Innovation begins with education, Can>Win attendees say

TORONTO – Technology-assisted education may be the most important element of a strategy to make Canada more innovative, Bill Gates and a panel of senior executives told the Can>Win 2002 conference.


hundred business people gathered for the one-day series of discussions with leaders from the country’s transportation, banking and public sector industries in Toronto on Tuesday. The agenda was focused on ways Canada can compete more effectively with the United States and the rest of the world. While most of the keynote speakers agreed that technology is a helpful tool for generating new ideas, Microsoft’s chief software architect said the industry needs to rethink how it is applied.

“”The track record for technology in education is almost a complete failure,”” he said, noting the minimal impact of TV sets in the classrooms and quiz software on PCs. While IT can play a key role in improving access and resources to driven students, Gates said, there were limits to its impact on non-motivated learners. “”Often, the problem is learners that are disaffected with the educational system.””

Gates’ comments came not long after Charlie Baillie, chairman of TD Bank Financial Group, called for a complete reform of Canada’s schools. Too often, he said, problems in education get bogged down in jurisdictional squabbles among government at all levels. “”The educational system has to encourage students to challenge accepted attitudes,”” he said. “”We need to develop public and private sector attitudes that reward constructive criticism and encourages lifelong learning.””

Baillie pointed out that Canada is producing fewer Ph.D. and doctoral graduates, which he described as the “”feeder system”” for the country’s R&D labs. Overall, he said, too much of R&D is focused on too few firms and is concentrated heavily in public sector organizations like the National Research Council. This too needs to change, he said.

Gary Hamel, chairman of Strategos, said a commitment to technology-assisted education could be continued in the workforce, in ways that have proven successful for other companies. “”You can’t change your IQ, but you can see things you didn’t see before,”” he said, through exposure to a wider range of resources over the Internet, for example. “”A lot of innovation was not forecasting; they were just people who were on the fringe of where things are.””

Hamel pointed to Nokia as a company that encouraged its employees to study lifestyles while competitors like Motorola focused on product improvements. This gave Nokia an advantage in the cell phone market, he said. “”Look at TiVo–that’s completely transforming that (broadcasting and recording) market,”” he said. “”Innovation is often about finding the unarticulated needs of customers.””

Gates agreed. “”We’ve come to look at this whole corporate training thing as a gigantic market,”” he said, adding that Microsoft has tried to create a corporate environment that encourages ideas from remote parts of the organization to take fruit in its R&D labs. “”For us, (innovation) is our lifeblood. If anyone should have the systems in place to make this work, it’s us.””

While an open approach to innovation and learning might be expected at Microsoft, the same cannot be said for more traditional companies, said CN Rail Co. president Paul Tellier. “”When I came to the industry 10 years ago, I was shocked by the lack of any sense of urgency, not just at CN but across the whole sector,”” he said. “”It’s a question of mindset. You have to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. And you have to make sure the people on the bus are in the right seats.””

Tellier said one of CN’s key innovations was an online scheduling systems where customers track approximately 90,000 shipments every day. There was a lot of resistance and fear as it created its electronic catalogue, he said, but it was necessary to stay competitive within NAFTA. “”Innovation is risky and can be disruptive,”” he said. “”But when you stimulate innovation in one area, it has an enabling effect elsewhere. We need not fear this kind of dramatic change.””

Baillie said he would be following up on the Can>Win agenda at another conference in Ottawa on Oct. 8 led by former NDP leader Bob Rae that will cull innovation ideas to be submitted to the federal government in November. So far, the group organizing the conference has received 31 research papers to be discussed, he said.

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