2008/03/21

Optimizing Northeast Wisconsin's Use of Technology

While northeast Wisconsin is not a hotspot for technology, there are many good reasons to work towards optimizing the use of technology in this region.

A few reasons to optimize technology use in the New North are:
  1. Optimized use of technology tends to promote regional innovation.
  2. Small and medium businesses who optimize their use of technology have a significant advantage over those businesses which don't.
  3. People who work together to optimize a region's use of technology will, at the same time, improve their personal use of technology.
  4. Optimized use of technology brings new entrepreneurial opportunities to the region.
  5. Optimized use of internet technology results in highly improved collaboration and communication in the region.
There are very few people who feel optimizing the use of technology in a region is a bad thing. There are, however, definite challenges to an optimization effort. For one thing, people in the US tend to have their lives scheduled 120% of the time. Few people feel they have the time or expertise to contribute to such an effort.

One way that 'overbooked' people can participate in this technology initiative is to be open to using new technology that may improve their effectiveness with activities they already have on their schedule. Here are a few examples of how this could work:
  • I know a Boy Scout troop assistant leader. When I showed him a free wiki service and explained how it worked, he promptly started using the wiki for managing the troop's information. The wiki made it easy for parents to find out when trips were scheduled, what merit badge work was planned and countless other details that need to be communicated amongst members of any group. The scouts' parents report they love the service and wonder why it wasn't used earlier. Any scout troop leader who doesn't use similar communication technology tools is making more work for themselves, for the scouts and for the scouts' parents. (The wiki service is Wikispaces.) By the way, he also set up a wiki just for a garage sale he had. And my sister put lots of pictures of her house on a wiki when she had it up for sale.
  • In AMW, my manufacturing process consulting company, we use Google Calendar to schedule meetings. All company members can see when the other members are free or busy, so it makes it easy to find the best time for a meeting. Any group of which you are a member should consider using Google Calendar to similarly schedule meetings. Google recently released a Gcalendar sync tool for Microsoft Outlook calendars so you don't need to manually update your Gcalendar if you already keep track of your schedule in Outlook. It's almost silly not to use free online calendar tools to coordinate and plan group or personal activities.
  • At AMW we also use Skype for free teleconferencing from anywhere around the world. Because the company members are often in different cities, Skype makes it easy and free to talk over our various projects and keep all the members up-to-date on who's doing what. The Skype service also has free instant messaging, free whiteboard add-ins and other tools to enhance group communications.
  • Google Docs are a fantastic free way to collaboratively work on word processing or spreadsheet documents. No more need to email 20 different versions of a single document around to get everyone's input. Everyone can work on the same document, and everyone can see the same thing. It's a good way to develop an agenda, write an action plan, figure out a soccer league schedule or iron out the kinks in a carpooling plan. It's also kind of fun to revise a sentence someone else just typed -- surprises them the first time they see their freshly minted words change while they're reading over what they wrote just seconds earlier.
  • Build regional collaborations with technology companies, either those for whom you work or those who are your customers or suppliers. Technology companies always need pilot communities or regions for their innovations. They always want customer suggestions and feedback on products or services. At least good companies do. If northeast Wisconsin became well-known with tech companies as being a good region in which to get useful feedback and to trial improved products, we could be the first to try out some interesting technology innovations. Having support from those companies and their involvement in our region would help the area's economy in the long run. Because you already interact with those companies on a daily, weekly or other regular frequency, it's not a lot of extra work to make them aware of the opportunity for connecting with the region as a whole.
The above are just five ways I quickly thought of that optimized use of technology could help people in the New North. If a few people in the region put their heads together, we could come up with at least a hundred other good ideas for optimized use of technology, and many of them would be free or very low cost. Others would have reasonable costs, or maybe even high costs. But those with high costs would provide excellent marketing opportunities for the New North to be able to tell the world how there are some ways in which this region is a technological leader. And all the 100+ tech ideas would in some way make northeast Wisconsin a better place to live and work.

What will it take to turn this idea into action? All that's required are the efforts of a small percentage of the residents of the region to get involved, to contribute their suggestions and knowledge, and to make connections with other people, companies and organizations who will help launch this initiative and help keep it going.

Just today I talked with a manager at a local tech company. He was interested in learning more about tech activities in the region, and I followed up our conversation with an email this afternoon. I plan to meet with him in the upcoming weeks to find out what types of tech activities he'd be most interested in knowing about or being involved with. Last Saturday I had a discussion in Appleton with an evangelist from a large national tech company who said he'd love to sponsor more events in the Fox Cities if people are interested and will consistently show up for the events. If 50 people around the New North take the time and effort to have similar conversations once per month, within a year the region's residents will know about so many cool new tech events, projects, tools, products and services going on around here that they'll have trouble participating in or using all the new technology 'stuff' they learn about.

If you have questions, suggestions or want to get involved, contact Jerry Murphy at the New North or contact me. We'd love to have more people involved with optimizing the use of technology in northeast Wisconsin!

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