Food for thought

With the Government of Canada driving an agenda of growth, it wasn’t surprising that innovation was the hot topic in a panel discussion at the Professional Development Summit (PDS) on May 3 at the World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax. The unexpected element came from a focus that was more about people and organizational culture than technology.

Panelists included Peter Burns, CIO, High Liner Foods; Sandra Cascadden, CIO, Nova Scotia Government; Roman Coba, CIO, Emera; Spiro Bokolas, vice-president of development, Kinduct Technologies; and Jeremy Wubs, senior vice-president of marketing, Bell Business Markets, Bell Canada.

“The annual PD Summit is always an exciting opportunity for IT professionals to exchange ideas and build on our learned experiences,” says event Chair Michelle Murray, Branch Manager for Halifax’s Randstad Technologies. “To celebrate the Summit’s 10th anniversary, we assembled a panel of key leaders to discuss their thoughts on innovation. It’s not every day that change makers from Emera, Bell Canada, the Province of Nova Scotia, High Liner Foods, and Kinduct Technologies come together for one event. Feedback indicates that this was, overall, one of the best events yet for PDS.”

Discussion began with insights from moderator Fawn Annan, President and CMO, ITWC and Publisher of Tasked by Annan with defining innovation, panelists pooled their considerable expertise driving innovation and responding to technological disruptions. Their shared perspectives highlighted common approaches to leading change, creating opportunities, and inculcating a corporate culture that balances adapting new ideas with moderating risk.

Defining innovation

Burns defined innovation as a culture that encourages all members of the organization to invest their time and energy in new ideas. “It’s more about people than technology,” he said. “Our focus at High Liner is enabling 600 employees to be innovative.”

Similarly for Wubs it all boils down to a willingness to embrace new ideas. Key to this, says Wubs, is developing a process to encourage collaboration at all levels. “We have to ensure that everyone in the organization is comfortable contributing,” he said. “In some circumstances, our field engineers may have more information than those in management.”

Picking up on Wubs’ belief in the importance of process, Bokolas agreed that organizations require an infrastructure that allows employees to do their jobs. In the case of his company, innovation is geared to providing cloud-based software to professional and elite sports organizations, military and public safety units, physical medicine clinics, fitness professionals and healthcare providers. In order to do this, the company needs systems in place to enhance their platform capabilities and analyze data in new ways.

“You can have many conversations about innovation and come up with all sorts of ideas,” said Cascadden. “But nothing happens unless you act. The failure to innovate results from talking about it but not having a strategy to realize it.”

Cascadden went on to dispel one of the myths about innovation. “Most people don’t know how to respond when asked what they are doing that is innovative because they think it has to be something on a large scale,” she said. “The truth is that innovation doesn’t have to be a big glitzy project.”

Emera CIO Roman Coba echoed this sentiment, saying that innovation doesn’t have to be complicated. “It’s about igniting the thought process,” he said, “and it can be something as simple as a project manager reducing reporting times by 10 hours a week.”

Coba went on to reflect on the excitement in his industry, likening innovation to change, and more specifically, the change required to develop new ways of delivering service. “The Internet is the biggest disruptor,” he said. “Moving forward, IoT is going to transform the utility industry.”

Hiring innovators

Wubs was first to respond when Fawn Annan asked panelists how they go about hiring innovative people. “We now ask very different questions during the interview process,” he said. “We also spend more time getting feedback from new hires and educating them. In order to innovate, employees must understand the principles of innovation.”

When considering what tops the checklist for putting the right people in the right jobs, Cascadden spoke of looking for people who are passionate about what they do. “You can’t do a good job if you are miserable at work,” she said. “If you want a social environment at work, look for an employer who offers that. If you don’t like managing people, don’t be a manager.”

There was general agreement among panelists that the workforce requires a range of strategies in order to accommodate workers who range from Baby Boomers to Millennials. Suggestions included flexible work arrangements, changes to pension plans allowing short-term employees to take assets with them, allowing workers to bring their own devices, and the creation of new organizational structures with emphasis on teamwork.

Creating a culture of innovation

When asked to comment on the importance of creating a culture of innovation, Cascadden gave an example of the role employees can play in streamlining systems and improving service. “Sometimes in healthcare, change can come down to someone asking why things are done in a certain way,” she said.

Coba stressed the importance of an organizational culture that innovates organically from the ground up. “Change is hard,” concurred Spiro Bokolas. “It’s critical that business leaders explain what we’re doing and where we’re headed.

It is for this reason that High Liner invests heavily in staff education. “We believe in fostering the individual’s capacity for innovation through personalized training and development plans for all employees,” said Peter Burns. “People come to work today with different ideas. They want to understand the corporate vision and connect to it as part of a culture of innovation.”

Cascadden doesn’t believe you can teach people to be innovative, but she does see the merit in encouraging and enabling innovation by adding more tools to the kit. “It’s important to have a program in place to drive innovation and celebrate success,” she says, “but whatever you do, have a methodology and make it transparent. If you decide to post a suggestion box for ideas, you have to have a plan for what you are going to do with the suggestions you receive.”

Learning from failure

Coba was once in a room where people were discussing plans to make a 16-year investment in a system that was already at the end of the line. “They were looking for the Steady Eddy route,” he recalls. “I had to stand up and explain why it was the wrong way to go.”

From Burns’ perspective, innovation can sometimes come down to employees who have the courage and conviction to take a stand when to do otherwise would harm the organization. “I come from a culture that’s open to change,” added Wubs. “You really need a willingness to embrace change in order to make a difference.”

Panelists agreed that people learn from their mistakes and felt management must allow for failure and cultivate an environment that accepts risk taking where warranted. “It’s important to communicate to employees that there are risks with certain projects,” said Wubs. “Failure doesn’t necessarily mean loss. It’s a step sometimes needed in order to move forward.”

Burns distilled the sentiment into a single sentence sometimes attributed to Woody Allen. “If you’re successful at everything, you aren’t taking enough risks,” he said.

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Suzanne Robicheau
Suzanne Robicheau
Suzanne Robicheau is a communications specialist based in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where working remotely continues to fuel her passion for new mobile technologies -- especially on snowy days.

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