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John Baker is is founder and chief executive officer of Desire2Learn Inc., a Waterloo, Ont., company that develops e-learning technology for corporate and institutional clients including McMaster University, Research In Motion and Toronto?s Princess Margaret Hospital. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
John Baker is is founder and chief executive officer of Desire2Learn Inc., a Waterloo, Ont., company that develops e-learning technology for corporate and institutional clients including McMaster University, Research In Motion and Toronto?s Princess Margaret Hospital. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Training

How to bake innovation into the corporate DNA Add to ...

As one might expect of Waterloo's "intrepid entrepreneur of the year," John Baker has hit a few speed bumps along the road to success with Desire2Learn Inc., which develops e-learning technology for corporate and institutional clients in Canada and around the world.

Yet Mr. Baker's cheerful nothing-ventured-nothing-gained philosophy has served his company well since its formation 11 years ago. At Desire2Learn, employees are encouraged to take risks and test-fly new ideas. Forty-four per cent of its 200 employees are engaged in research and development. Innovation is baked into the culture.

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"We try to be as supportive as possible in terms of projects that fail. We have spent hundreds, if not millions, of dollars on certain technologies that we have never put out into production," said Mr. Baker, who is founder and chief executive officer of the Waterloo, Ont., company.

"We try not to fail in front of our clients," he added with a laugh. "But we learn lessons [from the setbacks] and the lessons that we learn, we apply to future work."

Desire2Learn markets a suite of software products that aim to transform education, training and networked learning experiences. Its clients include McMaster University and Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario's Smart Serve program, which provides online training in the responsible service of alcohol, and Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital, which uses Desire2Learn's technology to deliver cancer survivorship programs and radiology training. The technology is also used in kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school districts, as well as in corporate training programs.

The company is also working with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion on the development of an e-learning application for mobile devices, and has made Deloitte's Technology Fast 50 list for four consecutive years.

Companies such as Desire2Learn, where innovation is part of the corporate DNA, are still the exception rather than the rule in Canada, said Paul Avender, a Calgary-based partner in advisory services at Grant Thornton LLP.

There is no shortage of brilliant ideas. However, Canadian businesses often struggle to corral those ideas, develop them and capitalize on them, he said.

"Everyone is so busy doing their job. They have great ideas, but they are just so busy they don't have the time or they don't have the capacity to actually move stuff along," said Mr. Avender, who helps clients create corporate environments that are more conducive to creativity and innovation.

One effective strategy has been the creation of small groups - sometimes referred to as business performance centres or centres of excellence - within Grant Thornton's client organizations. "They're there to help the rest of the organization have their innovations come to fruition - helping them elaborate on their ideas, helping them identify where they can find more external information and research, helping them develop the business case as to why they should move forward with a specific innovation," Mr. Avender said.

"The clients we work with are really smart folks, they just didn't have that enabler within the organization. They didn't have the bandwidth to do it, and they didn't have the [budget]allocation."

At Desire2Learn, supporting innovation is a core value of the organization, Mr. Baker said. "We hire people who share that drive, that passion for creativity and for solving the problems that exist out there."

The company holds regular brainstorming sessions where employees can test new ideas with their peers. "We try to support creative discussion, people arguing back and forth on points," Mr. Baker said.

"We don't want to just jump in and develop something for the sake of developing it. We want to understand if this is the best way for us to be spending our time. Some of the things that we never thought would be great applications turned out to be some of the best inventions that we have ever come up with," he said.

One such invention was Desire2Learn's e-portfolio, which Mr. Baker describes as "a Facebook-meets-education" concept, where individual learners track and reflect on their progress.

"Instead of it being about courses and programs, it's about you - capturing, sharing, reflecting on your entire learning journey," he said. "It helps build insight and wisdom."

"We pulled a group of talented people out of their regular day-to-day, if you will, and threw them on to this experiment. Today, after years of research and development and launching that product, it quickly became a wild success for clients and our company."

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