Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 6, Issue 2 - December, 2013

Editor: Lee Stivers

Boundary Organizations: a New Framework for Understanding Agricultural Extension Work

Jones, J. G., Extension Educator, University Of Nebraska - Lincoln


Boundary organizations bridge the divide between science and decision-making. Extension serves such a purpose by bringing together researchers and farmer/ranchers, “on the ground” decision-makers. The concept of boundary organizations is an ideal framework for understanding factors that lead to successful extension programs. This study utilized a survey of extension personnel and a content analysis of extension reports to provide insight into how extension works as a boundary organization on agricultural and natural resource issues.


The current environmental, economic, and social climate facing agriculture highlights the need for research and educational efforts focused on giving people the knowledge necessary to sustainably and effectively manage resources. Extension plays a critical part in fulfilling this need by facilitating the transfer of knowledge and its diffusion from researchers to farmers and ranchers who are the “on the ground” decision makers when it comes to resource management.

The Smith-Lever Act states, “In order to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subject relating to agriculture…” This statement forms the foundation for the mission of extension. Additionally, extension’s mission “…makes it clear that that the system should serve as a negotiator between scientific researchers and the users (decision-makers) of scientific and technical information” (Cash, 2001, p. 439).  Because extension negotiates the divide between researchers and decision-makers it is considered a boundary organization.

The concept of boundary organizations can help provide a framework to understand how extension works at the boundary between science and decision-making and what factors lead to successful agricultural programming efforts.  The study presented here provides insight as to how extension works as a boundary organization on agricultural and natural resource issues.


Boundary organizations straddle the divide between science and decision-making through mediation and facilitation. Two major characteristics define these organizations (Guston, 2001). First, they assist in the creation of boundary objects, scientific objects that also meet the needs of decision makers (e.g. graphs, diagrams, maps, etc.), extension does this through the creation and publication of circulars, guides, etc. and through the development of curriculum and presentations. Second, boundary organizations bridge the boundary by encouraging the participation of both scientists and decision makers through the use of specialized professionals who serve as mediators. Extension agents/educators often serve as mediators by bringing researchers in to work with farmers and ranchers and in doing so they bridge the divide between science and decision-making. Boundary objects and mediation efforts allow information to flow back and forth between scientists and decision-makers.

Each side must perceive the information flowing across the boundary as salient, credible, and legitimate (SCL) in order to effectively influence decision-making (Cash et al., 2003). However, it is difficult for information to satisfactorily meet all three criteria for both sides. Because of this challenge the criteria of salient, credible, and legitimate or “SCL” criteria make a suitable framework for evaluating the effectiveness of boundary organizations and their work (Clark et al., 2011).

Boundary organizations should work in a management role to ensure the information flowing across the divide meets the SCL criteria. Three primary functions characterize this management role: communication, translation, and mediation (Cash et al., 2003). Extension has been found to function in these roles: they communicate salient research needs to scientists, they provide a neutral forum for discussion, and they help build long-term trust (Cash & Moser, 2000). Furthermore, boundary organizations are most successful when the focus of their work is on a specific issue and the scale of their projects allow for optimal interaction between both sides (Carr & Wilkinson, 2005). Many extension educational efforts focus on a particular issue at an appropriate level that allows for contact and communication across the boundary.


Meeting the challenge of better understanding how extension works at the boundary between science and decision-making and what factors lead to successful extension programming efforts required the use of two evaluation methods. First, a survey of extension personnel and second, a content analysis of extension activity reports.

Using an online survey method data collection occurred to examine the role and function of University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) Extension in boundary work and management. UNL Extension Educators and Specialists across the state with an agricultural and/or natural resource programming focus received a link to the survey. The survey consisted of nine questions, grouped into three groups.

The first group of questions focused on the success of extension’s boundary work, by focusing on the SCL criteria because of its ability to serve as a measure of success. Generally, these questions asked the respondent what they did to ensure the information shared meets the SCL criteria. A list of options accompanied each question and respondents ranked how frequently they utilized that option on a five point Likert scale (1 = Never to 5 = Always).

The second group of questions concentrated on the role extension is undertaking in boundary management, by concentrating on the three functions that contribute the most to boundary management: communication, translation, and mediation. These questions asked how the respondent performs these functions. The first two questions in this group were similar in structure to the questions in the first group while the third question was open ended and asked respondents to report examples. Space was provided to allow for comments from respondents. The final set of questions was demographic in nature and asked for position, focus, and location.

UNL Extension maintains an online searchable database of reports detailing programming efforts and impacts, the UNL Extension Activity Reporting System (EARS) provided the data necessary to determine what boundary spanning activities UNL Extension is coordinating. A search retrieved all the reports related to programming efforts in agriculture and natural resources. Then a content analysis required the reports to be read and sorted into general categories based on their primary theme and then in to subcategories.

An in depth analysis of the reports which fell into the subcategory of Agricultural Water Use occurred after sorting to examine UNL Extension’s boundary spanning efforts in this area. The selection of this subtopic is due to its specific nature, the scale of the programming efforts, and the importance of irrigated agriculture to the state of Nebraska. The in depth analysis focused on searching for examples of UNL Extension working to make information meet the SCL criteria; and extension working to communicate, translate, and mediate between researchers and decision-makers.

Results and Discussion

The use of the criteria, having a position with an agriculture and/or natural resources programming focus, led to the identification of 133 individuals to receive the survey. Of those a total of 49 individuals completed the survey, for a response rate of 37%. Sixty two percent of respondents identified themselves as Extension Educators and 38% identified themselves as Extension Specialists. Approximately 60% of respondents reported concentrating on agronomy and horticulture, while about 40% indicated their efforts being animal science focused. Respondents represented all regions of the state.

Collaboration between stakeholders and extension professionals is the most common strategy undertaken, according to survey results, to ensure the information provided is relevant (or salient) to stakeholders (Table 1). One method of collaboration respondents report using is translational or “on farm” research.  Translational research emphasizes collaboration between researchers, extension personnel, and community partners in order to create scientific knowledge to best serve the public’s needs (Hill, Becker, and Parker, 2008). Similar to translational research “field experience” is another approach respondents reported using in order to ensure saliency and credibility. One respondent commented, “Farmer experiences, to assure the ideas are relevant to the practical questions farmers ask; also giving this equal credibility broadens the information resource base and builds credibility with farmers.”

Respondents also report following current, environmental, and social trends to ensure the saliency of their efforts. Many respondents reported listening to stakeholders’ questions and discussing with them about current trends as one informal method they use to stay on top of issues. One specific example a respondent gave is meeting others at the sale barn vet lunch where, “I almost never fail to ask about what they are seeing and what educational needs are there.” An important point arising from the data and comments is the need for boundary organization personnel to have one-on-one relationships and engage in frequent communication with stakeholders in order to provide saliency and credibility to the information they are providing.

Extension professionals most commonly utilize UNL research and publications followed by publications from other land-grant universities, according to survey results, to ensure the information provided is perceived as true (or credible) by stakeholders. The primary use of information from UNL also assists extension personnel in building relationships with researchers and may help in developing relationships between researchers and decision-makers the farmers/ranchers.

Building trust among stakeholders was a frequent response to the question asking how they as extension professionals ensure the interpretation by stakeholders of information as fair, respectful, and without bias (or legitimate). This response relates back to the importance of relationship building for boundary organizations. Additionally with this question several respondent commented on the ability to present information in an unbiased manner. One respondent commented, “I don’t believe anyone can be entirely unbiased because life experience influences who we are and how we act. However, I try to acknowledge that and work to present information in as an unbiased way as humanly possible.” These comments about bias are important since it is important for extension personnel to recognize the biases one may have in order to address them and work towards being as unbiased as possible in their role as a boundary spanner.

  Mean Score
Saliency approaches  
Collaborate with stakeholders 3.80
Follow current environmental and social trends 3.73
Utilize advisory groups 3.29
Conduct needs assessments 2.90
Credibility approaches  
Utilize UNL research and publications 4.41
Utilize research and publications from other land-grant universities 4.24
Utilize research and publications from other peer-reviewed sources 4.08
Utilize research and publications from governmental sources 3.86
Legitmacy approaches  
Work to build trust among stakeholders 4.49
Fair in how information for presenations is selected 4.41
Show respect for all stakeholders' views 4.24
Present information in an unbiased manner 4.24
Clear on how information was produced, selected, and disseminated 4.14

Table 1. Approaches to ensure information meets the SCL criteria

The importance of relationships and communication was a major theme that emerged in the responses to the first set of survey questions. The second set of questions focused specifically on methods used to communicate.  Results show that programs (e.g. workshops, seminars, conferences, etc.) are a highly preferred method among extension personnel to communicate with clientele (Table 2). These methods allow for face-to-face communication in an educational setting and provide clientele the opportunity not to just communicate with extension personnel, but researchers as well. The most preferred method outside of programs was media outlets, newspaper articles and radio/TV spots. These communications assist in relationship building by giving extension personnel the opportunity to get their name out in the community. One surprising finding in these results was the limited use of “new” technologies among respondents, with social media and blogs having the lowest mean scores.

  Mean Score
Annual programs 3.82
One-time programs 3.56
Multi-session programs 3.51
Newspaper articles 3.59
Radio/TV spots 3.46
Office visits 3.40
Field visits 3.29
Newsletters 3.20
Social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) 2.20
Blogs 1.64

Table 2. Approaches to boundary management - Communication

The communication of scientific data must occur in a way that allows decision-makers to understand and utilize it. Respondents reported using photographs and examples most frequently to translate scientific information to clientele (Table 3). Other visual methods of communicating graphs, diagrams, and tables were also popular among respondents. The use of examples was also very popular among respondents. Comments illustrated the importance of their use, “Personal experiences have great credibility.” This comment stresses the importance of utilizing different translation methods to help meet the SCL criteria. 

  Mean Score
Photographs 4.13
Examples 4.11
Graphs 3.78
Diagrams 3.65
Tables 3.62
Stories 3.41
Hands on activities 3.38
Maps 3.02
Simulations 2.80
Models 2.76

Table 3. Approaches to Boundary Management - Translation

The final role of boundary organizations examined in the survey was the role of mediator. Reponses show that several major themes arise when asked about how extension personnel work to mediate the flow of information between researchers and clientele. First, interpreting research for clientele to understand. Second, using a variety of communication and translation methods tailored to the audience in order to mediate the flow of information. Third, connecting researchers and clientele by being involved. The final theme that appeared in the responses was in regard to how extension should develop and deliver their programs in order to become better mediators. One respondent stated, “Explaining the important ‘take home message’ from the research, and illustrating or demonstrating how that information can be applied in real life situations.” The two major points that arose from the themes identified were the importance of effective communication and personal connections being vital components to strong relationships in boundary organizations.

Complementing the survey results is an examination of programming efforts (EARS reports). The EARS search retrieved 1,416 reports, representing programming efforts in agriculture and natural resources from 1996 to present. Fifteen general categories and 83 subcategories emerged from the analysis. Eighty-five reports fell into the subcategory Agricultural Water Use.

These reports show the collaboration and relationship building occurring around this issue. UNL Extension is working with other state’s university extension services, Nebraska Natural Resource Districts, commodity groups, private industry, federal government agencies, state government departments, irrigation districts, and university centers/divisions on program development and delivery related to agricultural water use. The audiences these programming efforts focus upon include: farmers, crop consultants, agribusiness professionals, suppliers, government personnel, students and educators. The number and diversity of programming partners and audiences demonstrate the important role extension as a boundary organization has in helping to broker relationships. These relationships being built allow: governmental agencies to collaborate; researchers to access broad and diverse populations; and educators to inform the “practice-to-research feedback loop” (Hill, Becker, and Parker, 2008).

The reports showcased six major educational programming efforts. From these efforts the most common method of delivery was demonstrations and field tours. Many of these demonstrations and field tours took place on farms where extension personnel partnered with farmers to conduct on-farm or translation research. The goal of one such effort, the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Demonstration Network (NAWMDN) is to transfer high-quality research-based information to decision-makers through the use of on-farm demonstration projects and to encourage adoption of new irrigation management technologies and methods that increase efficiency. The goal of this effort is identical to the mission of boundary organizations, to help bridge the gap between research and decision-makers.

The use of a translational research model (“on-farm” research) helps in the transferring of information. Using this type of research method the information shared across the boundary is more capable of meeting the necessary SCL criteria. The reports provide evidence of extension personnel use of collaboration in meeting the criteria also supporting the idea UNL extension is engaged in successful boundary work.


The concept of boundary organizations serves as an ideal framework for understanding what factors lead to success in extension programming efforts. The information shared in all programming efforts must be deemed by clientele as relevant to their needs, from a credible source, and fair and unbiased, in order to effect change in attitudes and behaviors. Extension taking on the roles of communicator, translator, and mediator can help meet this criteria. When extension personnel assume these roles clientele are more likely to view the information provided by extension as meeting the SCL criteria.

On farm research provides an excellent example of how extension can work in these roles and provides information that meets the criteria.  It does this because it utilizes farmers and their land to demonstrate solutions to problems and issues experiences by other farmers. It brings university scientists together with farmers, the on the ground decision makers to share knowledge through two-way communication.

Completely understanding extension’s role as a boundary organization will require additional study. The sample in this study was limited and only reflected the work of agricultural extension personnel in the state of Nebraska. Further surveys and interviews with other extension personnel in other states across multiple disciplines would allow for a more complete picture of the role of extension nationwide.

Additionally and most importantly, an evaluation of client’s attitudes and opinions on extension programming would help form a more complete picture of the impact extension’s work is having on decision making. The surveying of extension clientele and their perceptions related to the SCL criteria would assist in determining the success of extension as a boundary organization. Client evaluations is the major component that would complement the work presented here and give even greater insight into if Extension is successfully functioning as a boundary organization.

Overall, the concept of boundary organization can assist extension personnel to understand their role in the decision making process for clientele. Furthermore, the SCL criteria that aids in determining the success of boundary organizations can help extension personnel evaluate the information they share in order to maximize its ability to help clientele make decisions. The role of extension as a boundary organization in agriculture is best summarized by Carr and Wilkinson (2005), “A boundary organization is profoundly more than a conduit or funnel; it is a forum where multiple perspectives and multiple knowledge systems converge” (p. 261). As agricultural production becomes more scientifically and technologically advanced there is an increased need for boundary organizations, like extension, to take agricultural producers’ concerns more seriously.

Literature Cited

Carr, A. & Wilkinson, R. (2005). Beyond participation: boundary organizations new space for farmers and scientists to interact. Society and Natural Resources, 13 (2), 135-162.

Cash, D.W. (2001). “In order to aid in diffusing useful and practical information”: agricultural extension and boundary organizations. Science, Technology & Human Values, 26 (4), 431-453.

Cash, D.W., & Moser, S.C. (2000). Linking global and local scales: designing dynamic assessments and management processes. Global Environmental Change, 10, 109-120.

Cash, D.W., Clark, W.C., Alcock, F., Dickson, N.M., Eckley, N., Guston, D.H., et al. (2003). Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. 100(14), 8086-8091.

Clark, W.C., Tomich, T.P., van Noordwijk, N., Guston, D., Catacutan, D., Dickson, N.M., et al. (2011). Boundary work for sustainable development: natural resource management at the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (pp. 1-8). Washington DC: National Academy of Science.

Guston, D.H. (2001). Boundary organizations in environmental policy and science: an introduction. Science, Technology & Human Values, 26 (4), 399-408.

Hill, L., Becker, L., & Parker, L. (2008). Mobilizing extension as a partner in translational prevention research. APHA 136th Annual Meeting. Washington DC: American Public Health Association.