Maintaining Decentralized Programming While Centralizing Administration at a Cooperative ExtensionNeal Vines | Director of Information Technology for Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech University
The decentralized model has been part of the DNA of Cooperative Extensions for over a century. Initially launched to help bring the expertise of land grant universities to end-users across the state, Cooperative Extensions rely on their field offices to create, launch and offer programming that’s responsive to local needs. However, this highly decentralized model can create significant headaches both for extension staff and for the clients themselves. At Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), they implemented a system that provides a “best of both worlds” environment, allowing programming to remain localized but creating an ecosystem that makes the entire programmatic portfolio easier to manage and navigate. In this interview, Neal Vines discusses the critical importance of the decentralized model for Cooperative Extensions and reflects on how the implementation of a customer lifecycle management system has helped ameliorate some of the obstacles.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the unique benefits of VCE decentralized model?
Neal Vines (NV): The decentralized model allows us to really tailor our educational programming to the local communities we’re responsible for. If a particular county or city has a unique educational need or a unique issue that they’re dealing with, the decentralized nature of the organization allows us to respond relatively quickly to those issues or those needs without a whole lot of administrative overhead. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t have state-wide initiatives, state-wide goals and directions. We do, and we do try to do programming within those parameters and adjust it for the local areas but the real value there is that it makes us a much more agile and a much more responsive organization than if we were very top-heavy and very centralized.
Evo: What are some of the fundamental challenges with trying to manage this highly decentralized, very spread out division, especially with so many field offices and different organizations all delivering programming under the banner of cooperative extension?
NV: It really is a lot like herding cats. We’re very entrepreneurial in nature and we’re very innovative in terms of our approaches to programming, which is great, but it also means that sometimes there is a lack of consistency in the way that we present ourselves and the way that we present our programs.
We often lacked a standardized set of business practices. Because we’re considered a state agency we have state guidelines we have to follow and we have university guidelines we have to follow, but there’s usually a lot of variability in those so we didn’t have a standard format for offering a program, or advertising or pricing a program.
The other piece is that, oftentimes, the decentralization doesn’t give us an easy means of addressing the diversity in the portfolio of programs that we have. Because it’s decentralized, a lot of the marketing efforts for programs tended to focus on the locality in which those programs are offered and sometimes we lost sight of the fact that, even though we might be offering a program in our home county, there may be other people in an adjoining county that might like to take advantage of it. Simply, it was sometimes difficult for our clientele to see the full breadth of the programs that we offer.
Evo: What impact do those challenges have on the client experience that you’re able to deliver?
NV: If I’m someone who has an interest in food safety, for example, it may not be easy for me to find where some of these programs are being offered. Our program advertisements were appearing on individual websites that the individual offices maintain. As a result, if I were looking for a program to enroll in and didn’t find one in my county, I would have had to visit a different website or a different location to see if the county next door is offering something of interest.
We were looking to get away from this model and become more of a one-stop shop—or single pane of glass—displaying all the programs offered in the region so our clients can make an informed decision about which programs they want to take and where they want to take them.
Evo: With such a wide array of clients, what are a few key elements that you’d consider central to a great client experience?
NV: First of all, we’ve got to be able to put these programs out so people know that they can sign up for them. We have pretty extensive lists of people who have used our programs in the past, and so we market to them through newsletters or direct mailings or things like that. The difficult part is finding those customers, those clients that we’ve never worked with before or have them find us. We would like to set up locations where people can go and search for programs and find a list of everything on offer in their location.
The second thing of course is that we’ve got to make registration for programs as easy on the clientele as possible. Traditionally student had to go to a physical office and pay with cash or a cheque. We send out registration forms that people fill out and then mail back in with a cheques, but we’ve never really had a good mechanism for people to be able to register for a program online and pay for it with their credit card. I’ve actually been in this position now for about 3 years and when I first came back to Virginia and went around the state interviewing people and trying to get a feel for some of the things that people want improved, offering programs online was probably the number-one issue on everyone’s list. That was the catalyst for this effort to find a product that would allow us to do that.
Evo: When you think about the challenges that you were facing, how do these things impact the bottom line for cooperative extension?
NV: Really what we’re about is we’re trying to reach the maximum number of people that we can with programs that provide solutions to local problems. If we’re not successful in doing that or if there are significant segments of the population that are either unaware of our programs or unable to subscribe to our programs then we’re not successful as an educational organization. Not being able to reach out to those audiences or to create an easy-to-navigate mechanism for them to get to our programs is a problem for us
What we’re trying to do is to essentially expand our market base so that we can reach more people. First we need more people to be aware of our program and services. Then we’ll be better able to encourage them to participate in our offerings.
Evo: VCE recently rolled out a new customer lifecycle management system to help coordinate some aspects of organizational management while also improving the client experience. What are some of the early benefits you are seeing from this new balanced centralized administration/decentralized programming model?
NV: As a soft roll out, we approached some folks we knew had programs coming up and got them to take a chance and work with our new system to get those programs out. The experience has been very good both on the client side and for the staff and the professionals offering the programs.
Because this is still new for us, registration was offered by mail, in person and online. The majority of the registrations for the programs offered through Destiny One have been online, which I think is a big thing. This was all voluntary. Participants were not forced to use the new online registration platform.
The organizations offering the programs have been very complimentary about the process, and of course word gets around. It has been an overall positive experience for the six months that we’ve actually be doing it.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value Destiny One is bringing to the table in terms of helping you to manage this very decentralized but community-responsive program in a better, easier way?
NV: The point that I would probably emphasize is that any time you have a system like this that has so much capability and so much flexibility, it’s really important that you have good strong dialogue and willingness to understand when you’re trying to do both the initial set up and then tweak the product. That’s an area where we feel like Destiny Solutions has been really good.
It has been really helpful for us to have someone who will listen and try to understand what we’re doing and suggest ways for us to set our programs or do some of the back-end configurations that need to be done to make the program more functional and more usable. With Destiny Solutions, we have the benefit of relying on their experience with a whole host of other universities and educational institutions. So when we run up against a problem and we’re struggling, we can let them know and ask about how other institutions handled similar issues
They’ve really become like consultants for us in that regard.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about how VCE is balancing the importance of decentralized programming with the benefits of centralized administration with their new customer lifecycle management system, please click here.
Author Perspective: Administrator