WIRED Moves Forward

September 17, 2007
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Now 18 months and $4.3 million into West Michigan's Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development Initiative, administrators of the $15 million, federally funded program are anticipating significant activity in the coming months as Phase II gets underway.

Last month, the West Michigan Strategic Alliance presented the results of 12 separate programs, known in WIRED as "innovations," to its advisory board. Eight of those were approved for second-stage funding. Two other innovations — both research projects — have been successfully completed. Of the two remaining, one project is in stasis and one has been terminated.

"The first phase was a conceptual phase, a lot of planning and putting things together," said Phillip Rios, WIRED project manager. "These innovations are now executing. We're expecting them to start delivering results on their business plans. We've placed our bets."

Rios sees the initiative as 12 different experiments, each prodding at a different facet of the work force and economy, all rolled into one larger experiment testing a core regional issue: Can a region or community use a deliberative process for evaluating change in its community? The furniture industry veteran compared this process, known as the innovation management system, to the product development cycle.

"One of the big lessons we need to get across is that this is not a straight-line process," he said. "There are going to be lots of adjustments and lessons learned. This is how you can start out designing a chair and end up with a file cabinet."

Built into these efforts is the strategic alliance's larger goal of regional collaboration. The WIRED initiative covers the entire seven-county West Michigan area, and Rios expects every innovation to apply to the region as a whole. Likewise, the innovations must be self-sustaining after WIRED dissolves in 2009.

"That's when I turn into a pumpkin," Rios said. "There will be no more funding, and they need to show how they can survive on their own. … Our goal is to be the catalyst that brings these groups together, and the only way it will have a legacy will be if that regional cooperation and organizational relationships continue in the future. That in itself will attract more people to West Michigan, because it will prove this is the place where innovation happens."

Beginning in October, monthly progress reports must be submitted. In February, program leaders will be required to make requests for third-stage funding. These reports will include plans for future funding.

Originally, WIRED was designed to operate on a calendar year, but after the unexpectedly long conceptual phase when each program created a business plan for the innovation, the second phase was pushed to this fall. When the third phase begins in the first quarter of 2008, the initiative will return to a calendar-year schedule.

A number of the programs have major deliverables and decisions due this week and next.

  • The first meeting of the Design West Michigan, formerly known as the Design Council, is planned for this Wednesday. One half of the InnovationWORKS project, Design West Michigan has been formed to explore how design services can function as an economic building block for West Michigan
"The first thing we need to do is validate that West Michigan is design-centric, and that process has already begun," said John Berry, a senior consultant with industrial design house Greystone Global and spokesman for the council.

By all appearances, it is a precedent-setting effort. There is no U.S.-based regional organization for the design community. The program hopes to promote design as a regional asset and an industry onto itself. This portion of the innovation is being led by Lakeshore Advantage in partnership with The Right Place Inc.


Right Place
is leading the other half, the Commercialization Infrastructure program, which is currently in the process of hiring a director and staff. As the name implies, the infrastructure will assist companies in developing products and processes, as well as teaching firms about innovation itself.

  • Grand RapidsCommunity College will host an event this Thursday to demonstrate the first iteration of the Innovation Curriculum. Developed through a partnership between creative workers locally and nationally, the Continuous Quality Improvement Network and 22 community colleges from across the country, the curriculum is built around 14 competencies identified as essential to innovation.

Through this road map, the innovation curriculum team has devised three prototype modules that it will beta test at community college and employer sites this fall. These models will train students to identify patterns, make unique combinations and create new products or concepts. The actual education involves various activities that promote such skills intuitively.

"We're really looking forward to the reaction from the user standpoint," said Liz McCormick, project manager for GRCC. "The curriculum is not limited to community colleges. We think the final product or products will be highly customizable."

  • The Health Care Regional Skills Alliance unites all five local Michigan Works agencies and affiliated Workforce Investment Boards around the entry-level requirements of the health care sector. The program has identified strategies to meet employer needs in six key occupations and initiated a career ladder program between MontcalmCommunity College and FerrisStateUniversity for nursing students to move seamlessly from an associate degree to a nursing degree program.

This program, which will serve both displaced workers and new students, also launched the Health Care Workforce Employers Council, which held its first meeting in July.

  • West Michigan TEAM works with individuals, business and government to help people gain and keep long-term, career-focused employment. The program adapts Grand Rapids' highly successful The Source mode — a collaboration of private industry, government agencies and nonprofit resources — on a regional scale. The basic methodology is to provide support, opportunity and practical answers to real-world issues ranging from affordable child care to reliable transportation.

The services currently available through The Source have been expanded to a cluster of eight new employers in northwest Grand Rapids. Applications are currently being accepted for clusters being formed in Muskegon, Holland and Grand Haven. Also, the Health Field Collaborative Cluster in KentCounty is being expanded to Ottawa and Muskegon counties.

  • A plan to introduce remote work sites to a trio of heavy commuter communities in the region is already attracting interest from investors. Developed by the Arizona-based Work Design Collaborative, the remote workplace program is a business plan and tool kit designed to provide employers a more sophisticated version of telecommuting by partnering with third-party entrepreneurs to create pooled workplaces in destination communities.

"As you shift from a heavily manufacturing-based economy to a more service-based economy, there is an opportunity to do something that can actually bring people and hold people to the area," said Charles Grantham, a principal in Work Design Collaborative with partner Jim Ware. "We determined that remote work centers could provide a magnet for this talent."

Ten potential locations were considered in the seven-county WIRED coverage area, with the proposal's authors settling on downtown Muskegon, AdaTownship and NewaygoCounty for intended pilot sites. WIRED will not be implementing any such facilities. Rather, it will assist entrepreneurs in establishing the venture with a marketing program and tool kit to be released later this year.

  • The Regional Manufacturing Skills Development Co-op is an online tool that allows manufacturers large and small to share information and best practices and collaborate. Initial development of the portal, created with Microsoft SharePoint, was completed this summer, and training sessions are ongoing throughout the region.

"They can find ways to work on projects together, to share training — it opens up a wealth of opportunities for collaboration," said Julie Parks of GRCC Training Solutions, the program manager. "The companies have just started coming in and are coming up with their ideas. They are feeding us enhancements to meet their needs."

There are currently 10 employers in the pilot program, ranging from 40 employees to over 1,000. The portal is driving collaboration on sourcing, training and best practices, with very little investment of executives' time. There is currently no cap as to the number of participants — all interested manufacturers will be invited to join the private access network.

Another innovation, the Manufacturing Skills Standards, was rolled into this program.

  • An emerging sector analysis conducted by George Erickcek of W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research was submitted to the policy council in June. A final report to the public is expected some time this fall. The presentation will conclude the program.
  • A study conducted by automotive industry consulting firm IRN on how materials sourcing and a global supply chain could affect future job and industry growth was presented to the public in March, concluding the program.
  • The development of a "global school" model for the region to help students achieve global education standards and have global experiences — with particular emphasis on science and engineering — has been delayed. The program could still launch this fall.
  • The Entrepreneurial League System, a program modeled after the farm systems of professional sports to aid in the development of entrepreneurs through the various stages of business development, has been discontinued.
  • Developed by the makers of the ACT college entrance exam, WorkKeys is a system for measuring the skills of a company's work force first used locally by consultant Bill Guest, who is leading the innovation in partnership with GRCC's Rachael Jungblut. According to Rios, early changes in how WorkKeys engaged with employers had led to some rapid success.

"We've taken something that has been around for years and turned it into something that employers are saying is important to them," said Rios.

In the program, employees and managers take the National Career Readiness Certificate test to assess skills such as applied mathematics, applied technology, writing, reading, information gathering and teamwork. Since the program went live in February, 141 employers have enrolled and 2,206 tests have been administered, surpassing a 12-month goal of 1,500.

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