Guest Opinion

How to Spread a Greater Washington Area Technology Revolution

By Roger Stough

A new breed of entrepreneur has transformed the Greater Washington region from a risk-averse government town in the 1960s to one of America's top-ranked information technology centers today. Yet in the midst of this revolution, many organizations in the region have failed to adopt new, productivity-boosting technologies.

When faced with a new idea that requires change, organizations are free to adopt or reject it. First to grasp information technologies opportunities are the innovators, including firms such as America Online Inc. At the other end are the laggards, firms that may never adopt new technologies. Located between the innovators and the laggards are thousands of wait-and-see firms, potential technology users watching the innovators before taking the plunge.

Innovators can launch change, but, acting alone, they cannot institutionalize the entrepreneurial spirit in the Washington region. To expand our region's reputation for technology leadership, these wait-and-see firms in traditionally non-technical sectors must take advantage of new technologies in their daily business activities.

A range of opportunities still abound, including these areas:

? Transportation. While we lead the nation in car pooling and have the second best mass transit ridership record, congestion on Northern Virginia's roads is ranked the second worst in the United States. We can keep roadway traffic moving with greater use of electronic tolling, real-time onboard navigation information and automatic signalization systems.

? Financial services. Information technologies have a tremendous capacity to lower transaction costs in the banking industry, as shown by the recent merger mania among our larger banks. However, neighborhood and community banks have yet to take major steps in that direction.

? Retail services. Wal-Mart is a national leader in the use of inventory control technologies. Unfortunately, some large and many small retailers in the Washington region are far behind in adopting these proven technologies.

So here is a plan for spreading the engine of change: an entrepreneurial culture to our wait-and-see firms.

First, we can expand the use of board memberships to promote the spread of new information technologies. Board members with successful experience in the application of technologies can serve as mentors and confidence builders for newcomers to the application of information technology in the workplace.

Next, we must continue to build deeper cooperative links among organizations, such as the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the Maryland Technology Council, the Washington D.C. Technology Council, Potomac KnowledgeWay and chambers of commerce, to name a few.

In addition, area universities can help develop an entrepreneurial culture in their graduates. At George Mason University, where we see enterprise learning as a way of modern life and not the exclusive preserve of business schools, we are implementing a new entrepreneurial curriculum universitywide.

Along with communications skills, entrepreneurial know-how is now a basic building block for well-rounded graduates. Teachers, nurses, engineers and liberal arts graduates are likely to need to engage in enterprise development activities in their professional and off-the-job lives.

Consequently, this curriculum blends enterprise skills into existing courses of study. Twenty courses dealing with entrepreneurship and leadership are being offered in business, education, the arts, engineering, public administration, liberal arts and nursing and health study programs, and six more courses have been developed this summer.

It is time for the region's technology leaders to coax our wait-and-see firms into joining the revolution going on around them. A few innovators can start an economic revolution. But to take root and grow, everyone must buy into the revolution. While we are on our way to seeing this happen in the Washington region, we must continue to find more effective ways to accelerate and spread the change process.

Roger Stough is the NOVA Endowed Professor of Public Policy and director of the Mason Enterprise Center for Regional Analysis and Entrepreneurship at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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