Saturday, April 28, 2007

From "Sick Man" to "Rich Man" in a Generation: Collaboration's Magic Potion

With a fair amount of Irish in me, I have had more than a passing interest in Ireland’s rise from the ashes. In one generation, Ireland’s leaders have stunned the pundits, nay-sayers and anyone else who thinks “it just can’t be done”. By deciding to work together (read, “collaborate”), the various stakeholders have aptly demonstrated that a shared “game plan” really works to the advantage of many not just the few. The idea applies to organizations as much as countries.

My ancestors were dirt poor when they arrived on Halifax’s shoreline in the early part of the 20th century. They barely rose above poverty most of their lives here. Nevertheless, they did leave a rich legacy. Over three generations, we finally worked our way “up”. Post-secondary education provided the main ticket to greater prosperity. Good government policy helped too: national health care, student loans, labour laws, private and public pensions, land-use planning, flood control, the assurance (more or less) of clean water and electrical power and more dependable services such as telephone, legal, police, fire, garbage, conservation and flood control. These gains for the greater good came about through private-public partnerships and sensible creative thinking.

While Ireland has taken cross-sectoral partnering to new heights, in comparison, it feels as if we’re in a funk and a slump. We are reminded by Stats Canada and a number of think tanks in our country and around the world that in comparison to other developed countries, we’ve got some significant problems: our standard of living is declining relatively speaking, we’re dead last among developed nations in our spending on early childhood education, our cities are suffering from many afflictions including lack of sustainable infrastructure funding, universities are under-funded and Canada’s poorest are no better off than they were 25 years ago.

Yet, Ireland, which has had some very bad times, is proving that overcoming adversity can be done in record time if the right “parties” agree and put their shoulders to the wheel. Poverty is one example. In 1997, Ireland developed a National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) wherein poverty issues were placed at the heart of government decision making. The 10-year plan targeted all aspects of the problem: income, education, employment, health and housing. It took minimum wage-earners off the income tax roll and put more money into training, especially for immigrants and transient workers. It raised welfare payments, boosted child care and built more affordable housing. Poor neighbourhoods were provided with government investment if local partnerships of business leaders, activists and the poor themselves were formed to develop solutions.

The results speak to the effectiveness of Ireland’s collaborative, multi-faceted strategy: Ireland’s poverty rate has been slashed from 15 percent to 6.8 per cent. The Canadian rate has been stuck at 16 per cent for decades.

The seeds for change date back to the 1960s and continue unabated to this day. It’s a story of helping the “middle class” to get stronger and not lose ground in an increasingly interconnected global economy. The signal that better things were to come began with education. The Irish government created the policy structure for secondary education to be free (an issue we tackled long ago in Canada to our benefit). This enabled many more working class kids to get a high school or a technical degree. Joining the EU in 1973 widened the educated workforce upon which Ireland could draw. EU membership brought subsidies to build better infrastructure. As well, trade unionists, government, farmers and business people agreed on a plan of fiscal austerity, slashing corporate taxes to 12.6 per cent, moderating wages and prices and aggressively courting foreign investment. The icing on the cake occurred in 1996 when the government made college education free. Imagine what that would be like here!

By all accounts, the Irish “Way” is yielding benefits for many. According to Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat), nine out of ten of the top pharmaceutical companies, sixteen of the top twenty medical device companies and seven of the top software designers have operations in Ireland. Kick-started in one generation, this kind of synergy has no where to go but up. It’s not without warts and wrinkles, no doubt. However, the trend line looks good.

In Canada, there are ample examples of collaboration past and present within and across all sectors. These efforts continue despite a culture that is tentative in its support for balancing courageous, anticipatory decision making (tackling perceptible problems before they reach crisis proportions) with “90-day thinking” (focusing on those issues likely to blow up in a crisis in the next 90 days).

The lesson in the Irish “miracle” for me is this: collaboration in an organization or in a country will not happen without the endorsement and attention from the leaders at the top. Furthermore, those leaders must be willing to step out of their comfort zones and “let go” to experience the magic of many minds inventing a better way. Finally, they must act to pave the way for reform. Otherwise, we’re left to “work around”.

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