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Penn State Extension Changes Aimed at Enhancing Program Reach and Customer Service

Posted: April 12, 2017

Changes in operational structure and programming now underway will enhance the value of Penn State Extension to the Pennsylvania communities and clients it serves, according to leaders of the organization.
Penn State Extension is evolving to better serve its stakeholders with enhanced customer service and relevant products and programs, delivered online and through its statewide network of county-based educators.

Penn State Extension is evolving to better serve its stakeholders with enhanced customer service and relevant products and programs, delivered online and through its statewide network of county-based educators.

The goals of this restructuring are to better align programs and products with stakeholder needs, to deliver those programs in ways that best meet customer preferences and to maximize statewide operational efficiency, according to Dennis Calvin, director of Penn State Extension and associate dean in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Putting innovation and research-based solutions to work in businesses and communities across Pennsylvania long has been the mission of Penn State Extension," Calvin said. "To ensure that legacy continues, we are continuing to evolve in a digital era to capitalize on the technologies that allow us to get science-based educational resources to more Pennsylvanians."

One emphasis of the initiative is an enhanced focus on customer relationships, Calvin noted.

"Local relationships always have been a core value of Penn State Extension, and now we are taking the next step by formally building client relations into top-level administration," he said. "We are adding an associate director of client relations position that will work closely with the associate director of programs and the associate director of operations. Together with the director of extension, these four positions comprise the executive leadership team."

The spotlight on customer relations also will permeate the organization statewide. Instead of 20 districts managed by district directors, Extension will be organized into 10 multi-county areas, each of which will be overseen by a customer relations manager and a business operations manager. By dividing the duties of the former district directors, the individuals who fill these new positions can concentrate solely on building client relationships and providing program operational support, respectively.

"Client relations managers are tasked with working with county stakeholders, raising awareness of the breadth of extension products and services available to them, defining local issues and needs, and working to bring the full resources of extension to bear on these issues," Calvin said.

He added that business operations managers will manage the operation of county extension offices, providing a network for program delivery: "They will work to standardize systems and procedures across the organization, which will dramatically increase efficiency and effectiveness of our operations."

Dovetailing with these operational changes are shifts in how educational programs and resources are developed and delivered. About six years ago, county-based educators began working as part of statewide teams. Although these teams work at the state level to create priorities, programs and products, these educators live and work in counties across the state where they apply this knowledge. This structure allows Penn State Extension to employ its expertise — wherever it exists — to assist clientele and address local issues in any county in Pennsylvania.

All extension educators, no matter where they are located, now will be part of an extension unit, aligned with the College of Agricultural Sciences' areas of excellence and research strengths. The seven units, each overseen by an assistant director of programs, are 4-H Youth Development; Agronomy and Natural Resources; Animal Systems; Energy, Entrepreneurship, and Community Development; Food Safety and Quality; Food, Families, and Health; and Horticulture.

Educators in these units will organize around state program teams that will draw expertise from across the college's nine academic departments and from the seven newly designated extension units. These teams will focus on specific areas such as dairy, poultry and crops, or on priority issues such as the Food Safety Modernization Act and agricultural water quality.

Moving forward, Calvin explained, online, digital education will dramatically expand the reach and distribution of extension products and services, making them available when, how and where customers want them. These digital products — including videos, articles, publications, online courses, webinars and other resources — will complement current face-to-face programming and allow educators to utilize their in-the-field time more strategically by allowing them to put routine educational materials online.

"All program teams will participate in a strategic program-development process that will result in a diverse mix of products and services to address Pennsylvania priorities," Calvin said. "As part of this process, teams will gather customer and stakeholder input to ensure relevancy."

He said products and services will be focused on improving customer access and usability, will be marketed to customers based on their self-selected interest areas, and will include blended online and face-to-face delivery methods.

"These steps are designed to dramatically improve the relevancy, usability and reach of our programs and services," Calvin said. "The goals are to listen and learn, to match customer needs and priorities with a robust portfolio of science-based information and education, and ultimately to help keep businesses competitive and growing and families and communities thriving."