Addressing Complex Problems Within Networks

“Our responsibility is to really facilitate that across the entire state to start thinking like a network rather than an organization, and then our role as a statewide that we get to think like a movement.”

Think about it. Not Extension as an organization, not Extension as an institution, but Extension as part of a movement.

It’s been about a year since Steve Judd shared the book “Connecting to Change the World” with me. At the time I had been thinking about networks for years. I believed, and still do, that Extension professionals should be using networks to fuel their professional development and reach out to the people they serve.I didn’t fully understand, however, that Extension could be involved networks working to address complex problems.

Problems like climate, obesity, food security are difficult or impossible to solve because the knowledge around them is incomplete or uncertain, they are interconnected with other problems, and the situations around these problems keep changing. The traditional “expert” model and Extension’s dominant theory of change, diffusion of innovation, are inadequate to deal with these problems. Networks are particularly suited to addressing the issues around complex problems because they generate more solutions, more quickly; they are resilient, quickly filling voids when a person leaves; and they provide a way of approaching these problems from many different angles.

“Connecting to Change the World” tells the stories of collective action networks that are making a difference. It also includes information on why these diverse, decentralized networks were able to accomplish things no single organization, even Extension, could. Most importantly, the authors share strategies for building and strengthening networks that can collectively do meaningful, impactful work.

This book launched a conversation within the Network Literacy Community of Practice and OneOp. It also led me to seek out more information on collective action networks and Extension professionals who were working within them.

Which leads me back to the quote above from the conversation below. Some Extension professionals are already working within collective action networks and thinking deeply about what that means. I had the opportunity to talk with four of them. Jamie Bain, Noelle Harden and Stephanie Heim of University of Minnesota Extension are working within networks around food systems. They are also authors of the report, “Cultivating Collective Action: The ecology of a statewide food network.” Jeff Piestrak of the Alfred R Mann Library, Cornell University, has worked within networks to promote resilient agriculture and healthy food systems in New York state and beyond. Our conversation focused on why Extension should work within networks, what roles Extension professionals could play within networks, how Extension professionals could start thinking and behaving more like a network, and more.

Please share your thoughts, reflections and questions in the comments section below.

Bob Bertsch seeks and shares insights on weaving collaborative networks. He’s currently a web technology specialist with North Dakota State University Agriculture Communication and engagement coordinator for the eXtension Network Literacy community of practice. You can find Bob, @ndbob, and engage in this conversation using the hashtag #ExtCAN, on Twitter.


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