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.