Six views from the digital frontier

As SAIT prepares to open its School for Advanced Digital Technology this fall, LINK talks digital transformation with thought leaders drawn from alumni, instructors and industry. 

Let's be perfectly clear. The world’s transformation to a digital cul­ture is not an evolutionary process. It’s a full-blown metamorphosis. It’s been in motion for some time now, gathering momentum and changing the way we work, the way we learn, the way we live.

Although people have set this behe­moth superpower in motion, it’s been nature — in the form of the COVID-19 virus — that has escalated the eventual.

Still, it is people who must make sure the untold potential of digital technology works in two equally essential ways: both for us, and not against us.

Because how we incorporate technology into our jobs and our lives is more important than the technology itself. How do we use it to solve business chal­lenges, and how do we develop the digital dexterity to apply it in a way that moves our culture forward? We’ve entered a wild new frontier, far more quickly than anticipated.

I've never been more excited and more terrified in my life."

Those are the words of Lora Bucsis, one of six thought leaders from the SAIT community working to demystify digital transformation, create digital learning and employment opportunities, and channel what’s sure to be categorical change.

The Digital Evangelist

Illustration of Lora Bucsis
Lora Bucsis, Manager, Emerging Markets
SAIT Corporate Traning Solutions

If you’re someone who embraces new ideas — a new order of things — digital transformation represents an untold opportunity to dream big, economize, capitalize and grow. You’ll find a way to leverage the possibilities, for the good of your employees, for the good of your company and, poten­tially, for the good of all humanity.

But if you’re firmly entrenched in process, hierarchy and “the way we’ve always done things, digital transformation might feel a lot like a hostile takeover.

It’s happening now and it’s happen­ing quickly — quicker than anyone expected with the sudden and global onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re not eagerly leading the charge as a digital disruptor, you’re finding yourself on the defensive end: bowled over, or scrambling to react — to remain upright, valued, relevant. We are seeing this right now, first-hand.

“Many Alberta organizations were definitely moving towards adopting digital strategies before COVID-19, says Lora Bucsis, a self-proclaimed digital evangelist and manager of emerging markets for SAIT Corporate Training Solutions. “We’ve been on this trajectory for some time."

But now with this global pandemic, the need to trust and embrace technology has accelerated significantly. And the decision whether or not to get on board as a way of remaining competitive has essentially been taken away overnight."

“We're already seeing that the companies willing and able to accept change — and to run with it — are fairing a lot better than those paralyzed and longing for a return to normal." 

“We can definitely see that you’re either on top of this — resilient and able to pivot — or you’re getting left behind,” Bucsis says. “We’ve got a great test case right now as countless businesses have little choice but to move their workforce into a digital culture. It’s been essential to implement work-from-home measures to protect their employees and customers.”

With much of her time spent talking directly to industry, and the rest focused on strategizing within SAIT, Bucsis is in a great spot to help articulate workforce needs and expectations — and then to influence and shape the kinds of corporate training and employee development programs SAIT can offer to meet those needs.

The move into a digital culture requires a mindset characterized by optimism, adaptability, resilience, and a willingness to change, listen and look at new perspectives. “Unless you address culture and skills with your people, very few technology changes are successful,” says Bucsis.

“I see two distinct approaches within organiza­tions right now. Some companies are basically stuck in a holding pattern, thinking they’re just going to wait this out; to wait for things to get back to busi­ness as usual. Others are completely retooling their business models, looking for ways to optimize and diversify both their supply chain and their products — to broach new markets.

“We’re already seeing that the companies willing and able to accept change — and to run with it — are faring a lot better than those paralyzed and longing for a return to normal.”

Organizations that had been on the fringes of exploring technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, data analytics or Cloud computing before the pandemic are now fast-tracking their investment and implementation. Since money already spent on related infrastruc­ture can’t be recovered, and with proven increases in productivity, they’re unlikely to roll it all back.

“I think we’re going to see per­manent change,” says Bucsis. “The nature of work has changed. There’s no going back, and companies that are nimble and have a growth mindset around digital technologies are going to fare better now and in the long run.”

Change is rampant. Extraordinary. Inescapable. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, right now.

“You’re going to be going digital with or without your current work­force,” says Bucsis. “And with Alberta’s current tech skills shortage, ’without’ really isn’t an option.”

The Digital Visionary

Illustration of David Bissett
David Bissett
Calgary businessman, philanthropist

David Bisset’s recent contribution of $30 million to champion a new school for advanced digital tech­nology at SAIT is something of an industry battle cry.

“Whether it’s investment banking, management, oil and gas or agri­culture, industry is automating its functions to improve efficiencies,” says Bissett. “To remain competitive, Alberta not only needs to be ahead of other world economies but ahead sufficiently to offset the higher labour costs implicit in our desired standard of living.”

Getting ahead — and sustaining that lead as prevailing business models routinely morph and shift — demands a strong yet supple foun­dation. Since March, when almost every aspect of our lives moved online in response to COVID-19, technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital conferencing, social media and 5G have been instrumental in keeping offices functioning, maintaining critical supply chains, enabling online shopping and curbside pick-up for groceries and essential items, and connecting us with each other.

“We need to graduate students with the skills to adapt to this rapidly evolving new reality." 

And, he says, SAIT’s track record of collaboration with local industry thought leaders and community part­ners will help ensure the new school and its programs — under develop­ment despite the pandemic and as LINK goes to press — will meet the needs of students and employers.

“These needs will evolve constantly as technology evolves, and we will have to keep pace. There is no point graduating students who cannot run right out of the gate.”

But Bissett also looks beyond industry to help keep SAIT programs acutely relevant and leading-edge in the new economy. A laureate with the Alberta Business Hall of Fame, Bissett encourages opportunities for contributions from local businesses and community members as well.

“I see the need for various financial supports — such as contacting SAIT to create student scholarships — so that more people can gain digital skills and so the school is able to draw the best and brightest, irrespective of their ability to finance their courses.”

The Digital Frontline

Illustration of Mark Arkell
Mark Arkell
Specialist JMP Solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our adoption of and reliance on technology.

Some people still see the move toward a digital culture as a threat, eventually depriving human beings of opportunity, purpose, employment. Mark Arkell’s experience — both pre-and mid-COVID — says otherwise.

In his job with JMP Solutions, Calgary Branch, Arkell helps large agricultural clients adopt and leverage automation to solve their most pressing busi­ness challenges in production and manufacturing.

They see automation as a way to increase pro­duction, cut costs, improve workplace safety, and control the quality of output. Mundane, repetitive tasks that subject workers to physical strain, fatigue and distraction can be streamlined.

“Even in an economic downturn, it can be hard to find people to do mundane work,” Arkell says. “Automation removes a lot of the menial tasks people don’t want to do. It removes things that are not adding value to the product.”

It’s not about eliminating jobs. It’s about optimization. “The more automation that gets put in place the more opportunities become available,” Arkell says.

“Given the opportunity to upskill and od more meaningful work within an organization — on-site or off — workers can realize their ability to add value to the company."

He sees a trend among his Fortune 1000 business customers as more and more employers commit to reskilling their workers; help­ing them transition from onsite, hands-on, manual labour work into technical equipment operation and oversight roles, many of which can now be performed remotely. These companies can expect an excellent return on investment. Employees who feel a sense of purpose, of value, tend to want to stick around.

“Given the opportunity to upskill and do more meaningful work within an organization — on-site or off — workers can realize their ability to add value to the company.

“It helps the business. It helps the employee and it helps the industry as a whole.”

The Digital Philosopher

An illustration of Jim Szautner
Jim Szautner, Dean
School of Manufacturing and Automation,
School of Transportation

Technology is washing over civilization. It’s removing obstacles, reconfiguring economics, redefining and digitizing relation­ships. Some say that, as technology advances, we’ll become less human. But if our experiences coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are any indication, technology may actually serve to enhance our humanity.

While working remotely and video conferencing in response to stay-at-home orders, we’ve seen our colleagues and/or customers in an entirely new light — at a dining room table, in a home office or on a back patio. We’re likely to have caught a glimpse of their home décor, their children, or their pets.

"With that passive exposure, though unintentional, you start to get a sense of what happens behind the scenes,” says Jim Szautner, Dean of the schools of Manufacturing and Automation and Transportation at SAIT. “Even though you’re apart from one another, there’s an element in this that can make you feel a little closer.”

And it’s not just with work col­leagues. In these times of enforced physical distancing, people are using technology to stay connected, or even to reconnect. Long-lost friends are checking in. Virtual happy hours, dinner parties and game nights have become an actual thing. The telephone is even being used to talk again for long conversations with family and friends.

A palpable level of care and concern for one another’s physical and mental well-being has shone through during COVID-19, with technology proving an effective user-friendly platform for good intentions. No doubt — it could do more.

“Moving into a digital environment allows us to do things we weren’t able to do before,” says Szautner. “But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”

Contact tracing — a public health process used to identify, notify and monitor everyone who has come in contact with a COVID-19 patient — is an idea that’s become a reality during this pandemic. It’s also squarely at the intersection of technology and ethics, and raises the classic question of whether the good of the many should outweigh the rights of the individual.

“In order to navigate a modern society, knowing the right questions to ask is every bit as important as having the right answers,” Szautner says.

And that’s where what educators and employers call 21st-century skills to come into play: human skills like adaptability, reasoning, listening, creativity, collaboration, curiosity.

“People need to filter the vast amount of infor­mation that’s coming at them; to look at things through different lenses; to be inherently curious, but not reckless — critical.”

It’s not enough to understand critical thinking as an abstract concept. “You have to be a practitioner,” says Szautner. “You have to be able to apply skills like research, analysis and synthesizing information.”

Ethical concerns around privacy, security, honesty and data ownership have been on society’s radar from the beginning.

“It’s all a bit like the Wild West at the moment because the technology is being developed — and adopted — faster than rules governing its use,” says Szautner. “More often than not it’s incumbent on the user or the consumer to decide whether or not to participate.”

“In order to navigate a modern society, knowing the right questions to ask is every bit as important as having the right answers." 

Social concerns such as digital inequality have definitely gained momentum during the pandemic. Virtually overnight, at-home studies, the ability to set up a home office — even the ability to order gro­ceries online — became a privilege of the privileged.

“You can’t take it for granted that everybody has access to technology,” Szautner says. Even in Canada, it’s not a given that every family has a computer, or that every home is connected to high-speed internet.

“For the most part, we’ve been able to come up with short-term solutions intended to meet short-term needs. Now we need to reflect and come up with solutions that are sustainable.

“As technology introduces additional complexities, we’ll need to focus more and more on what makes us human, which is our values,” says Szautner.

Getting all of this right is going to require con­scious and sustained effort. For generations moving forward in this digital age, mastery will prove as indispensable to humanity — and as empowering — as the technology itself.

The Leader of the Rebellion

An illustration of Michael Loughlean
Michael Loughlean
Director of Innovation, Suncor

As a member of SAIT’s Digital Advisory Council and Director of Innovation at Suncor, Michael Loughlean says overcoming fear and resistance to change will be the biggest digital culture shift of all.

“And I’m no better than anyone else at this,” Loughlean says. “I’m perceived as leading the rebellion, but when I look in the mirror — making sure zippers are done up and my collar is straight for the morning scrum video conference — my wife asks, ‘Michael, are you scared enough to go to work yet?’ So, sure — there’s fear. But that fear is what motivates me.

“Digital innovation is often per­ceived as an intruder of sorts and, whether consciously or not, organi­zational systems go out of their way to find reasons to keep it out,” he says. Sometimes these systems layer on excessive process and bureaucracy; sometimes they cite how things have always worked before.

But then came a global pandemic. COVID-19 put a hard stop on how things have always worked before. Suddenly we gave ourselves permis­sion to embrace innovation.

“And guess what?” says Loughlean. “We tried new things like letting people work from home because we had to, and in so doing, we proved that a lot of the fear was completely unfounded. People can work from home and they can still be productive. Maybe even more so.

“It wasn’t about having massive plans in place for how it was all going to work; how you would communi­cate; how you would teach people. All that was required to roll this stuff out was to just do it.”

“We tried new things like letting people work from home because we had to, and in so doing, we proved that a lot of fear was completely unfounded." 

A plethora of powerful digital tools is available, depending on your needs. You have to know what capabilities are out there and how to access them, but that’s probably the hardest part. The tools themselves are designed to be user friendly. Many are being pro­vided free of charge to help get people through the coronavirus crisis. It’s really just a matter of picking them up and figuring them out as we go.

The pandemic environment has proven an excellent test case for the value of technological applications and aptitudes in a world defined by its humanity. Trust and understanding come with experience. People need empirical reassurance. We just need to see something work to be con­vinced of its value.

“When you start to do things and people experience that, you change the way they think,” Loughlean says. “As we’re seeing now, we just need to start — and those experiences will broaden what we’re capable of, what we can tackle, who wants to partici­pate and how quickly we can get there.”

He believes large organizations like Suncor have a demonstrative role.

“Organizations with significant mass can create velocity and the gravity nec­essary to pull some of the best minds, the most progressive companies to work here in Calgary. If we partner with other innovative firms, I think we fundamentally change things.”

We’re only a few months into 2020 and everything is already remarkably different than it was at the start of the year. We’ve fanned our level of confi­dence as end-users while expanding and refining our technological knowledge, tastes and expectations. Remote worksites, online collab­oration, tech-enhanced services — all are part of the entirely new normal created in rapid response to COVID-19.

“Things will never be the same from here on in,” says Loughlean. “After something this big, we’re never going back.”

There’s so much to look forward to.

The Lifelong Learner

An illustration of Ted Darch
Ted Darch
E. J. Darch Architect LTD.

Here’s a bit of a funny story. I was working in my office a while back when my computer chimed to notify me of an incoming email. It would seem that someone at SAIT was sec­ond-guessing the accuracy of personal data they have on file for me from my latest course registration. My year of birth is, in fact, 1937. I am 82 years old. 

As a practising architect and a cur­rent member of the Alberta Association of Architects, I’m required to log a certain number of professional develop­ment hours every so often. A couple of SAIT’s continuing education comput­er-aided design and drafting (CADD) courses were of professional interest to me, so I took them. Like many of the new tools and technological advance­ments I’ve seen over the course of my 52-year career, I chose to adopt and learn this software because I saw how it could benefit me in my work.

I’ve also taken a couple of welding courses at SAIT — and a sausage-making course, too, at one point — because I found these subjects to be of interest.

“If people are surprised that I'm still actively learning at my age, I'd wonder why."

To me, lifelong learning is some­thing that’s just always been a fact of life. It’s not some kind of burden that’s suddenly appeared alongside the evolution of technology and digital sophistication. Sustained relevance and employment in a digital culture demand that we expand our skill sets — just like immigrating to Canada compelled my father to learn, adapt and realign back in 1912.

My father taught himself how engines work and how wheat grows. As software capabilities grow and hardware miniaturizes, learning has become far more formalized. It would be tough to learn it all on your own now. Taking courses has definitely helped me keep up.

This story was originally written for the Spring 2020 issue of LINK magazine — SAIT in the time of COVID.