It is not a new IT industry association. It is not a series of high-tech conferences. It is not a strategic alliance of vendors and technology executives. You won’t see much about it on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, at press time, there was still no Web site to speak of.
So what on Earth are Ted Maulucci and his colleagues up to?
Earlier this summer, a select group of chief information officers were given invitations from Tridel, where Maulucci is CIO, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) and the Access Group, a management consulting firm based in Toronto. The invitations offered a series of roundtable discussions which would focus on improving Canadian productivity, exchanging knowledge and solving real-world business problems. The roundtables were part of something called “One Million Acts of Innovation.”
The event flyer explained little about the process or the expected outcomes, but CIOs showed up. The roundtable conversations have begun in earnest. They have sparked collaboration between CIOs and the post-secondary educational sector and will soon help new Canadians establish themselves in the enterprise. There are another seven sessions planned over the next year. If they succeed, these loosely-organized executives will redefine how we measure the role of CIOs in innovation on a national level, not just within their individual companies or industries. And maybe how we define innovation itself.
The first act of innovation might be the way the roundtables were set up. Maulucci has been a fairly high-profile CIO for years, appearing on the cover of this magazine, appearing on panel discussions at IT World Canada events and networking with his peers at others. It was at a session hosted by IBM Canada, however, that initially brought him into contact with Taimour Zaman, president of the Access Group, and got One Million Acts of Innovation going.
At the event, Maulucci and the audience heard about a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which ranked Canada 14 out of 17 countries in business R&D expenditures as a percentage of the economy. According to the OECD, Canadian business R&D spending is only one per cent of GDP, well below the OECD average of 1.6 per cent. South Korea, Finland and Sweden all spend more, and the U.S. spends double. To put that into perspective, an article in the Globe and Mail pointed out that Canadian business would have to spend $10 million more each year to reach the OECD average.
“All of those innovation sessions are the same – I go there, someone presents something to me, I may get inspired to write a note, but do I do something with it?” Maulucci says, adding that the OECD numbers were particularly troubling. “It starts to get on your nerves – why is this happening?”
Maulucci found himself striking up a conversation with Zaman, who has been tracking such statistics for several years. This includes not only R&D spending but inflationary pressures, real estate trends, even birth rates. By his estimates, Canada could face further financial freefall that makes the 2008 recession seem mild by comparison. The two began discussing how CIOs could help.
“I don’t think a CIO gets inspired to go to work because a PC broke down,” Zaman says. “The innovative CIOs are asking themselves, ‘What am I doing to create jobs?’ ‘How do we keep our culture stable or grow?’”
The Access Group has some history with gathering experts to brainstorm on broad issues. One Million Acts of Person Centered Health, for example, brought together stakeholders via sponsor Cisco Systems’ WebEx technology, gathering ideas from 18 cities across Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. Apart from law firm Miller Thompson, which has provided facilities for the roundtables, no major vendor is pushing One Million Acts of Innovation. The idea is for CIOs to be more self-directed in driving economic, academic and other changes.
“The IBM study on CIOs shows that we are in a position to stop that innovation slide. They’re sitting in a position where they can make a difference,” Maulucci says. “Nothing happens in a company that isn’t touching a computer or involving a process. We want to bring together people who can make a difference and translate it into action.”
CATA has described One Million Acts of Innovation, which quietly launched in July, as a leadership development program. Zaman calls it a movement, and says Maulucci is a vital public face for it.
“What Ted brings to the table for us is he’s a CIO, but he has a passion for Canada. Ted is alive,” he says. “There are a lot of CIOs that I know who are a victim of circumstance. Ted is actually alive, and he cares for Canada.”
Maulucci says the early roundtables have started to hone in on critical issues of concern. “Canada brings in a lot of educated immigrants, but we fail at taking advantage of that. The productivity level is dropping. Venture capital funding is not there. When we started to introduce these topics into these sessions, certain areas blew up.”
The first big blowup? Education.
CIOs are always looking for fresh talent, and universities sometimes struggle to produce the right candidates. The early One Million Acts of Innovation roundtables focused on how to build a better bridge between business and academia, and at one of them, students were invited to give direct feedback and solicit feedback from the CIOs. At least one of the results will come from the University of Toronto: a course giving undergraduate students nearing graduation the opportunity to summarize, evaluate, and integrate some or all of their college experience.
“Instead of asking a bunch of questions and reporting back, it might have more of a request for proposal (RFP) structure,” Maulucci says. “You could have business sponsors signing off on a project charter. If students produce something that gets used by the business, it gets a bonus mark.”
Daniel Frances, a professor in the Department of Engineering at U of T, says the cooperation provided through the CIOs has been a wonderful thing.
“Undergraduate education is still a place where universities and industries can understand each other well,” he says. “Once you get into research, that’s where the gap grows. We’re really hoping to cement relationships between professors and the organizations.”
Frances says the a full-year course will run from Sept to April, roughly 26 weeks. Students will work for about 10 hours a week.
“What they are looking for is innovation by giving students a fresh look at the problems they have,” he says. “We need projects. The request for proposal is coming from the university to industry about where we want students to learn. We’re trying to make it a broader playing field by inviting industry in general to communicate their priorities through a statement of need. Professors will screen that to make sure the subject matter is appropriate and then the students would select (their project).”
In an unusual move, U of T will be inviting clients – the CIOs of the companies involved – to recommend the students’ grades. This could include how well students understood the business problem, Frances says, how well their proposed solution met the client’s needs and how well they propose a solution through a project charter. University regulations stipulate that the school must be ultimately responsible for marks, but the client’s assessment could go towards more than a quarter of the grade, he says.
It’s not necessarily as easy as it sounds. One big hurdle is sorting out who controls the end result.
“Creating a cause is a different way of looking at intellectual property and who owns it. I don’t think it’s the job of the university to own it. They don’t know commercialization,” says Zaman. At the next One Million Acts of Innovation session, to be held on Sept 22 at Miller Thompson’s offices, the group will invite 12 students. “CIOs will talk about how they want to work with the education sector, colleagues will debate IP and the lawyers will weigh in on who it belongs to.” Students will facilitate the breakout sessions, Zaman adds.
The goal isn’t necessarily to come up with a solution to the IP issue, Maulucci says, but to maintain a constructive dialogue between both parties. This has already paid off for Tridel, where Maulucci ended up hiring a U of T mechanical engineering student. “I was originally looking for a business analyst.”
Future sessions will look at immigration and how to build on the work started by the Information and Commnuications Technology Council (ICTC) to streamline the introduction of internationally educated professionals to the workforce.
“Canada has eight million immigrants and a percentage of them are technology-savvy,” Zaman says. “We’re trying to work with ICTC and get their new incoming Canadians to partner up with CIOs and work with them on creating pilot projects.”
“CIO will present a problem, new arrivals to Canada can propose how they would solve the problems for them. CIOs are getting their problem solved and seeing people who they want to hire,” Maulucci says.
Besides looking at access to venture capital and other topics, Zaman also sees One Million Acts of Innovation as a way of facilitating mentoring and coaching among the 50-odd CIOs who have been involved so far. To do this he has deployed what he calls “triadism.” CIOs are put into groups of three where they discuss challenges they face in their organization. The other two CIOs in the group can then offer their guidance or support in finding the right vendor, planning a strategy or getting a business plan written. Some of this cross-pollination is already happening. Zaman cites a CIO who wasn’t getting value from her business intelligence investments who has been given some ideas to turn her project around.
“If you think about a table, how many legs does it need to stay upright? Three,” he says. “The same logic applies when you have people tackling these sorts of problems.”
There’s no official start or end date for One Million Acts of Innovation. The next crucial step will be creating a Web site. Maulucci says there’s been talk of a Craigslist-style portal where CIOs could make innovation requests and mark what progress has been made. So far, much of the planning seems to follow the pattern of other movements, whether social, political or a combination of the two.