Bridging the Gap Between Education and Enterprise

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Collaboration
 
That one word – and the direct message behind it – is what stood out most during a one-day conference organized by The Canadian Chamber of Commerce known as The Competitive Edge: Success Through Innovation, held in Markham, Ont. The implicit need for Canadian businesses to remain ahead of the curve in the realm of innovation and befitting implementation is absolutely essential to ensuring our economic well being. While the country is the envy of many nations, there is still much that can be done to improve on our current policies and practices that will assist in keeping our industries internationally relevant.
 
With the economic health of our nation’s business sector at the forefront, the President and CEO of The Canadian Chamber of Commerce Perrin Beatty last year identified Canada’s Top 10 barriers to competitiveness and is actively implementing initiatives to address these issues, promote economic growth and drive prosperity. Competitive Edge 2013 served to highlight real-life practices and success stories of stakeholders in business, academia and government alike. Two of the key areas are innovation and skills.
 
“These are areas where Canada can be doing much better than it is today,” Beatty said during his opening address.
 
“We have to understand some of the underlying trends that are affecting the global economy and Canadian competitiveness.”
 
With the economic health of our nation’s business sector at the forefront, the President and CEO of The Canadian Chamber of Commerce Perrin Beatty last year identified Canada’s Top 10 barriers to competitiveness and is actively implementing initiatives to address these issues, promote economic growth and drive prosperity. Competitive Edge 20113 served to highlight real-life practices and success stories of stakeholders in business, academia and government alike. Two of the key areas are innovation and skills.
 
“These are areas where Canada can be doing much better than it is today,” Beatty said during his opening address.
 
“We have to understand some of the underlying trends that are affecting the global economy and Canadian competitiveness.”
 
The opening session by University of Toronto Professor of Economics David Foot provided a uniquely abstract and thought-provoking review of where our nation has been, where it is now, and where it should be setting its sights for into the future. Known internationally as a first-rate economics scholar, the Harvard-graduate has been instrumental in diagnosing many of the challenges Canada is facing. He is also the co-author of the best-selling book Boom, Bust & Echo: Profiting from the Demographic Shift in the 21st Century.
 
Demographics leading to destiny: it was the primary theme of Foot’s keynote address and can be applied as a measuring stick for education, private business and the public sector. Foot has spent countless hours examining data, including Canada’s declining population growth and its impacts – both real and imagined.
 
Foot’s comprehensive studies have resulted in contributions to a variety of specific fields including: marketing, human resource planning, corporate organization, saving and investing, housing, healthcare, education, recreation & leisure, unemployment, migration, government expenditures and intergovernmental relations. Demographics directly affects each of the aforementioned fields.
 
“Men and women are very predictable animals as they go through the various stages of their lives,” Foot determines.  
 
“I could almost take the presentation I do for Canada and not only apply it to the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Australia – but apply it to places like Brazil. People moving through the various stages of their lives dominate how they spend their money and what they do. Today’s 20-somethings will be no different from their parents when they reach their 50s.”  
 
One of the interesting points that stood out during Foot’s presentation was his advocating the need for top-tier hospitals to be built on the outskirts of major city centres, at the edge of the suburbs. Why? Foot opines that to a large extent it’s the older population who live in the suburbs while the younger generation in their 20s and early 30s live in condos in the downtown core. Foot believes it’s unrealistic to expect the elderly to have to battle their way into the congestion of downtown for healthcare, since they are the ones most likely in need of more intensive care. And, for the younger generation, having the medical centres on the border wouldn’t be overly inconvenient for them. Most of the employees of the hospitals may be younger and want to live in the city. The vast majority of patients tend to be elderly, who live outside the city.
 
“Let’s build our hospitals on the outskirts of the suburbs,” Foot proposes.
 
“That way, older people can come in to them without having to go all the way downtown and the young people can commute out to them, without having to drive overly far.”
 
Foot further brings up the notion of building healthcare clinics that deal with specific problems or illnesses.
 
“If we built the healthcare system for non-complex cases – meaning you’ve got one problem such as a hip replacement or cataract surgery or a hernia operation – and if we took those things out of hospitals and put them in self-contained facilities around the suburbs and we developed facilities where you just had one thing being done in those facilities with doctors focusing on that one thing, you’d have much better healthcare outcome.”
 
But there is of course one major problem preventing such an enormous change: money. Provincial governments are already tapped out. Implementing this type of a system would most certainly put provincial coffers even further into the red. Deficiencies tend to arise when theory meets reality.
 
There are certain exceptions to the demographics rule, such as certain elderly citizens who buck the trend, taking technology as an example.  Many older folks don’t tend to spend much time surfing the Internet on their computer. However, one woman in the audience noted that her 90-year-old father-in-law is on the computer every day, searching the Web and emailing his grandchildren around the world.
 
“Better educated and higher income people tend to adopt technology much more,” Foot declares. “
 
Additionally, urban people are more likely to adopt technology than rural people because it’s easier – there’s a network to support them. However, I never believe one variable is everything. Demographics will give about two-thirds of a good foundation and after that you start to build in those other things that may be put on the table. But the data has been remarkable stable for the past 50 or 60 years which has led me to my conclusion that people are very predictable as they move through their life.”
 
Educators and Executives Discuss the Gap
 
A frank discussion was also held about the need for strong collaboration between post-secondary institutions and the corporate business world. There has been concern that post secondary institutions may not know enough about current market requirements. With that in mind, The Chamber brought together some of the top minds in the country from both the educational and business sectors to debate this question.  Paul Davidson, President, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada acted as moderator alongside panelists Sheldon Levy, President and Vice Chancellor, Ryerson University; David Agnew, President, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology; and Pat Horgan, Vice President, Manufacturing, Development and Operations, IBM Canada – who also serves as Chair of The Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
 
“I’m pleased that we are now evolving from problem stating to problem solving,” Hamilton began.
 
“The nature of the solutions lies in collaboration.”
 
One primary factor is generating solutions to scale and applying them to businesses across each sector of the Canadian landscape. Educational institutions are tasked with ensuring graduating students are ready for joining the workforce.
 
“The whole world is going digital and the economies that are going to be successful are going to be those that embrace digital technologies one way or another and they will impact every part of the economy,” says Levy.
 
“From pharmaceutical to you name it, we are going into the digital economy.”
 
Levy pointed to cities such as New York and London as being pioneers with a number of their innovative businesses leading the way into the new business age. He says Ryerson is big on promoting students to consider becoming employers as opposed to employees. As of now, at least 15 new successful companies are born each year from graduating students, providing employment to about 500 people on an annual basis. Levy notes that the programs in place are still very much in their infancy and expects even greater numbers to emerge in the coming years.
 
“Rather than every student thinking they have to find a job, the students are now becoming the job creators,” Levy responds.
 
“The emphasis on the ability to take risk and take a chance with youth is so much better in the United States than Canada; and that’s what we have to do – embrace our youth and give them the chance and they will make you rich.”
 
Levy also pulled no punches in saying innovation is largely being driven south of the border and all of us are to blame.
 
“If you’re talking about barriers I don’t think you can pick any one group and say they’re the problem,” he states emphatically.
 
“It’s the institutions, it’s government and it’s business. Unless we rethink and take some risks and accept some level of failure then we are going to watch it all flow south again.”
 
Within the Canadian university sector, more than half the faculty teaching today have been hired in the last 10 years and more than half of them have international experience.
 
“We have a very dynamic set of institutions across the country,” Davidson says.
 
“We also have a rapidly growing set of institutions where enrollment has increased by more than 50 per cent in the last 10 years. Think about that new generation of students who between now and 2017, there will be a million students who get their first degree. The opportunities, the skills, the experiences they have over these next few years will determine Canada’s prosperity for the next 50 years.”
 
David Agnew took time to address the issue of labour skills and the notion there is a skills shortage. He was quite blunt in stating that it’s a two-way street, and business must meet education half way. 
 
“It’s really not about a skills shortage,” he says.
 
“What we have is an inefficient labour market. There also continues to be a way too high dropout rate in high schools. Even as those populations shrink, we’re not graduating enough students. I can also tell you there is a huge and persistent disconnect in the transitions from secondary to post secondary that causes an awful lot of problems for students.”
 
Agnew also mentioned the problem with an Aboriginal population that is booming yet remains severely undereducated.  He also zoned in on the ongoing attitudinal bias towards colleges, as opposed to universities, which continues to drive a certain segment of the population away, oftentimes with parents steering their children in an alternate direction from the apprenticeship type education diplomas and a number of industry trade jobs. There’s a skills mismatch in Canada, which Agnew believes must be addressed.
 
“Colleges are about applied education,” Agnew says.
 
“We’ve evolved a lot since 1967 when we (Ontario colleges including Seneca) founded. Using Seneca as an example, 25 per cent of our students come from university. There’s the very true story of students coming out with BAs and BCs who need to find a job and they come to college to get a career-based education whether that’s through a graduate certificate or in fact starting again.”
 
One of the main evolutions is that colleges now offer certain degree programs, which wasn’t the case until about 10 years ago. The addition of these programs appeals to an entirely different set of potential students who may decide to attend community colleges.  An increase in applied research has also proven extremely beneficial at the college level. But following graduation, Agnew wants to see more business development here in Canada, not somewhere else.
 
“What other country would take pride in producing graduates from certain programs and say ‘oh good, they’re heading down to California… we’re successful’ – I mean, that’s pathetic,” Agnew laments.
 
“Yet we do take it as a badge of honour. We have to every so often slap ourselves as Canadians and recalibrate what success means.”
 
As an international example of well-defined collaboration, the government of Brazil has committed to send 100,000 students abroad at the full expense of the Brazilian government. It’s an investment in youth and talent with the expectation that it will serve as a catalyst to helping their economy grow in the future. Canada ranks quite low on internationalization and experiential opportunities abroad. Comparatively, Americans are twice as likely to have international experience; Germans – three times as much.
 
As an executive with a large private company, IBM Vice President Pat Horgan offered up his take on what needs to be done to bridge the gap between education and enterprise. As Chair of The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, he also works closely with President and CEO Perrin Beatty in addressing this very issue from coast to coast.
 
“We’re telling every business in every part of Canada, in every big or small town, that if you haven’t talked to your local education institution you’re missing something,”
 
Horgan says. “You’re not doing yourself a favour or helping the future prosperity of the country.”
 
Evolving World of Technology
 
There is perhaps no better example than technology where the requirement for a nexus between education and business is critical in order to achieve success. Through good times and bad, there’s no disputing BlackBerry has put Canada on the map when it comes to recognition for its technological contributions to the world at large. Much of it has evolved through the years as the Waterloo, Ont. based company continues to reinvent itself in the wake of a few very troublesome years, which has seen its market cap plummet from a high of about $80 billion to its current value of just under $8 billion. The good news is that the release of its BlackBerry 10 smartphone earlier this year seems to have stabilized investor concerns, at least for now.
 
Sebastien Marineau-Mes is Senior Vice President, Software at BlackBerry – formerly known as Research In Motion – leading a team of 3,000 employees. He came to BlackBerry from QNX, the company purchased by BlackBerry and whose operating system provides the backbone infrastructure of the new BlackBerry Z10 and the Q10, which is equipped with the physical keyboard that many loyal customers have come to expect. Mes was targeted to take over the leadership role with BlackBerry  due to his unique background experience with operating systems, development tools and open source.
 
Now at the dawn of the post-PCA dominated era, smartphones are far more than the name implies. They are in fact new portable mobile personal computers that we can take with us everywhere we go.
 
“We build everything ourselves and that’s quite different from a number of other technology companies,” Marineau-Mes points out.
 
“The benefit is that you can enhance innovation from within, but you need the talent to support it.”
 
BlackBerry of course has to go head-to-head with other technological giants in the industry such as Apple, Samsung, Motorola and Nokia. On the surface, doing it from a mid-sized southern Ontario city like Waterloo seems strange, but Marineau-Mes points out that’s not really the case.
 
“It’s really more about the talent and innovation and we have it here in Canada,” he replies.
 
“Any technology company lives or dies by the technology they produce. It’s actually a highly non-linear process so it’s not about having a thousand people that are trying to invent something; it’s having the right people who will come up with innovation. You have to bring in the right people and then cultivate that talent.”
 
Perrin Beatty asked Marineau-Mes to give a report card on the educators on the job they are doing in preparing graduating students in joining companies such as BlackBerry. 
“They’re doing a great job,” Marineau-Mes replies.
 
“We have a great university system. I believe we’ve bridged the gap between research and industry. One of the responsibilities companies such as BlackBerry has is to work with universities and foster that relationship so we can help bring the commercial side to the curriculum for co-op programs and learn how to actually build an application.”
 
Marineau-Mes believes the scale of innovation is different for each company, depending on its dynamics, such as size and the given business sector but the fundamental process is essentially the same.
 
“It’s about getting the right people who will look at problems and finding creative technological ways to overcome them,” he says.
 
One of the primary reasons that BlackBerry found itself in such dire straits over the past several years was due to a dearth of new products. Some critics publicly blamed marketing, but how can you market a product that hasn’t been developed – which was the direct problem faced by Jim Balsillie, who may have taken a lot more of the heat than was warranted. The technology side effectively ground to a halt while the likes of Apple and Samsung raced on by. The need to refocus and get back on track is a difficult task to accomplish, especially when it means getting thousands of people to move in the same unified direction all at once.
 
“It’s extremely challenging,” Marineau-Mes admits.  
 
“Part of innovation includes letting go of what you’ve already built. You have to motivate people through the transition. In general people do not innovate for the money. People want to solve problems and change the world.”
 
The challenge is to overcome complacency and professional boredom. It’s an issue that faces companies everywhere throughout the world. Private enterprise needs to drive innovation and commercialization, but what about government and its responsibility?
 
“The government has a large number of levers it controls which has a lot of influence on the innovation pipeline that companies depend on,” Marineau-Mes remarks.
 
It could include such things as university grants, centres for excellence and tax credit programs for research.
 
 “In some ways I think government’s role is to maximize the opportunities and probabilities of small, medium and large companies in the country.” 
 
By Angus Gillespie 
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