Tony Clement says Canada is failing with technology…ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

According to our industry minister, Tony Clement, Canada is failing on technology (although he provides almost no concrete evidence of this) and he offers up his Consultation Paper on the Digital Economy (linklocal copy) to discuss the issues and show how to fix the problem. He even has a web site asking Canadians to help him with suggestions for fixing our technical inadequacies (web page).

He suggests that Canada is some technological backwater that is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world because we haven’t figured out how to integrate cloud computing into our daily lives.

According to Tony there are four problems:

  1. Canadian government and businesses are falling behind the rest of the world in the adoption of “new” (but seemingly unidentified) technologies
  2. Our workforce is not properly educated in these “new” technologies
  3. Canadian businesses are not investing enough in R&D (we ranked 10th among 21 OECD countries in ICT manufacturing R&D as a percentage of GDP)
  4. We have inadequate copyright legislation.

According to Tony there are four obvious quick fixes to the problem:

  1. Adopt more leading edge technologies into government and business
  2. Train our workforce in these “new” technologies
  3. Encourage more investment in high technology research and development
  4. Develop better copyright legislation

The lack of specific details and real conclusive recommendations in the report is mind boggling. You can almost imagine Tony extrapolating his inability to figure out how to play the new BluRay version of Lord of the Rings in his Sony CD Walkman into a national confusion with new fangled technology.

My response to the Industry Minister would be this, stop assuming we are as confused as you are and clean up your own back yard first. Why not make the Canadian government a shining example to the world of the best practices to encourage home grown technology and innovation.

Show us you understand how to do it by doing it and lead by example!

Putting aside the copyright issue for a second, which seems (in my conspiracy fogged mind) to be a not-so-subtle propaganda message  in support of the pending ACTA legislation, let’s look at each of the other recommendations in turn.

1. Adopt leading edge technologies in government and business

OK Tony, which ones? What is it that you believe your workforce is sorely missing, which magic piece of technology will transform the way we do business and cause our productivity to skyrocket? When all else fails, when you have no real suggestions to offer, no real plan to make your office or your employees more efficient it is easy to hide behind the newest technology and claim it will solve all the problems

  • if we only had flying cars all our transportation issues would be solved.
  • …if we only had internet in my refrigerator I would save hours every day because I could send email while I am getting my glass of milk.

Just because you can buy a nail gun doesn’t mean you need it to hang up pictures in the living room. Too often we get grand ideas that the newest piece of technology will help us and we focus on the tool instead of the actual problem we are going to solve. Sure, don’t buy screw drivers to hammer nails, but don’t buy a sledge hammer either. And don’t set up committees and consultations just to figure out if there is a better piece of technology available, listen to your employees, make the small changes first, they will always know if there is something to help them do their job better…listen to them.

2. Train our workforce in new technologies

As far as training or re-training our workforce in the latest technologies, I would ask one question…do they already have adequate tools to do the job they are tasked to do? Do they really need the latest and greatest tech toys to do their jobs? Is Version 11.2 really better than 10.1? As a developer of commercial shrink wrap software I can tell you that the incremental improvements in each new piece of technology is getting smaller all the time. Can you honestly say there is one additional piece of technology out there that you absolutely need to have, and need to be trained in?

This is the panacea of the technologically ignorant…if I can just get trained on that new piece of software my life will be better and I can be more productive. I am not less efficient in my job because I don’t have Office 2010…maybe it is just that I am not very efficient in my job…maybe watching YouTube 4 hours a day or surfing Facebook and Twitter for hours is killing my productivity…it is very unlikely that it is a lack of tools or technology.

On the job education will universally benefit the employee and increase job satisfaction ratings but will rarely increase overall workforce productivity or drive technical innovation.

I have worked closely with both Canadian and US knowledge workers for many years and I have to say that I can see no difference between the two. Education, specific job knowledge, commitment to the job are all equal.

Tony suggests that immigration is a solution to our technology worker deficit. But having to supplement our technical work force through immigration, while reasonable in the short term, is not a long term solution. By definition a immigrant workforce is more likely to move on to the next location for a higher wage than a home grown workforce.

Educating our young people should always be a prime focus…educating them in a way that allows them to contribute in a practical way to our workforce is an under-exercised practice…creating a workforce that is adept at more more than cutting down trees, digging holes and building cars is a very good idea.

Teaching our young people to use because they might need it at work one day and it is the latest rage is a useless venture.

Teach the kids to think, teach them to question, to reason, give them a thirst for knowledge, teach them to set goals, to strive for something instead of sitting back and waiting for the world to come to them.

This reminds me of a surreal conversation (OK argument) I had when helping my sons school set up a computer lab. The principal was telling me they needed to train the first grade kids to type because they would need to type at a computer in their jobs. I told her that was ridiculous…that they also needed to drive to work but we would likely wait until they were older to teach them to drive. I also patiently tried to explain that in 15 or 20 years when these kids finally made it into the workforce that the concept of keyboarding and mousing would likely be replaced by voice recognition and touch displays, so why would we teach something they wouldn’t use?

I have always found that it is the people who are most afraid of technology, that understand it the least that want to be trained in the new, scary, nameless “technology”. Knowledge workers realize that technology is simply a tool, a means to end , not an end in itself and are able to adapt to whatever technology is placed in front of them when they need it.

3. Invest more in high technology research and development

OK Tony , great idea, but where is this money going to come from? Most Canadian companies are struggling just to survive, forget about investing in R&D. How about just helping them make a profit?

Most Canadian VCs are incredibly risk averse and would rather invest their limited funds in established high technology giants (Nortel, JDS etc) than risk it on start ups. Venture funding that does get into startups is very limited, a normal investment to an established (i.e. almost ready to ship product) startup in Canada is $100K to $500K, in the US it is $5M. You can actually get your product to market with startup money in the States, in Canada you are lucky to hire one or two employees to work in your basement with you.

Self funded startups need customers, but the Canadian government is the last place these companies can currently go to get contracts and sell product.

Canada has an amazing history of high tech innovation, our technology innovators just needs to be given a chance. Raising taxes and closing tax loopholes only makes it harder to be successful as a Canadian company. Stifling government procurement rule drive companies to markets south of the border that are more competitive and harder to access, especially for a startup. Changing the SR&ED and IRAP rules every year, making it harder to qualify instead of easier doesn’t help.

So, enough ranting…here are my suggestions for the federal government, Tony, simple, effective and not requiring committees or endless study…fix your own internal issues and show us you can lead by example:

  1. Buy Canadian Technology (real Canadian, not the Canadian branch of a US or multi-national corporation). We know how to build this stuff, give us a chance to sell it.  This will ensure that our tax dollars are used to fund Canadian innovation, not through some complex tax incentive requiring endless bureaucracy to administer but through real purchasing and real-world deployment. Canada must have the only national government in the world that is afraid to be patriotic.
  2. Buy from small Canadian businesses. Getting started in the high tech world is very difficult, having the Canadian government as a customer is a huge confidence boost for the company and a valuable reference that can be used when selling to corporate customers or south of the border.
  3. Fix the Canadian government procurement rules. Canadian government procurement rules exclude most Canadian high tech startups, fix that and you will promote more high tech development overnight. Even established companies are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with these procurement policies. Stop trying to nickel and dime us to death, and then sitting back and wondering why there are no Canadian startups.
  4. Make SR&ED Tax Credits easier to administer and qualify for. Make the first $500K of R&D spending eligible for the SR&ED tax credit program automatically. Forget the complex write ups and audits, just give them the refund. They spent the money, they are building technology, give them the tax refund. Once the companies go above the $500K limit then kick in the program, leave the small guy alone.

We are not failing in technology, we are being smothered by the very government and bureaucracy that thinks it is helping.

The saying “Lead, Follow or Get out of the Way” is very apt here, and this is a perfect opportunity for the Canadian government to show leadership, are you up to the task Tony?

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