Winter-Spring 2004

Community Technology Leadership Development: The Case of Mountaintown

Mountaintown, Georgia

The Georgia Tech Economic Development Institute has been working for over three years to develop Techsmart tools and services to help communities use information technology (IT) for community and economic development, what we refer to as "digital development." Leadership is a critical issue: traditional leaders don't understand technology and technologists usually are involved in leadership, and without tech-savvy leadership digital development just doesn't happen. Therefore, one of our goals has been to increase leaders' knowledge of IT—what it can and can't do, how much it costs, what it takes to successfully implement IT, etc.—and to get technologists more engaged in leadership, both through collaborative learning-by-doing. In other words, cross-training leaders and technologists by having them apply IT to a particular community issue or problem.

Digital development requires several types of "champions" within the community: a strong sponsor to get community support, a broadly inclusive group of community business and civic leaders to provide that support, and the technology talent to provide expertise. Some form of catalyst to initiate the project is also valuable, as is knowledge of proven community technology tactics: what they are, how they relate to goals and strategy, and how to translate them into projects. Together, these roles make up the digital development value chain. While community technology projects may happen without one or more links, the stronger the links are, the more value and impact the project will have.

The digital development value chain.

In early 2003, a beta-test of the Community Technology Leadership Program (CTLP) was conducted, building upon its development of the previous two years, structured around a simple lifecycle process model, the "virtuous spiral," in which the a problem is identified and situation analyzed, a solution is designed, and a project set up to implement the solution. The following structure was developed and tuned during two earlier pilots of the program.

The Virtuous Spiral

The "Virtuous Spiral."

 

The program consists of six half-day sessions over six months, beginning with a broadly inclusive group of community business and civic leaders defining a vision for the programs outcome. The leaders are also asked to nominate technologists to participate in the program. The second session introduces the technologists to each other, the issue, and the vision, and provides them with analytical tools. The third session is focused on analysis of the issue with the "tech team" breaking into sub-groups to work on design. During the fourth session the tech team finalizes the design and begins planning implementation. The fifth session develops an action plan. The sixth session brings the leaders back to review the project and to come to consensus on the action plan, to formally kick off the project. Between each session the participants are given assignments that tie into the next session.

CTLP in Mountaintown

The beta-test of CTLP in "Mountaintown" (a pseudonym for the actual location) demonstrates the power of this model, but it also shows the extent to which success is dependent on the active participation and support of community leadership. The unfortunate fact is that lackluster participation by community leaders undermined the project developed by the tech team, in spite of the fact that the community leaders professed the importance of the issue that it focused on: Tourism. There were two characteristics of how the program was structured that constrained the program's potential from the start. First, the beta-test's sponsor was the associate director of a technology-focused development center at the local college. While she did a fantastic job administering the program, she was some five or six levels down the college's hierarchy and simply didn't have the institutional or personal clout needed to fully engage community leaders. Second, the program was funded by an external agency, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), with in-kind contributions from Georgia Tech. While we greatly appreciate this generous support, the community leaders had no financial stake in the program, limiting their concern for its success or failure.

The weak community leadership engagement was not apparent in the first session. We had a group of twenty leaders including local government, business and industry, non-profits, schools, etc. The issue of "tourism" had been identified during a previous Community Technology Opportunity Assessment, and the group quickly came to consensus that this was a critical issue: maximizing the value of tourism while minimizing its intrusive impact. They wanted high-quality tourism in Mountaintown, and didn't want to become a "cheesy" tourist trap. We provided the leadership group with a number of examples of how communities used the Internet to promote and facilitate tourism. With facilitation they developed a vision that tourism-related organizations would jointly develop a means for tracking inventory and/or available capacity to allow for visitors to arrange complete itineraries, and get special package deals, online. Thus, the long-term goal defined by the leadership team was an online tourism "one-stop shop."

The leadership group provided very good evaluations of the first session and expressed strong support for the program. But the effects of weak leadership commitment and low-level sponsorship became apparent right after the first session. Participants wouldn't nominate members of technology staff for the program, maintaining that they were too busy to be given a total of two and a half days off over the next five months to participate. Despite this facile response, we managed to bring together a more than adequate tech team, including tech-savvy corporate, small business, public sector, and retired persons, along with employees of the local library and newspaper.

During the second session the tech team was introduced to the issue and to the leaders' vision by the facilitator and two key members of the leadership group: the presidents of the Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants' Association. They were provided with a list of tourism-oriented organizations and a modified SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) tool to use for interviews with them.

The team began to self-organize with the third session. Several team members dove into the analysis, interviewing multiple organizations, and the entire team had substantive and insightful discussion of their interviews. They realized that tourism organizations in and around Mountaintown suffered from lack of information about, and poor relationships with, each other. The organizations wanted to be of more value to visitors and were willing to work together, but they didn't know about one another and had no past opportunities to collaborate. By the end of the session, the team had decided that what was needed was some means for tourism-related organizations to access information about each other and to share this information with their customers: a visitor referral system.

Such a system would not only provide a valuable service to visitors, encouraging them to spend more time and money in Mountaintown, but it would do this in a way that bolstered relationships between the tourism-related organizations and the visitors. It also provided a good stepping stone towards the leadership's vision of an online "one-stop shop." Like any good IT application, the system had built-in metrics: it would be easy to show exactly who used it, how many referrals were created by whom for whom, and how many were redeemed. The team broke referral system into several pieces—data about the organizations' products and services, online service and software, and a support organization—and set up sub-teams around them.

During the earlier pilot of the program we had serendipitously discovered that an informal "social" for the tech talent and leaders really helped the team gel. One of the team members owned a restaurant and volunteered to host the social. Others volunteered to get sponsorships for refreshments and to invite community leaders. The social, held between the third and fourth session, was top-notch, with five-star food and great conversation. Unfortunately few of the community leaders and only the most dedicated tech team members attended. The lack of leadership commitment had become all too evident.

Based on the team's analysis and discussion during session three, the facilitator and sponsor worked up a high-level design for a visitor referral system, including identifying resources needed for such a system. Session four involved an in-depth discussion of these resources and how to gather them. The data team had created a survey for gathering basic information about tourism-related organizations, their products and services. The online application team had begun work on a database system to hold this information and produce referrals.

Realizing that implementation and support would require significant organization, one of the sub-teams devised a program for students from the college and high school. Students could be assigned to help particular businesses get online, access the system, and create and clear referrals. In the process students would apply their school work to valuable real-world experience. This type of program was similar to past programs at Mountaintown High, and preliminary discussions with administrators were marked by interest and even enthusiasm for the idea.

All of these things came together in and around the fifth session. There was excellent discussion about what the sub-teams were doing, and what they needed to do next, but the session didn't result in an action plan or organizational structure for implementation. Moreover, despite heroic effort by the program sponsor, the final session was poorly attended by community leaders. During the sixth session the tech team showed off a prototype of the visitor referral system, explained how data about tourism-related organizations could be gathered and maintained, and laid out how the support organization could help businesses even as students gained valuable experience. Those community leaders who did attend were impressed and excited. But key leaders were absent. Without an action plan or organization there wasn't a clean hand-off of responsibility from the program facilitator to the team. No dates were set for next steps, no one took responsibility for making sure the next steps were taken, and the project had little inertia coming out of the final session.

The lack of inertia quickly became apparent. Personnel at the high school didn't return numerous phone calls and e-mails. Months after the program ended tech team members managed to track down a high school administrator who informed them that no funding had been made available for students to participate in the project. College students were available to work on the system, but no meetings were convened to begin this work. One took up the system as an individual project, but with very little actual effort. No one recruited businesses to participate in a pilot or began gathering information about their products and services. Interest and enthusiasm of the few community leaders who had actively participated never resulted in resources for the project. Even those tech team members who expressed strong interest in moving forward with the project were distracted by other priorities, and the project foundered.

Conclusion

On one level the CTLP beta-test was a resounding success. The tech-team designed a simple yet powerful way to use IT to increase quality tourism effectively. Their solution would have improved relations between tourism-related organizations; those organizations would have increased their revenue and technological capacity; and visitors would have had more reasons and opportunities to spend money in Mountaintown. The tech team carried this out in a very methodical and efficient manner, conducting an analysis, designing a solution, and even starting implementation with relatively little effort and almost no resources. In the process they learned a great deal about community and economic development, about their community, and about conducting community projects.

On another level, the low-level sponsorship and lack of "skin in the game" clearly undermined leadership participation. The beta-test demonstrated that strong, high-level sponsorship is vitally important to successful implementation and to on-going digital development. Ideally, a high profile sponsor would have convinced leaders to provide resources for the project and to have their technologists participate. Also, a clear, formalized implementation action plan with full consideration of contingencies would have aided transition from ideas to action.

The CTLP model has a great deal of potential. With strong sponsorship and well-planned implementation, participation and collaboration will spiral up, generating greater knowledge, better ideas, and the will and resources needed to implement them. Thus cross-training leaders and technologists via collective learning-by-doing results in digital development even as it increases capacity for digital development, putting IT to work for community and economic development.


Greg Laudeman is a Community Technology Specialist at the Georgia Tech Economic Development Institute.


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