13 April 2011

Entrepreneurship, or, Enabling the Innovation Economy

I've been giving innovation and entrepreneurship a lot of thought - particularly since we are having a whole day on this at the Polytechnics Canada conference on 5 and 6 May. Part of the conference will be working sessions designed to articulate solutions that leverages all aspects of the education and innovation system and the innovation skills needed for Canadian productivity.

One thing that I came across recently that is of interest to anyone in this space: Skills for Innovation and Research (2011) OECD Publishing. There is a good definition of entrepreneurship, including the summation: "creativity seems to be a necessary but not sufficient precondition of entrepreneurship." To this I would add the ability to analyze, think critically, and focus on human-centred product or process development and what I have called "adoptation"--the ability to adopt and adapt: precepts central to innovation literacy.

I've written before on the double helix nature of the multiplier effect needed for our "innovation DNA": the need for both graduate/undergraduate trained innovators with complementary STEM/nonSTEM skills as essential for productive innovation. A mixture of skills is needed for innovation, but this mixture is always in flux. There is no static model for what constitutes the optimal mix of skills as these are variable and according to the need of innovation-in-context. This is a very important point as it means there is no magic bullet solution for fixing innovation. Rather, we need a constant commitment to reinvention and an additive ability to learn, to translate (user needs to design specifications, for example), to embrace change and adoptation. These skills are additive both in terms of what it means to an individual and in terms of the multiplier effect in work groups or teams, but also in the ongoing iterative nature of innovation that builds on histories of innovation and invention.

OECD's Skills for Innovation and Research tells us that there are several influencers of what innovation skill sets are required. These include: "the stage of innovation, the type of innovation, and the industry structure," to which I would add industry context vis-à-vis other industries. This last point refers to concepts such as open innovation, participatory innovation, and the ability for firms to collaborate across industries. Here again, the OECD Innovation Strategy skills show the value of nonSTEM skills as a complement to STEM skills in providing ways to develop business ideas based on science. Technical skills are the substrate on which innovation is based. We must assume this "ground", and look at the ancillary skills we associate with innovation literacy as being the "figure" of innovation. This figure is the entrepreneur, set against the backdrop of innovation-in-context.

One thing this OECD document states is that "More evidence is needed on the relationship between specific skill groups and innovation" (12). I've not mentioned this in this space before, but GBC is leading a large scale study on Measuring Innovation Literacy that will do this - the first of its kind in Canada. I'll post more on this study later, but our hypothesis is that we will show the value of the double multiplier, particularly the STEM/nonSTEM mix aspect - to be crucial to improving our innovative capacity as a country. In the Skills for Innovation section (p31 ff) we see the difficulty of coming up with a taxonomy of sorts to define what is needed to foster innovation. This is our collective opportunity to define the genre of innovation in Canada. That is, a complementary mix of skills is needed, including a solid grounding in STEM disciplines. But innovation leadership requires more than this. STEM grads need business training in order to fully realize their place in the innovation economy. Managerial and entrepreneurial talent are the purview of nonSTEM disciplines. This does not get enough discussion. Pundits typically decry the lack of STEM skills in North American society - and to be sure we need scientific literacy firmly grounded in our educational psyche. But we must not ignore the nonSTEM disciplines as adding a lot of value to the mix. Again, this is not a zero-sum game. (As an aside, here are two Twitter posts on both sides of this equation: People-Centred Innovation: WSJ.com - Vint Cerf's Opinion: How to Fire Up U.S. Innovation and Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities. My opinion: neither is right; neither is wrong.)

Education is the single biggest element of innovation here - providing it, encouraging it, and supporting it life-long, and life-wide. What I am arguing for here is an "entrepreneurial upskilling" of STEM/nonSTEM talent alike, as well as the need for innovation literacy at all levels of the workforce. Complementarity of education systems - university, polytechnic and college - is essential. Here the OECD tells us that universities are adept at disruptive innovation and basic research, whereas the vocational college/polytechnic is adept at incremental innovation - the applied research and experimental development parts of the innovation value chain. Both are necessary. This complementary linkage of differentiated actors in the educational/innovation system was nicely highlighted in the discussion that followed my appearance, alongside Queen's University's John Molloy at the R&D Review Panel last December.

The Public Policy Forum recently published Innovation Next: Leading Canada to Greater Productivity, Competitiveness and Resilience, which further underscores the need for bold leadership across and within sectors and silos. We are all oriented to the same goal of increasing and improving our productivity. Our discussion in May will be drawing on these insights and leveraging the group convened to push this agenda forward. Entrepreneurship is key to enabling the innovation economy. The responsibility for improving innovation does not rest on any one system actor, group, or set of disciplines. Rather, it is in the mix of a people-centred, participatory innovation.

No comments: