Business education has an important role to play in boosting Canada's edge in the digital age by combining masters of business administration (MBA) programs with technology management skills, industry experts say.
Released in April, the World Economic Forum's Networked Readiness Index ranked Canada 12 th out of 144 countries, down three spots from the previous year. The point of the index is to illustrate which countries' economies are well poised to benefit from technology-based industry. Those that ranked higher – such as Finland, the United States and Singapore – were credited with having friendly business environments and top education systems.
Canada has a skilled work force, a high-level education system and a growing economy, like the other high-ranking countries. But business specialists say the country needs to expand its reach in the global technology market, create more business leaders with specific technology management skills and strengthen the bonds between business education and industry in order to move up the ranks.
The study highlights a growing business area in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, says Elicia Maine, academic director at Simon Fraser University's Management of Technology MBA program, though she views the rankings with some skepticism, because it compares countries with what she calls incomparable economies and education systems.
Her graduates are already tapping the ICT market, she says. "About 50 per cent of our cohort is either in software, ICT, social media or gaming sectors, all things that could broadly be in ICT. And they find great value in the customized MBA program, that can really go in-depth on the strategic issues around commercializing new technologies," she adds.
According to Industry Canada, about 33,300 companies make up the ICT sector in this country, of which more than 86 per cent are in the software and computer services industries.
The potential is there, but to truly grow this sector, according to Dr. Maine, business educators need to embrace and incorporate technology even further into MBA programs and produce leaders who have a more intense understanding of the digital age.
"We need to be able to avoid just giving out generic MBAs," she says, "but to actually see the impact and potential of different technology opportunities, with ICT being a huge one, and try to both teach and mentor frameworks that help us to develop technology entrepreneurs and technology managers."
Trevor MacAusland and his non-profit business Propel ICT have been trying to remedy Canada's disconnect between tech businesses and education for the past couple of years and he says there is still work to be done so that Canadians don't lose out on this break-out market.
"I think there is an opportunity to do more in our postsecondary education system to kind of match up those analytical, business-minded individuals to technology or research that's being done in a university setting to help commercialize that," says the New Brunswick-based executive director.
Propel ICT is a startup accelerator, meaning the company uses mentorship programs and funding to help get early-stage entrepreneurial tech-based businesses to market. The ICT market is mostly made up of entrepreneurs, so that is where the focus should be, Mr. Ausland says. So far, about 20 of these small businesses have been launched through the non-profit's program, Launch 36, which began in 2012 and is attempting to mobilize 36 entrepreneurial technology ventures in 36 months.
The program is ahead of schedule, but right now Mr. MacAusland says there are substantial shortcomings throughout Canada's ICT sector that could really benefit from the skills already taught in MBA programs, such as marketing. But what is lacking is the correlation between these skills and how they apply directly to the technology market – something that could be learned from other countries that are doing it more efficiently.
"What I see in some of our universities is that we haven't adopted a global view to digital marketing and I think that's where need to focus," says Mr. MacAusland. "I see a lot of gaps in that particular area."
But some MBA programs are recognizing these gaps and designing programs to help close them, says John Rowcroft, director of University of Ontario Institute of Technology's MBA program.
The rising stack of applications on his desk tells Dr. Rowcroft there is increased interest in programs like this, especially in the Internet securities sector. But he says that teaching the students more technology-based skills is only half of the solution and more help needs to come from Canada's technology industry.
Both Mr. Ausland and Dr. Rowcroft agree Canada is simply too insular in its ICT approach and there needs to be more openness between business education and industry.
"They [businesses] need to know it's all right to bring in skilled researchers from universities to work on some of their problems and [the researchers are] not going to sell your secrets," explains Dr. Rowcroft. "They're going to bring you expertise that is going to help you do better and that seems to be much better received in Europe than here."
"There are exceptions, but it's not quite part of our culture – yet."