The Netpreneur: Innovator of the Digital Age
© 1996, Morino Institute. All rights reserved.
The winners, finalists and applicants for this years NII Awards are symbols of
three powerful forces that, increasingly, are coming to touch us all. The first is a
growing dissatisfaction with our institutions, the second is a renewed spirit of
entrepreneurism, and the third is a revolution in communications that is transforming the
way we connect, communicate, and collaborate.
A growing dissatisfaction with institutions from corporations to governments to
schools is inspiring a desire for change that is being felt across all
socioeconomic levels, ideological beliefs and diverse backgrounds.
The explosive growth in entrepreneurial activity is being triggered as more individuals
confront the financial upheavals and uncertainty caused by consolidations, mergers, and
downsizing. It is a movement that is sweeping our country.
The communications revolution is changing how people interact with one another, how
organizations engage their constituencies, how we access information. It is also making
possible a kind of "collective IQ" where thousands of people can be connected to
focus on an issue. The revolution is founded on a new many-to-many, participatory
communications medium that offers:
- a capacity for rapid assembly and advocacy
- an ensnaring capability for information collection
- the power of individual publishing and personal expression and
- a remarkably effective distribution model
As the three movements converge, they fuel each other and present us with enormous
economic, educational and social opportunity that can form the basis for a societal
Who Will Lead This Transformation?
Fundamental transformations are not led by institutions. Institutions, for the most
part, have a focus which prohibits their ability to recognize and understand the sea
change around them. Their organizational structures impede their ability to adapt and
respond, and they often sub- optimize their activity in new venues to protect legacy
interests, products or markets.
Consider this recent quote from the article "Making Money on the Net" in the
September 23, 1996 issue of Business Week:
While corporate giants have been thrashing around noisily in cyberspace, showing how
not to make money on the Net, scores of entrepreneurs have been quietly tinkering
creating new business models for retailing, marketing, publishing and advertising that
work for them and could perhaps point the way to an Internet payoff.
Action and knowledge is with people on the cutting edge in this digital age. Peter
Drucker once defined the entrepreneur "as someone who does something new and gets it
done." We suggest that there is a new breed of entrepreneur netpreneur
who is getting new things done with the digital medium.
Agents of Change
Netpreneurs are the people creating models, ventures and opportunities centered around
digital networks. They are united by their reliance on the network bridge and the critical
mass of the Internet. They are students of all ages developing new ideas in their
basements and employees who become overnight millionaires at companies like America
Online, Yahoo, Netscape, and scores more. They are intrapreneurs spinning out of
older, established organizations, collaborating in new ways to understand and capitalize
on the landscape of opportunity. And they are not just building businesses. Netpreneurs
are bringing innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit to healthcare, education,
government and community service.
It is essential that we cultivate these netpreneurs and help convert this movement into
a force for positive change. I would like to share with you some work we are doing in the
Greater Washington, DC area with the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project, a collaborative effort
to establish the region as a hub of innovation in the digital economy and a global center
for the knowledge industries of the 21st century. The effort, which has been underway for
more than a year, is based on three strategies, with the key being a program to cultivate
the regions netpreneur community. The Potomac KnowledgeWay Netpreneur Program is
creating a place virtually and physically where netpreneurs can come
together and exchange knowledge as they thresh out the new rules of this embryonic world.
It is creating a support network to meet the unique needs of netpreneurs and matching them
with other netpreneurs, funders, advisors, the press and potential partners. Our mission
is to connect, inform and promote and we would welcome the opportunity to work with you in
Tracking The Revolution
What are the sectors, companies and people we need to watch to appreciate the
communications revolution and netpreneur movement? The giant companies will, of course
have their effect Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and others but I would suggest
three courses to you in order to stay prepared.
- Avoid the trap that treats the Internet as a homogeneous universe. It is not. There are
many diverse sectors. Track the particular trends and innovations in areas such as
biomatics, middleware development and wireless and satellite communications, as well as
new phenomenon like reverse publishing through online communities of interest.
- Watch events that are off your normal "radar screen" to permit and encourage
- Track new models and enabling actions. For example, the National Institute of
Healths decision to place the DNA coding data base on the Internet will spur
netpreneurs to create new opportunities, services and products from this foundation.
With all this in mind, 1997 will produce astonishing gains. Some clear ones: electronic
commerce will make its breakthrough; new web-browsing devices, like WebTV, will be a
consumer hit and help fuel Internet growth; Web sites will become much more interactive;
and we will begin to see shake-outs in various sectors such as search engines, news
delivery, Internet service providers and the like. The not-so-obvious: more people and
investors will come to recognize the importance of community building and communities of
interest. And, frankly, the safest prediction of all: there will be at least, one
unexpected introduction that will entirely reshape the terrain as has happened in each of
the last several years. Personally, I hope that 1997 will be the year of the netpreneur,
when awareness, opportunity and inspiration are seized by the broad population!
It is important to remember that we are only in the initial wave of the communications
revolution, filled as much with questions as opportunities. And the most important
questions involve people.
People, Not Technologies, Solve Problems
With the promise and potential of the "information superhighways" we should
all ask ourselves: Why, despite the communications innovations of the last 150 years, each
of which was supposed to miraculously improve our society, do we approach the 21st century
with so many vexing social problems unresolved, and, in some cases, made worse? Why, with
all this progress, does Peter Drucker see our greatest challenge as one of
"civilizing our cities?" Why does Russell Ackoff, one of the great systemic
thinkers of our time, see our challenge as "reinventing our society?" And, why
do so many people see our challenge as one of healing our communities?
The answers are not in technology, but in people. The hope and promise is that the
uniquely empowering nature of the new communications medium may help people collaborate to
find answers. The question is: How do we capitalize on the opportunity for sustained,
constructive change for our families, communities, institutions and businesses?
Here are six thoughts for your consideration.
- Convey the Opportunity of the Communications Revolution
We must increase general awareness of the implications of the communications revolution
and the opportunities and risks it creates. Most importantly, we must
provide context and meaning that make it relevant to individuals. While it may sound basic
to you here today, the majority of people in the United States (and certainly the world)
do not have an understanding of this phenomenon.
- Develop Informed and Relevant Public Policy
We need more constructive, balanced discussions and a public policy framework to advance
and capitalize on the communications revolution. This can only come about by a more
involved and knowledgeable public, an informed political body and less ideological
rhetoric from the "cyber- libertarians," "technogeeks" and
"censor-kings." A history of democratic process based on deliberation,
constructive debate and compromise has benefited us all. We need to recreate and embody
these practices in this venue.
- Be Outcomes Driven
Measure what you value. We must be less focused on technical, trophy accomplishments, like
giving every child a laptop computer, and more focused on making a sustainable difference;
that is, the real outcomes for people, businesses and communities. Is our challenge wiring
our schools or giving kids the skills and opportunity to learn? I implore you to move away
from infrastructure metrics, such as number of classrooms connected, and be more
outcomes-based for example, set your goal to raise the literacy rate of graduating
students by 50%. Please dont fall prey to the measurement mistakes the Information
Technology world made in the last several decades. We placed infrastructure ahead of
results. It took the IT industry over 30 years to understand that outcomes not
boxes and wires were their real mission. Lets be smarter in how we advance
the digital communications medium.
- Ensure "Ubiquitous" Access
We must be sure that in our drive for short-term market positions and profits we do not
inadvertently gate netpreneurial potential. Dramatic growth and innovation demands very
low- cost, ubiquitous access both to networks and to the information repositories of
government, educational and nonprofit institutions.
- Advance Neighborhood Learning Centers
We need to establish physical centers in neighborhoods that focus on mentoring and which
provide a safe place for kids and their families to learn. While clearly the greatest need
is in low- income neighborhoods, it exists across socioeconomic levels. We desperately
need to move learning beyond the schools augment and help schools, certainly
but, in some cases, also provide for alternative learning. The new medium holds a unique
promise for these centers in its ability to break through walls of isolation, helping
people especially children connect with each other and explore new horizons.
- Promote a 21st Century Literacy
We must design and deliver programs which develop the new learning skills of the digital
age. People, especially children, need them in schools at all levels, in neighborhood
learning centers and in organizations across all sectors. We suggest programs in critical
cognitive skills to help people learn how to reach, connect, interact and learn from the
diverse networks of groups and individuals across the world. We need to help people better
understand the skills of information discovery, editorial validation, assimilation,
presentation and dissemination made essential by the Internet. We need to help people
learn the social interaction skills inherent to the new medium, the practices of
expression, the culture of community responsibility and participation, and the ethical use
of information and services.
The Importance of Context And Meaning
Lewis Perelman, author of Schools Out, eloquently stated that the
definition of haves and have nots is not about money, computers or access, but
who will be able to learn in our new society. This will cut through all classes.
Most of all, we should remember that this is too new for anyone to have the answers
about what this revolution will ultimately hold, least of all me. In 1993, after all,
video-on-demand was for the future, Netscape was a glimmer in Jim Clarks eye and
America Online toiled alone. Way back then the major companies were building private
networks and insisting that the Internet would not influence their plans, the National
Information Infrastructure had just been announced and no informed source would have
comprehended the passage of a computer decency act.
Everyone in the digital world should place two quotes on their bathroom mirrors and
review them every day. The first is by Tom Peters: "Loving change, tumult, even chaos
is a prerequisite for survival, let alone success." I would only add, especially when
it applies to yourself. The second is from Andrew Grove who cautions "Only the
Yes, we must embrace change, but we must also distinguish it from meaningful progress.
Will we see beyond the wires, computers, and web sites to pioneer positive economic,
educational and social effects? It is exhilarating to see the accomplishments of the NII
Award winners, yet we cannot forget that our communities, schools, and businesses are
facing formidable challenges. We need action and solutions to systemic problems. Luckily,
we have a very real chance to be part of historical solutions that will shape our future.
Judge innovation by these criteria: Will it really make a difference? Will it lead to
positive systemic change? And, ultimately, why will anyone care?