Strategy and Organizational Effectiveness within the Cooperative Extension System 1
By Duane Dale and Lavon Bartel
Report of a Study of Planning Practices and Strategic Issues
Purpose of the Study
The ability of organizations to “set their course”—to establish appropriate strategic direction and make wise “top-level” choices—is a matter of great practical significance to organizational leaders. However, the literature on organizational management and change provides contradictory guidance. For example, at the most basic level, there is disagreement about whether it is better to occasionally conduct intensive, formal strategic planning or instead to direct a comparable level of staff time and other organizational resources into ongoing strategic dialogue and decision making.
We suspect that many organizational leaders make this choice based on principles—written or unwritten—that are plausible, that align with the leader’s values, or that are, in some other way, inherently appealing. There is very little empirical research to indicate which practices or assumptions will pay off most productively in a particular organizational context.
The purpose of this study is to assess current strategic practices, and particularly to identify practices that are correlated with positive organizational outcomes for one particular organization: the Cooperative Extension system as it exists across the United States, based in each state’s land grant university. The intention is to enhance strategic thinking and strategic dialogue within that system by providing a comprehensive picture of its strategic practices, issues, and options.
The primary information-gathering approach for this study was a questionnaire administered by e-mail to professional employees of the Cooperative Extension system nationwide. The questionnaire was developed by means of a process that included a pilot questionnaire, which was pre-tested with 20 individuals from four states as well as 10 National Extension Leadership Development (NELD) participants; group or individual interviews with those 30 pre-test participants; and revision of the questionnaire based on the results of the pre-test and interviews.
The questionnaire is available at www.umext.maine.edu/CESstrategy/questionnaire.htm. The 146 items of the questionnaire are grouped into sections (identified in footnotes), which address these themes:
Organizational performance measures2
Strategic planning practices3
Existence of a strategic plan
Personal role in strategic planning
Perceived involvement in strategic planning of people in various roles
Use of various strategic planning activities
Organizational practices related to strategic issues
Awareness and beliefs regarding strategic planning 4
Perceived usefulness of various strategic planning activities
Other beliefs related to strategic planning
Extension field staff’s level of awareness of strategic issues
Structure and programs5
State-substate balance and program mix
Key areas of organizational practice and innovation 6
Diversity-related organizational behaviors
Reputation of other states’ Extension leaders and organizations (20)
The organization’s recent “top-level choices”
Issues and challenges important for success of the organization
“Demographic” information 8
Employment history and role within Extension.
In addition to the questionnaire responses, two measures of organizational performance were developed using Extension management data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture office that coordinates Extension functioning nationwide.
Change in Extension professional FTEs (1999 vs. 1995)9;
Change in Extension professional payroll (also 1999 vs. 1995)10.
Sample. A letter was sent to the Extension state directors in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, to the “1890 Extension” administrators based at the historically black land grant institutions, and to the Extension administrators in the U.S. territories. The letter described the study and asked the director or administrator to provide four to six names of people who would receive the questionnaire—”people who report to you and who are involved in organizational planning or programmatic decisions. Typically they would be assistant directors and program leaders.” All of the directors and administrators also received the questionnaire. It was also sent to alumni of the National Extension Leadership Development (NELD) programs, via the NELD email lists—potentially a pool of about 150.11
Responses were received from 253 Extension professionals, including 56 who were directors, associate directors, or 1890 Extension administrators. Of the other 197, 164 had been identified by their director or administrator. Twelve of those 164 were NELD participants; an additional 33 were NELD participants who had not been identified by their director or administrator for this study.
Forty-six states met the criteria for full inclusion in the analysis, returning responses from the director and at least two other Extension professionals. The total number of individuals represented by the 46 states that met the criteria is 220. Much of the analysis is based on state-by-state averages for those 46 states.12 The mean number of participants per state is 4.8; the range is from three to twelve respondents per state. Each state’s respondents might be understood as a panel of well-informed individuals who have expressed judgments about various attributes of their organization.
To identify patterns among questionnaire items, a combination of Pearson correlation, principal components factor analysis, and step-wise regression were employed as follows. Some of the questionnaire items were identified on conceptual grounds as output measures; others were treated as inputs. For an outcome measure of interest, Pearson correlations between that item and each input measure were calculated in order to identify inputs with strong relationships. Then a principal components factor analysis was used to identify clusters among those strongly related inputs that appeared to be contributing similar pieces of information. Then regression analysis, especially step-wise linear regression analysis, was used to adjust for the interrelationships among the “input” variables and to develop a clear and efficient model of the relationship between the cluster of “input” variables and a particular outcome measure.14
Findings and Interpretation
Three-fourths of the respondents reported that their state’s Cooperative Extension organization had created a written, formal strategic plan since 1995. For 21 states, respondents were unanimous in saying that there was a strategic plan; for no state was there unanimous opinion that there wasn’t a strategic plan. For 25 states, the respondents were split in their response about the existence of a written, formal strategic plan. This widespread lack of unanimity is understandable because of the uncertainty of whether to count a four-year plan of work; a plan developed by the university, a college, or a specific division of Extension; a vision or mission statement without other components; etc. Of the 25 states with a split opinion about the existence of a strategic plan, the majority indicated “yes” in 14 states; the majority indicated “no” in 11 states.
Those who reported that their state has a strategic plan also reported that, on average, seven from a list of nine common strategic planning components had been carried out—activities such as developing a mission statement (the most common plan element); incorporating customer feedback via questionnaire or other methods; using environmental scanning to identify issues; employing periodic planning to align programs to circumstances and mission; realigning the program mix to adjust to changing needs; identifying opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses; and writing an external vision.15 Activities to implement a strategic plan, and particularly to adjust the mix of programs and services, were less common; for example, “procedures for closing out or spinning off programs” were reported by only one-fourth of the respondents. It appears to be difficult to let go of programs even when they have served their purpose or stopped producing sufficient positive results.
Four indicators were used to measure organizational performance. The questionnaire asked for ratings of Extension’s organizational health16 at the state level and its contribution to the state’s quality of life,17 comparing “now” with five years earlier (1995). The two indicators derived from USDA data—change in total FTEs and change in total professional payroll over the same five-year period—completed the core set of organizational performance indicators.
For each of the four organizational performance measures, the majority of states scored positively. Questionnaire respondents indicated a positive direction of change since 1995 for organizational health (+2.06 on a scale of –5 to +5)18 and contribution to the state’s quality of life (+2.46). The average percent change in state Extension FTEs was a modest increase of +2.7 percent.19 The payroll index showed a 15.4 percent increase.20
Not surprisingly, FTE change and payroll change shift together to a considerable degree (r = .78). The organizational health rating correlates rather strongly with the “contribution to quality of life” item (r = .75). The performance measures based on USDA data (FTE and payroll change) do not have substantial correlations with the performance measures from the questionnaire (organizational health and contribution to quality of life) (r <.17).
There was no substantial correlation between strategic planning and any of the four performance indicators: neither the existence of a formal strategic plan, nor the use of any of the nine component practices, nor the use of implementation practices correspond in any substantial degree with any of the four performance indicators.21 Likewise, no particular approach to restructuring the organization, such as maintaining the county level as the primary unit, or shifting toward district or regional structure, correlates with the organizational success measures. Also, no particular balance of state versus district or local roles appeared to correlate with success.
The “organizational health” measure and the “contribution to the state’s quality of life” measure do correlate strongly with five other, more specific measures of organizational performance—contribution to quality of life for those who need help most, personal enjoyment of the job, professional satisfaction of Extension professionals, financial well-being of the organization, and job security as experienced by the state’s Extension professionals.22 These additional measures of organizational performance would best be understood as components of overall organizational health, rather than as independent variables with a potential causal relationship to overall organizational health. The average (mean) of state average ratings for the five “component” measures and two “primary” measures are shown in the table below.
The graph demonstrates that three measures—job security, financial well-being of the organization, and professional satisfaction of the state’s Extension professionals, have lower averages (lower than 1.4); the other four measures have averages that are all higher than 2.0.23
When scores on the same items are calculated separately for the 46 directors and 174 others from the 46 states with at least three respondents, a striking fact emerges: the directors are consistently more positive or optimistic than their associates in their assessment of their organizations. The graph that follows shows two means for each item—the directors’ and the others’. Each mean is represented by tick-marks at the mid-point of a vertical line, which extends two standard errors above and below the mean. There are two such vertical lines for each item; the left-hand line presents the directors’ mean and +2 standard error range; the right-hand line of each pair presents the other respondents’ data. If the two lines do not overlap, then, at a 95% confidence level, it can be stated that the means are from different populations. This is the case for every item except personal job enjoyment.
There are various possible explanations for the directors’ more positive attitudes. Among them are that
directors are paid to be optimistic, so as to put the organization’s “best foot forward” and to avoid expressing attitudes that would risk creating negative “self-fulfilling prophecies;”
directors may be out of touch with the difficult realities that people closer to the front lines of the organization experience;
conversely, directors may be more in touch than others with the organization’s “big picture,” and may see reason to be optimistic based on that view;
directors, perhaps more than others, have weathered various crises and as a result have become more optimistic about the organization’s resilience in the face of challenges;
directors’ responsibilities and experiences may have made them more tolerant of uncertainty, controversy, and ambiguity.
Respondents were asked to identify states whose Extension system is “especially sound in their strategic planning and thinking” and whose Extension systems are “especially solid, organizationally and financially.” A state was more likely to be mentioned if its Extension staff is large and its state population is large. However, the number of mentions a state received in response to these reputation questions did not correlate to a substantial degree with any of the organizational performance indicators.24
The lack of correlation between strategic planning activities and organizational performance indicators should not be surprising.25 It is not the existence of a written strategic plan nor the performance of any of the component planning activities that makes the difference for an organization. Instead what should be expected to make a positive difference is the quality of the insights, thinking, and planning; the pervasiveness of such insightful thinking throughout the organization; and the goodness of fit between the resulting plans or choices and the situation which they are intended to address.
What does distinguish the organizations that score best on such indicative measures as overall organizational health or a growing contribution to the quality of life? The questionnaire responses support the idea that there is a cluster of organizational competencies that, in combination, make the difference. High ratings of overall organizational health are associated with the following:
Mission-guided activity: “In this state, decisions about what Extension will and won’t do are guided by a strong sense of the Extension mission.” (r = .62)
Responsiveness: “Extension in this state listens attentively to the people and communities it serves” (r = .62) and “makes good use of the guidance it receives from the public to shape its programs” (r = .68).
“Extension people in this state are committed to adapting our programs and methods to the changing times.” (r = .60)”
Extension professionals in this state are developing programs around new topics.” (r = .53)
“The mix of programs we offer has changed in the last five years as to better serve previously under-served audiences and growing segments of our population.”(r = .63)26
Commitment to quality: “Everything that Extension does is done well.”(r = .55)27
When one considers specific components of organizational performance rather than the broad indicators, additional organizational competencies emerge as important correlates. For example, the organization’s financial well-being is associated with
the use of input provided by the public (r = .62),
the maintenance of financial reserves that could help to weather hard times
(r = .66), and
the existence of supporters who are willing and capable of speaking out in behalf of Extension and its funding needs. (r = .57)
Professional satisfaction and personal job enjoyment are associated with
the use of input provided by the public (r = .59 with professional satisfaction),
the development of programs around new topics (r = .57 with professional satisfaction),
the commitment of leaders to addressing the needs of growing population segments and previously underserved audiences (r = .48 with job enjoyment), and
the quality of what Extension does. (r = .59 with professional satisfaction)
Extension’s ability to “make a worthwhile contribution to the quality of life of those who need help the most” is correlated with an especially interesting set of organizational competencies and behaviors:
Providing staff development activities that help to prepare our professionals to work effectively with particular segments of the population that are growing (such as recent immigrants, the elderly, etc.). (r = .57)
Developing ways to serve previously under-served citizens. (r = .55)
Helping to develop solutions to issues that concern the public. (r = .50)
Adjusting the mix of programs to better serve previously underserved audiences and growing segments of the population. (r = .51)
Listening attentively to the people and communities the organization serves. (r = .48)
Making good use of guidance from the public to shape programs. (r = .47)
Upper leadership’s commitment to addressing the needs of previously underserved audiences and of the growing segments of our population. (r = .47)
Three of those items were identified in a stepwise regression analysis from among the seven items with the highest correlations to making “a worthwhile contribution to the quality of life of those who need help the most:”
Providing staff development activities that help to prepare our professionals to work effectively with particular segments of the population that are growing (such as recent immigrants, the elderly, etc.).
Developing ways to serve previously under-served citizens.
Helping to develop solutions to issues that concern the public.
Considering the seven items that correlate with the organization’s ability to effectively serve those who need help most, it appears that the organization needs to align and coordinate its efforts on at least four levels:
Values—clearly articulated by leadership.
Staff insight—knowledge and sensitivity appropriate to the specific change effort.
Program mix—content that truly serves the intended audience.
Program implementation—staff development and delivery mechanisms that follow through on the values, insights, and chosen program directions.
This multi-layered alignment of efforts is probably essential to most organizational change efforts, within Extension and elsewhere.
Regarding Extension’s relationship to the broader university, respondents agreed rather strongly with three different statements:
“It is important for this state’s Extension to align itself with the strategic plans and directions being set by the broader university.” (3.17 on a scale of –5 to +5 )28
“It is important for Extension to bring the broader university along on the path that Extension has identified as appropriate.” (3.58)
“Cooperative Extension has the potential to enable the total university to engage with the communities of our state.” (3.67)
Respondents agreed most strongly with the last of these three. That item correlates strongly with the previous item (“important for Extension to bring the broader university along”29) and with these other attributes:
Visionary leadership: “It’s useful for the leaders of an organization to make their visions for the future known.”30
Boldness: “Extension should be open to exploring a decisive move into a few important new areas where Extension has been only slightly involved, or not at all, in the past.”31
An open-ended question asked respondents to identify three top-level choices that have been faced by Extension.32 The responses convey a picture of an organization engaged in a balancing act, attempting to align expenditures with income, and seeking the most effective structures for delivering programs within budget constraints. The total sample of 253 respondents identified 674 items. At least 15% of the respondents named items in these categories:
Number of responses
Number of respondents
Percent of respondents 33
Staff ; personnel issues
When asked about top-level issues for the future,34 most of the responses fell into these three categories:
Number of responses
Program capacity and/or delivery
The “program focus” category was further analyzed; the top five sub-categories were these:
Subcategory of “Program Focus”
Number of responses
Relevance of program content
Issues addressed: relevant issues, public issues
Diversification of audiences—serve all (broader than now) or serve changing populations
Clarification of focus; program planning process
Adoption of a specific (stated) focus
A third open-ended question asked respondents to identify what they believe to be “the biggest strategic challenge facing the Extension system over the next few years.” The top category of answers comprised the concern about Extension’s programmatic focus that was evident in responses to the previous question. However, this question’s focus on challenge also elicited numerous responses in the categories of funding and PR–marketing. The top six response categories garnered 78% of the 348 responses:
Number of responses
PR, marketing, documenting ; communicating impact
Innovation ; change versus tradition
University (relations, positioning, partnering, etc.)
Responses to these open-ended questions confirm that there is a range of opinion within Extension about the most appropriate focus for the organization in order to be relevant and useful to the broader society.
Taken together, the findings of this study point to about a dozen key organizational attributes that together have a high impact on organizational success. As a way to focus dialogue about these attributes, and as a potential guide for formulating further questions for investigation, these variables are presented below in a table, which may be thought of as an integrative model of organizational functioning.
Reading from left to right, the first three columns describe organizational attributes, and the fourth (right-hand) column lists organizational outcomes or performance measures. The major items from the questionnaire are in capital letters. Supporting points are in mixed upper and lower case, and are identified as subordinate items by a bullet. Items in square brackets were not addressed directly by this study but are added to put other items in context or to complete a category.
ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE ; VALUES
ORG ATTRIBUTES ; CAPACITIES
Informed regarding operating environment
Listens to people ; communities it serves
Sensitive to needs of underserved and of new ; growing segments
Makes good use of guidance from public to shape its programs
ALIGNED AROUND GOALS, PLANS
COMMITTED TO QUALITY
New topics, methods, audiences
Adapt the mix when appropriate
SERVE SPECIFIC NEEDS
ADDRESS TIME-SENSITIVE ISSUES
NEEDED RESEARCH GETS DONE
TAP POTENTIAL OF NEW MEDIA ; METHODS WHEN APPROPRIATE
– Collaborations to serve underserved
[Maintaining balance between resources ; expenditures]
FINANCIAL RESERVES SUPPORTERS
EFFECTIVE USE OF COMMUNICATION ; COMPUTER TECHN.
For participants — funders — broader public
CONTRIBUTION TO QUALITY OF LIFE
HELP FOR THOSE WHO NEED IT MOST
For Extension Staff
For the Extension organization
FINANCIAL WELL BEING
[REPUTATION—BASED ON FOCUS, QUALITY, AND EFFECTIVENESS]
The study has several important implications for Extension’s personnel, and especially its leaders:
Values matter. Leaders can make a difference by articulating their visions for the future, and by guiding the organization’s attention toward the people who need its help the most. The values which emerge from this study as being closely associated with organizational performance appear to be accessibility, program development for the future, and connection to the public’s expression of priority needs.
It is not the presence or absence of a formal strategic plan, but the quality of the ongoing dialogue about focus and relevance that appears to be central to the organization’s continued viability.
The study reported here has sought to contribute to research-based organizational theory, particularly for the domain of public or non-profit organizations that conduct non-formal or non-classroom education, and for the Cooperative Extension organizations in particular. Areas for further study along these lines include the following:
Understanding the specific practices, especially among the more successful organizations, for incorporating diverse input into organizational decisions about mission and focus.
Clarifying the controversy about programmatic relevance and the ways in which that controversy is being, or could be, addressed.
Analyzing the focus of attention for the organization’s planning and decision making: How does the organization divide its focus among such concerns as keeping expenditures in balance with available resources, enhancing program effectiveness within existing program parameters, and pursuing new directions that may better serve new clientele or emerging societal realities? How can an organization move to serving new clientele when the established clientele is politically or economically powerful and opposes reduction in services to them?
1This study was supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Duane Dale is the principal consultant with DFD Associates of Amherst, Mass. Prior to 1992, he was a state specialist with UMass Extension. Lavon Bartel is director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.