OCRI needs more than new leadership

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Oct. 31, 2011.)
On the Monday after Bruce Lazenby (pictured right) was named the new president of OCRI I was speaking with one of the centurions of Ottawa’s newtech sector. This is a guy running a hundred million dollar private company heading for a billion. He’s still young but he was here in the heyday, a living, thriving reminder that Silicon Valley North wasn’t so long ago.
He hadn’t heard of the CEO turnover at OCRI. Lazenby? Never met him. Lazenby111X172.jpg
Before taking off to Florida, there to bronze his body and work his memoirs, Larry O’Brien spoke to a group of private business owners and CEOs assembled by the good consultants at Welch. Among some astute observations about business and politics, both of which he knows from the inside, O’Brien made the point that politics is all about short-term decision making. What will work before the next election? The big idea for the long term is a hard sell.
I was thinking that Mayor Jim Watson, our politician par excellence, has named himself co-chair of OCRI, which is in bad need of fixing. The early signs are not cheerful. The city has curtailed at least one OCRI program that was designed to mentor entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
I was lunching at the Manx with C.L., a peerless observer of Ottawa’s tech scene who would shudder to have his identity bandied in the tabloid press, when the conversation turned to reviving the tech sector. What will it take?
“Surely it’s all about leadership,” I said.
“Well maybe not all,” said C. L. Right. Leadership is just a part of the mix. But it’s the gaping part in the middle that went missing while Nortel, the pride of generations of Canada’s telecom engineers, was allowed to slide to oblivion. Nortel people asked no quarter of the best in the world of tech and they left behind the most valuable portfolio of intellectual property the world has ever seen. Who cared?
The genius that made Ottawa into Silicon Valley North is still here. But it’s milling about, doing its own thing, isolated from the local community. This is not surprising. More and more business is done internationally, where the markets are and suppliers and talent. It takes sixteen hour days to manage an enterprise on the run. Hard to keep all the home fires burning.
But that was always the case. John McLennan, who would later become president of both Bell and AT&T Canada, was a pioneer at Mitel with Terry Matthews and Mike Cowpland. At a breakfast meeting years ago he said “… we essentially travelled the world every month. Seven years in a row. And you did not do it necessarily because you wanted to get up and do it every morning. You did it because if this is what it took to win, you did it.”
One difference is that OCRI picked up the slack in those days. OCRI merged community interests through networking and research projects. OCRI was tech-specific, an original conception that inspired a host of imitations. But OCRI became a victim of its own success. As the bubble burst at the turn of the millennium and the tech community disintegrated, OCRI’s hands were filling with other worthy tasks.
Today a new troika is pulling the chariot. Mayor Watson and CEO Lazenby are joined by OCRI chair Jeff Westeinde, scion of the construction family. If they care to take us where the future is now, they'll turn back to tech.

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