Cheerleaders don’t move the ball down the field

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By Francis Moran

When the British Columbia Lions and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers meet in the 99th staging of the Grey Cup, Canada’s professional football championship, in Vancouver this Sunday, both teams will have squads of cheerleaders jumping and shouting from the sidelines in a loud and colourful effort to get the B.C. Place crowd roaring for their side. But while the young women in short skirts waving pompoms might be interesting for some to look at, nothing that they do is actually going to move the ball even a single yard down the field. They will score not a single point. Their contribution to the spectacle will not be captured in a single game statistic.

This morning, I was at the second event in as many weeks where the whole game plan seemed to be on pumping up the volume of the cheerleading rather than on the fundamentals of moving the ball down the field.

Speaker after speaker at these two events — last week’s kick off to Ottawa Entrepreneur Week and this morning’s regular monthly execTALKS event, both organised by the Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation — spoke of the imperative that more “buzz” be created around Ottawa’s moribund technology scene as though sheer enthusiasm alone could overcome the very real challenges that face this critical sector of the local economy.

Now, don’t get me wrong; both events were hugely successful if measured by the size of the turnout and the energy of the participants. Like many others who said as much, I haven’t been at such high-energy and well-subscribed Ottawa tech events since the heydays of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And full kudos to OCRI and its new chief executive Bruce Lazenby for making every good effort to reboot that sense that we can make great things happen here in Ottawa.

I fear, however, that the cheerleading is drawing attention away from just how badly our team is actually performing on the field, and what needs to be done to turn that around. In a somewhat frightening three-part series in the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend, veteran Ottawa tech writer James Bagnall detailed how the region has lost about 40 percent of its high-tech jobs over the past four years, with employment levels in the sector threatening to tumble further to the disastrous lows of the post-telecom-meltdown years.

More tellingly, we have lost ground to nearly every other significant technology cluster in the country. Over the same four years, tech-related employment has jumped more than 50 percent in Kitchener-Waterloo, more than nine percent in Toronto and about six percent in Calgary. Vancouver and Montreal have, like Ottawa, lost tech jobs but their decline has been nowhere near as steep as ours.

The second and third articles in Bagnall’s series sounded a more optimistic note with their profile of the next generation of entrepreneurs who are igniting Ottawa’s tech scene and a good prescription for what is needed to pull the region out of its profound slump. But these are still grim times. And yet, talk to some of the folk who turned out for the two events and to some senior OCRI people and you’d swear Bagnall was making stuff up and that the K-W region was mired in hopelessness. For example, many people I spoke to this morning dismissed out of hand the factual underpinning of the Citizen series in favour of a shoot-the-messenger attitude.

More critically, I recently had to listen to a very senior representative of OCRI tell a group I belong to that economic development in the K-W region is a¬†dysfunctional¬†mishmash of disconnected organisations that can’t work together to get anything done. By not being able to get anything done, he must have been referring to the Accelerator Centre that in five short years has graduated startups that have generated over $20-million in sales, raised $40-million in external funding and created more than 400 permanent jobs. By not being able to get anything done, he must have been referring to the Communitech Hub where startups, student entrepreneurs, established companies and the cream of the continent’s venture capitalists regularly collide in a process that, as previously stated, has driven a 50 percent increase in regional tech employment. By not being able to get anything done, he must have been referring to the innovative Velocity entrepreneurship residence at the University of Waterloo where a dozen or more student startups are incubated every single semester.

All these accomplishments might have been lost on the OCRI rep who spoke to my group but they most certainly were not lost on Deloitte Canada’s vice chair and Americas managing director of consulting Bill Currie, who was the speaker at this morning’s event. In the question-and-answer session that followed his thoughtful and provocative presentation of a seminal Deloitte study on the Canadian productivity gap, Currie praised the Communitech Hub and other efforts in Kitchener-Waterloo and said they were exactly what we needed to replicate in Ottawa.

I’m sure this post will do nothing to temper whatever reputation I might have as a nay-sayer and perpetual critic. It would be unfortunate if that were the lens through which what I’ve just written was viewed. I have lived in Ottawa for nearly 25 years. I have founded companies, created jobs and contributed wealth to this community. My PR agency over its 13 years has contributed thousands of pro bono hours to almost every technology group going, including OCRI. Ottawa is my home and it’s where my business and most of my employees are located. Unlike many in my sector, I have not fled for the safe harbour of government work as the tech sector has had its ups and downs. I am as committed as anyone in this city to the goal of seeing Ottawa thrive as a centre of innovation, technology and job creation. But we can’t let our enthusiasm for that objective blind us to the reality that we have been drastically losing ground and we need to reverse that trend. Building up our city doesn’t require that we tear down what others are doing; it requires that we study their successes and adopt the best bits for ourselves. And most of all, it means we must recognise that cheerleading is no substitute for a solid playbook full of fundamental strategies that are going to move the ball decisively down the field and into the end zone.

Photo: Vancouver Sun


  • Len Fardella

    November 24, 2011 2:05 pm

    You’ll never win a war of words and numbers. Having thrived and suffered in the private sector all my business life, I have an idea that might be applied to all those organizations primed with economic development. Establish some straightforward and measurable targets and link their often generous remuneration to meeting those targets. You’ll quickly see a shift away from criticizing other programmes to seeking what has worked elsewhere and might work here.

  • Matt Roberts

    November 24, 2011 3:04 pm

    Probably the most shockingly wrong statement by an OCRI employee this year. And that’s saying a lot.

  • Nathan Rudyk

    November 24, 2011 4:08 pm

    Having worked with/now working with economic development agencies in both Ottawa and Waterloo, let’s assure ourselves that the mystery person at OCRI was expressing an unfortunate and misguided minority view that is as you point out Francis, utter nonsense. Waterloo’s focus on its startup community is stellar, the Waterloo Region’s execution on behalf of entrepreneurs is absolutely brilliant, and they do, as Ottawa is starting to once again, communicate and celebrate their successes in a way that attracts and builds more success. The top-level relationships between Ottawa and Waterloo economic development folks is solid, and respectful. The cities work together in fact on Foreign Direct Investment initiatives at and and have done so for several years. But now to the meat of the matter, our technology scene is far from moribund, and you and Jim Bagnall should take one last look into the rearview mirror, rip if off the windshield, toss it out the side window, and drive forward. We need you, but not like this. C’mon man, we need you. Offer your ideas for the future vs. your regrets about the past and away we go. Cheers, Nathan.

  • Omar El-ahrairah

    November 24, 2011 5:15 pm

    Notwithstanding the unfortunate statement made by said OCRI representative regarding KW, the nub of this blog post has more to do with how OCRI has almost completely lost touch with the very community it tries to represent in its own backyard. I have tremendous respect for Jim Bagnell who is one of the few (David Reevely is another) reporters in Ottawa who has done a thorough job covering the local high tech/economic development beat. Unlike others who simply regurgitate the hype shovelled out of OCRI over the last decade (hello OBJ), he has actually bothered to look at the particulars as, for example, in 2006 when he challenged the OCRI version of hi-tech employment numbers when compared to those produced by Stats Canada. His recent three-part series is, I thought, well-researched, balanced and even hopeful. Though it is to be expected that an economic development agency such as OCRI would be effusive in its promotion of our region, the reality is that the best before date for cheerleading and boosterism is way past due. The sector is hurting and the signs are not good.

    It remains to be seen whether the new OCRI president will get it. And one has to ask: if so, who is going to care?

  • Francis Moran

    November 24, 2011 6:19 pm

    Judging from the Twitter traffic and the comments so far, I clearly hit a nerve with this post.

    @Len: Couldn’t agree more that measurable objectives tied to compensation could make all the difference.

    @Matt: Can’t disagree.

    @Nathan: Far from looking in any kind of rear-view mirror, Bagnall’s series was, as @Omar put it, “well-researched, balanced and even hopeful.” I’m pretty sure Bagnall doesn’t pine for the past; I know I sure don’t. But nor do I peer at the present through rose-coloured glasses. We have serious, structural and long-standing challenges to address in our local tech community. Thanks for the invitation to offer my ideas, though; I’ve been doing much more than that for nearly 25 years and you may be assured I will continue to do so, man.

    @Omar: Thanks for mentioning the new blood at OCRI. I am optimistic that change will bring change.

  • Jeff Campbell

    November 24, 2011 6:36 pm

    Nice to see you stirring things up in Ottawa Francis. As you know from your time spent here in Waterloo and elsewhere, it takes money, time and effort spent in the following ways:
    - Connecting with institutions that develop potential entrepreneurs; collaborating and managing transition in a meaningful way is key.
    - Creating and managing an environment that enables ideas to grow into businesses; measuring the development through the startup phases, managing the progress and graduating the businesses out on their own in an important part of this formula.
    - Facilitating support from community, peers, mentors and investors and then getting out of the way.
    - Celebrating successes; little ones and big ones.
    When I was in Ottawa running a tech company that started in 2000 through its exit to Microsoft in 2006, most of these elements were in play to some degree. Now I am in Waterloo where they are being executed quite well. In my observation, I would note two fundamental differences between Ottawa (at that time) and Waterloo (now).

    Institutional connection and Execution. There is a clear progression for graduating entrepreneurs from the Universities through the AC or the Hub to a successful tech business. In the execution of the programs there also appears to be lot less bureaucracy and politicking than I noticed in Ottawa.

    Note that I did not specify University of Waterloo on purpose. Although it is one of the major producers of the hundreds of startups here and it has Intellectual Property policies that are enabling, there are shining examples of entrepreneurs being drawn from foreign (US) schools and from the businesses community.

    Keep stirring it up Francis… that’s how you effect change.

  • Francis Moran

    November 24, 2011 6:45 pm

    So glad you approve of my nest-poking, Jeff. :) Thanks for joining the discussion.

  • Bruce Lazenby

    November 24, 2011 7:21 pm

    Hi Francis.

    I think I saw you last at the Communitech Gala two weeks ago – good show. As for me, I spent all day yesterday with CTT, Communitech,and the Accelerator in KW.

    Fantastic collection of organizations – with great programs and successes. All of them were keen to share with us their best practices and we are keen to learn them. They have moved ahead of Ottawa in many ways and we are eager to get better – fast.

    I think our new organization at soon-to-be-renamed OCRI is well positioned to move the ball – your analogy.

    OCRI is moving forward on the principles of partnership, collaboration and speed. Clearly the person you spoke to didn’t get that message. If you wish to disclose to me (confidentially) who it is – I can help them catch up on our vision. Or invite them to seek other interests in life.


  • Nathan Rudyk

    November 24, 2011 7:53 pm

    Thanks for your observations Jeff. Good stuff there in Waterloo that we can indeed learn from. Went to UW, am from that part of the world, have a son going to school there now, have clients there, love what’s going on, especially regarding startup creation.

    One observation from my travels to Waterloo is that the community is just about the size Ottawa was when I headed here in the mid-90s. John Jung, CEO of CTT has observed that once a city gets past a million people, the linkages get harder to make, putting the right wood behind the right strategy arrows gets more complex. I see that clearly when we do EcDev work in Toronto for example – it’s another order of magnitude in complexity. That’s no excuse, that means we in Ottawa just have to work harder. And we can/should do so.

    But I must say that the self-flagellation is a uniquely Ottawa phenomenon directly co-related to the failure of Nortel. Lived and worked in TO, never seen it there. Worked in Silicon Valley, never seen it there either. London? Nope. In Ottawa failure tends to be scorned vs. embraced, grave-dancing is somehow a legitimate pass-time that substitutes for community building.

    Still if solid ideas can come forward and we can get on with the building, all good I suppose if we can kick off the grave-dancing shoes.

    Something that the veteran Mayor of Kitchener, Carl Zehr, recently told me about the KW business community … they close the boardroom door, hash it out between all the economic development agencies/politicians/industry leaders/thought leaders, and get the community aligned. Anything said inside the boardroom is fair game, but outside, knowing that the world is always, always watching, they are careful not to (and I’m paraphrasing here) sh*t where they *at.

    I’d love to see more of that approach in Ottawa.

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