25 Oct To drive IT, Wisconsin may need entrepreneurial makeover
Madison, Wis. – To develop a more robust information technology industry, Wisconsin may have to undergo a cultural makeover, according to keynoters at this week’s E-Business Best Practices and Emerging Technologies Conference.
In recent months, information technology executives, most notably RedPrairie’s John Jazwiec, have not been shy about the changes they would make. But leaders attending the annual E-Business conference did not cite Jazwiec’s menu of steep income tax cuts and welfare reform, but a transformation from Wisconsin’s status as a conservative, risk-averse state to something closer to the devil-may-care brand of entrepreneurialism of California’s Silicon Valley.
That will take time, if it occurs at all, but other regions have made the change, noted John Morgridge, chairman of the board of the San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems. Morgridge, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus who understands the distinctions between Wisconsin and the Bay Area, talked about how difficult it is for organizations to change. The same applies to states and regions.
Morgridge, who gets much of the credit for building Cisco into a $28.5 billion business, said there are collaborative opportunities to be explored between companies in the two regions. Cisco, which still dominates the market for equipment that links computer networks to the Internet, has a relationship with Milwaukee’s Rockwell Automation centered on integrating the factory floor into the network.
Beyond that, Morgridge said Wisconsin also can follow the examples of Minnesota, Texas, and North Carolina.
“It can be done [here] because if you look at the cultures of those states, they were not necessarily entrepreneurial or willing to tolerate high [business] failure rates,” said Morgridge, who received the UW-Madison E-Business Institute’s Distinguished Fellow Award. “High failure rates are part of an entrepreneurial culture. If you can’t tolerate them, then you’re going to have difficulty staying the course over a long period of time.”
Author, businessman, and Wisconsin resident Richard Thieme agreed that Wisconsin’s culture is capable of change, but he cited a lack of leadership. The founder of ThiemeWorks, he said state has a blue-collar culture based on eastern European immigrants who built a strong manufacturing culture that hasn’t gone away. The Great Lakes, he noted, still export 30 percent of the nation’s trade output to the world, but the creativity and innovation evident in entrepreneurial climates is “something that needs to be learned and framed and reinforced.”
“Some of my colleagues recommend burning it [Wisconsin’s business culture] to the ground and starting over, but I think that’s probably extreme,” Thieme stated, shaking his head. “You have to work with the culture you’ve got. You can help it change. You can help it modify itself. And unfortunately, we are in a risk-averse culture that doesn’t want to take too many chances.”
Wisconsin, he said, has some examples of very successful people operating in the IT space, but they are isolated examples. In contrast, he said Silicon Valley has shown that a critical mass of people in the same area still makes a big difference.
“It takes a change of values, a change of ideas,” Thieme said, “and above all, proactive, unceasing, unstinting leadership from the top, and we haven’t had that.”
Gaming the system
Thieme and Rick Fessenbecker, managing director of the Milwaukee-based Northwoods Software Development, believes the state can lay the foundation for more robust information technology by changing the way it educates the next generation of IT workers.
Fessenbecker cited Metavante, Fiserv, and GE Healthcare as examples of the potential Wisconsin has to build a stronger IT culture, and he said the state should take a different approach to attracting young people to technology careers.
“I think we have to go out there and tell people that technology or computer jobs, information technology jobs, are less about technology and more about how do we help business, how do we help government, how do we help the end-user take advantage of technology?” he said. “So it’s not about sitting in a room and writing code. That’s a part of it and that’s an important part of it, but the end result is what can you do to help somebody further their business, foster their business, do new things, and be innovative.
“When you look at it from that standpoint, it’s a very, very exciting career.”
That speaks to the type of creativity and problem-solving that innovation experts believe is absent in K-12 education. Thieme, author of Islands in the Clickstream, has written about technology’s impact on the social and cultural events that affect business, particularly collaboration and work teams, and how executives are oblivious to it. He said the same neglect affects public education, which has been slow to recognize the benefits of creative collaboration fostered by electronic games.
“Kids are supposedly `wasting time’ on online multi-player gaming, but when half a million people are online at the same time, participating in new social structures, it’s not wasting time,” Thieme explained. “It’s learning new skills and new collaborative abilities. And to give kids the opportunities to explore that rather than just drill down and do exercises about it, is absolutely essential.”
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