,000 connected parts. Pando is a system.

Aspens don’t just grow up; they also grow horizontally underground. An aspen root may travel 100 feet underground before sprouting up, and each new stem can send out its own army of underground roots to form still more new shoots. Pando’s connected network of roots carries water and nutrients throughout the system, wherever they are needed. That’s why a quaking aspen system can survive in marginal environments where other trees would die.  In adverse situations, rather than shut down, the quaking aspen sends out new roots.  For example, if a fire wipes out many stems in a stand, the root system sends out a huge increase in new, rapidly growing stems.

If we pay attention to Pando, we can learn a few things about sustainability.

  1. We can overcome marginal environments by taking advantage of our system.
  2. We must communicate effectively. We have a variety of resources we can tap into, but we have to share information and data.
  3. We have to know how to effectively deploy our resources.
  4. If 47,000 trees can act as one system, then every person and every office connected to ISU Extension and Outreach can be part of our larger system as well.

The roots of Extension and Outreach are in youth development and agriculture. However, we extend Iowa State University to all the citizens of Iowa — not just to farmers, but also to community leaders, business owners, manufacturers, teachers, parents, families, and youth. We take Iowa State to main street as well as family farms, to schools and community centers, to industry and entrepreneurs, online and in person. Because of our partnership and commitment throughout all of Iowa’s counties, the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach system will leave our state better than we found it. See you there.

– Cathann

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Birds of a Feather, Flock Together

August 31st, 2012

Early in my extension career, I took an inventory to determine my personality style. The facilitator then posted our styles up on an overhead (yes, that’s what we used) so we could all learn to work together as a team. What struck me was how everyone in the group clustered together … except for one outlier. The facilitator described the main group — the “people” people, and as she did so, I recognized who the outlier might be. I was the lone “idea” person. That made sense to me as I contemplated our work. Extension is full of interactions with people, and relationships are a key to our success. You want to have “people” people for this kind of work.  It also means we have a lot of nice people who work in extension, people who are agreeable and concerned about others. It’s unlikely you choose a line of work like extension if you aren’t a nice person.

I want to be clear that nice is a good thing to be. However, with so many nice birds flocking together, extension work can become mired in a “culture of nice,” keeping bad work from being eliminated and good work from getting better. We’re too nice to call a bad project a bad project. When we criticize, we criticize in vague, general statements. Of course, we engage in these behaviors out of human decency. Who wants to be the one to say that someone’s program is not worth the effort?

There also is self-interest. We work with a lot of partners in this business. You don’t want to have criticized someone’s program only to find out you need his or her help on your next effort. So we shut up, and sometimes efforts that everyone knows are sinkholes of mismanagement just keep floating along. I’m not saying we should stop being polite, but doing our best work requires that we address the less efficient practices, the programs with little or no impact, the publications we spend money printing and storing in air conditioning but that no one wants any longer, or the time-draining meetings that no one wants to talk about.

In the article, “When Nice Won’t Suffice: Honest Discourse Is Key to Shifting School Culture,” Elisa MacDonald describes how educators feel deeply reluctant to openly critique their own practices or those of others, and how this serves as a barrier to thoughtful, meaningful sharing, especially in professional contexts. MacDonald provides a helpful list of signs that the culture of nice may be creeping into your professional conversation, including rarely questioning practices and assumptions, only sharing successful efforts to avoid judgment from peers, and recommending strategies that are not applied to our own efforts.

MacDonald gives examples and offers strategies to refocus the discussion in a more critical, honest direction. The goal, she argues, is to replace the culture of nice with a culture of trust, where educators feel safe in sharing their own growth areas and shifting thinking and behavior. She maintains that improvement only can occur when we can openly question long-standing norms and have rigorous collaborative discourse. MacDonald mentions it takes courage to respond in ways that will lead to incremental shifts in thinking and behavior. See you there.

– Cathann

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