Being good at something

I have been preoccupied with the topic of excellence lately. The more I interact with folks across the spectrum – media, the arts, industry, government, etc. I get the feeling that there is very little you could define as ‘excellent’ in the broader sense of that meaning.

Is the reportage coming out of New Brunswick top shelf stuff? Is the music coming out of New Brunswick winning national awards? How about the movies? What R&D is being fostered in our universities that is world class? Which of our artists are nationally recognized? How many of our companies make the list of “best companies in Canada”?

How many of the government innovations from New Brunswick have been picked up in other provinces and countries (Service NB in its 1990s form was one for sure)? How many of our politicians are so successful that they are dragged onto the national stage?

What industry sectors jump to mind where New Brunswick is a national or even international leader?

On and on. Just fill in [your respective blank here].

Now, some of you don’t like my line of thinking here. You say that NB is small and shouldn’t aspire to be ‘excellent’ in any sense of that word.

But my feeling on this has been growing in recent years. Not only do I think it would be a good idea, I think it is imperative. In a global economy where business investment and human talent is highly mobile and the success of even local economies like New Brunswick becomes more and more dependent on those two factors, I think we must become excellent.

But not in everything. That’s where people trip up. We can’t compete with Ontario, people say – or BC or heaven knows the United States.

But why not?

Take an example out of the corporate world. Microsoft is a global leader in software – they are active across the spectrum of software and dominant by any measure. But little old Whitehill Technologies in Moncton is a North American leader for a small niche software product. Microsoft can’t compete with them.

Well, Ontario is Microsoft. Whitehill is New Brunswick.

We need to find our niche and be excellent. Be so good that Ontario can’t even compete.

I think it can be done but if we are still trying to be a very bad ripoff of Microsoft, it will never happen.

I don’t want to serve up a lot of examples but you can impose my thinking on any sector: health care, education, targeted industries for growth, government services, etc.

What is wrong with using the IWK Hospital in Halifax? They have cornered a niche market and I think NB shouldn’t try and duplicate them. But why can’t New Brunswick be known for [fill in the blank here] and folks from around the Maritimes come here for that service?

Same thing goes for economic development. Alabama made the strategic decision to become a new hub for the auto manufacturing sector. All the cruddy pundits and union economists said there was no way it could work. It has worked. Ireland started out as the back office of Europe and now it is become its R&D hub. Quebec started working on a pharma sector development strategy in 1974 and now it is substantial. British Columbia has been deliberate and intentional about its strategy to be a new media/film hub.

Our dollar advantage over the US is gone. Our cheap labour is gone. Our empty buildings for conversion to call centres are gone. McKenna is gone. NBTel is gone.

Now we need a new focus. A focus on excellence.

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0 Responses to Being good at something

  1. nbt says:

    But not in everything. That’s where people trip up. We can’t compete with Ontario, people say – or BC or heaven knows the United States.

    To a certain extent, the latter is true. And it’s not because we can’t become excellent or compete, it is the manner in which we’re trying to compete. In other words, our approach for far too long has been to wait around and hope the feds will come to our rescue economically (dependency theory). However, if anything, we should have learned long ago that this approach is flawed because of the system of government we use (rep. by population/Westminster system) which favours areas that have a high population density like central Canada.

    It won’t be until more NBers realize that it has been our approach to self-sufficiency, and the attitude it engenders, which has kept us back. Even ppl who analyze the economy full-time, like Donald Savoie, have mentioned this ad nauseam in their journals and books only to turn around and tout another regional development scheme. It sometimes is really hard to comprehend, although you know what they say about insanity as “it is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result”.

    I think the latter sums up this region over the last four decades (and I’m being generous with the years).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Focus is absolutely key. It is the secret to progressing any economic development initiative and the explanation why we have not gotten anywhere.

    The last time NB had a little bit of economic development focus, it was on the contact center industry. Say what you want about the jobs, but at least it had some success. At least it built on something that was a strength and advantage (progressive telco and bilingual workforce).

    Since then, we have been spinning around with zero focus. The general public absolutely does not allow it. We can’t so something for Saint John, without dupplicating it for Moncton and Fredericton. We can’t do something for the south without considering the north. We can’t do something for the english, without duplicating it for the french. Examples are everywhere from universities, to hospitals, to medical schools, to convention centers to court houses to highways. Giving in to this has paralyzed our progress. Sure there has to be some balance but diluting and duplicating nullifies any efforts to acheive excellence.

    We need politicians with the courage to overcome all the regional, political, cultural and language barrriers and calls for duplictaion to focus on something. That may mean that that something is centered in one ‘city’ but we need to get over that. NB itself barely has enough population to make up one small city. We need the courage to overcome all these distractions and focus on something that make a difference.

    Electorial reform may be necessary to to focus on meaningful economic development investments rather that $60M Caisse bailouts and $80M yarn “investments”.

  3. mikel says:

    The above is being a little bit extreme, that may be a small view from the Irving media but that’s it.

    Saint John got the Department of Energy moved to Saint John, how often has the Moncton paper been screaming for a department, let alone municipal politicians of MLA’s from the area.

    The Caisse and the Yarn company are simply the way business is done, it is not different up north than anywhere else. The money into those is nothing compared to the money handed out to businesses in southern NB, but how much yelling did we hear when Bathurst Mines was closing ‘because of the market’ and yet they went to the mat in Nackawic?

    How many in Saint John were yelling when Molson got put in Moncton?

    For hospitals its not much different, we hear lots about the trauma centre because that decision hasn’t been made yet, so its quite logical that places would lobby for it. However, municipal politicians have no power, and how often do you even hear from an MLA in a certain riding getting together and makeing public statements. In fact, when have you EVER heard from all the MLA’s from one city and one party get together and make a statement on ANY kind of policy? A few people writing ot the letter to the editor has zero effect on policy.

    For universities its no different, Beausejour easily gets most of the money and emphasis on medical R&D, and we don’t hear from Fredericton or Saint John, or even up north, a place barely hanging on to existence, let alone getting the same additions given to southern cities. To steal a phrase from Dave, what do you think would be the response if Moncton’s population was doing what Campbellton’s is. A blogger from Campbellton talks about how even the grocery stores are not much more than corner stores with lousy produce because the populations don’t warrant any more.

    The above is hardly the case, even though occasionally Irving likes to shake things up a bit, but even a ‘we say’ column doesn’t have that much effect on policy-they have a lot of editorial space daily and they have to at least ‘pretend’ they are serving their local constituency.

    There are all kinds of reasons that can be given for lack of industrial growth, but political infighting certainly isn’t one of them.