Higher_Ed.Biz<br>Economic Portal Development
- By Paul McCloskey
Most public colleges and universities operate under an inefficient social contract.
They are supported through grants and tax dollars flowing from businesses and
individual tax payers. But with the exception of a few adult education classes
here and there, they serve the least productive members of the community.
That’s the traditional setup and it ultimately works toward the betterment
of the community. Yet it’s also a very long and winding return path for
those hard-earned tax dollars. Over time, the economic drain is phenomenal.
In some communities, however, university educators and philanthropic foundations
are trying to put the Internet to work to better connect service organizations,
capital sources, and local business. One of the more interesting examples is
the Northern Tier High Tech Corridor, a network of upper Midwest economic development
organizations, universities, and nonprofits who are determined to pull together
to support rural businesses.
"The Northern Tier provides the collaborative tools necessary to link
business and industry with the knowledge resources they need to succeed,"
says Mike Wellcome, project manager of the Center for Research and Innovation
at Bemidji State University.
Bemidji State is currently partnering with eight other campuses in the northwestern
part of the state, including colleges in the Minnesota State system, community
and technical colleges, Northwest Technical College-Bemidji, Northland Community
and Technical College, and Minnesota State University; Morehead, to form a collaborative
called the Alliance to work on economic and workforce development issues.
To facilitate collaboration among the entities, the Alliance has launched
a portal through which some 20 different communities exchange business leads,
Post Request For Proposals, and seek resources and business contacts. The system
is built upon good but standard portal technology (see box). The IBM system
can be tailored to the user, it has "push and pull" features that
can deliver news and information tailored to individual users’ interests,
and it includes collaborative tools for making discussion forums. It is the
collaborative tools—and uses—raise it above the level of a mere
information portal, Wellcome asserts.
"It’s really more than a portal," says Wellcome. "We
view it as a knowledge management tool." By that he means the platform
is organic: a set of collaborative tools that constantly compiles information
to be reused by its members.
So when Polaris, a maker of All-Terrain Vehicles, needs some technical support,
training, or strategic business planning, they can contact an Alliance member
to provide that training. "It opens not only a single institution’s
resources, but multiple institutions," says Wellcome. For this the Alliance
receives no state funding. Instead it is supported in part by grants from the
Blanden Charitable Foundation.
Citing another example, Wellcome points to the statewide Small Business Development
Center, "a very successful community" on the Northern Tier with
a director located in St. Paul and nine regional directors throughout the state.
The Center plans to implement the Northern Tier as its primary communications
tool, says Wellcome.
The communications and collaborative tools have helped flatten what was once
a hierarchical organization by pooling and storing information requests and
responses. "Using the collaborative tool, a person in southwestern Minnesota
posts a question and ‘voila,’ anyone can answer it," says
Wellcome. "So it flattens the organization, and second, when a northwest
Minnesota person has the same question, instead of asking, they can do a quick
search and get the answer right there, so it’s reusing knowledge."
A Level Playing Field
"When we first started this project, the idea was to open the doors so that
the average J'e or Jane could get into the universities and find things that they
need—research for example," says Wellcome. "We quickly realized
that most of the information that we wanted to provide on the Web site was already
there. So we said, ‘well, what’s missing?’ and through a process
identified the collaborative part of interacting between and with higher education
and economic development entities. That was missing."
There were certainly a lot of university resources available. The Alliance
has 36 higher education institutions, from the University of Minnesota-Duluth
on the eastern Minnesota border, all the way to the University of North Dakota
in Grand Forks. "So that’s a tremendous amount of resources not
only of faculty and staff but the student base," says Wellcome.
The Alliance is organized around four teams. One is the "collaborative"
team, where discussions are taking place on defining processes of how members
do business together and how to handle a client that calls in.
For example, what happens when a client calls into Northland Community &
Technical College, East Grand Forks, and they need a specific skill set that
Northland d'es not have? What process d'es Northland use to pass that contact
information on to Bemidji or another sister university or technical college?
It’s not an insignificant question, as calls in can translate into business
and financial gain for the recipient. At least some protocols for routing leads
would maintain equity and fairness among the members.
Says Wellcome: "We have specific competency areas we feel we’re
really good in. For example, Northland’s very good at manufacturing processes
and procedures. If we get a call from ‘J'e’s Manufacturing Shop’
and they need manufacturing training, we would probably pass that on to Northland
or subcontract with Northland to give that training. And then vice versa. If
a company wanted Northland to do organizational or strategic or action planning,
they are not as suited to do that kind of work as we are."
Not every Alliance working team is focused on downstream problems. An "innovations"
team has been charged with proactive support for new businesses. "Typically,
in higher education we are reactive when we develop curriculum or other new
offerings," says Wellcome. "If J'e’s puts in a new system,
we react by putting together a training program in support of it. But we can
provide people ‘in the field’ and proactively identify what’s
needed, we can be there when the business is ready."
in higher education we
are reactive when we develop curriculum or
other new offerings..."
Of course, business development not only means contracts for single businesses,
it can raise a community’s overall economic watermark. To support that
goal, the state of Minnesota has begun an initiative called JOBZ, for Job Opportunity
Building Zone, whereby businesses earn significant tax credits by re-locating
or investing in designated localities. Once the investment decision as been
made, it will spark an economic chain reaction.
"What is just as important as those taxes is, if you’re going
to start a business, you’re also going to need infrastructure support,
logistics, telephone, power, sewage, water
what the Alliance provides
and what the higher education system in Minnesota provides is the ability to
train those new employees once they’re hired or even before they’re
Because the Alliance is relatively young, it is difficult to measure how successful
it has been helping the economies of Northern Tier. What is known is that that
about 20 distinct groups are "thriving" on the system, and about
1,200 individual users have registered. Typically, they go into their private
area, conduct their business and leave, says Wellcome, or they will keep instant
chat on for "easy access to their colleagues and partners."
The system is particularly suited to small rural service providers and technology
developers who have grown up in the Internet environment, and who lack the marketing
infrastructure available to businesses in the denser market geographies of Minneapolis/St.
Paul. One firm, started by three Bemidji State graduate students who graduated
four years ago, provides high-end CAD design prototype work for clients nationwide.
"They stay in the region and they use the [Internet tools]. That’s
how they can stay in business," says Wellcome.
Tools of the Trade
The Northern Tier’s technology pedigree is
complicated somewhat by recent acquisitions and product repositioning
in the computer industry. Currently, the system runs on IBM WebSphere
Portal Version 5, which evolved from various IBM portal offerings, including
WebSphere Portal Server, WebSphere User Experience, and Lotus’s
When the Northern Tier purchased K-Station, it
was considered Lotus’s knowledge management platform, and it contained
two collaborative tools. One was Lotus’s SameTime Instant Messaging client
or Shared Tea Room, which enables users to do PowerPoint presentations,
hold key meetings, and share documents online. The other was Lotus’s QuickPlace.
Upon the acquisition of Lotus by IBM, IBM spawned the WebSphere portal
and integrated K-Station and its collaborative features into it prior
to stopping development of the K-Station platform.
"The collaborative tools on the tier are new and we are facing exactly
the same obstacles as e-mail did half a dozen years ago. You’ve got people
that absolutely do not want to use technology. You’ve got the people who
want to use technology. You’ve got the people that are afraid to use it;
and then you’ve got the people who just plain ignore it. But ultimately,
they will all adopt the tools."
Wellcome views the Alliance, the Corridor, and the collaborative tools that
tie them together not as a business incubator but rather as "a business
accelerator. You may or may not find financial resources on the Northern Tier,"
"It all depends on who you link up with and who you network with. But
what you will find is intellectual capital. You will find the educational resources.
You will find knowledge tools that make the knowledge economy possible. Therein
lies the difference."
And as more people get involved, the more advantageous it will become to its
members. Says Wellcome: "I think it was Metcalfe’s law that the
power on the network increases exponentially with the number of workstations.
This works the same way. If you have 10 people communicating and collaborating,
that’s good. But if you have a 100 that’s better. And if you have
10,000, that’s fantastic."