The series: We look at decision makers among Canada's mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.
Most businesses today know they need a digital strategy to help them grow, but Mark Jaine remembers when he lugged the strategy for Intelex Technologies Inc. in his car.
"Back in 2003, we were about 15 employees selling enterprise software to corporations," says Mr. Jaine, president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Intelex.
"We bought a server company in Dearborn, Mich., so we could host our digital community of 10,000 customers. I put their server in the back seat of my car and drove it across the border," Mr. Jaine says.
Intelex would call prospective customers and offer its products, which help firms track their environmental, health, safety and quality performance (EHSQ) and help them determine whether they are meeting regulations.
"I'd ship a CD and then we'd send somebody out and show them how to work the software," Mr. Jaine says. "We went the usual route – brochures, attending trade shows, taking out ads in trade papers.
The idea of calling, shipping, schmoozing and show-and-tell became unwieldy and wasn't working so well, so one of the first big turning points in Intelex's digital strategy was to put all of its customer data onto servers.
Today, Intelex has a staff of about 450, mostly in Toronto but with about 40 in Denver, Colo., and the company has customers in 143 countries. For a business like Intelex, the decision to embrace a digital strategy involves much more than buying new electronic gadgets and throwing data onto hard drives, Mr. Jaine says.
"We're crowdsourcing knowledge. The knowledge comes from our partners [customers] and we facilitate it," he explains.
"We help customers solve problems involving environmental health and safety – these problems are only solved by providing people with data." The company grew quickly by building a digital base of information about its customers and new prospects, says Vinay Nair, Intelex's senior vice-president of marketing. But that is only half the story.
It built up its client base by using CRM (customer relations management) software such as Salesforce and early, beta versions of Google AdWords to scour the web for prospects and build a customer database.
"The side effect was that we were able to create a burgeoning digital community of customers, which has become the centre of the company's strategy," Mr. Nair says. The community itself is the strategy – Intelex gathers and spreads its collective intelligence.
By constantly contemplating and revising its digital strategy, Intelex is able to focus on the big picture.
While it may appear to concentrate on collecting and distributing EHSQ data – an important role, given the more than 230,000 workplace-related injuries or reports of disease in Canada each year, with 852 deaths in 2015 – its ultimate mission is even bigger: to be part of the worldwide effort to address climate change, Mr. Jaine says.
A digital strategy is so important to Intelex's decision making because "the massive intelligence that it's going to take to stop global warming and bring temperatures down even one degree is going to come from beyond these walls," he says.
"We believe it's critical to own that pipe of data," Mr. Jaine says.
It is not just owning the pipe, it is also understanding how to manage the information so others can use it that is important, says Bryan Smith, CEO of ThinkData Works Inc., a Toronto-based company that helps other companies leverage open data sources.
"Everyone knows that the data is valuable and everyone is looking for ways to monetize it, but often companies think they have better things to do," Mr. Smith says. Companies such as Intelex that can harness the data allow the other companies to go about their business while still gaining access to better knowledge and information.
Aside from trade secrets, making data widely available can benefit an entire sector. Intelex invests in technology that enables it to be the conduit for its customers to share all their EHSQ data with each other.
The premise it operates from is that, while companies may compete in business, it is in their interest to share information about the environment, health and safety.
"If one airplane goes down, the other airlines don't celebrate – they do the opposite. They want to collaborate to make sure that other planes don't crash. They're looking for best practices," he says. It is the same with climate change.
"We're spending a big pile of money right now into taking this concept of community and building it into our platform. It's about $20-million in investment to connect industries with each other to share this collective knowledge. Our R&D resources are invested in this."
The airline analogy is an appropriate one, says Joe Greenwood, executive lead, data and program director of the MaRS Discovery District's Data Catalyst.
"An aircraft engine manufacturer today isn't selling the airlines engines – it's selling lifetime hours of service," he explains.
"The engines are loaded with sensors, which provide data to the manufacturer to keep the engine running properly for its expected life." In other words, the data becomes more important than the physical parts, which can be replaced and renovated as needed.
Another part of Intelex's strategy is to provide context to the EHSQ data it offers its customers, Mr. Jaine adds. There's always a danger of clients becoming overwhelmed with a flood of information that can stop making sense.
"Ten years ago we collected less data but we showed it all to the customer. Today we collect lots more but we show less to the customer. Companies get totally overwhelmed with data and they don't know what to do with themselves. It's our job to simplify that and target exactly what they need to do," he says.
Mr. Jaine takes note of the wholesale gutting of environmental and health regulations that is taking place in the United States. It only makes digital collaboration more important and Intelex is happy to grow and profit by providing the tools, he says.
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