Thursday, July 28, 2011

Conceptual GPS

It's been a while since I've provided a good personal account of my thoughts and what's going on in my professional/academic world. While the articles and news I post are very relevant to the focus of this site, it means nothing if I can't synthesize the information I want to share with the world. If you read my blog, I have no doubt you know what's going on in the world for the most part. It's a game of musical chairs, but every time the music stops they add another chair. Today, I would like to discuss some issues I've noticed in the realm of local business and education matters.

Of late, I've been heavily involved with the efforts to improve education and economic development in the Nashville metropolitan area. I have to admit, I've never been a fan of the city, and always thought the town was somewhat backwards in their view of the world, and how they enacted their version of being like other progressive cities (be careful who you compare yourself to). However, I have always told my friends that Nashville typically does well over the long-run because it never overcooks the meal in times of economic prosperity, and thus never loses the farm in economic downturns. No better example could be true than right now this nation.

When I begin to think of the states and cities I admire and have a desire to live one day, I see very little difference in terms of the assets that make them that much different from Nashville. While in terms of culture and diversity Nashville struggles to make the top 50 of 40 options (that was a joke, not a typo), this depression (yes I used the "D" word) has placed everyone on relatively the same footing. In that I mean, the presence of resource scarcity can make the most liberal of towns become ultra-conservative, racist, and isolationist. Not that Wisconsin is on my list, but they are going through some serious changes as a result of scarce resources.

I went on Zillow to look at the value of my first home in Atlanta. I bought the house for $140,000 in 1999, and sold it in 2003 for $170,000. The house is now worth $120,000, which more than likely means it could move today for $110,000. Using basic calculations, some would say "that's a 29% decrease in the home value, which is about the norm for today's market". How ever you choose to look at it, that &^$% hurts! Even worse, I'm not the proud owner of a home that is priced at 1990 levels, but was built in 1999. Needless to say, the markets in Nashville have remained relatively steady in these unfortunate times. Sure, I'm taking a bad hit on my home, which was purchased in 2007 - the peak of the lunacy period. But, I feel better about my chances to retain value in the region in comparison to Atlanta, Florida, California, and other places.

I love the concept of change and progression. More important, I want to always be associated with change and progression for the sake of collective improvements. Of late, I've experienced some great beginnings to significant improvements in the Nashville area. There is an energy within the Nashville Chamber, the school system, and the citizen base to truly make the overall state of education more advanced in the city. People and organizations are putting their money where their mouth is these days. Even outside the city, such as Sumner, Robertson, Wilson, Trousdale, and Macon county, I have witnessed a change in rhetoric and actions toward economic development and education. The reality of bleak employment outlooks has forced everyone to wake up and realize how accountability and responsibility can save the day. However, there are two things I am still looking for that will totally transform this region to become an emerging market in this nation: collective capacity and inertia.

During a recent educational summit I attended at Libscomb University, a speaker called for more initiatives related to collective capacity. I'll give you my definition, which is influenced by concepts of institutional and governance theories. Essentially, collective capacity, in the context of local governments and organizations, calls for the sharing of resources, assets, and infrastructure to develop a more comprehensive product/service platform for a particular region. From an educational standpoint, a system of sharing hard-to-find STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) faculty and support staff among a few counties could allow the relevant counties to have a more robust offering of courses and options for their students, in the midst of cost-sharing and strategic alliances through technology. For counties with limited funds and tax bases, they would have the opportunity to significantly increase capacity that would otherwise be unattainable because of cost. Another example of this centers on the regional dream of developing a rail system for collective travel. If cities can begin readjusting their infrastructure through codes and city planning to accommodate this new mindset of mass transit, it can allow for companies to consider the region more, due to the improved access of the desired workforce - capturing citizens from a wider region than the city limits. In short, collective capacity is the game-changer for the region. However, the concept creates political challenges that require internal consultation to develop a clear plan of action.

The other missing piece has to do with institutional culture. Although there is a lot of movement in the region toward education and economic development, the effort is a new concept, requiring people to consciously, and intentionally, work at being progressive. Great organizations, successful teams, and impressive societies find a way to take these intentional actions and make them normative behaviors and beliefs. Eventually, inertia sets in and an outsider would be hard-pressed to move this group of people off the goal of success. Why is inertia important for the Nashville region? When successful attitudes and actions are the norm, the transactional cost associated with high achievement are relatively low. If the region is unable to establish inertia for success in the culture of the citizens, government, and businesses, the surge in funding will eventually lose the ability to influence the forward movement. The problem with changing the culture and setting the right path for inertia to take place is that no one person or group can create it. However, it begins with a series of successes and achievements. I'm not talking about the traditional form of Nashville's version of success that compared its performance against itself. I'm talking about making comparisons against other relevant cities in this nation, and even international markets. I know, it may be wishful thinking, but can't let the idea go away without arguing for it.

In any case, I am very impressed with the city, for the first time in my life, for its effort to be progressive. This economy has done a good job of dispelling myths for regions, and Nashville  has certainly had its share of them. While the window of opportunity is there, let's do all we can to create new values and targets for the region. Ones that will sustain the region for more than twenty years. I encourage everyone to make the decision today to get involved with the many efforts to improve education and economic development in the region. Blog about it, talk about it, and BE ABOUT IT!

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