Personal View: Cleveland's Digital Future Must Have These Elements

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In the world of information technology, there is a distinct advantage to being either a first mover or fast follower. Company wealth formation and catalyzing regional economic development accrue to those who harness one of those two strategies.

In the 1980s, there was a competitive advantage to being first to market with personal computers and office automation (Armonk, N.Y., with IBM; Orem, Utah, with WordPerfect). And then PCs and office automation became a mainstream offering (Austin, Texas, with Dell; Seattle with Microsoft).

In the 1990s, there was a competitive advantage to being first to market to network offices and computers with basic communications protocols (Palo Alto, Calif., with Xerox PARC; Columbus with CompuServe). And then networks and office communication became a mainstream offering (San Jose with Cisco; Washington with AOL).

In the 2000s, there was a competitive advantage to being a first mover or fast follower to understanding that software was going to eat the world (Pittsburgh, Pa., with Lycos; Los Angeles with MySpace). And then software programming tools became ubiquitous (Mountain View, Calif., with Google; Menlo Park, Calif., with Facebook). And while software may still be eating the world, networks will continue to evolve and computing (and storage) capabilities are more powerful and flexible than ever before, and thus there are still advantages by leveraging computing, networks and software. The next information technology first mover advantage is already clearly in front of us.

Cleveland and the region need to understand that digitization and data analytics will be the single most important technology strategy for every company and organization for at least the next decade.

To be clear, every city or region that wants to have a competitive business attraction and retention strategy must have world-class computing, networks, and software talents and tools.

That said, tomorrow's great companies and thriving regions will be those that stake ground on digitization and derivative economic engines like networked IoT devices, predicative analytics platforms, artificial intelligence, machine and deep learning.

If your business or service is based on supply chains, logistics, financial services, service delivery, field operations, health informatics, or most every other sector of the economy, your competitive advantage and/or commitment to service excellence is now a function of your readiness to bet the house on digitization, data analytics, cognitive computing, and new decision-support algorithms.

The first mover advantage has already gone elsewhere (Seattle with Amazon; Boston with GE). There is still a window of opportunity to be among the fast followers and reap value for company and wealth formation, and a regional economic strategy that places a bet on a relevant digital future.

Where do we start?

A recent survey by the Harvard Business Review concludes that companies cannot take advantage of advanced analytical techniques like artificial intelligence without digital transformation experience. Using a battery of statistics, they found that the odds of generating profit from using advanced analytical techniques are 50% higher for companies that have strong experience in digitization. The same can be said for regional economies as a whole. Regional first movers are also those economic knowledge zones that are the most digitized. Regions that are the most digitized have business, civic and government leadership that are already invested in advanced fiber optic networks, cloud infrastructure and big data digital capabilities.

The Greater Cleveland Partnership's new strategic plan calls for investments in driving connectivity, including digital connectivity. The regional workforce board outlines three key workforce gaps — healthcare, manufacturing and digital skills — as "occupational pathways out of poverty." Major philanthropic organizations in the region, like the Cleveland Foundation, are now focused on advancing a program of diverse and inclusive digital excellence. These are all very positive developments. There is, of course, room for additional strategic alignment.

So, here are five ideas for advancing the region's data analytics capabilities, from 2017 to 2025:

1. There are 23 universities and colleges in Northeast Ohio. At a minimum, the region needs those institutions and their collective intellectual power and business acumen to be loosely coupled in their approach to curriculum and degrees in digitization. A blue-ribbon taskforce should be convened to aspire to align market demand with the full range of degree and certificate offerings.

2. There is a regional imperative to support the digital upskilling of the current workforce. Nascent offerings from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management Executive Education program to those DigitalC offers as part of its Learning Studio offering are key to advancing our installed human resource capacity. A comprehensive regional digital upskilling investment fund is every bit as important as supporting the next generation workforce.

3. In cities around the world, corporations based in cities pursuing an integrated digital strategy have formed pre-competitive joint ventures and innovation collaborations. We need look no further than the Columbus Collaboratory to see the development of an impressive book of data analytics-related new intellectual property being co-created by the private sector. The region's leadership should consider mobilizing a coalition of the willing to frame a unique Greater Cleveland offering that addresses our opportunities to co-create value and new companies.

4. Every city and county government should fully embrace a plan for digitizing the workings of government. As the Gartner research organization points out, there are at least five stages in the maturity curve for digitizing government, all of them involving an understanding of data and its relevance to good governance. Like most governments, we are at or approaching level 1, namely e-government offerings to drive efficiency, cost-savings, and a better citizen experience. As we advance, we should be mindful that next stages include open data, becoming data centric in policy and decision-making, fully digital, and finally "smart." There are best practices from which to borrow and accelerate our own journeys. The Cleveland Code for America brigade might consider designing a scorecard on city readiness and development quarter over quarter as a publicly available monitoring tool.

5. Measure progress. As the adage goes, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." We can't design and become a fast follower in the data-driven economy if some group or collection of persons isn't going to bed at night and waking up in the morning to make our digitization strategy a regional priority. We know how to do this. From beating the odds on securing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to mobilizing around the Republican National Convention, to the newest collective effort to attract Amazon HQ2, we know how to do this.

Collective action on a digital strategy and measuring progress may well be the most important thing business leaders can do over the next decade.

Gonick is stepping down as CEO of DigitalC, a Cleveland-based nonprofit focused on using technology to solve problems, effective Nov. 1. He has accepted the position of chief information officer at Arizona State University.