Featured Contributor: Ed Morrison
Editor / August 12, 2014
My professional career started on Capitol Hill in the 1970’s, when competitiveness issues were just starting to emerge on the national scene. I spent much of the first ten years of my career working on tax and trade issues. By the early 1980’s I was staff counsel on the Senate Democratic Policy Committee working on these issues. I left after a short time in that position, when I concluded that policy making in Washington had gotten stuck in partisan politics.
I went to work for a corporate strategy consulting firm. Working with clients like General Electric, Volvo and Ford, I got to see the early wave of globalization from the inside. As these companies were beginning to build global manufacturing networks, I started to see the devastating consequences of plant closings on communities and regions. Realizing that these communities and regions were not being well served by existing consultants, I decided to start my own consulting business to help these communities adjust to the pressures of globalization. That was about 1984.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re working on now?
For the past decade or so, I have been working on new models of strategy that are appropriate for more open, loosely connected networks, the type of organizations we encounter in economic development. The traditional strategy models, the type of models I learned in business school and that I applied as a corporate strategy consultant, do not work very well in economic development. We started trying to apply these models beginning in the early 1980’s.
These traditional approaches were designed for hierarchically organized, command and control organizations. They do not work well in economic development, where no one can tell anyone else what to do. I started developing these new approaches by studying closely how open source software development takes place. Strategic for communities and regions is much more like an open software project.
Now, after a decade of work and experimentation, we have cracked the code on complex collaborations. We can answer the questions: How do we design and guide these networks toward measurable outcomes? How do we develop a process that’s lean and adaptive? Most important, how do we teach these new skills? I have designed a new strategy protocol, called Strategic Doing, that answers these questions. Now a growing team of professionals at Purdue and other universities — like Michigan State, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Missouri, Kansas State, Northern Illinois University, the University of Alaska, and the University of North Alabama — are helping us develop and apply this discipline. We are starting to work with universities in the UK and Australia, as well. The reason is simple: Universities will adapt and deliver this discipline as they engage their regional economies.
What has surprised you most about working in economic development?
I am surprised by how resistant the profession is to change. For years, I taught at the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma. Despite having a wonderful faculty of professional practitioners, our curriculum was largely dictated by what economic developers had to learn to pass a certification test. The content, in my view, has not changed much.
Yet, the opportunities for economic developers have never been better. The speed of change — like most everything else — has accelerated in the past thirty years. That opens up opportunity. But professionals in economic development need to be prepared with a different set of skills and knowledge: everything from social network analysis and data visualization with geographic information systems to new, agile strategy models.
What do you find most challenging about economic development? And most rewarding?
The biggest challenge comes in getting people to think differently, behave differently and do differently. Some years ago, a Canadian academic, Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote a marvelous book, The Ingenuity Gap. His basic point was that we are confronting increasingly levels of complexity, and we have not increasing our “supply of ingenuity” to meet these challenges.
We increase our ingenuity when we learn the simple (but not easy) disciplines of collaboration. When that happens, remarkable stories emerge. We have colleagues in Flint, Michigan who are using Strategic Doing to rebuild the devastated neighborhoods in Flint. Rather that waiting for another hand out from the feds or the foundations, they are building action-oriented networks and drawing on the assets that they have in their networks.
Tell me about someone who has influenced your work in economic development?
In developing Strategic Doing, I have drawn on the work of a lot of people. Linus Torvalds in open software development, Aaron Beck in cognitive science, David Cooperrider in large scale group interventions with Appreciative Inquiry, Stanford Professor Kathleen Eisenstadt in strategy, Eric Beinhocker and Brian Arthur in the emerging field of Complexity Economics, Ralph Stacey in complexity and management. My strongest personal connection goes to my mentor, David Morgenthaler, founder of Morgenthaler Ventures. David is an iconic venture capitalist and a remarkable guide to the complexities of regional innovation.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about getting into the field?
We have a number of young professionals who approach us for guidance, and I give them similar advice. First, in building a community, explore and find your gift, because if you are really going to be good at economic development, you will spend your career giving your gift away. It took me many years to find my gift, but now that I have, I get tremendous fulfillment from giving my gift away.
Second, travel widely and explore. In today’s world, you cannot do economic development by staying too tightly bound to the U.S. You will find new perspectives, new ideas, and wonderful people. I was fortunate that my global travel began early, as a corporate strategy consultant. I think these foreign perspectives, particularly my work in China over the past 20 years, has enabled me to see developments in the U.S. from a different perspective.
What trends are you seeing in the field or related to your work?
The key trend that is shaping economic development is the rise of visual literacy. Whether we talk about data visualization or the complexities of designing collaborations, economic developers need to improve their visual literacy. Fortunately, many really good authors, like Lee Lefeever, Dan Roam, Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte are there to teach you.
What do you think will change about economic development over the next five to ten years?
My guess is that economic developers from the developed economies — the OECD countries — will become more closely linked and aligned. We are already seeing this with our work in Strategic Doing. Economic developers from Sweden, Finland, the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada have all reached out to learn more. It stands to reason. We are all in the same boat.
In the decades ahead, regional economies will be facing unprecedented change. If there are answers to these challenges — and I am convinced that there are — we will find them together.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
Reading and exercise are my two main hobbies. I love reading U.S. history, and I used to be a competitive swimmer, so I find that long laps in the pool are wonderful.