Innovation North: Opportunity Amidst Economic Struggles

When I came here about two years ago to lead Intel Canada as its new country manager, I was struck by the fact Canada appeared largely untouched by the global economic recession that crippled many world economies. Having most recently worked in the UK and Western Europe, the recession discussion was pervasive in all business conversations and it drove virtually all investment strategies, causing a reset in the way business was executed by government and the private sector.

I saw a business and public sector that was transformed, paving the way for a new vision of how we can interact. Just look at the UK public sector’s digital first strategy, which delivers new services first to constituents online. This measure not only cut costs but made government much more efficient. It was truly transformative.

Then I arrived in Canada. It was like entering a different world, one that had been fortunately – or unfortunately – bypassed the recession and had done a wonderful job of side stepping that whole environment.

You might be wondering why I say “unfortunately” bypassed the recession (one which irreparably damaged so many). I think perhaps Canada missed an opportunity because it didn’t face the same kinds of economic hardships experienced by other markets. Canada’s GDP was comparatively healthy so it didn’t need to look outside its borders for expansion, nor were business leaders required to focus on boosting productivity and efficiency to survive.

Fast forward to today: The deflated Canadian dollar and economic challenges presented by the dropping oil price are impacting businesses at a time when other markets are getting back to growth.

What my overseas experience has distilled for me is that Canada is at a point today where other countries were a few years ago. We are at an economic inflection point; a point in time where there is fundamental change afoot. During an inflection point, businesses can either see the opportunities to realize significant opportunities for growth and market share gain, or flounder, die and disappear.

Are Canadian companies ready to take advantage? Canadians have a pervasive culture that is typically more conservative when it comes to making decision, which could be detrimental but the collaborative business environment I’ve seen coast to coast can help companies make the transition successfully for those willing to take the chance. 

I see tremendous potential for growth in this country in a few fundamental areas:

  • Expand the delivery of online retail solutions. I am a big believer in bricks and mortar retail but it needs to be complemented by a very comprehensive and rich online experience.  Canada is lagging far behind other markets in the adoption of online retailing but I believe strongly that to succeed in the future retailers will need a multi-channel strategy that includes bricks and mortar, e-commerce, loyalty programs, and new delivery models that integrate in-store pick up with online delivery. They will also need to leverage big data to provide their customers with more choices and be more responsive to providing the products consumers want to purchase, where and how they want to buy them. I’ve watched with great interest the strides being taken by Canadian Tire which, as a traditional retailer, has embraced the future and is truly transforming their business along these lines.
  • We need a strong commitment at the highest levels to a public sector digital strategy that not only provides greater online access to services (not unlike the UK’s digital first strategy) which can dramatically cut the cost per interaction to access government services.  Hand in glove with this commitment is the need for a national policy to make sure that all Canadians, regardless of location or economic status, can get online and access those services. No one should be digitally excluded.
  • Embracing the cloud is another place Canadian companies are lagging behind globally (and I’m not talking exclusively about public clouds but rather all models from public to private and hybrid models). As the UK emerged from recession, cloud computing showed a rapid build out and I think Canada is poised for a similar growth spurt if companies are willing and able to break out of their traditional mold.
  • The employees of the future will be looking for new tools to be more effective and expand their ability to be mobile.  Companies need to be quicker to adopt new technologies and solutions to drive the knowledge economy of the future, if we want to retain the best and brightest employees.  Millennials are demanding a workplace that is more progressive and will go to companies that provide the flexible and collaborative environments they want.
  • The incubator community in Canada is very impressive and I have been amazed by the collaborative nature of businesses in this country where leaders are willing to meet, share ideas, and work together.  This bodes well for the future but there is a gap when it comes to funding research initiatives and then moving ideas into marketable commercial products.  Leadership and commitment are currently lacking but there is an opportunity here once all the pieces are put in place.

There are positive signs Canada is poised for a significant leap forward in the adoption of new technology. Senior IDC Research Analyst Utsav Arora recently told a Mississauga audience that the conventional view that Canada lags 18 months behind the world is out of date. He feels that innovation and a start-up culture have cut the gap in big data adoption to between 6 and 12 months.

When something changes (like our economic climate), you can positively embrace it and use it to your benefit or you can stand back and stare at it while everyone else is benefiting by that change. Businesses can no longer continue to rinse and repeat the way they have done for the last 10 years.

The time – and opportunity – for change is here.  In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

I believe Canadian companies are in a perfect place to seize opportunity from the difficulties we are currently facing, if they are willing.