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Higher_Ed.Biz<br>Economic Portal Development

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."

"Typically, 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 hired."

Measuring Success

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 K-Station.

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," he said.

"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."

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