CULTURE & DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION : Enabling the “Intelligent Enterprise” at MaRS Discovery District, Toronto’s Innovation Hub

Canada, and Toronto in particular, is rapidly gaining international prominence as a location where innovation and technology can thrive. One of the

MaRs Discovery District, Toronto

Canada, and Toronto in particular, is rapidly gaining international prominence as a location where innovation and technology can thrive. One of the foremost environments for that thriving ecosystem is MaRS Discovery District based in downtown Toronto. It is a bustling hub of entrepreneurs, business leaders, technologists, scientists busy creating new products, services and business models across a variety of sectors. The dizzying array of projects going on is testimony to an operating philosophy of the co-founder Dr. John Evans “Great minds may not think alike but they like each other’s company; a brilliant idea in isolation is not enough to create a real breakthrough.”In the midst of this energy and enthusiasm, I met up with Krista Jones who is the Managing Director, Enterprise to discuss the work her team does to build the critical thinking, tools, knowledge and connections that will help businesses and workforces succeed in the future.

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KJ: Certainly. I’m less than a week away from my ten-year anniversary here and, as you can imagine in an innovation centre, that has meant a significant amount of change from the organization and ecosystem I joined. Our purpose is to help stimulate and assist the companies of the future develop, nurture and commercialize their inventions. Today that typically means businesses in the technology, science and social arenas because those are the areas where we believe businesses and jobs will be created. Not surprising that means areas like FinTech, CleanTech, Health and Enterprise. Importantly we’ve evolved significantly to be very focused on the societal impact of what we’re creating here. This isn’t soley a commercialization exercise but we emphasize elements like creating great organizations and focusing on triple bottom line metrics because we want to ensure we’re making positive impact with our work. We constantly talk about being an “and” organization where for profit and doing good are co-joined, not mutually exclusive.

All of this dovetails into the work we’re doing here at MaRS. Our Innovators are helping create the organizations of the future which will create the employment opportunities. Innovators in our enterprise sector are helping enterprises transform and transition and workers acquire the skills they need and put them to use.

KJ: For many years our Enterprises haven’t evolved from the Industrial Age “Command & Control” models and structures that were appropriate for that age. Those models and structures are completely ineffective and inefficient for the changing world we’re in now – and the even more complex world that’s on the horizon and rapidly approaching. Considering that Enterprises still constitute a large part of the business landscape, employ massive amounts of people and create much of the products, services, revenues and taxes that underpin our economies, it’s critical that we help them adapt and prepare for this new business reality. And, ideally, if we can help organization’s transform to become more adaptive and intelligent through technology, then we can make our societies more open, more fair, more socially-cohesive. The fact that the tech innovation community has turned its attention to this space makes me incredibly optimistic. When innovators turn their attention to a problem set they usually will find a way; they rethink the problem from a different perpective and create disruptive solutions.

If we buy into the idea that Legacy organizations are unwilling or unable to transform and change, then I believe we’re in for a very bumpy 20 years ahead of us all. I believe some can change – or many want to change – they need assistance to make it happen. Will there be casualties? Absolutely, but we’re trying very hard to mitigate the scale of those casualties on 2 fronts; by creating the enterprises of the future and creating the tech stack to help the legacy enterprise transform and compete globally.

KJ: The trouble is structural in many ways. We have built structures that are linear in nature – our job market and our progression within organizations was built on a scaffolding-like structure. Do this role for X period. Move to the next rung when you’ve proof you’ve done the previous rung. Now with automation, many of the rungs, in the middle of the ladder, will be eliminated. With automation, many of the tasks we needed people to do inside of the roles organizations created will go away; certain roles will conceivably see 60-70% attrition because of technology. What I don’t appreciate is the notion that there is a binary belief that if automation is inevitable, your job future is debatable.

Jobs – at least how we’ve tended to think of them as rungs in a ladder or a career path – are changing rapidly. What’s not changing fast enough is looking at a skills market versus a jobs market.

What are the skill competencies needed versus what are the jobs we’re trying to fill. That’s a very different but critical question we need, as Employers and Employees, to answer. What’s not changing fast enough also is organizations not augment process and transforming their business models.

KJ: Firstly I think its important to get beyond all the theory and talk about deployment and implementation because that’s where the rubber hits the road. As a life-long Engineer I also get passionate about the “doing” part and making it happen.

For me that means we need to get more competent and focused on scenario planning versus the linear type strategic planning we’ve done for decades.

Scenario Planning as organizations and Scenario Planning as individuals.

Truth is there is no one view or destination of the future so building the agility of thinking that contemplates (and prepares for) multiple different future scenarios will be critical. The first casualty has to be complacency – either within an organization or as an individual seeking skills for work in the future – because complacency wont allow you to consider multiple scenarios and just stick to the one scenario you know. While I can’t tell you what the future will be exactly, I can say that one size fits all is not going to be viable, neither is waiting around to perfectly figure out when and how you’re going to act. If your strategy is to wait until the future is crystal clear and well-defined, you’re going to get crushed. Organizations, Governments and especially people need to embrace this scenario planning orientation if they want to ensure they’ve the best opportunities ahead.

KJ: Currently, at least in Canada, I’d say not very well. And because our economy has fared relatively well, public and private enterprises don’t feel the urgency to change. The urgency is being driven from workers, people seeing their careers and salaries stall. Public and private enterprises will need to embrace Scenario Planning to survive. At MaRS we are working closely with Government bodies to instil this type of thinking and competency but it takes time.

While our Canadian Educational system is good what we’ve not created in Canada is a vocational system that builds broad and diverse skills in 6 -12 month increments. We still have a very linear pathway that builds 4-year degrees and has a sequential grade system that you pass a set agenda and then proceed to the next year. We need to change what we’re teaching and how we teach it.

I’m a fan of initiatives and organizations like General Assembly and, in the UK, the Union Learns approach. Union Learns is where employers pay into a system – operated by the Unions – to reskill union employees. The interesting thing being that employees are three times more likely to complete vocational training through their union than through their employer. At a State or Government level, Singapore has a very progressive vocational skills training approach too. There’s a lot to learn from these various systems and I think they’re indicative of how we need to help create a more diverse and adaptable workforce.

KJ: At MaRS we look at it through the building of an intelligent enterprise, through the lens of Process & Insights and People & Tools.

Those are the levers by which you’re going to build the level of curiosity and inquisitiveness needed to thrive in this new workplace.

Knowledge, at least how we used to think about it, and the notion that several years at a certain school or college was an indicator of performance has been shown to be inaccurate.

You recently saw Google, Microsoft and I believe Facebook remove university history off their job applications because they had found inside their organizations there was no correlation between school attended and job performance.

The encouraging thing is that this agile and inquisitive orientation has nothing to do with age but everything to do with attitude. That means if you’re entering the workforce, midway through your career or determining how you’re going to adapt in the last decades of your job, it comes down to your willingness to think in an agile fashion.

KJ:It absolutely isn’t for the feint of heart. Especially at the CEO and Executive-levels because it requires building this agile intelligent Enterprise while concurrently hitting the numbers and expectations of the street. I watched the CEO of Adobe Shantanu Narayen give an amazing talk about how their organization has managed this intelligent transformation. It certainly hasn’t been easy but Adobe saw it as critical. Shantanu had to have the strength of conviction to complete this transformation.

In our previous chats, I told you I saw the Culture word as a crutch. That because organizations or sectors often say change is hard, takes too long or is impossible because the culture is too embedded or that “culture eats strategy” and so on. I think that’s true but misguided in todays exponential world.

I compare our ability to readily adopt technology in our personal lives and the curiosity or ability to change in that environment but it doesn’t seem to translate to our attitude inside an organization.

We’ll readily download new apps on a whim or give up oodles of our privacy in the apps we use at home but seem to resist that openness in our workplace. That’s because the way we think, collaborate, share ideas and get stuff done in our personal lives shouldn’t change once we step into our work environment. I readily accept that organizations are never going to be as open and keen to experiment as we are as consumers but we need to find a way. Take SLACK as a great example of a group of people who were dissatisfied with the confines of email and built a collaboration tool that made them more productive. After some initial resistance, Executives saw Slack as a great alternative to email because it was working and was making the organization more agile.

Perhaps that’s the Culture piece I tend to cringe against. The piece that isn’t willing to allow new ideas to flourish and the culture constraints that reinforce the kind of single-minded, uniformity of how we behave in the workplace. That’s of the Industrial Age and that age is soon going to be part of the history books – along with the organization’s who weren’t willing to adapt their cultures.

KJ: Certainly. Ultimately, what we’re trying to create is a working environment where folks can contribute to the maximum of their potential and have the tools to do so. In some cases that means automation but in many cases that means augmentation which I see as way more powerful. The worst application of technology is when you automate a poor process and call it digitization. That’s not a step forward in my opinion.

In terms of organizations, I absolutely believe a lack of diversity is a real challenge. That means diversity of experience, of thinking, of background, of perspective not just on the scales of gender and race. When you’ve got multiple points of view – and the organization and culture genuinely allows them to participate – its infinitely easier to imagine and develop multiple scenarios of the future. That’s one.

The other – and this is perhaps more societal – is a certain bias or historical belief in the types of jobs that are “good” jobs versus “menial” jobs. I recently had a long chat with young adult who was caught between being a pharmacist and a paramedic. The family saw the pharmacist route as more “important” perhaps or more lucrative while I was in exactly the opposite place. I saw the Pharmacist role being one of the ones highly likely to be significantly displaced by automation and technology whereas the Paramedic role would teach all these amazing skills that would be fantastically transferable in many many other places – working under pressure, working and negotiating with people under volatile and changing situations, remaining calm and able to make quick decisions. Those are irreplaceable skills and if you need to be a paramedic to learn those, go be a paramedic. If being a paramedic is a passion of yours be a paramedic because passion trumps everything in today’s world.

Ultimately we all – individuals and organizations – need to rewire our thinking from the type of linear pathways we’ve used for decades and start thinking in terms of scenario planning and alternative outcomes. That will take curiosity and mental dexterity.

It will also require us to think in terms of skills and not jobs in the future.

The optimist in me – and as the mother of three kids entering the workforce in very very different ways, I think we’re absolutely capable of changing our organizations and ourselves as employees to do it.

KJ: My pleasure.


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