Canadians must innovate away ‘lazy’ business approach, says Microsoft exec

Canadian small businesses need to use technology to sell their products and services globally in order to be as innovative as their American counterparts, according to a panel of business leaders.

Small businesses are the backbone of Canada’s economy, experts agreed at a round table discussion hosted by Microsoft Canada. Entrepreneurs should be encouraged to launch their offerings internationally, rather than just focusing on local markets. Thanks to cloud-based technology, this can be done more easily than ever before. But Canadians’ more conservative culture towards business change is stifling innovation and economic growth.

There’s no lack of great ideas in Canada, says Eric Gales, president of Microsoft Canada. But implementing those ideas is something else.

“It’s not conscious that we’re lazy,” he says. “We just don’t have an orientation to stretch ourselves.”

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Microsoft Canada commissioned a survey from Harris-Decima to examine the innovation gap between Canada and the U.S. The Harris-Decima survey was completed by 504 Canadian office workers and 501 American office workers, conducted between Jan. 5 and 14.

The poll shows Americans are slightly more likely than Canadians to agree that technology is shaping the future of how they work (99 per cent of Americans compared to 96 per cent of Canucks). Also, Canadians were more likely than Americans to think than their business leaders needed to take more risk in order to create innovation (84 per cent versus 77 per cent).

The difference in attitudes is deep rooted within our nationalist culture, says Benson Honig, who holds the Teresa Cascioli chair in entrepreneurial leadership at the DeGroote School of Business. This leads to a productivity and innovation gap between the two North American countries.

Canada “is a country that was founded by a company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, that trapped beavers and cut down wood,” he says. “We can’t continue to do what we were doing. We can’t continue to sell 85 per cent of our business to the U.S., we need to go global.”

Canadian businesses were lulled into a lazy mindset because of a low Canadian dollar for a couple of decades, Honig explains. With the dollar low, it made sense to rely on simple manufacturing and selling of products to the U.S. But now that the dollar is at parity, innovation is needed to find new business models.

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Canada’s young entrepreneurs and immigrant population may hold the key. Canadians consider the younger generation entering the work force today either just as innovative (47 per cent) or more innovative (41 per cent) than the current generation of business leaders. The top reason for this perception, named by 68 per cent of Canadians, is youth’s experience and comfort with technology.

Peter Aceto, president and CEO of ING Direct Canada, has seen the entrepreneurial spirit of youth first hand. One student he met operated an Internet business out of his dorm room that connected tutors with pupils. It might sound fairly ordinary, but this particular student was running this service in five different countries.

Good leadership is important in helping create innovation, Aceto says.

“People understand change and they trust that if a change is being suggested, the leader believes it’s in the best interest to do it,” he says. “The fear that comes out of any change is they don’t understand it.”

American workers were more likely than Canadian workers to think that their company’s values were in line with employees, according to the survey. Twenty-two per cent of Americans strongly agreed that was the case, compared to 14 per cent of Canadians.

Not every start-up can or should go global, Microsoft’s Gales concedes. But every business should take a long, hard look at whether its appropriate for them, and it could create more opportunity.

“Look across the globe to see if there’s a chance for you to go international and grow at an accelerated rate,” he says. “If it makes sense, there’s a lot of resources there to help you do that.”

Cloud-based technology, which allows small businesses to buy computing power, services, or resources on an as-needed basis, gives small businesses access to technology they never could have used a decade ago, Gales adds.

Most employees surveyed (78 per cent) said they use the tools available to them to innovate and collaborate.

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