Micheál J. Kelly is dean of the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and national spokesperson for the CATA Innovation Leadership Council. Dan Herman is executive director of the Waterloo-based Centre for Digital Entrepreneurship and Economic Performance and a senior adviser on development of the Lazaridis Institute.
As our new federal government ponders how to catalyze a slow-growth economy, it's clear that a shift in emphasis from startups to scale-ups should be a major part of a new policy focus.
While Canada has proven adept at creating vibrant ecosystems for entrepreneurial activity, we continue to underperform in the creation of globally competitive technology companies – companies that should be at the heart of our economy. As part of the development of the Lazaridis Institute for the Management of Technology Enterprises at Wilfrid Laurier University, we've talked to 125 of Canada's top tech leaders to learn what's holding back Canadian companies' growth. The consistent message from these conversations is that there's a deficit of executive and management talent well versed in the speed and complexity of technology markets.
Although access to capital and intellectual property issues might be important to early-stage firms, a more critical element for firms with market traction and high-growth potential is access to experienced talent. To reach a competitive scale in a fast-moving sector, firms need leaders who understand how to grow operations, manage sales and build an appropriate organizational structure. This talent deficit is largely due to a lack of anchor tech companies: large-scale firms creating cadres of experienced managers. This low density is to some extent a reflection of the gravitational pull exerted by Silicon Valley, where more than 300,000 talented Canadians currently live and work. Canadian companies can attempt to recruit this talent and lure back some of those valuable expats. But we need to be realistic about the number of executives this effort can attract given that these same, slightly desperate strategies are being discussed in Austin, Bangalore, London, Tel Aviv and beyond.
Solving this talent problem will take time. Part of Silicon Valley's ascendency is due to the depth of its cluster of large tech companies, and the ongoing process of generating and recycling talent .
The success and growth of Canadian firms such as Shopify, Desire2Learn and Hootsuite will lead eventually to the development of multiple layers of homegrown management and executive talent – some of whom will take on new opportunities in, lend their expertise to, and help to scale up new Canadian firms poised for rapid growth.
This organic process of talent development, however, can be accelerated with the right resources, better networks and more efficient knowledge dissemination – all of which can be brought together in programs designed for the current generation of technical and business leaders, and for the students who will lead successful tech firms tomorrow.
Few business schools have focused attention on the growth and sustainability of high-tech companies and markets. Few engineering programs have incorporated the development of skill sets needed to grow a tech company beyond startup. And the great majority of business and engineering programs continue to operate in isolation from each other – as if the business of technology were a brand-new proposition.
Those 300,000 Canadians in Silicon Valley are living proof that our emphasis on STEM skills is paying off. But if we hope to do more than export our talent, we need to develop a similar appreciation for specific business skills that will enable Canadian companies to take innovation from the startup stage to the next level.