An Entrepreneur’s Guide to the Future

Government isn’t equipped to accomplish the missions it’s charged with today, much less those of a rapidly evolving future.

Instead of reading this column, you really should be reading Steve Case's new book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future (Simon and Schuster, 2016). Seriously. It's not only a fascinating view of his experience at the dawn of the Internet age, it's also a blueprint for how organizations must form partnerships with governments and others if they're going to succeed in this age of technological innovation.

But since you’re here, I'll try to make this synopsis worth your while. The wave of which Case writes is one in which the "Internet of Everything" is giving rise to ideas and companies that have the potential to totally disrupt the way we do things. He describes it as "a phase where the Internet will be fully integrated into every part of our lives—how we learn, how we heal, how we manage our finances, how we get around, how we work, even what we eat.” 

Case calls it the Internet of Everything instead of the Internet of Things, because the Internet is impacting nearly every aspect of our lives. And it can do so much more. Real time tracking of vital signs, fitness and nutrition has the potential to transform health care and our relationships with our medical care providers. Monitoring student achievement more closely can help us tailor teaching to each student’s needs. And the agriculture industry, already a voracious consumer of data, is on the precipice producing food and ensuring safety in new ways.

Case prescribes three principles that navigators of the third wave must master if they're going to be successful:

  • Regarding partnerships, Case writes that “success will hinge on [the] ability to form constructive, supportive partnerships with the organizations and individuals that can influence…decision makers and, eventually, with the decision makers themselves.”

  • With respect to perseverance, he warns that success won't be easy. “Perseverance is part of the story of every successful company,” he writes, “but Third Wave entrepreneurship will require a special kind.” 

  • About policy, Case writes that companies must be prepared to engage with government because “no one else is going to ensure that legislators understand how your company and your industry operate, where you fit into the debate, and what effects proposed policies would have.” He also warns, “If you ignore government, a lot of governing will get done without you.”

What I find most heartening about Case's book is its optimism. He shares his experiences of successfully working with legislators and policy makers in order to achieve worthy goals: “In the middle of the least productive legislative period in our history, our team managed to bring the right people together to craft a bill and get it signed into law. And it validated my view that we could build trust among otherwise warring parties.” Because partnership with government will be critical to successful adoption of new technologies, Case says, “it’s a mistake to conclude that government is useless—or hopeless.”

Whether you like it or not, government will be central to the operation of organizations riding the third wave. Government oversight and regulation will set the rules under which American companies operate. If government gets in the way, America’s competitiveness will suffer and so will its citizens. If government’s role fosters growth and innovation, American citizens will benefit. Closer partnership between the public and private sectors can play a big role in producing a more constructive, productive environment for growth and innovation.   

Partnerships between government and non-government organizations aren't always pretty. Government can take a paternalistic, haughty, and sometimes hostile view of its partners or those agencies oversee. Government partners or customers, on the other hand, often don't understand or empathize with the strictures under which government operates. Case argues that those who can bridge these misunderstandings and chart more productive engagement with government will be most successful.

If successful third wave organizations are going to work more closely in partnership with government, government needs to be better prepared to deal with them, too. Case asserts that “going to a hospital often feels like you're stepping back in time.” The same can be said of most federal agencies. If we can’t hire people quickly enough or retain the top talent we have, how will we keep up with this transformative time? If buying things takes months or years, how will we have what we need to innovate? Government is not equipped to accomplish the missions it’s charged with today, much less those of a rapidly evolving future.

Adapting government for the third wave means we'll need to reform the way it hires, fires, buys . . . the way it manages everything it does. That will be difficult. Government reformers will need more than a bit of the perseverance Case describes. Our nation's success depends on it. 

Robert Shea is a Principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector and a former senior official with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

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