Are we trying to attract people or simply retain them?

Yesterday I attended my first ICT Toronto meeting. My expectations were admittedly slightly skewed as a result of reading posts from some fellow TorCampers who were a little frustrated with elements of the way things were unfolding and after the first meeting I can certainly appreciate where some of those frustrations are coming from.

My concern, at first blush, is the ICT Toronto initiative has a real uphill battle simply because of the huge variety of interests at stake and the pace at which things seem to unfold.

Around the table were analysts & researchers, folks representing the regions for marketing, City of Toronto folks and of course a handful of entrepreneurs and business representatives. The mix is good, and if we hope to build a stronger, more effective tech cluster in Toronto, it is essential – but it also makes for an interesting mix of competing interests.

On the table for the meeting yesterday was a review & update on the benchmarking study that is being considered to help understand where we fit, where we lag and where we excel as a region (GTA). Mark Kuznicki, a fellow TorCamper (who I was glad to finally formally meet), brought up some valid concerns about the nature of the benchmarking study – it certainly seems he hit the points that everyone was thinking as a pretty good discussion broke out for the next 40 minutes or so on the topic.

The two main contentions revolved around who we were going to benchmark ourselves and on what criteria. The point of contention was that the selected cities/regions were all places considered equal peers. In a sense the study would basically rate us against those regions who were basically in the same position – the “at least we’re not the worst” approach. Concerns were raised that this study wouldn’t provide us any information that would actually help us in achieving the ambitious goal of becoming one of the top 5 clusters in the world. For example the San Jose / Silicon Valley cluster were nowhere to be found in the proposed study (among others).

On the topic of criteria there wasn’t as much discussion except to express concern that the high-level “buckets” weren’t defined clearly enough and many in the room felt uncomfortable saying to go forward with those groups until they were fleshed out in a little more detail.

The other concern that fell out of this discussion was of end goals – in a nutshell, are we trying to attract big business or retain and support small business and the individuals who make up our talent pool? Clearly the answer is a mixture of both but I think with the way the landscape is changing in business the primary goal has to be people first.

An analogy I used in a post the other day was not worrying about who is thirsty as long as I own the water source – I personally think it’s relevant in the world of locating businesses today as well. Many of the competitive factors are getting flattened. Certainly governments can entice organizations with tax breaks etc. but at the end of the day the businesses want to be where there’s a healthy supply of the qualified talent they need and they want to ensure it’s a region that the people want to live in (look at Waterloo). Toronto has a great talent pool – the TorCamp events are a great example of that, but we’re also losing people to places like San Jose etc.

The study proposal presented came off as one in the “attract big business” vein – which concerned some of us. It was acknowledged in the end that this study will likely not be the “be all, end all” document and that other research with different focuses would definitely be in order.

What concerns me most though is pace, ICT still has no web site of it’s own and there are no centralized collaboration tools – communication seems to largely be dependent on periodic emails that source from the project manager for the group and occasional meetings, both the bigger breakfast meetings and smaller group discussions.

I walked out of this meeting thinking “That was some good discussion” but at the same time I don’t have any sense of resolution or progress other than “This is a problem”. The next steps weren’t clear and with the pacing of meetings (I gather they’re every 8 weeks or so…) a lot of time passes before everyone is back in one room and can discuss whatever iterations have happened since the previous meeting and even then time is a premium so the discussions get truncated.

If Toronto wants to be a leading ICT cluster certainly we need to start some leveraging some technologies to help speed this process up. Much of what was discussed yesterday could likely have happened weeks ago in an online discussion forum or group and yesterday would have been more productively spent confirming consensus and laying out a roadmap for the changes rather then the “We’ll look into that” we got at the end of yesterday’s meeting.

In the end I certainly think there’s hope and ICT will be successful but it’s certainly not going to be overnight. I couldn’t help but think at a few points “We just need a weekend, some space and all these folks for a little ICTCamp and we’d get so much done”.

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