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Can productivity be taught?

One Alberta university is about to find out

May 1, 2014

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Annual labour productivity change 1980-2011

It’s no secret that Albertan busi­nesses, like those in the rest of the country, need to find a way to increase their labour productivity.

Between 2000 and 2010, productivity grew by just 0.7 per cent per year in Canada, one of the lowest rates in the developed world. As it stands, the level of labour productivity in Canadian businesses is about 70 per cent that of their American counterparts. And for those who would like to lull themselves into thinking that doesn’t matter, HSBC chief economist David Watt has a wakeup call. “As we lower trade barriers around the world, there might be a company in France or Germany who does something very similar to what you do, and they might be looking at coming into Canada. So while you have no global exposure, all of a sudden you realize there’s a competitor somewhere else in the world that’s coming into your backyard.” If they do, that underwhelming level of labour productivity will make it difficult to compete ­– ­or to survive.

“There might be a company in France or Germany who does something very similar to what you do, and they might be looking at coming into Canada.” -David Watt, Chief Economist, HSBC

So what can you do about that? Well, starting this year, you can ­study – ­or send your senior managers to study – the subject itself. Athabasca University, in partnership with the National Research Council (which provided a $250,000 grant), has developed what it calls its Innovation and Productivity Management program, which is comprised of two foundational courses, some optional selections and what it calls the “capstone,” which encourages students to translate what they’ve learned to their company’s specific challenges. “I wouldn’t call it a dissertation, but they do a project on how they address that,” says Anshuman Khare, a professor with Athabasca’s faculty of business. “A capstone has to ­demonstrate to us that you’re using, or how you plan to use, all that you have learned.”

Other subjects include process design and control tools (so, for example, LEAN management and Six Sigma), information technology and the question of how to implement better practices and processes. And it’s not just the program – Athabasca also hosted a symposium on productivity and innovation, and it plans to do it again. “We plan to have more symposiums like this – not to sell our programs, but to pick up a topic and have a discussion,” Khare says. “It’s another way that we can attack this topic of how we improve productivity in Canada.”

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