Client Centered and College Connected

Which came first — the chicken or the egg? How about the client or the college? 

In 1991, ISU Extension restructured at the program level into client-centered units. We would first identify the needs of our clients and then develop appropriate educational programs to meet their needs — not the other way around. No acting as the ivory tower experts deciding what was best. Instead, we would extend the university to meet Iowans’ real needs. We even started calling our programs Extension to Agriculture, Extension to Business and Industry, Extension to Communities, Extension to Youth and 4-H, and Extension to Families.

When we began thinking of Iowans as our clients, we started placing higher value on their experience and expectations. Over the years we adjusted and fine-tuned as we worked to better identify their needs or even who our clients are, and expanded our efforts throughout the university — and we changed some names along the way. Extension to Agriculture became Agriculture and Natural Resources. The Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) became our main outreach to Iowa manufacturing and industry. Extension to Communities became Community and Economic Development. Extension to Youth and 4-H became 4-H Youth Development. And now Extension to Families is becoming Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. It’s not that we stopped being client-centered, it’s that we recognized it’s only one part of the equation which defines our work. 

Our programs for Iowa families will continue to focus on improving nutrition and health, parenting and caregiving, and personal finance, as well as reducing poverty. However, we’ll broaden our activities to encompass all academic areas in the college, as well as emphasize STEM education, health and wellness, economic development, and food and environment. We’re extending even more of Iowa State to Iowans as we expand our ability to provide research-based education that meets their needs.

The chicken or the egg is a causality dilemma – it points out the futility of attempting to identify the first case of a circular cause and consequence.  It’s not a chicken or egg question; which came first doesn’t matter. What really counts is that Iowa State University Extension and Outreach provides research-based educational programs and develops diverse and meaningful partnerships to create significant impact in Iowa. By definition, Extension and Outreach is client centered and college connected. See you there.

— Cathann

Catch It Yourself

FYI re See You There – Who said it?
Regarding today’s message: there’s been a question about whether the opening quote really was from Ben Franklin. Several online quote sources attribute the quote to Ben, but it’s the Internet after all, so who knows.

No matter who said it, I like the quote. The right to pursue happiness doesn’t guarantee we all achieve it. Do you agree? Add your comments.

— Cathann


“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”
–Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was on to something. The right to pursue happiness doesn’t guarantee we all achieve it.   I was thinking about this recently while talking about needs assessments for our programs.  One of the problems with a needs assessment to determine program priorities is that conceptions of “need” may vary radically between different communities or even individuals within the same house. One person’s view of need may easily be seen as paternalistic by another, or totally unnecessary.

In a 2010 needs assessment, ISU Extension and Outreach was broadly perceived as serving youth and agricultural interests in the state. Once past this more general image, it was what people knew and how they knew Extension and Outreach that tended to dictate their perceptions. However, when given a list of 16 potential topic areas for programming, survey participants showed little discernment. Everything was important.

One of our goals in our new strategic plan is to refine our systems to collectively identify Iowans’ current and emerging needs. But if our clients feel that everything is important, what are we to do? Perhaps the first thing to do is realize the limitations on knowing how to catch what makes us happy.

In his book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says “happiness really is nothing more or less than a word that we word makers can use to indicate anything we please.” People use the word happiness to mean all sorts of things, including feeling happy (emotional happiness), feeling happy because (moral happiness), and feeling happy about (judgmental happiness).

Our needs assessment process assumes our clients know what they will need tomorrow and even what might make them happy. But Gilbert says we have a blind spot in our mind’s eye. We think we can picture what might make us happy, but we are actually not that good at deciding what will make us happy in the future. Research shows that we humans don’t have a good way of extrapolating from what we need today to what we need tomorrow.  We make errors by predicting the future will be too much like the present.

What implications does this human inability to know what makes us happy have for Extension and Outreach needs assessment? Can we compensate somehow or use our skills more wisely? Our techniques for needs assessment introduce errors because we can’t forecast the future. And, if we could improve our techniques, let’s not forget the lesson my first car taught me:  in the process of meeting our needs, we create new needs.

Maybe there are better ways to do it.

One of the assumptions on which we’ve based our strategic plan is that our educational programs must align the needs of Iowans with federal, land-grant system, and college and university priorities. That’s why our Program Leadership Team is leading a system-wide program development process, including a system to identify emerging and current needs. County councils, county staff, regional directors, program directors, and program specialists all have roles and responsibilities for needs assessment.  What else should we be doing?  What new ways could we be assessing?  Who else should we be listening to?

As Daniel Gilbert says, there’s no simple formula for finding – or catching – happiness. Needs assessment in ISU Extension and Outreach won’t be perfect or easy.  How do we hear from unserved audiences?  How do we help communities forecast a future that doesn’t look like today?

The systematic approach we are outlining, with support and participation from councils, partners, faculty, and staff, gives us a better chance of making sure our programs are relevant and create significant impact by expanding access to educational programs within our communities.  But it’s just the start of the kind of organization we need to become for the future.  See you there.

— Cathann

program development process

One Week After …

Last week, more than 500 of us from 89 counties and campus came together for our leadership summit.  We agreed upon fundamental principles to guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities in Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.  We also prioritized that we must collectively focus on some specific actions if we, as an organization, are going to thrive.  Finally, we pulled from the principles and actions to identify a set of priorities for our action. We agreed to strategically support partnerships and collaborations, the development of effective planning and coordination systems, including ones for professional development, and needs assessment.  The Leadership Team is already reviewing ways to realign resources and begin moving toward these priorities.  Prior to the summit, I pulled together a team that is already at work compiling everything we worked on into a report that will become our playbook. This action plan will guide how we invest resources—people, funds, and time—in the coming year and will be ready in a month.  In the meantime, see the one-page summary.

This summit marks the start of the new way we are going to do business in ISU Extension and Outreach. No more ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants operations. We have a lot of knowledge and best practices in ISU Extension and Outreach, and it would be good to have systems to share them. Think of the extraordinary capacity we would have if we could stand on each other’s shoulders.

We will have to strike a balance on a number of issues, and it won’t be easy:  how do we allow flexible entrepreneurship vs. having common structures, when do we use common systems vs. providing tailored responses, when is it most efficient to operate in a centralized vs. decentralized manner?  We’ll need to make these decisions as we proceed.

I went to the summit probably much like you, with expectations. I hope that like mine, most of your expectations were fulfilled.

  • I hoped that we would remember we are a team. No matter which category you selected during voting, we are all one team with common mission and common principles.
  • We are all part of moving us forward — decisions each of us makes determine our success and whether we create something meaningful as our “what’s next?” or whether we just go back to business as usual.
  • We want to be a part of a meaningful endeavor—a relevant, vibrant organization. The summit certainly offered evidence of our shared commitment.

As I’ve said before, here in Iowa, people care about each other and their communities. They believe if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Iowans see the value in serving the public good, and they come together to get things done.  But, WE ARE NOT done. Please keep engaged; when asked, give input, serve on committees, pilot new systems. Take responsibility for helping us become what our early pioneers envisioned. Let’s live according to our principles. Let’s carry out our mission. Let’s be Iowa State’s treasured resource. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. We are still taking comments related to the summit on the blog site.  To be able to review and share ideas when appropriate, we need comments by noon next Tuesday, Nov. 15.

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