Microsoft has launched a series of intimate events featuring high-calibre speakers from inside and outside the company to stimulate discussion of key industry issues, and to position Microsoft as a thought leader in those areas. For its first session, Accelerating Canada Forward, Microsoft invited four speakers who provided unique perspectives on driving growth through innovation in the Canadian economy.
Following short presentations, John Weigelt, national technology officer at Microsoft Canada, Brian Wong, founder and president of Kiip, Chitra Anand, head of PR for Microsoft Canada and Som Seif, founder and president of Purpose Investments Inc., engaged the audience in a panel discussion.
- IT is assuming a leadership role as an enabler of innovation. The identification of cloud, social, mobile and Big Data technologies as "transformational trends" is an approach that is familiar to IT industry producers and consumers. But John Weigelt pushed the fast forward button on industry trends, noting that these technologies "will become silent soon" (i.e., become so common and integrated that they need not be labeled separately), eclipsed by tech that alters the way and where we interact with systems and each other. Natural user interfaces, machine learning and augmented reality are changing the way we collaborate, while sensors connected through the Internet of Things are creating new sources of insight and productivity. "It’s not about the digital economy, it’s about digitization of the Canadian economy," Weigelt explained, and about new opportunity for Canadian businesses which can achieved through a "mash" of Richard Florida’s creative class, Thomas Freedman’s the sense that the new world is global and flat, and new digital technology.
All that’s missing is investment: according to Weigelt, the Centre for Canadian Living Standards has found that for every dollar invested in technology by small businesses in the U.S., Canadian SMBs invest only 58 cents and a recent BDC study has found that only 60% of businesses plan to invest in technology, with predictable results — the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, which ranks the top 15 regions by prosperity, included Ontario and Quebec at the bottom of the list, just one example of linkage between the productivity and prosperity gaps.
- Building entrepreneurialism a multi-faceted challenge. Kiip founder Brian Wong described four elements that are critical in the creation of "a hungry entrepreneurial community": stories, funding, support, and room to learn. Drawing on his own personal experience as the founder by age 22 of four successful startups in the mobile and tech space, Wong expanded on these elements, to explain that entrepreneurial "serendipity" thrives on a culture that entertains failure as a learning tool, on the combination of engineering and business education, an investment environment that provides mentoring and other networking supports in addition to funds, and a local community that can foster and highlight individual success stories.
- Intrapreneurs a source of creativity in corporate cultures. A close cousin to the entrepreneur, the ‘intrapreneur’ works within the large organization to drive new thinking that is critical to success in our increasingly global — and challenging marketplace. Chitra Anand, who is both student of intrapreneurship (at the University of Bradford where she is pursuing a doctorate on the topic) and a practitioner (as PR head at Microsoft), outlined the key characteristics of this kind of worker as: "disruptive" in nature and willing to challenge the status quo; able to see trends, solve problems, and a person who talks less and observes more; a cultivator and germinator of ideas who can quickly bring plans to full fruition, with line of sight on potential roadblocks to address these proactively; and a very focused individual who "knows how to pivot" and is "passionate" about their work. According to Anand, the intrapreneur is an essential asset in a business climate characterized by extreme competitiveness — technology has enabled the business, but also the consumer who is now empowered to shop elsewhere. To respond, businesses must display agility and an appetite for rapid change, but this can be a challenge in large, complex organizations. "How do organizations remain sustainable, relevant, and innovate fast enough?" Anand’s answer is to hire intrapreneurs.
- Risk drives the economy but most are adverse. A "hoarding" mentality is one of primary legacies of this decade’s belt tightening recession according to Som Seif. In his view, though governments have lead with investments to reintroduce some balance, economic stimulus only works if the broader community also assumes risk. Giving the VC industry a pass for good behaviour, Seif urged the remaining segments to step up. Humans are especially bad at taking risk because they don’t understand it, he added, though in reality true exposure lies in satisfaction with the status quo. Managers who are unable to prepare for change as an integral part of business will be vulnerable to leaders with a firm grasp on risk management who can "remove emotion from the equation" and move on to build contingency plans. With a steady eye on individual dynamism, Seif concluded that the "best form of risk management is investment in human capital."
The bottom line:
The disparate perspectives offered up at Accelerating Canada Forward highlight the complexity of issues related to economic growth, productivity and innovation. But they also mirror disconnects that continue to dog the creation of a sustainable startup ecosystem here in Canada. Finger pointing aside — a lack of investment, human risk aversion, failure of local support systems (while urging Canadians to focus on strengths in Toronto and Vancouver, Wong chose to build his business in Silicon Valley) and tension between startup vs. corporate business drivers — speakers offered some really interesting options. Advanced collaboration through seamless IT solutions, better support for entrepreneurship, corporate agility led by intrapreneurs, and a greater spirit of risk adventure on the part of investors and individuals businesses alike are no doubt important components to driving productivity, but more effective if operating in tandem. Herein lies the real value of the Forward Canada session — a forum that may serve to draw together disparate industries and individuals for ongoing dialogue on building the bridges needed for long term collaboration on sustainable growth.