05 March 2012

ACCC Applied Research Symposium highlights growth, skills for innovation

The annual ACCC Applied Research Symposium held last week in Ottawa featured excellent discussion of capacity building and the continued evolution of college/polytechnic applied research as a key enabler of the innovation economy. Seneca President David Agnew reminded the college community that we are in a lengthy development phase--and of the importance of our unflagging commitment as we chart a future path in developing the applied research layer of the Canadian innovation system. Also productive was recognition of the various tiers of  applied research taking place across the system, highlighting as it did the ways in which the college community can work together as innovation enablers--while teaching graduates essential innovation skills.

A panel on Social Science and Humanities research at Canadian colleges featured the report by Marti Jurmain and offered much that was helpful. This environmental scan shows a wealth of Humanities and Social Science (HASS) research is underway in the Canadian college system. Key here is colleges' ability to recognize where HASS exists and articulate how HASS fits into the S&T Strategy. I've made this point before in noting SSHRC President Chad Gaffield's focus on people centred innovation. It is vital for all of us engaged in research--applied or otherwise--to recognize that STEM skills alone are not enough to ensure innovation and productivity. As Christine Trauttmansdorff, Director, Policy, Planning, Governance and International at SSHRC, outlined in her address to the ACCC Symposium, understanding human thought and behaviour is essential to understanding how people innovate and how economies function, both socially and economically.

Polytechnics Canada's CEO Nobina Robinson, in a recent Research Money editorial, rightly posits that "companies commercialize; people innovate". The development of talent for the innovation economy demands a full and complete perspective on a mix of skills. A piece in today's Globe has some very good insights on this issue. The essential skills outlined by Janet Lane and Todd Hirsch are central to a fully functioning innovation economy. There is another article on skills--Business leaders cite skilled-labour shortage as priority--focusing on the shortage of skilled workers across the country. To put these two perspectives together is to gain a fuller picture of social and economic productivity in Canada.

George Brown College's strategic emphasis on "understanding employment" and our emphasis on soft skills as necessary to employment success reflect our recognition of the need for a skills-combinant approach. To understand employment is to understand the difference between what employers want and what employers need. Research GBC conducted last year emphasizes this differential (employers want higher productivity but do not value innovation; however, innovation is the surest way to achieve productivity gains). This result is in keeping with research by the OECD, Conference Board, STIC, et al., who all call for a complex mix of skills to drive innovation and productivity. The Conference Board has done some good work on the relationship of advanced skills and innovation, though its argument focuses only on university graduates and ignores the fact that Canada is first in the OECD for tertiary (post secondary) education only when colleges are included (they do point out a Japanese college connection). This is the signal opportunity of college applied research and our emphasis on innovation literacy.

Key here is understanding how to integrate essential skills most effectively in curriculum while ensuring our students graduate with the ability to articulate how essential skills/soft skills/people skills relate to their employment. That is, how best can we teach what I would call the language of innovation in order to ensure our graduates can future-proof the economy? Innovation literacy is a term that refers to the bundling of essential skills that represent the recombinant mix of skills essential for enabling the innovation economy. The skills needed for the innovation economy will be a defining feature of the years ahead.

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