Bright future for Canadian IT

It is not often you can get a doctor, a politician and a few senior business executives to agree on anything. But when the stars are aligned just so, it happens.

Last month, at the 2000 ITX Congress in Toronto, the aforementioned quartet participated in a CEO panel discussion on the state of IT in Canada. They agreed that Canada is doing well – even slightly better than expected- but that resting on its laurels would be fatal. Driven by the Internet, the world of IT is expanding at an extraordinary rate, diminishing the traditional restrictions created by borders and creating a truly global opportunity, one in which all participants urged Canada to be a major player.

First up was Kevin Lynch, Deputy Minister of Industry, who sees the Internet, IT and an increasingly global economy as an opportunity rather than a challenge. But he warned, “you don’t have the time to sit around for long periods of time to debate the issues.”

On the topic of time he noted that in the past decade the ability to move information has increased dramatically while decreasing in cost. A 42-page document going from Toronto to Tokyo used to be an overnight courier ride and $40 out of your pocket. Fax sped this up significantly, but still didn’t put a huge dent in the cost – due to the long distance phone call required. But with the Internet, the same document can make the trip in a few minutes, and at a cost of pennies.

“This (the Internet) truly makes it a global marketplace for both the government and the private marketplace. It means we fundamentally have to rethink how we do our business, how we deliver it and how we conceptualize it,” Lynch said.

And it is time Canadians act, well, a little un-Canadian, according to Lynch. “Canada is in a global race, and this is where we have to be a little un-Canadian, we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and deciding the pace we want to move ahead in this sort of world.” But he added that one of the more important traits necessary to succeed in this new economy is a strength we already have.

“I think we are better at partnering than many other countries around the world. You have got to think globally; this is not a market for 30 million people,” he said.

From the government’s perspective, getting Canada to be the most connected country in the world is the ultimate goal. And Lynch said this is again a little un-Canadian. “Typically we want to be second or third.” Surveys show Canada a close second to the U.S. but Lynch wants the country to be at least tied by next year. When it comes to educational access, he says the country is number one. “Canada is the first country in the world to completely connect the entire learning sector,” Lynch said – and that was achieved almost a year ago.

If there was an area Lynch saw as problematic it was the apparent lack of importance Canadian CEOs put on e-commerce. He cited a study that had e-commerce ranked last of 12 business strategies while American CEOs ranked it third. Lynch said that early adapters tend to dominate the market, and he sees a role for government to play.

“If government is not an early adopter – and government is 40 per cent of the Canadian economy – if it is not out there working with the private sector for innovative solutions, if it not out there delivering services in new and innovative ways, then it is not playing the central role it can.”

Lynch was followed by Arthur Tymos, vice-president and CIO of Telus. Tymos sees three major areas impacting the industry. The first is globalization and deregulation. Second is the rapid growth of wireless communications. Tymos said this is a fundamental shift toward personal communications as opposed to location-specific communications. He said wireless phones are the fastest growing consumer product in Canadian history and quoted a Motorola survey stating by 2005 more people will use wireless to access the Internet than wired.

From Telus’ perspective, data is already a larger portion of the traffic it carries – and it is growing at a rate three times as fast as voice. With an IDC survey predicting 6.5 million Canadians spending $13 billion on-line by 2003, the proportion of data traffic will increase even more.

Third, Tymos said companies must ensure their business and technology strategies are integrated, because customers are going to become more demanding. “We need to package and bundle our services to meet the evolving needs of our customers,” he said.

John Kelly, partner at Reid Eddison, agreed. “The reality is that we have a digital nervous system that will have enormous effect on all aspects of our business,” he said. Kelly also pointed to the development of true multimedia e-mail, which he said has five to 10 times more impact on the reader than the traditional text-based variety. This in turn will change the way we interact with customers, suppliers and employees.

Kelly also agreed with Lynch that Canadians have a weakness in identifying the Internet as an extremely powerful tool. He said American companies are getting to the Canadian consumer because they are more active in the market.

J. Fraser Mustard, founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, focused more on the impact IT is having on society.

Though the recent influence of IT has been pronounced, Mustard said we have to go back a little further, to the dawn of the industrial revolution and the incredible explosion in global population, to see the origins of what is happening today.

“[In the] last several hundred years there has been exponential growth in knowledge and technology, and without the capacity to handle information that technological revolution in knowledge and technology would not occur.”

Mustard sees the present change as a chips for neurons revolution. He said the industrial revolution was the replacement of the need for muscle energy with fossil fuels, while the chips for neurons revolution is the creation of low-intelligence systems that will perform low level-thinking that we currently do ourselves.