Slow and steady may not win this race

Whenever I get a chance talk to senior executives from any of the big software vendors, particularly those from the U.S., I always try to get their views on doing business in Canada.

Often, their opinion of us is, well, restrained. Officially, they’ll say Canada tends to be behind the U.S. in technology adoption, takes a less entrepreneurial approach than they do and tends to appreciate stability and caution. Yes, they’ll say, we’re different, but understandably so.

Off the record, or when the setting is less formal, I’ll hear that we’re actually a bunch of frustrating slowpokes who, compared to our southern cousins, wouldn’t know a good software deal if it hit us on the head, and that we’re obsessed with covering our butts. Yes, they’ll say, we’re different, and maddeningly so.

A quick comparison of our two economies today might justify the latter approach, assuming there’s any truth to it (and I think there is). But vendor sour grapes aside, Canadians have always had a very odd relationship with technology. At times it appears to run very cold, but on other days….

Consider. We’ve taken to our debit cards like fish take to water. Our oh-so-Canadian banking system has helped make that possible, to be sure. But if you’re like me, you use your debit card almost on a daily basis. As well, we’ve traditionally had one of the highest household Internet-usage rates in the world. And we boast successful, if modest, technology hotbeds in Montreal, Ottawa, areas in and around Toronto and in southern B.C.

These are just the big-ticket items. Canada has been involved in computing from its earliest days – recently we profiled J.N. Patterson Hume, a founder of the University of Toronto’s computer science department, and inventor of one of the world’s first programming languages. Years back I interviewed a retired IBM researcher who recalled his early days in Toronto helping to invent automated traffic lights, and using Big Blue’s computer power to design military prototypes for use in the Korean War.

Recently, however, I read a report from an organization called the World Economic Forum that’s ranked us sixth in the world in our level of networked-readiness in 2002, and it got me to thinking. Sixth out of I don’t know how many countries is impressive, and that’s apparently up from 12 th place the year before. So in one sense we should be proud. But keep in mind, Singapore and Iceland beat us. And our only number one finish? Seems us Canadians wait the least amount of time to secure a telephone line.

I’ve been around long enough to know that a dozen reports can reach a dozen different conclusions. But I’ve seen stats like this before, and if we hold ourselves to a high standard, as a member of the G7 and one of the wealthiest and resource-rich nations on Earth, then we should be having some sober second thoughts.

One finding that’s particularly troubling is our 48 th place ranking in terms of businesses using e-commerce to their advantage. To their credit, this is something Canada’s business community has long recognized, which is why they helped to form the E-business Opportunities Roundtable several years ago to help promote IT in mid-market companies. But it appears there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Being positioned so closely to the most powerful nation that ever existed has been both our greatest strength and our biggest challenge. Undoubtedly the U.S. is harnessing e-business to its advantage, despite the many pitfalls along the way. Whether we like it or not, we can’t afford to dither if we want to remain competitive.

But hey, maybe we are doing it right now, just in our own frustratingly slow, but ultimately successful way.