GUEST OPINION: Ronald Fraser

Silicon Wagon Wheel Network Needs East Coast Counterpart

By Ronald Fraser

Networks ? the sine qua non of the computer age ? are vital to the success of emerging technology regions and the Washington area is no exception. Our best bet for linking the region's entrepreneurs is to rely on a variety of old and new style person-to-person and machine-to-machine networks to guide us into the future.

Old style networks already in use in Washington's technology sector include exclusive private clubs, such as the Tower Club at Tysons Corner, the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a membership trade group, and chambers of commerce.

More recent digital-era networks also have made their debut, including elite, global gatherings such as the World Congress on Information Technology held in 1998 at George Mason University, local and wide area computer networks and, of course, the Internet.

But there is yet another pre-Internet era forum that has not yet gained network status. I have in mind the opinion pages in technology trade and business newspapers and magazines, pages open to anyone wanting to address technology issues. While newspaper opinion pages largely have been co-opted by nationally syndicated columnists, regional trade journals and business newspaper opinion pages are an inviting meeting place for the thousands of technology firms located in the Washington area.

Opinion pages are a crossroads where our traditional democratic and new computer age values intersect. Small "d" democrats believe solutions to problems are found in open forums where differing opinions can collide with one another. And studies show that technology centers such as California's Silicon Valley owe much of their success to the emergence of regional problem-solving networks.

An often-told story about Silicon Valley will help put into perspective the potential role that opinion pages have to tie a region together. When, as the story goes, entrepreneurs have wrestled with a stubborn technical problem without finding a solution, the next step is a trip to the Wagon Wheel bar. Turning to the person on the next stool, the problem is explained and, we are told, the chances are very good that person has a ready solution.

Opinion pages in technology trade and business journals have the potential to serve both democratic and technical ends. First, these pages are an open-to-all forum where members of the technology community, over time, can build a consensus about regional political, social and economic problems ? how best to keep workers' skills up to date, for example ? and their solutions. But they also can provide space for individual entrepreneurs to think aloud, to speculate concerning the technical direction of the industry, where the next growth spurt will come from and how the Washington region can best position itself to take advantage of its arrival.

The opinion pages of area journals ? such as Washington Technology, Potomac Tech Journal and Washington Business Journal ? are collectively one huge Wagon Wheel forum for the exchange of ideas and the generation of new ones, a network that can involve the entire technology community in an ongoing conversation of the utmost importance to the future economic health of the Washington region.

In the old economy, a region's firms too often considered one another as competitors. They shared information reluctantly, and tried to maintain their share of a slow-growing or stagnant market.

In the new economy, the reverse is the case. Each firm is a co-innovator with other firms. A robust technology region must find ways to solve problems facing the industry and at the same time help individual firms continuously innovate and create new products and services. New services invented by one firm lead directly to the creation of still another line of services by the firm down the street. The old win-lose mood must be replaced with a win-win climate in the new economy.

If networking is to keep the innovation cycle going for all firms in a region and not just a few elites, it must be conducted in a public place with ready access for all entrepreneurs. Sure, private cliques will still make backroom deals, and the need for confidentiality will remain. But to sustain the Washington region's technology gains to date in the future, communitywide problem-solving networks must be built and nurtured.

A healthy region is not one dominated by a few "leaders," and many followers. An innovative technology region is one in which all players see themselves as stakeholders and problem solvers. The opinion pages of the region's technology publications are a good place for trading ideas, building a strong community spirit and keeping the region's innovative momentum going.

Ronald Fraser is a public affairs consultant in the Washington region.

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