FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Indexing Success

One of the traits of successful people, businesses and communities is the ability to engage in an open, honest examination of where they are, where they want to go and what they're doing to get there. In 1992, business leaders in Silicon Valley, the region that's become a synonym for economic success, started an organization called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network in response to what they saw as unnecessary government bureaucracy and a generally unhealthy business climate. Since 1995, the network has published an annual "index" that measures how the region is doing on what it believes are the most important indicators of its civic health. (Download a copy at jointventure.org.) There are several notable things about the effort that should interest economic developers in Florida:

1. It's regionally based and not confined to one town. The Silicon Valley region includes Santa Clara County and parts of three others, with a population of 2.4 million. Florida is a state of regions, and approaches to problems will increasingly originate with regional-based organizations rather than the state.

2. In addition to thinking regionally, the Valley's business leadership thinks beyond next week. Executives at companies like Calpine, Apple, Comerica Bank and a host of big-time venture capital firms that are part of the network look beyond mindless, simplistic indicators like "housing starts" and "numbers of new jobs" in measuring success. The network's index is organized around four areas of concern: Innovative Economy; Livable Community; Inclusive Society; and Regional Stewardship. The indicators the network tracks are sophisticated and deep; they range from the number of patents generated by area firms to crime rates to corporate R&D expenditures to per capita income to numbers of students enrolled in intermediate algebra to mercury levels in the water, traffic delays, voter registration levels and the financial health of arts organizations.

If the network's leadership considers data from a particular indicator alarming, it organizes task forces of businesspeople, government representatives, academics and other subject-matter experts to get results. Like startup businesses, these task force initiatives must generate their own funding and momentum.

3. The Silicon Valley Network sees diversity -- both ethnic and political -- as an asset. In the Valley, two out of five residents were born outside the country. The share of Hispanic residents has grown from 15% in 1993 to 23% in 2003. Financial supporters and board members come from a huge range of public and private universities, cultural organizations, foundations, high-tech companies, local governments, hospitals and non-profit groups, including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Planned Parenthood. "We're all about inclusivity and having a big umbrella," says Russell Hancock, the network's president and CEO.

It's rare to find that level of inclusiveness in Florida. Local economic development groups here, even good ones, can get knotted up real fast in Republican-Democrat foolishness or whether someone's a 'Nole or a Gator; it's hard here to get even some of the better economic development groups to truly integrate cultural affairs in economic development. Other disconnects abound: Every economic development official I've ever spoken with says the first thing that companies ask about in considering relocation is the quality of an area's educational system; but if one of the economic development groups has mounted a high-priority, focused effort to make its local school system first rate, I've missed it.

4. The Silicon Valley Network's leadership insists on a completely honest and unflinching annual report, regardless whose feelings it hurts. Successes and imperfections are both reported in positive but unblinking language. Hancock explains that the Valley's business leadership lives in a business culture of measurement and results and "just wants the facts. We feel we have big problems we have to solve. There's no fluff here, no hoo-hah. We decided we need to have a solid analytical foundation. We needed benchmarks."

The group's Index 2005 report includes good news, for example, about venture funding and child immunization rates. But it's also full of sobering data about low-income households losing ground faster than others, job losses and shortages of certain professions, and low internet connection rates(!). In his summary, Hancock isn't afraid to write that the region "has lost ground" since 2000.

A number of areas in Florida have begun to produce index-like tools, but it remains to be seen whether they're willing to be as ambitious and unafraid as the Silicon Valley Network. Jacksonville's attempt isn't. Pensacola's initial effort stumbled over politics; it's now trying again. The Tampa Bay Regional Partnership group will likely have a first draft of an index out soon.

What I've seen and heard of the various index efforts in Florida leaves me worried that the leadership may not get the point of doing them. They key to success in this kind of effort, aside from the willingness to hear the truth, is getting past the inclination to use the indexes to sell a region or to keep score in a competition against other communities. That's where the Silicon Valley Network index shines. It is, as Hancock says, neither sales tool nor scorecard. It is, instead, a road map to reach internal goals the region has set for itself. "We want to know how we're doing," he says. (Hancock is willing and available to help Florida communities; call him at 408/271-7213.)

Being willing to develop that kind of road map takes sophistication and self-confidence -- the willingness to go about building your own economic identity without aping someplace else. Areas like Silicon Valley, North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and Route 128 in Boston didn't use some other "park," "route" or "valley" as a template. They coupled their respective natural attributes with vision, leadership, hard work over many years and lots of public and private investment. And they each built something distinctive, cutting-edge and economically successful.

Florida's regions must understand that mimicking only the form of the Valley's report without adopting its function will produce some nice copy for their next recruitment brochure but won't help build community, which is the ultimate business success.Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at mhoward@floridatrend.com.