Saturday, May 13, 2006

Studies, Strategies, and Implementation

The Post-Gazette had a front-page story on Friday about an almost-completed new report by Battelle's Technology Partnership Practice on what should be done to accelerate technology-based economic development in the Pittsburgh Region. Separate articles today and two weeks ago provided some previews of the likely topics and recommendations in the report.

Friday's article didn't really address whether there was a need for the report; it focused instead on how many studies overall have been done in the region on similar topics over the past decade or more. It also suggested that the newest report will recommend the same things that have been recommended in the past.

Do we need "yet another study?" Today, there is no comprehensive strategy that is guiding the many different technology-based economic development and entrepreneurial support programs and agencies that exist in the region. (If you think that there is, try to find it.) There was a detailed study done by Battelle in 2001 regarding the biotechnology sector that served as the business plan for the creation of the Life Sciences Greenhouse, and the basic recommendations are still being followed today. But that study was just about biotechnology, not about specialty metals, specialty chemicals, nanotechnology, defense robotics, cybersecurity, alternative energy, and other areas of R&D strength in the region that could generate new companies and new jobs. Each of the various organizations involved in innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship issues is following some type of strategic/business plan of its own. But there is no overall strategy guiding all of these efforts. Nothing that clearly identifies gaps and overlaps in programs. Nothing that clearly explains to a legislator, a Congressman, a County Commissioner/Executive, a Governor, a Mayor, or a civic leader what the opportunities are, what needs to be done to capitalize on them, who is taking responsibility for each of the actions, and what the priorities are if resources are limited.

Even if an overall strategy had been developed previously, it would make sense to update it in light of the significant changes which have taken place over the past decade. Externally, the world is dramatically flatter than it was just a few years ago, the dot-com bubble has burst, and homeland security, energy, and other issues are demanding national attention in ways that could not have been imagined even in the year 2000. Internally, the Pittsburgh Region has seen significant growth in its innovation capabilities and other changes in its ability to respond to external opportunities. No business in its right mind would still be operating on a strategic plan developed six years ago, and neither should a region.

If the new report says the same things as past reports said, that doesn't mean the report has no value -- it provides valuable confirmation of the desirability of staying the course. And if it helps to resolve current debates about direction or priority that are paralyzing action (e.g., do we have too little startup capital or too few good startup companies?), then it can truly accelerate progress.

But Friday's article did raise a very important question: will the new report, no matter how desirable, actually be implemented? And that raises a more fundamental question: who will actually be accountable for insuring that it is implemented? (Or alternatively, who will be accountable if it is not implemented?) If one were to examine all of the studies that have been done in the past and score them on the extent to which they were actually implemented, the factor that likely best predicts implementation success is whether some agency or individual was clearly accountable for implementation. Many studies have said what needs to be done, but not who should do it. As the old saying goes, "if everyone is in charge, then no one is in charge." Who will be accountable for implementing this report?

The new Battelle report was commissioned by the Greater Oakland Keystone Innovation Zone (GO-KIZ). The heads of most of the key agencies that will need to implement the recommendations which appear likely to come out of the report serve on the Board of the GO-KIZ. That is vastly better than if the report had been commissioned by only one of the organizations or by some entity only peripherally involved in actual implementation. But while having all of the organizations around a common table is a necessary condition for success, it is not sufficient. The GO-KIZ was chartered to implement a specific state program (the Keystone Innovation Zone) focused on Oakland; it has not been clearly empowered to coordinate implementation of an overall technology strategy for the region. (Indeed, its name unfortunately connotes to many people that it's all about Oakland, not about the entire region.)

The individual organizations on the GO-KIZ Board are not accountable to the GO-KIZ, they are accountable to their individual boards for their individual goals, priorities, and activities. Unless the goals and priorities of the individual agencies are aligned with the overall technology strategy, the overall strategy will be everyone's second priority, and that could well doom it to failure. And then we'll just be doing yet another study in a few years, rather than celebrating a successful implementation.


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