Models, Paradigms and the New Organization
Models, Paradigms and the New Organization
John M. Gerber
Associate Dean and Associate Director
College of Food and Natural Resources
Cooperative Extension System
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003
March 1, 1994
There is a fundamental need for the land grant universities to debate and rediscover their place in contemporary society. According to David Scott, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, this debate should result in a new vision of the land grant university as a learning community founded upon a transformed understanding of scholarship and enhanced internal and external connectivity. Today, I will talk about one component of internal connectivity, that is, the cross-functional connection between research and extension education.
I will begin with a hypothesis (or at least an opinion masquerading as a hypothesis) for your consideration:
The public research and extension education organization known as the land grant system which has evolved over the past 130 years is declining in vitality and like an ecosystem in which the component parts are no longer functionally integrated (that is, coupled in a mutually supportive, systemic manner), the system may be in danger of extinction.
This hypothesis is based upon the assumption that the land grant organization should function as a systemically integrated system for the dissemination of knowledge, the creation of new knowledge, and service to society by helping individual learners, families, businesses, and communities put knowledge to work. Today that system is splintered and the three basic functions or subsystems, of teaching, research, and extended education are moving apart, fragmenting and dispersing at ever accelerating speed as it attempts to serve three masters without the vision, purpose, or the common stories needed to maintain the integrity or wholeness of the system.
The Three Land Grant Subsystems
Specifically, I see a research subsystem serving the "masters of the discipline," striving to achieve a self-defined purpose and faltering in its mission of serving the public good. The research subsystem is driven by disciplinary incentives such as peer- review of publications, scientific panel evaluation of grants, internally focused awards and recognition, and the self-perpetuating process of tenure which reduces intellectual diversity resulting in homogeneity and insularity.
On the other hand, I see an extension education subsystem serving the "public masters," pursuing solutions for many problems, real problems of course, but problems for which they may or may not have any unique expertise when compared with other public or private agencies. I worry when I see Cooperative Extension trying to address societal problems which don't necessarily require the research subsystem as full partner. This traditional partnership with research provides extension with its particular character and unique place among public educational agencies. Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University seems to agree when he writes;
"universities have an obligation to serve society by making the contributions they are uniquely able to provide;" and while speaking of public service he writes: "...one must ask in every case whether the service to be rendered actually requires those special qualities that set research universities apart."
Finally, we see an undergraduate teaching subsystem that is undervalued and itself being pulled apart as it is caught between the old teacher-centered concept of schooling in which the teacher-expert transfers information (ever increasing and rapidly changing, dated information) to the student-novice who receives the downloaded information, and the new learner-centered paradigm. In the learner- centered system, the teacher is coach and mentor as well as a source of information, guiding the adult learner through experiences in which they acquire information, but more important, they develop an ability to access and analyze information, thus creating knowledge. In this understanding knowledge is defined as raw information placed into the context of a practice or an understanding of nature or society. Peter Drucker has written that;
"Academia defines knowledge as what gets printed. But surely this is not knowledge, it is raw data. Knowledge is information that changes something or somebody - either by becoming grounds for action, or by making an individual (or an institution) capable of different and more effective action."
Like Drucker, I believe information needs to be "in context" to be considered knowledge. That context may be the environment of the user of the information (practice), or the environment of the academic discipline, or both.
So we find ourselves with a system coming apart. Multiple missions and manymasters will be the end of the land grant system as an interdependent organism (when you cut the elephant in half - you don't get two small elephants - you get one big dead elephant). We need to experiment with alternative structural relationships within the university to help reconnect teaching, extension education and research. I propose we consider agricultural science as a model system for this experiment in recreating the land grant organization as a systemically integrated organism with a common purpose and functionally integrated components.
I will share some ideas on how to recreate an institutional culture and structure for the land grant organism which supports the reintegration of its basic functions to create a holistic learning system which discovers, organizes, communicates, and utilizes knowledge in service to the public good. I will mostly leave the undergraduate learning experience aside for today, although it can easily be connected by creative thinkers.
First, an assumption. A holistic learning system should include the following interrelated components:
a. basic research - inquiry focused on understanding the structure and function of physical, chemical, biological, and sociological processes
b. developmental research - inquiry focused on developing new products, practices or technologies
c. adaptive research - inquiry in which new products, practices or technologies are tested and compared in new situations
d . education - inquiry in which practitioners, researchers, and educators learn how new products, practices and technologies might be applied
e. user application - inquiry in which products, practices or technologies are used and evaluated
We know that each of these five functional components exist with varying strengths and weaknesses within the current system of land grant universities. The dysfunctionality of the system is caused by the way in which we perceive these components to be interrelated. I'll explain.
When Dr. Charles Hess was USDA Secretary for Science and Education he stated that applied research program in sustainable agriculture which included farmer participation was important, but that "first you have to do the basic research." In making this statement, Dr. Hess expressed his own understanding of how new technologies develop and how research is conducted. Like most scientists, he perceived the university research and development system to be a linear system, with its various functions "wired in series."
The Current Linear Model
The linear research and development system is organized sequentially such that knowledge comes from new ideas generated by basic research. The new knowledge is published and thus available to applied researchers, who may be in contact with extension educators, who transfer the information to users as a technology or practice through publications, meetings, or maybe today by e-mail. This conceptual model assumes research to be a discipline-oriented function, where the goals of the inquiry process are identified and evaluated in the context of the discipline. This is not bad, if that is our intent. However if the system is meant to serve societal interests, this disciplinary orientation creates a weak link in the chain from research to application, thus jeopardizing the potential applicability of the new knowledge. In this model, it is difficult for knowledge-users to comment on the original ideas until they are a finishedproduct. Therefore implementation of new ideas as a practice or product is left to chance, not design.
In industry, a linear R & D system would allow little interdependence among concept people, design engineers, manufacturing engineers, salespeople and users. The result may be a final product that nobody wants or needs. In academia the products of a linear system may be information which is valued within the context of the discipline, but not necessarily within the context of the user-environment. While I surely would not recommend that we abandon disciplinary value for user value, I do contend a more efficient and effective system would produce information that is valued in both arenas. I believe the currently accepted linear model does not adequately serve the stated mission of the public research and extension system since it supports the production of information but not necessarily the productivity of knowledge.
For me this is not just an abstract theory, but a part of my personal history. You see, I spent 8 years creating a system for use of a new technology which significantly improved the yield and quality of bell peppers. I graduated M.S. and Ph.D. students, published papers, and was tenured and promoted, based partly on this work. It was firmly grounded in a fundamental understanding of the effect of environment on the morphological development of the flower primordium of bell pepper; developmental work on the use of polyethylene structures to modify the field environment; and a degree day system for management of the system.
Specifically, if you cover bell pepper plants with plastic row covers after planting, and know exactly when to remove the covers, you can significantly increase early fruit production. In addition and actually more important, you shift the lobe number of the early fruit produced from 3 to 4 locular fruit, thus producing a higher percentage of 4- lobed, square, blocky fruit which make the highest grade at packout, and more money for the grower.
This work was a scientifically verifiable project, embedded in basic understandings of developmental physiology, and included developmental and applied research components. What it lacked was user acceptance. You see, vegetable growers are busy people. The labor and increased management requirement of implementing this system, coupled with the cost and potential risk, negated its value on real operating vegetable farms. This was the case in spite of the fact that I could demonstrate the system worked, and was profitable. You see what I missed was, I forgot to ask the growers what they thought of the idea, until the fully-worked out system appeared in final form. I was personally and professionally frustrated, confused and disillusioned. I blamed the farmers for their inability to see the brilliance of my system. But the problem was not them, it was me. I was a product of the linear model. I had created new information that was context-rich within the discipline, but not within the user environment.
When we accept the linear model, we hear researchers saying things like, "well, my job is just to create new knowledge, its up to extension to deliver it."
And Extension workers lament, "why can't I convince them to accept these ideas, the research proves it will work.
Or if anyone points out that the research won't work within the context of the specific situation, we say things like; "they" (the users) don't know what they need, its up to us to come up with the new ideas and for them to figure out how to use it."
This hurts, because I surely have said all of these things. The response from the knowledge-user may well be however, that researchers are creating verifiable and valid answers for questions that no one has asked. That's what I did.
The Goal-oriented Parallel System
So what is the solution? I propose we create a new vision and a new model for the public research and education system. I believe the goal-oriented model of the researching system, with its various functions "wired in parallel," would allow us to create a more efficient and effective system for creating knowledge that is both valued within the discipline and the user-environment.
A research and development system that was wired in parallel might have all of the important functions occurring simultaneously rather than sequentially, although perhaps at different rates. Therefore these important components can be functionally integrated, and implementation (user application) is not a passive result of a long chain of weakly-coupled events, but an active part of the inquiry process that can be designed right into the system.
This system can be goal-oriented and each function can be focused on a clearly identified and agreed upon societal goal. A research and development system built upon the goal-oriented parallel model might employ cross-functional teams, with expertise from many disciplines and even knowledge-users to tackle critical societal concerns. This system enhances both the production of disciplinary knowledge and the productivity of user-specific knowledge.
If the goals in a parallel researching system were determined with the involvement of citizens representing the public interest, this would provide the accountability mechanism needed to maintain our focus on the public good. Public input via citizen involvement would help provide direction to the researching system while building public trust and perhaps enhancing public support.
While we surely need to develop new institutional structures to improve ourcapacity to serve the public good by "putting knowledge to work," there is a danger in over-reacting to public criticism of the current system. It would be a mistake to fail to recognize the value of basic research and fundamental understanding of the physical and social world in which we live. Following criticism received from the national science establishment in the 1970's, the land grant system made a major investment in our capacity to conduct basic research. Any future changes in priorities must not undermine our opportunity to reap the benefits of the investment by a radical "swing of the pendulum" toward applied research. As the system responds to internal and external pressures to enhance service to society, any changes must build upon our strengths in basic research.
Application in Agriculture
The parallel model is, in fact, the new paradigm being used by many successful industry R & D systems. Success stories abound in the business management literature. But how do these models apply in agricultural systems? William F. Whyte, Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell wrote;
"In agriculture, until very recently, ... it was the responsibility of the professionals to determine what worked best for farmers, on farms large and small, and then to persuade the farmers to accept the information and ideas of the professionals."
The publicly funded agricultural research and extension system is built on the linear model. Therefore agricultural research scientists may be "out of touch" with the users of the technologies they intend to help, as I was. If this occurs, it is not because scientists are purposefully subverting the function of the system, but rather because of an honest belief in the linear model and perhaps a lack of awareness about the alternative. In any case, the result is a system that is neither as efficient, nor as effective as it might be. I'll explain.
My original hypothesis stated that the system was dysfunctional, that is, the three functions of research, learning, and extended education were not adequately integrated. Efficiency is reduced by the structure of the linear model which discourages functional integration of the basic components of the system. Efficacy is also reduced by the structure of the linear model since users are found on the end of the chain, a long way from idea and knowledge creation. I believe the parallel model solves both of these problems. But in order to shift from the linear to the parallel system, a number of issues much be addressed. The first one I want to focus on is the monopoly research scientists claim over the discovery and validation of new knowledge.
Methods for the Validation of Knowledge
Agricultural researchers claim ownership over the process of establishing the validity of hypotheses or new ideas. Of course, both scientists and farmers can create hypotheses. But scientists believe that farmers ideas don't have "truth-value," until researchers test them in ways which we respect. This is called academic fundamentalism, that is the refusal of the academy to value any truth that does not conform to its own professional standards. This attitude can result in reduced communication, lack of respect and limited trust between the two communities which should be working together to create new knowledge and put that knowledge to work. Why does this occur?
Agricultural researchers value truth. Researchers are trained to discover truth through a process which begins with observation and the creation of a hypothesis. The scientist then tests the hypothesis by identifying measurable objectives, such as increased yield or improved product quality, creating an artificial environment in which most potential variables are uniform across an experiment except for those under investigation, and then observing the affect of a minimum number of variables on the chosen objective. Failure to disprove the hypothesis results in a global truth which is useful for prediction and generalization to other situations. The knowledge created has validity within the disciplinary environment.
But farmers also value truth. They have learned to discover truth through a slightly different process. It begins with observation and the creation of an idea. But their ideas must be tested, not in an artificially uniform environment, but within a complex and ever changing agroecosystem. Knowledge is not desired as much for universal understanding as for solving local problems. Truth is discovered and validated through intuitive understanding of the complex relationships among multiple variables, confidence in their own observations, and the utility of practical solutions. The result is believed to be local truth. The knowledge created has validity within the user-environment.
Thus, we find farmers and researchers are likely to hold different views on what is true or valid knowledge. Extension workers are often caught in between. I believe we must find a way to value both contexts, the disciplinary context and the user context. The sustainable agriculture movement has challenged the researchers monopoly on truth. And researchers who have risen to this challenge are beginning to discover a new way of inquiry called participatory research. Many believe that participatory research offers a suitable alternative which encourages agricultural researchers to work with farmers to develop new practices or products.
Participatory research includes knowledge users in the inquiry process. The outcome of the participatory process is not only new knowledge, but empowered participants, more likely to take action on the new knowledge. If I had included vegetable growers in the design and early application research of my bell pepper system, I wonder if I would have had more growers interested in taking the risk andtrying it on a commercial scale? In any case, in participatory research the knowledge users are expected to help identify real problems, suggest alternative solutions, test those solutions, and help to interpret the results. This enhances user ownership of the inquiry process and is more likely to result in action, an explicit goal of public research and extension systems.
Of course, not all agricultural research can be done with farmers as full partners. Research scientists must also be free to develop their own ideas for testing. Yet, the methodologies that are appropriate for research which reduces the organism (such as a bell pepper plant) to its subsystems and studies the simple components may not be useful for understanding nature at higher levels of complexity. A non-reductionist means for researchers to address complex systems in ways that better reflect the farmers understanding is needed. Perhaps the emerging science of agroecology will help researchers view agricultural systems in ways which are more in tune with the farmers understanding.
Agroecology - Systems Thinking in Agriculture
Agroecology is the scientific study of the agroecosystem. We can think of an agroecosystem as a complex of air, water, soil, plants and animals in a bounded area that people have modified for the purpose of agricultural production. It exists in an environmental setting which defines the resources (inputs) available, and a social setting which conditions how producers and consumers interact with each other and the natural ecosystem. An agroecosystem may be a field, a farm, or a larger region such as the Connecticut River Valley. The boundaries of an agroecosystem exist not only in space, but also in time. These boundaries have physical, biological and socio-economic dimensions. To begin to understand agroecosystems, we must assume that the behavior of a complex system can be understood with knowledge of only a few functional relationships or emergent properties. Three of the emergent properties of agroecosystems that might be useful to enhance our understanding and ultimate management of those systems are productivity, sustainability, and social equity.
Productivity is the quantity of product or output from an agroecosystem per unit of input (or resource such as land area). Sustainability is consistency of productivity over time, in spite of long term destabilizing influences such as; urbanization, increasing soil salinity, soil erosion, declining water tables, etc. Sustainability can be thought of as long term productivity, which may not be achieved unless we deal with depletion of natural resources, degradation of the environment, and disruption of social systems.
Finally, social equity is a measure of the extent to which both resources (inputs)and products (outputs) of a system are shared throughout the human population. Some authors argue social measures have no place in agroecology, but if we assume that people are part of an agroecosystem, I find it difficult to avoid some social impact evaluation. These emergent properties of an agroecosystem may be used as neutral descriptors for purpose of understanding, or they may be used as indicators of performance - measures of success. In the latter case a judgment of human value is made and humans determine which performance indicators (short term productivity, long term sustainability, social equity, or others) are most important to the community.
Agricultural Research and New Ideas
Many agricultural researchers in the U.S. are beginning to explore new ways of inquiry. The practice of participatory research is becoming more accepted, particularly now that some funding agencies require farmer participation in research. Others are exploring agroecology. Researchers, farmers and funding agencies continue to challenge the current scientific model. Many more however, reject these ideas as "unscientific".
I have found that the preference for generation and validation of knowledge through currently accepted scientific methodologies is so strongly held by some researchers, that it is difficult for them to envision any alternative or the need for an alternative. Nevertheless, an argument can be made that a scientific method which demands the reduction of variables and falsification of an abstract hypothesis through empirical tests is a social choice and that other means of generating knowledge may have equal validity. Recently we have seen the authority of current scientific methodologies challenged by the feminist, environmental, and sustainable agriculture movements. Those scientists who have studied the history of science recognize it as a constantly evolving process. They understand that advances in science rarely fall along neat methodological pathways. Guesses, assumptions, intuition, stubborn defence of a favorite theory, and plain luck all are part of the practice of science.
Many scientists and farmers or other knowledge-users have challenged the current scientific model, not as wrong, but as incomplete. This challenge, while it should be welcomed, is perceived by some to be a personal attack on their belief system. This is unfortunate, as the assumption that a scientific method is above criticism, is itself unscientific. The essence of science is criticism, and neither science nor the university can afford to put its methods above evaluation. A. Bartlett Giamatti, President of Yale University, reminded us;
" The university should be: "...a community open to new ideas, to disagreement, to debate, to criticism, to the clash of opinions and convictions."
Personally, I think the debate is healthy.
Public Participation in the Grant Review System
Another issue that must be explored is the competitive grant system that ensures scientific quality but not necessarily public accountability. I contend that the public agricultural research and education system should ensure accountability to the public good as well as scientific quality. Toward this end, I believe the process which determines how some public funds are used should include an evaluation component which considers the potential impact of research on critical public needs. Further, the people most impacted should be involved in this evaluation. Agronomist Charles Francis from the University of Nebraska has written:
"...to truly have an effective communications system reflecting the needs of farmers, these same people must be involved to some degree in setting research agendas, doing on-farm studies and in demonstrating and extending results."
While we may see this as interference with a grant review process that is currently controlled by science, a case can be made that if public institutions are to serve the public good a review process is needed to ensure accountability without detracting from scientific quality. A system that approaches this objective was implemented by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program of the North Central Region. This grant review process includes a two step evaluation which begins with an analysis of potential impact of the research. Representatives of groups most likely to be affected, such as farmers, environmentalists, and rural advocates are included in the first stage of the review. This allows the research process to focus on critical issues. The second step of the review is the traditional scientific review by disciplinary peers. This two step review helps to enhance the potential applicability of research results and ensure scientific integrity.
One common objection made by scientists to public involvement in helping to guide the research agenda is that researchers must be free to explore nature unfettered by specific goals. This assumption has been challenged by Nobel Prize winning physician and research scientist Sir Peter Medawar who contends that research is enhanced by what he calls "focus." He proposes a direct approach to problem solving through basic, developmental or applied research, when you know where you want to go, that is, when you have clearly defined objectives. Medawar suggests that researchers should begin their explorations with a concrete problem. For public scientists, the problem might be described through public debate and dialogue in order to enhance public accountability. Medawar contends that the search for fundamental knowledge doesn't suffer by starting with a real problem, but the potential application of the inquiry process is greatly improved.
Another argument made by scientists is that research must remain free from potential influence by special interest groups. However, if a balance of divergent groups were included in the decision making process, a true public debate might occur that was indeed representative of the public good. This argument also seems not to recognize that a special interest group already is involved in setting the research agenda. Agricultural scientists largely control both the grant review process and entry into the research profession through graduate education, hiring, promotion and tenure. These organizational mechanisms don't necessarily screen for relevancy nor service in the public good.
Of course, many scientists would disagree. My response is "good, lets debate the issue." We need to explore the roles and responsibilities of public researchers in a free and open debate. We also need to explore new ways of organizing the institution to enhance its ability to serve the public good. Peter Drucker offers some ideas on how this new organization might work.
Drucker's Learning Organization
Drucker's learning organization is one in which the component functions are arranged in parallel, and serve both the particular needs of the constituents as well as society. He suggests this new organization will develop and emerge in an evolutionary process based on strategic planning and constant change. Drucker predicts the future organization will be knowledge-based and responsibility-driven. The traditional "command and control" hierarchical structure will have little resemblance to the new organizational matrix. Today, whereas work is accomplished in departments; tomorrow, the activities of the organization will be carried out by ad hoc "task-focused, self- managing teams."
In this system, the departments will serve as a base for technical and human resources, and providers of disciplinary standards. That is, scientific quality will be the purview of disciplinary departments and public accountability will be the responsibility of the task-focused teams. These teams will be "virtual" in the sense that they will be created as needed and disappear when the job is done. Some teams will only exist while a short term project must be accomplished. Others may continue for several years or more, but will not be considered permanent. Drucker's ideas support the parallel goal-oriented R & D system.
As an administrator in the system, I believe it is at least partly my responsibility to help ensure that the organization provides an environment and an organizational structure that not only produces new knowledge, but helps people, families, businesses and communities put knowledge to work. We must create an environment in which both knowledge (the "tools"), and the action, (the "work"), are evaluated and rewarded.
Today, most academic institutions reward development of the disciplinary knowledge (the tools), which may or may not be put to work. Drucker writes,
"The way we traditionally arrange our businesses, government agencies, and universities further encourages the tendency to believe that the purpose of the tools is to adorn the toolbox rather than to do work." He continues,
"...specialization into knowledges has given us enormous performance potential... But because knowledges are so specialized we need also a methodology, a discipline, a process to turn this potential into performance. Otherwise, most of the available knowledge will not become productive; it will remain mere information."
Drucker does not argue for the elimination of disciplinary specialists. Rather, he proposes an organization in which specialist's knowledge can be put to work. He lists four challenges that must be faced by the new organization;
1. ...developing rewards, recognition, and career opportunities for specialists
2. ...creating a unified vision in an organization of specialists
3. ...devising a management structure for an organization of task focused teams
4. ... ensuring the supply, preparation, and testing of new specialists and management personnel
While I believe that administrators must help the organization address these challenges, they should not be the judges of the kinds of research and educational programs which best serve the public good. A. Bartlett Giamatti reminds us that;
"When administrators believe themselves only managers of the public policy of the place and faculty members believe themselves alone in guarding the flame of intellectual values,... they split apart. They speak of us and them.
Rather, administrators should push decision-making close to where the action is and where the best decisions are likely to be made. For publicly supported research and education programs, the priorities should be set by task-focused teams working in concert with public groups and the users of knowledge. Administrators should helplead the organization by creating incentives that encourage the teams to "stick to the knitting" by focusing on the organizational mission, but they should not determine research and educational priorities.
In conclusion, I argue that a new model of the public land grant university is needed to improve the capacity of our system to serve its primary customers; the students, businesses and communities of the nation. Citizens should be actively engaged in the research and education programs of their land grant university. Undergraduate teaching, research, and extended education should each be perceived as a public service, since they each contribute to the public good.
The new organizational model will emerge through dialogue and debate. I have entered the debate by challenging academic fundamentalism. I have challenged the grant review system which nurtures academic fundamentalism and have proposed an alternative in which citizens are actively engaged in the review process. Other issues must also be addressed such as tenure, publication policies, and our basic understanding of learning. I believe that there is a fundamental need to create a broader understanding of learning as an inquiry process taking many forms and including both the quest for knowledge through experimentation by scientists and the search for wisdom through reflective living by citizens.
The Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, David Scott, has written, "In meeting the challenges of a new age, it may no longer be possible to concentrate solely on the generation, transmission and application of knowledge. The next transformation may well replace the university's knowledge focus with a focus on wisdom." He borrows from Nicholas Maxwell to describe wisdom as "...the capacity to realize what is of value - happiness, health, sanity, friendship, love, freedom, justice, prosperity, democracy, creative endeavor, productive work."
Connectivity across university disciplines and between the university and the public would be enhanced by the emergence of a learning community which sought information, knowledge, and wisdom through the interactions of the hand, heart and mind. An exploration of alternative "ways of knowing" and a broader understanding of learning as a process of inquiry which produces information, knowledge and wisdom may offer opportunities for the dialogue and debate that will be necessary to challenge our own assumptions. I look forward to the debate.
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