Dec 042015

It’s incomprehensible why a serious broadsheet exposes a 1000-word space to the maundering of a senior bank executive except to recall that the business broadsheet is a forum for recitations of faith. When a high priest needs a pulpit, a serious broadsheet provides one. How else to understand Victor Dodig’s contribution to the “innovation” echo-chamber in the November 27th edition of The Globe and Mail (“Canada must fill three gaps to reach its high-growth future”)?

“Innovation” is today’s incantation that serious people in management (and reporters) recite to prove their faith. So certain is its good, it is above question. That the talk of innovation suffocates all other sensible considerations, and lets (Canadian) executives off easily is beside the point. Mere invocation of innovation gets attention and, apparently, 1000 words in a serious broadsheet

In any case, Mr. Dodig’s ostensible objective is to reveal to the new Liberal government causes that inhibit Canada from achieving economic growth. His writers pick up Jim Balsillie’s tune and rehash au courant cocktail party clatter about the absolute national essentialness of innovation… as cover for another specific message. I choose to assume of Mr. Balsillie a pure-hearted intent, and so expect the larding of his noble clarion call with self-serving appropriations like a Bill working its way through Congress, weighs on him.

I ascribe unctuous malfeasance to the article if only because in 1000 words addressing three gaps, only about 150 address gap three: an innovation ecosystem, and a whopping 34 words speak to the second—something a banker would be credible with: innovation financing. The remainder of the essay (about 80% for those with post-secondary education yet remain innumerate) speaks to changing the public education system to alter the talent shortfall, and to innovative “emerging firms” being acquired by foreigners who take innovative Canadians elsewhere.

After laying out the harms visited upon Canada’s economy by failing public education, Dodig poses the question, “So what do we do [about students ‘choosing an educational path geared toward acquiring credentials rather than skills acquisition and what the labour market needs’]?”

Had he stopped there and proposed specific actions to counter insufficient interest in STEM fields, and the terrible literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills in Canada, it would have been appropriate if not valuable. Mr. Dodig foreclosed that possibility by answering: “We need to promote education choices that match the needs of the job market.”

Like too many others, this commercial catechism appears sensible at first encounter and in certain narrow contexts. Its impotence as a broad response is usually dispatched quickly. An unnecessary act in this case because Dodig himself renders his recommendation pointless mere paragraphs later (without infringing at all on the space needed to argue for better financial support and an innovation ecosystem). As he transitions to raise—but not address—another innovation problem, Mr. Dodig seamlessly shifts our essential innovators from job market to entrepreneurial class. As such, the innovators he implicates won’t be employed by his or any other organization because they are those starting the “emerging firms” subsequently bought out for their developments and brain power then quickly whisked away to deprive the country of its economic future. Not that this isn’t a vexing problem, only that it is immaterial to job skills training (i.e., “meeting the needs of the job market”). Entrepreneurs not in the job market hardly need education to match the needs of the job market, you see.

A kernel of truth stabilizes Mr. Dodig’s recitation. But methinks the purpose is less about innovation than about redirecting public education toward a goal of finally, wholly eliminating the need for businesses to train for their own needs. The proposal is that Canadian society should fund employee education for (large) firms that employ—so they don’t have to.

Doubtlessly people should be employable, and a well-educated individual ought to be employable, which is to say literate, numerate, and able to solve problems by way of critical and creative thinking at one or both of theoretical and applied levels. But those qualities apply to software coders, managers, artists, entrepreneurs, electricians, and even hockey players. In other words: to everyone. Yet, rather than propose an overall higher national standard of such capacity, perhaps with incentives to pursue engineering instead of law, or cryptography rather than marketing, this counsel focuses on job-ready skills to benefit employers. What’s next: other factors of production underwritten by the public purse so they too are “ready” for business?

Mr. Dodig is right about the shortcomings he raises. Still, you can scratch deep and find no hint of the banks’ role in defunding manufacturing (i.e., finding Canadian manufacturing too risky to provide credit for operations or expansion or exporting…) or limiting cash for risky emerging firms. Mr. Dodig is silent on the notion of sharing risk with the innovators he’s so concerned about to help them create and then to keep them Canadian.

Finally, it would be cruel to ask the obvious question: If this bank(er) is so interested in numerate and literate and creative talent—of the STEM variety, particularly—rather than students who have merely “acquired credentials,” why continue demanding the MBA as an essential credential for its own innovative roles, such as they might be? To the extent these MBAs are scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians with business finishing school certificates, fine. But we all know the majority have merely acquired the credential to make real money in consulting and banking, or to be marketers. (Oh, the irony.) And there is abundant evidence everywhere that they are not necessarily more numerate, literate, or able to genuinely solve problems critically let alone creatively. On these counts the bank fails. Before ostensibly providing counsel to the new government or even using that as cover to inject ideas into the public domain, Mr. Dodig’s bank ought to lead by example not faulty rhetoric… if he’s serious.

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