Fixing Canada’s digital deficit

Expert panel tackles the question of how Canadian businesses can boost digital adoption


Adopting digital technologies helps businesses innovate, compete and improve their productivity, says the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), yet Canadian companies trail their counterparts in the U.S. and other developed countries in this area.

Greater digital adoption could mean huge benefits for Canada’s economy: the ICTC states that every one-percent increase in labour productivity as a result of digital technology adoption yields $8 billion in value.

So how can we build digital literacy and encourage more businesses to adopt digital tools?

These questions were the focus of “Fixing Canada’s Digital Deficit,” a panel discussion held at Growth Summit II in Toronto, presented by the Public Policy Forum and Rogers in April.

Speakers included experts on the front lines of business and digital adoption.

The panellists identified several challenges hindering digital adoption among Canadian businesses: scarce time or resources; little understanding of technologies and/or their potential benefits; and concerns about security and privacy.

Creating a culture of learning

Also shared were examples of how not-for-profit organizations and private-sector companies are collaborating with businesses and with each other to support digital adoption.

Startup Canada is aiming to build a grassroots, national network of entrepreneurs and foster learning and innovation in the startup community. This includes boosting engagement between the private sector and fledgling companies, which encourages entrepreneurs to innovate, adopt technology and engage in research and development. “Training and embedding a culture of learning and innovation is a key component of building a startup pipeline that’s going to lead to more innovative companies,” said Victoria Lennox, co-founder and CEO.

Startup Canada works with private-sector partners to offer events such as boot camps and expert panels. In partnership with Rogers, it offers monthly “Startup Chats” (#startupchats) on Twitter, where people can ask experts about digital adoption. “We’ve seen a lot of success trending across Canada,” said Lennox. “Entrepreneurs want this information.”

The end of “sell and forget”

Technology companies are transitioning into the roles of consultants and experts. “One of the biggest issues people have is that technology is too difficult to understand, and they can’t afford to employ folks dedicated to that capability,” said Charlie Wade, senior vice-president of products and solutions, Rogers Enterprise Business. As technology moves toward cloud-based, as-a-service solutions, digital adoption is becoming easier and more affordable. Tech companies serve as expert consultants, handling the setup, training and troubleshooting and freeing up business owners to focus on their work.

Ongoing customer education is a vital part of Rogers solutions. “Because modern technologies are bought on a month-by-month basis, there’s an economic imperative for a company like Rogers to encourage adoption and encourage customers to get the most benefit out of them,” Wade explained. “The old world of selling a bunch of technology and leaving it to the customer to figure out how to get value out of it, that’s the wrong way. That’s not a fair equation.”

Rogers is also fostering digital literacy through social media, community hubs and networking events where entrepreneurs can share their experiences with digital adoption. “When customers from like-minded businesses talk to each other about their technologies, they find it very, very enlightening,” said Wade. “They can relate to the use cases, challenges and opportunities that each of them have.”

Microsoft is another company taking a more personalized approach to customer education. Businesses often don’t know which technologies to adopt or how to leverage them, said Mary-Ellen Anderson, vice-president, developer experience & evangelism, Microsoft Canada. Her team works closely with them to identify problems and opportunities. These “hackfests” allow Microsoft to inform customers about a wide range of technologies.

Company representatives attend meetups to engage with entrepreneurs at the grassroots level. Microsoft is also working with universities and students, said Anderson. “If we don’t get people understanding the benefits of these technologies at that base level, early on, we’re not going to have the industry leaders of the future.”

Telling our stories

The panellists stressed the importance of sharing digital adoption success stories, especially made-in-Canada narratives. “We want everyone to know the amazing solutions that are from Canada, and the amazing companies that are here,” said Anderson. “You’re not selling to the Canadian market — you’re selling to the world. … The more we crow about our stories, then people are going to start investing more and more in Canada.”

Corrine Pohlmann, senior vice-president, national affairs and partnerships for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, echoed the need for amplifying success stories and making them relevant to all types of businesses. “A lot of the examples coming out right now are very high tech, biotech, green tech. That’s important, but there’s a whole other set of industries out there doing creative things, and we’re not recognizing it.”

Some of the panellists’ organizations are helping to spread the word about digital adoption. Startup Canada shares stories on its popular podcast and via social media, and it has partnered with mainstream media and leveraged partnerships with sponsors to disseminate stories and thought leadership. Rogers is starting to showcase its innovative customers, such as blueRover in Waterloo, Ont., in marketing campaigns.

The panel also acknowledged the need for greater geographic diversity, and to expand the discussion about digital adoption beyond the “usual suspects” like Toronto and Vancouver. Anderson acknowledged that this is challenging, but the key — quite fittingly — is to leverage digital technologies.

“Everything we do, we make sure it’s online, and we do a lot of live broadcasts, live connections, so anybody can join from anywhere,” she said. Microsoft works remotely with customers across the country, she noted, adding, “We want to embrace and celebrate that you can live and work wherever you want. We’ll help you and come to you, but more importantly, we can connect digitally. I think that’s the future.”