Disrupting Engagement or Engagement, the Disrupter?

Disrupting Engagement or Engagement, the Disrupter?

Dave King, Professor Emeritus, Oregon State University

Photo by Fabio Bracht on Unsplash

When the analog-to-digital information evolution began in the mid 1990s, Extension and engagement—as functions of higher education—appeared to be likely targets for disruption. Yet, today, fundamental aspects of Extension and engagement appear to be untouched by disruptive competition. Or do they?

“The past is prologue,” wrote William Shakespeare. So a quick review of Extension and the digital evolution, and what we can learn from history, might be valuable.

In 1994, when Mike Boehlje, distinguished professor in Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, and I began design work what would ultimately evolve into eXtension. We started with a relatively academic question about how information gains value in the new digital information marketplace. During our work on the topic, Clayton Christensen, from the Harvard Business School, released his seminal work on the theory of disruptive innovation, The Innovators Dilemma, in 1997.

Our initial research took an abstract look at the digital monetization of information. However, with Christensen’s work, it became clear that, in the real world, disruptive innovation in the information marketplace might become an existential issue for Extension and other academic engagement activities. In fact, one of the best examples of potential disruption in this new digital marketplace might be Extension—a 100-year-old market incumbent with a diminishing market-share already. As Christensen suggested, disruption in the educational information market could easily come from commercial startups providing a product that initially may seem less sophisticated but significantly less expensive and more easily accessible by larger unserved audiences. It was the last factor that really grabbed our attention—more easily accessible by larger unserved audiences.

Some colleagues disagreed with the assertion that Extension was ripe for disruptive innovation, as Christensen defined it.  How could any competitor be any less expensive than Extension—a free-to-the-learner service? However, a deeper look showed clearly that potential competitors could develop new digital access points at lower development costs and easily offer their product for no cost to the learner/customer. And, over time, these new information products would be viewed as just as valuable as the “science-based, objective information” provided by Extension. Just ask Alexa.

One approach we suggested then was that perhaps Extension could consider a more wholesale partnership approach. Here is an excerpt from the Journal of Applied Communication, September, 1998:

The Cooperative Extension Service is facing unprecedented competitive pressure in the information and education marketplace. As data are combined with knowledge to create information from which revenue and value can be gained, private information providers are placing Extension at a competitive disadvantage. As information customers reassess their needs and place higher value on convenience and access over objectivity, several questions must be answered. Chief among them: Can Extension and the Land-Grant System survive and succeed in head-to-head competition with private information providers, or will the system be most successful as a wholesale source of information and education in partnership with private-sector information providers?

Now all these years later, Extension is a role model for the newly defined engagement function of higher education as a whole—including individual, community, corporate and societal engagement. The Extension enterprise seems to be as vital as ever. However, even though it has taken more years than we visualized in 1998, competitors are surfacing from outside (Alexa, Siri, et al,) but also from within higher education. In fact, perhaps the new higher education-wide focus on engagement could be an example of disruption from within. Competitors include every non-land-grant educational entity which has “discovered” the need to engage similarly to the way Extension has for more than 100 years.

Disrupting from within was always problematic for Christensen and his proteges. Initially, according to Christensen’s fundamental concepts, disrupting from within was likely to fail every time unless new thinking surfaced. However, Christensen’s theory has evolved. The shift began in 2008 when Christensen, Horn and Johnson, released Disrupting Class. Rather than describe education in terms of a commercial entity, they suggested education as an “institution” has a larger scope and audience and (perhaps) more flexibility than commercial entities whose shareholders want monetary dividends. Sure, the competitive information marketplace is a reality, but the size and scope of education as a whole has allowed an internal—but just as competitive—marketplace to develop.

Just for discussion here, the incumbent (Land-grant universities) can use new technology to enhance success with current (and ultimately diminishing) audiences, but the internal disrupter (private colleges, community colleges, urban universities) will begin to satisfy unserved audiences with less expensive and easier access in population centers.

This doesn’t mean that education, and its subsequent parts such as Extension and engagement aren’t also ripe for outside disruption. It does mean, though, that initial disruption when it comes, may come fast, and more easily from within.

Does that mean our initial worries about being disrupted from outside should be set aside? Hardly, in fact, we need to become even more concerned about how engagement, as it evolves into the future, can be driven by disruptive innovative and entrepreneurial ideas.

The real question for higher education as a whole may be whether disruption from within is an advantage—allowing higher education to create the entrepreneurial partnerships we suggested in 1998 and spurring all parties to greater thinking—or a dangerous distraction where we miss other disrupters coming from the outside while we’re preoccupied by internal competition.

Randy Ottinger, from the Kotter Group, writing for Forbes, April, 2013, suggests that innovation (disruptive or not) by its nature is the domain of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs thrive in an unstructured environment. They shun management structure because it impedes creativity and slows them down. Instead, they are most successful in a highly networked world where a free-flow of information provides the ability to invent, learn, and adjust at a very rapid rate.

Early versions of eXtension envisioned just that. Using the existing network of Land-grant Universities to foster and connect our entrepreneurs and their ideas—especially those ideas for new ways to address societal needs using the knowledge base of our Universities. Leading the development of an entrepreneurial network among a diverse set of educational entities may be the best hedge against rapidly rising outside competition.

Engagement, and the ultimate improvement for society it brings, will be more successful if we improve the care and feeding of our entrepreneurs. In my just-completed annual seminar on Disruptive Innovation for the Honors College at Oregon State, I described the disruptive environment as one where furry little mammals (with creative ideas) run around at the feet of the (incumbent) dinosaurs. Some are stepped on by the behemoths, but others survive, and as we know, ultimately take over the world. What we have to remember is that our goal—In fact our responsibility—is to foster the growth and interconnection of our furry little mammals, and not just spray-paint the dinosaur one more time.

Additional historical reading:

  • Hey, Siri, What Is the Future of Extension?

Journal of Extension

September 2018 // Volume 56 // Number 5 // Commentary // v56-5comm1


  • A Return to the Basics: The Solution for eXtension

Journal of Extension

October 2013 // Volume 51 // Number 5 // Commentary // v51-5comm


One thought on “Disrupting Engagement or Engagement, the Disrupter?

  1. As always, your recent blog post “Disrupting Engagement or Engagement, the Disrupter?” offered lots of food for thought. I especially liked your statement, “The real question for higher education as a whole may be whether disruption from within is an advantage—allowing higher education to create the entrepreneurial partnerships we suggested in 1998 and spurring all parties to greater thinking—or a dangerous distraction where we miss other disrupters coming from the outside while we’re preoccupied by internal competition.” Thanks for sharing your insights.

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