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TeleTechnology Awareness Workshops for Rural Small Businesses: A Methodology for Generating the Partnerships Involved.

In the fall of 1994, the Colorado Rural Development Council (CRDC), in partnership with then Lieutenant Governor Sam Cassidy, held a series of community meetings throughout rural Colorado to discuss the current status of telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas and to begin a process to determine what applications rural communities identified as important to their long term economic sustainability and competitiveness. Each of these meetings provided a demonstration of what types of applications w ere available in the community as well as a preview of advanced technologies available on a limited basis or in the developmental stages. Attendance at these meetings was routinely significant, in the range of 50 to 100 people present. A portion of the meeting was also dedicated to identifying and organizing interested members of the public to form a community telecommunications coalition whose purpose was two-fold:

  1. To continue to inform members of the community about the emerging technology, and;
  2. To begin to organize a community-wide effort to formulate a business plan that would interest the local telephone service provider in upgrading the telecommunications infrastructure.

This latter purpose would require the community to look at the larger picture, incorporating multiple applications of the technology instead of considering single applications in very small, focused discussions. Combining distance learning applications with telemedicine applications and also looking at the potential for local government use of technology, would allow a larger market share to be formulated.

One consistent comment that was expressed by the people attending these community assemblies, was the need for more information about how telecommunications and technology could help small businesses in rural communities. Most people indicated that they understood that this technology "stuff" and advanced telecommunications services were very important to themselves and their communities, but most had no idea why or how to apply it on an everyday level, especially as business owners. Given this uniform observation in every rural community where these meetings were held, the CRDC determined that this lack of information was a critical need to be addressed.

After several discussions among members of the CRDC's Teletechnology Task Force, it was decided that CRDC should undertake an examination of how to respond to this identified need in rural communities and to explore possible partnerships which might be created to fill this gap.

As creator of this concept and main organizer of the partnership, CRDC first looked to its own membership to identify potential key partners in further defining the concept of disseminating information about how to use the Information Highway to rural small businesses and community non-profit organizations. General target organizations included higher education, state agencies involved with small business development, telecommunications local service providers, and organizations involved in technology applications. From within CRDC's own membership, a number of potential partners emerged, including the Colorado Office of Business Development and its Small Business Development Centers, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, and US West Communications. Initial discussions were held separately with the University of Colorado, Boulder, Office of the President and US West Communications. These preliminary discussions determined a strong level of support for the concept and the potential for funding for the effort.

This precursory design team, comprised of a representative from the Office of the President of CU Boulder, US West Communications and US West Foundation, and the Executive Director of the Colorado Rural Development Council, then met several times to begin to outline an expanded design team and to establish some basic goals for the team. This round of consultations identified other agencies and organizations that should be included in the planning effort. The Office of the President at CU sponsored a meeting with a number of departments within the University and affiliated entities to further explore who within the university organization would offer the types of ideas and support that would be needed. Attending that meeting were the Chancellor, the Dean of the School of Business, Director of the Business Advancement Center, Director of the Office of Business and Community Relations, Director of the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program (ITP) and representatives from the Alumni office. This meeting generated significant buy-in from the university with the offer of support and willingness to participate from three lead departments from the university - the Directors of the Office of Business and Community Relations, Business Advancement Center and the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program.

At the same time, outreach was made to other entities previously identified, such as the Office of Business Development for Colorado (and its member Small Business Development Centers), Colorado Advanced Technology Institute (CATI), Colorado Association of Non-Profit Organizations (CANPO), Colorado State University Extension Service, and the Boulder Community Network.

The initial partners met to identify some target goals and objectives for these workshops. The overarching goal was to provide rural small businesses and community non-profits with basic information about how they could use technology and the Information Superhighway to enhance their bottom lines. A secondary objective emerged that included identification of resources that existed within rural communities that could serve as a support network for small businesses and community non-profits to rely on after the initial exposure to technology and telecommunications service options. A third objective was to create a population of support personnel and organizations native to targeted rural communities that would serve as a resource pool for small businesses and community non-profits to assist in continuing the learning opportunities. Finally, there was an underlying objective, a carry-over from the work started by Lt. Governor Sam Cassidy, of establishing a core of interested potential advanced technology users from the small business sector hat could join with an established, broad-based, community-wide coalition that would aggregate additional technology end-users in order to build a business case for deployment of advanced technologies to these rural communities. An additional goal was to create an educated pool of users that would enable local telephone service providers to justify the cost of upgrading telecommunications infrastructure to provide these more advanced services like broad-band technologies.

After four meetings of the full design team, it became apparent that there were three natural focus areas to use to divide the work plan. Those three areas were content development, market identification/outreach and budget/implementation strategy. Members of the design team agreed to serve on one or more of these work groups, based on their expertise and interests. Several members agreed to serve on all three to provide continuity and facilitate communication and coordination.

Largely based on the information extracted from the original series of rural meetings that were co-hosted by CRDC and the Lieutenant Governor's office, there was general agreement among the members of the design team that the focus would be on rural small business owners primarily, with a sensitivity to special needs of small, rural community non-profit organizations. The team wanted to make the workshop content relevant to a broad cross-section of small businesses that would range from construction trades to local bed and breakfasts to farmers to home-based cottage enterprises. There was also consideration given to attracting the arts and cultural community, both from the community non-profit standpoint as well as from the small business perspective of gallery owners, artisans and craftsmen. Finally, community enterprises such as chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and schools were classified as important targets for involvement.

The outreach component work group anticipated the need to be flexible in order to utilize the available networks in a variety of rural communities. This work group also identified what communities in rural Colorado would most benefit from these workshops as well as provide a minimum level of telecommunications infrastructure needed to host a workshop. Once these communities were identified, key contacts and resource personnel within those communities were identified and contacted to serve as local host contacts. Local Small Business Development Center directors, Chamber of Commerce directors, local Community College presidents, County Extension agents, Economic Development Commission directors and local members of the CRDC were all identified as key community contacts in these various communities.

This work group also concluded that there was a need to hold a separate, more detailed, in-depth workshop for these key community contact personnel in order to assure their support and buy-in and to provide them with more detailed skills and knowledge of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW). This workshop would both give them specific information that would enable them to serve as resources to their communities and educate them as to the content of the workshop. It would also provide the design team an opportunity to get objective feedback on the content and concept of the TeleTechnology Awareness Workshop.

The design team identified a couple of members that were well-suited to work out details of what type of information should be included in these workshops. The workshops were also named by this group - TeleTechnology Awareness Workshops for Rural Small Businesses and Community Non-Profits. Because feedback from the initial round of meetings with the Lieutenant Governor indicated that the lack of knowledge about this thing called the Information Superhighway was at the most fundamental level, it was determined early that one section of information to be included in the workshop would be a history of the Internet and the World Wide Web and a primer on the technical terms associated with the Internet and WWW. The technical level also included information on what types of hardware is required to access the I-Way (Information Superhighway) as well as a section designed to clarify some of the confusing terms surrounding telecommunications infrastructure.

One very important component of the workshop design was the inclusion of plenty of time for hands-on experience with computers linked to the Internet and the WWW. This "lab time" occurred at strategically placed intervals to allow workshop participants to experience some of the more common frustrations encountered by Internet users. This allowed questions and answers to be addressed in the immediate follow-up presentation. This workshop design facilitated the learning curve of the participants while al so presenting individualized coaching. "Open Skiing" time on the Web was placed late in the workshop to add flexibility to the agenda.

A section on tools for using the Internet and WWW as an information source for small businesses and community non-profits was included to demonstrate, real-time, how to access that information and what types of software or programs are needed to get to the information. This presentation included tips on web browsers and search engines, with an emphasis that in learning about the power of the Internet, patience is a virtual virtue! Small businesses and especially home- based businesses also need information about the latest available telephone technologies. A section highlighting this information was included in the workshop and presented by the local telephone service provider. Even this portion of the workshop presented an opportunity to actually use the WWW to access the information. All of the partners on the design team agreed at the front end that it was very important in crafting this segment to keep the presentation focused on providing information and potential benefits to the attendees without being made too technical or too much of a promotional spot.

Included in the workshop was a demonstration of a number of community-based projects around rural Colorado that used the Internet and the WWW as a marketing and economic development tool. Most of these projects had been funded by Colorado Advanced Technology Institute. Several homepages on the Web were visited to illustrate both good web page development and less effective web pages. This segment of the day presented a number of do's and don'ts with respect to creating web pages and the importance of coordinating and linking web pages within the community. Collaborative web page development strategy was a very important component of the workshop.

Even the evaluation process was designed to use the technology and was devised to be interactive and on-line. Such an interactive evaluation provided instantaneous feedback that allowed the design team to immediately identify problems as well as to assure a 100% response rate on the survey. This has been one of the most popular survey instruments that any of the design team members has seen.

In keeping with the objective to identify local resources, the end of the workshop was arranged as a resource fair with local Internet access providers, computer hardware and software consultants and even web page developers making available information on their particular local services accessible to the community small businesses and community non-profits. This was an important component of the workshop since it identified community resources available for the longer term to small businesses and non-profits which may be interested in more detailed information, access or support.

Members of this working group then identified resources within the University of Colorado that could assist in actually developing the expanded content of all of these presentations. The detailed material was left to a collaborative effort by the teaching staff and graduate students in the ITP. The working group did review the material to assure that it remained basic and comprehensible by the general public.

This work group actually dealt with both the logistics of hosting the workshops in rural communities across Colorado as well as formulating a working budget that could be presented to potential funding entities. The budget considerations are presented under a separate discussion item in this paper (see FUNDING). Working with the University of Colorado's Office of the President proved to be an important asset for the team. The liaison from the President's Office was able to work with the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Project director to provide instant access to a graduate level work study student whose assignment was to cooperate with this work group. Members of the work group identified key individuals in each of the host communities for the graduate student to contact to arrange a host site with computer lab capacity, access to the Internet and web browser capacity. A press release was developed for each community that was then given to local contacts for distribution to the local media, print and radio (local cable channel where available).

The work group also was concerned with identifying categories of local support services and personnel that would be customized for each host community and these listings included as a handout at the community workshops. The graduate student then worked directly with the key contact person in each community to locate additional local resources to be included in the resource list. All this material was assembled and included in a notebook that was made available to each participant in the community workshop.

Members of this work group expressed some concern that attendance at these workshops should in some way be guaranteed. It was decided that rather than making attendance an open invitation, there would be a registration requirement and a reasonable fee charged to help guarantee that people who registered would actually attend. The work group recommended that the fee cover the cost of lunch, which was anticipated to average about $10 per person. This became the standard cost of the workshop. Registration was handled by the CRDC office and forms were mailed and made available locally. These forms were then mailed or faxed back to the CRDC office with a deadline of one week prior to the workshop. These responses then generated an attendance list that was used to check attendees on the day of the workshop. But more importantly, the information about the attendees was extremely useful to the workshop providers in tailoring their presentations to the audience.

Initial discussions with US West Communications led to more detailed dialogue with US West Foundation. After a meeting between representatives of US West Foundation and the CRDC Executive Director, the Foundation agreed to examine the proposal and to send a representative to participate in the design ream discussions. US West Foundation determined that the goals of this partnership were a good match with its focus on support and education for small businesses and agreed to become a funding partner.

In addition, the Colorado Rural Development Council, through an agreement with the Western Rural Development Center and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had access to a pool of funds that could be used for projects which involved institutions of higher education in the state with the CRDC. This project was determined to be eligible for those funds and CRDC's application was approved. This made $5,000 available for the initial, resource personnel workshop held at the CU Boulder campus computer lab.

Other design team partners identified additional in-kind matches that their organization or other potential partners could contribute to the effort as well. CU, Boulder donated the use of their computer lab center, Colorado Advanced Technology Institute paid the travel expenses of the presenter who covered the web page development presentation, Colorado Community Colleges contacted their member colleges to make available at no cost the computer labs in the targeted communities, US West paid the travel expenses for its representatives to present the telecommunications for small business owners portion, the Office of Business Development and its local Small Business Development Centers handled the local publicity and outreach and CRDC covered the travel expenses of its Executive Director to attend the workshops to serve as host and moderator.

US West Foundation's grant covered the travel expenses and per diem for the graduate students from University of Colorado and Colorado State University that presented the workshops as well as for the wage match for the work-study student who organized the workshops. The funds were also used to pay for the printing and assembly of the reference notebooks that were provided to all workshop participants. All expenses were handled through the University of Colorado at Boulder for financial management and accounting.

The most consistent challenge encountered in hosting these workshops was hardware incompatibility or failure. Midway through the series of workshops, the presentation team finally decided that it would have to transport and provide its own special hardware for overhead presentations using computers and software. Since some of the presenters were DOS based while others where Mac users, this meant duplication of hardware. The team also encountered some initial resistance with a very small number of community colleges who did not perceive either the value of or the community's need for this type of information. Earlier involvement of the Colorado Community Colleges and Occupational Educational Services would have precluded a great deal of resistance. Another obstacle encountered along the way was a lack of adequate access to the Internet in some communities. Unfortunately, it was often these communities who would have benefited the most from these workshops. Working more closely with the local host contact to provide press coverage would have been a desirable side benefit to give the partners involved in the workshop some additional positive press. Charging a minimal registration fee was absolutely the correct approach to assuring attendance and probably could have been slightly higher than $10 per person, but not more than $20. Lunch was provided for all attendees in addition to morning coffee and donuts and cookies in the afternoon. All this was greatly appreciated by the workshop attendees and added networking opportunities with the presenters and local support personnel.

An important key to the success of the workshops was flexibility. Having work study students available to do a lot of the data collection and assembly was also an important piece in the development of the material and arrangements for the community workshops. With the almost instantaneous feedback from workshop participants, the design team could quickly review the agenda and re-work it as needed to improve the content and format.

All in all, feedback from workshop participants, local hosts, the presenters, the design team members and the funding partners has been overwhelmingly positive. These workshops have identified a serious need in rural communities and the public/private partnership that was created to address that need has been effective in providing access to important information. This is a model that the partners involved hope will be adopted and adapted for use elsewhere in rural communities.

Visit one of the community workshop homepages on the WWW. The URL is: http://www.swcolo.org/teletech/alamosa

Special thanks to US West Communications and US West Foundation for being so involved with the design, planning, implementation, and of course, the funding of this endeavor. Thanks also to the University of Colorado, Boulder for serving as fiscal agent for this project and for also providing a great deal of staff support and participation. And, of course, thanks to all the partners who have made this project successful: