The role of social capital and communication technologies in knowledge transfer within Cornell Cooperative Extension programs
CALS Impact Statement
The overall objective of this project is to better understand and improve the transfer of technical research-based information through CCE to citizens of NY State. The project studies the role of social relations and communication technologies in knowledge transfer. Sharing Cornell's expert knowledge with the community is the mission of CCE. Advanced communication technologies have been adopted to facilitate this process. Unknown is the effectiveness of these technologies, the extent of adoption and how Extension Educator's roles have changed. The research addresses these questions via a comprehensive study of how extension educators and producers/consumers use communication technologies in information seeking and decision-making; and how the development of network relationships among extension educators and end users facilitate knowledge sharing. The study will develop recommendations for better integration of communication technologies into the knowledge sharing practices for CCE.
In an information society, timely access to innovative knowledge is crucial for making informed decisions (Drucker, 1999). For producers of agricultural products, this implies better usage of resources and a sustained competitive edge (Argote, McEvily, & Reagans, 2003; Yuan & McKelvey, 2004) when, for instance, the adoption of a new pesticide can more effectively protect crops. For consumers, this implies a healthier life style and a better quality of life when, for instance, obese children start having a healthier diet. Yet locating accurate innovative knowledge when needed can be a challenging task. The internet, for example, has made it easier to obtain and share information with a large audience at relatively low cost. Yet the reduced cost of posting information on-line and the open nature of the technology have also made this information marketplace replete with false or misleading information posted by not-so-credible sources. As a result, it has become very difficult for knowledge seekers to identify and utilize accurate and complete information. A common problem is not the inaccessibility of information, but rather how to sift through and analyze the data they receive in order to, finally, determine its value. Under these circumstances, expert knowledge generated by accredited academic institutions becomes especially valuable because academic research follows strict procedural and ethical guidelines, and research findings are under constant scrutiny from impartial peers.
The proposed study examines how accredited academic institutions collaborate with various partners to share the innovative expert knowledge they have created with local communities. In particular, the research studies how Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) programs share with New York State consumers and producers, the innovative expert knowledge developed by the research faculty at Cornell. The benefits of seeking expertise from CCE are twofolds. First, Cornell University is respected world-wide for its academic excellence, and can function as a huge knowledge base for diverse disciplines. Second, CCE has traditionally focused on developing interpersonal relations with producers and customers. These relations can play a vital role helping consumers and producers critically evaluate the quality of information they find on the Internet, particularly when the information found on the web offer conflicting opinions. The current research, will focus on two programs: Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and nutrition programs, and study how Cornell University faculty work with extension educators to share innovative pest and dietary practices with local producers and consumers.
CCE programs have been set up for the very purpose of collaborating with local governments to share Cornell's innovative research findings with local communities in New York State. Advanced communication technologies, including designated websites for different extension programs, electronic newsletters, teleconferencing equipment, etc., have been adopted to facilitate this process. What is unknown, however, is (a) the effectiveness of using these technologies to share innovations, (b) the extent to which they might be adopted by participants of CCE programs and (c) their impact on CCE and extension educators' roles in the knowledge-sharing process. One important question to ask, then, is how direct, albeit impersonal, access to research-based innovation via the Web changes (or is likely to change) the way(s) in which extension educators interact with consumers and producers? Specifically, is the nature of innovations shared via the Web significantly different from innovations shared via interpersonal contacts with Cornell and extension educators? This research addresses these, and many similar, questions by initiating a comprehensive study to explore the following issues: First, how Cornell and extension educators and participants of CCE programs utilize such communication technologies as the Internet in their daily lives. Second, how the development of social network ties and trusting relationships between extension educators and consumers and producers facilitates the sharing of innovative knowledge. Third, how communication technologies and interpersonal ties interact with each other in the process of knowledge sharing to achieve better efficiency and effectiveness of CCE programs. And finally, building on the fundamental premises of transactive memory theory, the project will design and implement an expertise locating and sharing system. The theory explains how distributed knowledge should be connected via network relations and mental models of expertise distribution (Wegner, 1987). We believe that the implemention of such a system as an intervention progrm can help translate empirical findings from the research into practical knowledge management tools.
The project has just launched in October 2006. By now we have conducted extensive literature review of related topics. We have also started interviewing IPM extension educators to learn how they share knowledge/best practices among each other.
Given that the project has just started, there is no measurable impact yet.