Diversity must become our innovation strategy

By Ronda Landygo. 

This edition of Prairie Manufacturer Magazine is especially near and dear to my heart. Not only does it commemorate the start of our second year in publication, it also marks perhaps our boldest editorial direction yet.

With the exception of The Rundown, a new quarterly policy and economic feature we have launched for the first time on Page 18, every article in this issue is either written by or showcases a prominent female leader.

We didn’t make that decision to waive the gender flag. Instead, as Palliser Furniture CFO Cathy Gillespie eloquently explains in the View from the C-Suite column (Page 6), we chose to spotlight women influencers to spark a conversation on the importance of embracing varied and unique perspectives.

Why? Because the business of manufacturing is changing before our eyes.

The very nature of disruption — technological, societal, and economic — means if we intend to survive, let alone lead, we need to evolve. And, to do that, we need to start thinking differently. One singular lens through which to view operations, products, customers, and surrounding pressures is no longer sufficient.

A few weeks ago, our editor, Derek Lothian, shared with me a 2016 study entitled The Future of Jobs. According to the report, one-third of the ‘top 10’ skills considered critical in today’s workforce will be replaced by 2020. Attributes once highly sought after by employers, like negotiation and flexibility, will begin to trail off as intelligent systems make data-driven decisions for us. Meanwhile, other soft skills — emotional intelligence, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity — will surge amidst the need to manage the impending “avalanche” of change.

It got me thinking about what it means to be innovative in such a fast-paced, tech-intensive age. Innovation is one of those words that seems to illicit an equal amount of excitement and panic. Few can clearly define it, yet everyone knows they need it. To some, it’s robotics and automation; to others, it’s as basic as the creation of a customer solution. Either way, the only constant is our reliance on people — human capital — to make it happen. No computer will change that. So, it stands to reason that finding, training, and retaining the right people will be the competitive differentiator in the years ahead.

The problem with that is twofold.

For starters, manufacturers already have a tough time securing the people they need. Roughly two in five companies are grappling with skills shortages today, and that number is expected to jump to three in five within the next half-decade.

Secondly, but not unrelated: We are suffering from an existential diversity gap. Although the last commodities boom injected a wave of foreign-trained talent onto the Prairies (albeit, overwhelmingly at the shop floor level), manufacturing remains a male-dominated industry. Roughly 13 per cent of employed Canadian men have a job in manufacturing, compared to less than six per cent of women.

We need to do better. But there is reason for optimism.

When you travel across the country and visit manufacturers in most sub-sectors, it is apparent there is a generational ‘changing of the guard’ ongoing within management structures. Decision-makers are becoming younger, technologically savvy, globally literate, and open to a new way of functioning.

This is a fundamental transformation that we, as a community, need to work in unison to support. Resources like Manufacturing Executive Councils, facilitated through Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, as well as the Manufacturing Management Certificate, delivered online through Athabasca University, provide structured, collaborative forums for discussion and debate, and are effective tools that will help the next generation of leaders understand, anticipate, and navigate the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

That, to me, is what innovation is all about — coming together to find a better way of ‘doing.’ Even icons like Steve Jobs relied upon hundreds of smart individuals around the table to develop out already-genius ideas to their fullest potential. And I guarantee the voices at that table didn’t sound remotely the same.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is: How do we diversify those voices?

How do we draw more women and other underrepresented groups, such as Indigenous Peoples, into careers in manufacturing? There are tangible actions we can take today within our own individual enterprises to take positive steps down that path.

Open your facility up for tours and open houses — including to the families of your existing employees. Profile roles within your organization that the general public may not even realize exist. Get involved with your local schools. Go on a recruitment mission. Celebrate cultures. Provide your staff with every reasonable opportunity for growth and development (and promote accordingly).

Stephen Covey, author of the bestselling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once said: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”

We must all commit to investing the time, money, and effort to encourage those differences, and to activating them toward a collective good.

It’s time to innovate — together. Let’s get to work.