28 May 2011

What employers want; What employers need

How Next Happens: Building our Economy through Incremental Innovation was held this past week in Toronto, and featured many excellent speakers on the need for an innovation policy in Canada. A paper was produced to spur discussion, linked here. MRI Minister Glen Murray opened the day, reminding us that "disruptive innovation is the exception; incremental innovation is the rule." This point is not often articulated, and the day's speakers impressed with a focus on the economic and social value of incremental innovation, which is responsible for most innovation productivity.

Minister Murray posited "innovation has replaced production as the primary driver of wealth creation and productivity," and that our collective failure to embrace this and the value of incremental innovation is one of Canada's failures. But this can be corrected, and the day's speakers outlined useful ways forward in this regard.

One way to do this is to teach innovation. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, says we should start this at the secondary level. To one point raised in the audience about innovation being unteachable, Martin replied: it's not unteachable; it's just not taught. He's right. It is this gap that we in the colleges and polytechnics are trying to fill with applied research and educational programs that teach innovation literacy - a constellation of skills that cohere around job-specific capabilities and enhance these with critical thinking and problem solving. As noted in the Polytechnics annual conference summary, the sector councils understand the need for these sorts of innovation skills, even when Canadian employers may not. This is the role of government policy as outlined in the "How Next Happens" event: provide leadership around innovation and entrepreneurship, and create an innovation policy that focuses on business innovation and helping firms plan for the future.

It was Roger Martin who presented good data on what he calls Canada's invention policy. That is, if you examine what the granting councils promote, they focus on invention, not innovation, and certainly not incremental innovation. Bill Mantel, ADM of MRI, did make the point that colleges, notably through the MRI-sponsored Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII), do a lot to help firms with incremental innovation. More of this is needed to increase Canadian productivity. Mantel put this very well: "if you're going to talk about innovation, you have to talk about companies." CONII is an excellent model, Mantel told the audience, for working with SMEs and getting them to the right resource to help them innovate. The focus on firms is what will drive our future productivity. Invention from our world-class research labs is important, but focusing on what we can do to enable firms to innovate will be what lifts us out of our innovation nosedive. 

Peter Nicholson, of the Council of Canadian Academies, offered an excellent quadrant analysis of invention and diffusion. I've replicated this below. He grounded his discussion in a review of multifactor productivity and a point encapsulated by a good quotation from Zvi Griliches: "Most of the economy is quite far away from the boundaries of the current state of knowledge." That is, the State of the Art (upper right quadrant) is where most value is achieved by society for any given innovation, and this is where we need to move. This means encouraging firms to innovate, and linking our educational system to sponsoring innovation through applied research, but also through offering relevant educational programs that promote and foster innovation, entrepreneurship, and a move to the state of the art.

Diffusion of innovation model: P Nicholson
Kevin Lynch outlined four principles that should guide our approach to an innovation policy and improving productivity:
  1. Competitiveness is changing
  2. The globe is restructuring
  3. There is now  "great global talent hunt"
  4. Information is the new global currency
Lynch's point is that Canada needs to adopt information-driven competition - to use global benchmarking to drive innovation and productivity. We need to make explicit efforts on figuring out where we are (for example, within Nicholson's quadrant) and make every effort to move to where society gets the most value. Perrin Beatty summarized the day's discussion succinctly, saying as a society we have not put enough emphasis on the need for continual innovation. Our firms - and our workforce - needs to be able to understand the need for incremental innovation and its role in fostering improved productivity A challenge noted was that these concepts need to be made relevant - and resonant - with the Canadian public.

What does this mean for college and polytechnic education in Canada, and indeed the entire post secondary education (PSE) system? It means focusing on offering programs that equip graduates for work in today's and tomorrow's innovation economy. It means understanding that employers want graduates with the skills to do today's jobs, and helping them understand the need for skills for tomorrow's jobs. Governments are instructive and do lead here, but can only do so much. The PSE system has a job to do in educating employers on what is needed to encourage greater innovation and productivity across the economy.

George Brown College excels at providing graduates with job-ready skills. By equipping our graduates with innovation literacy, gained through applied learning and practical research and innovation projects, we are giving the economy the skills employers need. Our collective public education mission is therefore two-fold: to educate the students that come to us for job skills and career pathways, as well as to educate employers on the need for adopting and adapting innovation and the skills required to future proof Canadian industry. The future of Canadian productivity is a team effort.

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