Monday, March 28, 2016

Can Corporate Calgary Innovate?

For much of the last 18 months Calgary has been trying to rediscover its way as it reels from the collapse of oil prices.  Layoffs have swelled the EI rolls, the prices and geopolitics of the day are monitored for a theory to explain the collapse and give a more optimistic theory for a recovery of the price.  Conspiracies loom with the theories that the spigots have been turned to full blast to drive the prices down and other theories suggest that the rise of alternative energies will keep the Wood Buffalo bitumen in the ground indefinitely, if not for good.

All of the uncertainty seems to have left the oil industry, if not all of Calgary, dazed.  There are choruses singing their old song of the economy needing to diversify but the reality of that is that when the oil industry is kicking along at its break-neck pace, there is little opportunity for any other industries to attract and retain talent for an organization or an industry outside the oil patch.  It was hard enough to keep Tim’s staffed at anything less than $15 an hour in 2008; trying to get a university graduate with expertise required for a new start-up would have been a daunting task when the full-on churn of the oil industry was driving up salaries, the cost of living and the auction prices on the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon tarps.

Industry in this city has been set in its ways for some time and the diversity and innovative thinking that have been the hallmarks of other economic hotbeds in North America and beyond, has seemed lacking in the city.  The city’s workforce diversified gradually as a result of the demand for engineering talent, but the question of how that talent was integrated into the workforce remains.  Did organizations diversify significantly to integrate and retain the talent that was coming in, or was the onus of adaptation placed on the newcomers?


Just as significant a question is whether or not industries and organizations in the city innovated in wide-ranging manners that optimized the talent that was under their roof or in the field representing them.  Like it or not, the oil and gas industry in Calgary has earned the reputation for being relatively old-school in its practices and have not varied much from the mindset that serves them in the task of extraction.  Those formulas are simple, tried and true and based on the bare efficiencies of the process.  As the price of oil fell, extraction stopped and costs were cut with an eye to the immediate bottom line.  While riding this phase of the boom-bust cycle might be the correct strategy for the oil and gas industry, they cycles continues and this trough seems to be far more uncertain than previous dips.

The question that has occurred, and the increase of diversity within the workforce is just one component of this, is how innovative can corporate Calgary be?  There have been innovations made throughout the oil industry to address environmental concerns and find ways of increasing cost effectiveness of extraction, but there have been few innovations which have indicated that Calgary has the appetite for collaboration and innovation that such an educated workforce ought to be capable of.

In 2010, as many can recall, there was a convergence of talented young thinkers who put together an approach to the challenge that faced them and they succeeded in a manner which made significant news across the country and beyond and that accomplishment still resonates within the city.  That group of people was the team that helped move Naheed Nenshi, alternately known as a policy wonk and a prof at Mount Royal College, from darkhorse mayoral contender to his first-term as mayor. Midway through his second term as mayor, it could be argued that the city government and bureaucracy may be more innovative and collaborative than some of the largest corporate citizens who line the towers of the city with their glowing names.

There have been corporate entities in Calgary that have innovated, WestJet, SMART, and DIRTT are a few of the organizations that have thrived, but those are probably still too few for a city of this size. Apart from those organizations, there is still opportunity for innovation and collaboration within the energy giants in the city, but the corporate culture still seems rooted in processes, mindsets and relationships that are less likely to increase collaboration and innovation even within the energy sector.  In the preamble to Alberta Venture's list of the 20 most innovative organizations for 2015, the magazine states that, "[innovation is] not just a buzzword, it’s a compulsion to be better and an inability to be satisfied with the way things are. Frequently, innovation is born of struggle. When a resource is low, ­competition for it is high, and companies realize the status quo will not carry them to prosperity." The probability in the oil and gas sector is that the comfort with high oil prices and high demand imparted some complacency in the sector rather than encouraging the strategic partnerships, innovation and collaboration that has defined other sectors.  (With a travel agent who has discovered the niche of marketing tours to geeks, with a fondness for comic book expos, I hoep the list is not in any particular order.)

This is not to say that Calgary is not innovating at all, but that the corporate leaders in the city may all be too habituated by the boom-bust cycles of the oil and gas sector to integrate innovative thinking and collaborative work practices into their organizations in a manner that makes the city play a more active role in defining its destiny or its potential.  If the 80-20 rule were to be applied, it would likely indicate that only 20% of Calgary enterprises are adopting more innovative and collaborative practices while the other 80% are sticking to the tried and true, even now, and riding it out, insulated (they hope) by their sheer size and the assumption that the oil market will again come around to them.

In their book Creative Confidence Tom Kelley and David Kelley simply state that "Most businesses today realize that the key to growth and even survival is innovation." From there, they go on to outline the means by which organizations can unleash the creative potential of the 75% of employees who do not feel they are achieving their potential.  In my survey of thought leaders with a close eye on Calgary would concur that there is a great deal of potential that has not been tapped for a variety of reasons, whether it is more hierarchical thinking, an absence of a creative bent amongst those coming from the STEM fields or the narrow focus that the drive to get the oil out of the ground has propagated throughout the industry.

While there may once again be a call to diversify the economy as Calgary and Alberta adjust to new normals with the price of oil and the demand for oil in the state they are in at the moment, the other thing for businesses in Calgary to do is to take a long detailed look at their organizational cultures and structures and adapt to integrate more collaboration, innovation and diversity into their organizations and look closely at models of innovational success from other industries in the city and beyond.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Trump and the American Identity

It is hard to tell if America is in an odd paroxysm of darkness or merely playing out the drama of the Donald Trump campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to , hopefully, harmless and comedic comeuppance for the main character in this big production reality show.  For months, Trump has, in short, been himself nothing more or less.  Despite campaigning with a performance artist's preference for shock rather than the consequences of his actions his achievements in the primaries beg the question, "How did he do it?"

His bigotry, misogyny and glee at offence have galvanized the Republican voters to support him in startling numbers and his progression toward becoming the party's nominee for the presidency has left some pundits questioning whether or not voters are fully informed or taking the election process seriously.  As the speculation about the short-term future of the Republican Party mounts, it has become evident that Donald Trump, despite the abundant flaws that ought to hinder him, has struck a chord with the electorate.

From a Canadian perspective it is doubly puzzling to see the regular season of the current presidential election season unfold the way it has.  One thing that might be the defining trait of the Trump campaign has been the persistent exceptionalism.  Whether it is his antics mocking other candidates, his language or his policy statements he has crossed the line time after time without denting his momentum.

Such ruthless behaviour would normally define a candidate as a loose cannon who should not even be on the stage for a debate let alone having dibs on the keys to the White House.  As an aside, I suspect that Trump would either drastically remodel the presidential mansion to reflect his "tastes" or quit and go home.

He has achieved what he has during this presidential campaign season because of the certitude and simplistic elements of his slogan, "Make America Great Again" even if the slogan is printed on hats that are Made in China.  Unlike Canada, which has struggled to define itself and establish a clear definition of its identity throughout its history, America has not been troubled with lingering complex questions about what the nation is or stands for.  While Canada has struggled with the inherent pluralism and bilingualism that has refuted efforts to say Canada is such and such in the simplest of terms, Americans have been able to assert time and again that their nation stands for greatness and freedom.  Like Tim Robbins' Nuke LaLoosh character in Bull Durham, they have never been troubled by self-awareness.  They have overlooked flaws and the darker chapters of their history.

For much of this century, the United States has been troubled by events and circumstances that have challenged their preeminence in the world community and the exceptionalism that they once believed was their birthright has wavered and weakened due to the increased complexity of the times we are living in.  Trump's promise to restore America to greatness with the most short-sighted and dangerous of policies that lack for clarity and substance.  Given the doubts that have been troubled Americans since September 11, 2001, racist policies, bullying the weak and threatening war are not merely empty promises to reassure America's greatness.  Instead these threats and actions do more to undermine the meaning of "America" and its "greatness."

If the United States is inclined to lurch toward an antithesis of Barack Obama, Trump would be the man to provide that.  However, simplistic policies and megalomaniacal thinking are not going to serve the United States well in the face of increased complexity.  The consequences for the United States would be far more dire than the loss of face that occurs in a reality program.