TORONTO — The era of corporate self-indulgence and developing technology for its own sake is all but over, concluded a panel of Canadian business and government leaders at Comdex Canada 2002 Wednesday.

“”We’re in the middle of a huge purge,”” said Walter Mcnee, president of MasterCard Canada. “”There was a period of time when we shifted from ‘the customer is always right’ to ‘the shareholder is always right.'””

The panel convened at the Crowne Plaza hotel, next to the Toronto Convention Centre, venue for this year’s Comdex convention. Representatives from Canadian companies like IBM Canada and ATI Technologies Inc. were in attendance.

Mcnee related a story where Canadian credit card companies and major banks attempted to introduce smart chip cards. “”We put together specs, spent millions of dollars, but unfortunately there’s no business,”” he said. “”I think that’s when technology got ahead of the consumer need. They said, ‘Great, what do we do with it?’ We said, ‘We don’t really know.'””

The corporate world has had to adjust its expectations of consumers, agreed Josh Mendelsohn, chief economist for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, but added “”consumers and shareholders are interrelated. You can’t have one without the other. There’s a lot of things we tend to dichotomize, but they work in tandem.””

Privacy and security concerns are still paramount in the public consciousness, offered panel members. Those concerns often result in circumspect attitudes towards consumer products. As a result, corporations must be more keenly attuned than ever to what the public wants from those products.

“”Consumers rule,”” said Brian Shaw, chief community health and knowledge transfer for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “”Brand and trust are practically synonymous and you have to capitalize on that trust.””


Joan McCalla, corporate chief strategist for the Government of Ontario said, “”I think trust is absolutely essential. At the end of the day, it’s all we have to go on. If we don’t pay attention to trust in terms of privacy and security . . . we undermine the capabilities of government and business itself.””

Technology is something of a double-edged sword in the implementation of that privacy, but it has also played that role in the workplace, said Rupert Duchesne, president and CEO of Aeroplan. “”Authority to manage one’s own workplace is a huge (obstacle). There are too many diversions. Even in services businesses that are supposedly different from widget making,”” he said.

“”If your speed and availability is increasing, trust is harder. It’s often harder to make the right decision, because you don’t have the time for consideration.”” He added: “”The process of change is uncomfortable, but where you end up is better than before. . . . In a rapidly-changing environment, you have get back to the basics . . . human values and emotions.””

The shift to a more consumer-based economy — and human values — is a challenge for Canadian businesses, said the panel. They may be up to that challenge, even if they lack the confidence to realize it.

“”Optimism is learned and people are protective. It’s difficult to be realistic about your situation. ‘Pragmatic pessimism’ is probably the cultural norm,”” said Shaw.

“”I think there’s more self-flagellation than there really needs to be,”” said Mendelsohn. Canadians really need to be risk takers if we’re to capitalize on market opportunities, he added.

“”I think it’s hugely optimistic for us,”” said Duchesne, referring to markets that have opened up in Asia-Pacific and parts of Eastern Europe. “”Canada really does stand as a beacon in some of these areas, much to its own surprise.””


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