28 February 2013

Skills: where the puck is going

Dave McGinn, in today's Globe and Mail, has a good story about the shortage of skilled trades and the need for apprenticeship reform. "Looking for a job? Consider a trade" reinforces the huge skills gap that is looming in Canada. Our future productivity hinges on our ability to get more people working in the skilled trades, as well as to focus on how skills can be applied to work contexts. These are two separate but related issues.

The skilled trades are the knowledge workers of the innovation economy. As Ken Doyle of Polytechnics Canada has said, the skilled trades have literally built the knowledge economy. The importance of getting more people into trades, and ensuring that we modernize and thus have a robust apprenticeship program cannot be understated. Two Budget 2013 recommendations by Polytechnics Canada focus on this issue.

The applicability of skills more generally is also important  and it links to recent discussions about learning outcomes in post secondary education. That is, when we show our students what their programs teach them in terms of skills, our graduates are better able to articulate these skills learned into their future work places. This instrumentality and a focus on learning outcomes of programs is a hallmark of the college and polytechnic education, but is generally eschewed by our universities, for the simple reason that these systems have entirely different reasons for being.

My point here is that when we focus on outcomes, we enable learners to find pathways to employment and productivity. At George Brown College we say that we focus on the admixture of the hard and soft skills - a combination of the psychomotor and cognitive domains of learning. When we add to this experiential learning (such as applied research with industry), we enable learners to enter the affective domain of learning, a staple of innovation literacy. This means an attitudinal shift in our approach to work, my hypothesis being that it will lead to a more productive and innovative society.

We focus a lot on innovation and how to enable it, and with a renewed focus on how we create the skills encompassed by innovation literacy we aim through the target into the future.

Innovation is where the puck is; skills are where the puck is going.

21 February 2013

The future of innovation is bright: Business Innovation Summit recap

The Conference Board of Canada convened the Business Innovation Summit these past two days, which featured a lot of great discussion on how Canada can step up its game in terms of encouraging firms to invest in productivity and innovation. The Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology and the Federal Economic Development Agency of Ontario (FEDDEV) opened the conference with a keynote address that focused on skills development and encouraging students from K-12 through to college and university to embrace innovation in their skills and entrepreneurship. This was an important theme of the conference.

Doug Watt and Dan Munro of the Conference Board picked up the theme of skills with an overview of their updated Innovation Skills Profile and the newly created Commercialization Skills Profile. These are important tools that can aid educators and firms alike to assess and develop the innovation and commercialization skills people need in order to enhance and engage in innovation and commercialization. A couple of years ago I put together a study to measure innovation literacy in students engaged in applied research; Doug and Dan and the Conference Board were partners in this. Our plan was to use the Conference Board's General Innovation Skills Aptitude Test (GISAT) to assess the innovation skills in order to start unpacking outcomes associated with how we foster innovation literacy in our programs and applied research with industry. I am pleased to say that we will relaunch this effort. Part of George Brown College's commitment to Enabling the innovation economy in our Strategy 2020 Balanced Score Card is to create an impact measure that will enable us to asses the downstream effects of our programs and applied research projects. Our Innovation Advisory Board has been very instrumental in helping to move this work along, and we are ready to relaunch the Measuring Innovation Literacy study. Stay tuned for more details.

Another notable element of the conference was a talk about Deloitte's study on The Future of Productivity. This contains prescriptions for industry, government and academia. For the latter, this includes the need to "Align curricula with business and industrial needs for scientists, engineers and leaders" and "Develop, protect and exploit intellectual properties developed at the post-secondary level." Colleges and polytechnics, as well as professional programs in universities, are well attuned to the first point. Canada does a deplorable job on the second. As I've said before, ideas emerging from Canadian basic research seem to be just another raw resource we extract and give away without adding value (i.e. commercializing). It's time to rethink the ways in which we promote basic research and university tenure to foster greater value-added R&D.

Latent in the first point about aligning business needs to curricula is the idea of public-private partnerships for R&D, or what I call P3RD. Taken together - fostering innovation skills throughout the education systems, linking industry needs to curricula, and taking an instrumental approach to aligning R&D outputs and input - are all part of taking a managed approach to innovation and outcomes. On the topic of P3RD, NSERC president Suzanne Fortier announced the results of their mid-term evaluation of their partnerships program at the Summit. The news is good: Sixty Percent Increase in Businesses Doing Partnered Research and Innovation with Universities and Colleges, an increase that can be strongly attributed to the success of the College and Community Innovation Program that funds colleges and polytechnics to work with firms on applied research.

The future of innovation is bright when you see the kinds of outcomes associated with applied research we conduct with industry partners. I convened a session at the Summit on How Colleges Support Business Innovation and Commercialization, featuring Carlos Paz-Soldan, president of Tenet Computer Group and a GBC Research partner, and John-Allan Ellingson, a student in our Mechanical Engineering program. Carlos, who also chairs our Innovation Advisory Board, told the audience about Tenet's Pandemic Planning Toolkit for Mobile Devices product that GBC Research worked on, and outlined Tenet's new Green Rack Service (coming soon to a conference near you) that we are now supporting through applied research engagement. Carlos talked about the value of engaging in collaborative applied research as it enabled him to extend his own R&D and commercialization capacity while being a conduit for recruitment of full time and co-op students.

A real highlight for me was our student, John-Allan Ellingson, who spoke about applied research work he is doing on industry partner SOS Customer Service's crane project. The project is being led by Professor Jamie McIntrye of the Centre for Construction and Engineering Technologies, who is also the innovation lead for our Advanced Prototyping Lab. SOS Customer Service Inc. (SOS) is an Ontario SME that specializes in the design, development, sales and services of cranes, hoists, process automation and handling devices. SOS is collaborating with the George Brown College and Jamie McIntryre’s group to design, prototype and test a novel, lightweight and portable crane to lift windows into place for installation during construction of low-rise commercial and residential buildings. SOS has developed an innovative and simple design concept for the prototype. The new crane is expected to have significant advantages over technologies and approaches and has potential to significantly impact the return on investment (ROI) at building worksites. John-Allan is part of the team that is working with SOS to develop, prototype, test and commercialize their innovative design.

John-Allan spoke about the kinds of skills he is learning as a result of this applied research project, and how the project is giving him cumulative experience encompassing not just the engineering skills, but also design skills. This is an important point, as it relates to the need for both STEM and nonSTEM skills, and that innovation literacy and adoptation - the ability to adopt and adapt - demand a combined skillset. Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, put this well during another session on partnerships when he said that firms have the opportunity to partner with the whole campus when we engage all relevant fields, from the natural sciences and engineering to the social sciences and humanities. Not every faculty member in every department at universities or colleges wants to or is interested in engaging with firms on innovation challenges. But for those that do there is a lot of value: for the firms, the faculty members, and most of all, the students who, like John-Allan, demonstrate the kinds of innovation skills that will drive Canada's future productivity. Discussion on these important issues such as was enabled by the Business Innovation Summit gives me optimism about our future.

19 February 2013

The management of innovation

The Conference Board of Canada's Business Innovation Summit is today and tomorrow and the agenda promises some excellent discussion on encouraging firms to innovate. I am looking forward to learning more about investing in R&D partnerships and how people-centred innovation will drive Canadian productivity. A highlight will be the official release of the Conference Board's study on business innovation, outlined in A globe article yesterday. Key to successful innovation? Manage it properly, study says gives the highlights, including the result that those firms that manage innovation explicitly do better than firms who take a haphazard approach to investing in innovation. This is an important point, and relates well to the instrumental ethos inherent in polytechnic and college applied research programs. Those companies that do this well, such as Tandem Launch as I discussed recently, will prosper. The management of innovation is the innovation of management: instrumentality in an intentional/attentional economy.

15 February 2013

Policy prescriptions and the evolution of education

Polytechnics Canada has released some policy prescriptions for the federal government to consider in the upcoming budget, focusing on the skills mismatch in the economy and support for innovation. Six ideas are put forward that will go a long way toward encouraging innovation in firms and ensuring that firms have the right people with the right skills in the right jobs. An SME innovation voucher system - such as that which Ontario is rolling out, and which is active in Alberta and Atlantic Canada; an increase in the College and Community Innovation Program funding for applied research with firms; and measures to enhance and encourage apprenticeship completion through smart procurement and reallocation of program directives. This is the kind of incremental policy innovation that can pay real dividends in the economy.

And there is a need to amplify our efforts to be more proactive and instrumental in promoting greater innovation and productivity in Canada. A recent study by the BDC shows that there are some alarming signals of disruption in the Canadian business landscape (see Canada’s Mid-Sized Firms in Decline, BDC Study Shows). Jeffrey Simpson, in today's Globe and Mail editorial, outlines the impact on manufacturing. "Hollow out manufacturing and the economy suffers," he says, warning us that in this "Canada remains, overall, a hewer of wood and drawer of water." As I've said before, we need to focus on adding value - to raw resources and the ideas and inventions emerging from our basic research alike. We need to focus on complementarity in our approach to mixing public and private interests when it comes to R&D. This applies equally to education. It's time to refocus our discussion on outcomes, and to orient the education and innovation systems to fixing what ails our economy.

It would be amusing were it not so tragic that we do not focus enough on how the education systems we have can be better put to use in promoting more innovation. Instead of furrowing our collective brows over whether or not the college or the university system is better, we would be better off using these furrows to plant the seeds for change. I read with interest a recent MacLean's article on the propagandist take on the value of a university degree over all else. The so-called million-dollar promise is shown to be false, ably demonstrated by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison. The reality is that there is not so neat a dividing line between these solitudes of Canadian education.

Data from Colleges Ontario show that according to the Student Satisfaction KPI Survey, about 12% of students enrolled in Ontario colleges have completed a university degree and 41% have prior experience in the post-secondary system. At George Brown College 45% of 2010-11 students had previous post-secondary experience, and 27% had previously completed a post-secondary credential (10.6% had completed a college diploma and 17.3% had completed a university degree).

While we argue which is better or leads to more productivity, we risk squandering a resource base of the world's leading tertiary education attainment. Other countries are outpacing us at the rate at which younger generations are attaining tertiary education  The university and college systems do different things, and these are complementary. As I said earlier: both are necessary; neither alone is sufficient. The real issue we need to address is to ensure that we are producing the talent that our economy needs, now and in the future.

Here's a parable: We are all primates, monkeys hanging from a tree branch. I believe that my branch is better than your branch, simply because it is the branch that I am hanging on to. As soon as we both realize that my branch and your branch are part of the same tree, the sooner we can both climb down from the tree and walk across the steppe together. That's evolution.

12 February 2013

Conspicuous contribution and the policy and practice of enabling innovation

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce released their Emerging Stronger 2013 report recently, and it has some notable elements for enabling the innovation economy. These include closing skills gaps, notably in apprenticeship training, and ensuring there are strong links between education and industry (a core mandate for colleges), including for applied R&D. On the R&D side, here is an interesting take on tech transfer that links well to the notion of open source development communities and giving back more than you take. This is the value espoused by Tim O'Reilly; read about it here. Conspicuous contribution will be the norm going forward, and as we reorient the Canadian innovation system to a "collaborate to compete together" model, we will see more of this kind of thinking permeate the policy and practice of enabling both invention and innovation. This is an open, participatory, and people-centred innovation, and it is coming soon to an organization near you.

On the topic of better linking education to the needs of industry  I was interviewed for a MacLean's piece recently that discusses "the missing link": the disconnect between student expectations and finding a job. Unfortunately, the writer told only half the story here in terms of quoting me as saying that the university system does not teach about jobs, whereas the college system does. And there is a good reason for this. Universities have always prided themselves as being outside the purview of the reality of explicit job training (with the exception of professional programs). The college system on the other hand is an instrument of the state created to ensure there is an adequate work force. Both are necessary; neither alone is sufficient.

05 February 2013

Research, with intent to commercialize

The Ontario Centres of Excellence yesterday convened the second Technology Transfer Partnerships Forum. A highlight of the event was the opening keynote by Helge Seetzen, CEO of Tandem Launch Technologies, who spoke about the need to ensure a focus on commercialization as distinct from R&D. That is, basic R&D (invention) is important and leads to many good ideas, but we need a focused funnel approach to ensuring ideas can get to market (innovation). The invention-innovation distinction here is my interpretation of Helge's remarks, but the point is sound: we need to focus our efforts and start realizing more value from our R&D. Tandem Launch explicitly looks to leverage the large public sector R&D spend (in the US and Canada) and to mine R&D output for promising technologies, often combining these to form new companies. This instrumental approach to  commercialization as a natural product of R&D is refreshing. The path to commercialization must be based on intent. We must from the outset of R&D think about potential for commercialization, and in so doing, focus our efforts on where the market is, what customers want. This is an important point that Google's Larry Page raised in a recent interview with Wired Magazine: check out his comments on Xerox PARC.

And speaking of commercialization and innovation, an article in today's Globe and Mail shows the government's intent on furthering our focus on innovation in Canada. Implementing more of the Jenkins Panel recommendations, for example, and bringing back the Knowledge Infrastructure Program, will go a long way to helping us realize the value latent in our world leading R&D efforts. Those of us working to support public+private R&D are eagerly anticipating the NRC's concierge service, as well as industry innovation vouchers. Let's hope they make the final cut.