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Beyond Buzzwords: Canada’s Cultural Problem Around Digital Transformation

digital transformation office
digital transformation office
Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia

Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia

Senior Director of Digital Economy, Technology, & Innovation, Canadian Chamber of Commerce

alex webb

Alex Webb


Underinvestment in technology, slow adoption, and minimal spending on marketing is a precarious trio. The good news: we can fix this. We have all the tools in the toolbox. It’s about time to use them more boldly and with a greater sense of urgency.

In an interview with Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia, Senior Director of Digital Economy, Technology, and Innovation at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Alex Webb, CEO at, discusses how Canada’s fear of failure and risk averseness are becoming one of its biggest risks and how a more proactive and bolder approach to digital transformation will benefit Canadian businesses and the economy in the long run.


Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia: Let’s start with some foundational insights before we dive deeper into the topic. What’s the difference between digitalization and digital transformation?

Alex Webb: It is certainly easy to confuse them because they are related. Yet, the fact that we digitized everything in a business doesn’t necessarily mean that we transformed it. Digitizing all the paper, for example, may make it easier to retrieve, speeding up some work functions. But that doesn’t get at the heart of transformative change. 

When it comes to digital transformation, I believe that we must find a way to take your core customer experience and utilize technology to give you a competitive advantage. It means your business workflows and processes are fundamentally altered, not merely accelerated. It means you are making decisions on data you couldn’t before access.


Bahr-Gedalia: How would you describe the current state of Canada’s technology leadership around digital adoption?

Webb: As a Canadian, I strongly feel we are way behind the mark.  Two things I’ve seen, Canadian firms, by and large, underinvest in marketing and they underinvest in technology. For instance, our neighbours to the south double our investments in technology# and double our spending on marketing. When I do business with people down south, they just make faster decisions on technology adoption. That doesn’t mean all Canadian businesses, of course, I mean the aggregate.

When COVID came into play and millions of Canadians moved to work from home, the amount of digital transformation that happened in one month only indicated we were capable of doing it. Yet, it is strange to me that we didn’t make these changes when it was for the benefit of the business. Instead, it was a forced reaction. I’d love to see Canadian businesses be more proactive in adopting digital transformation for their benefit and not out of necessity.

Be bold. When you see a change you should make, commit and implement it. Once that’s done, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier. It’s a doable cultural shift.


Bahr-Gedalia: What do you see as holding Canadian businesses back from adopting digital innovation?

Webb: There is pretty strong adversity in Canadian companies against inviting someone external in to implement change, to truly let go. I hear it all the time from my colleagues who sell solutions across borders. Canadians cautiously review options, go through RFP processes, and ponder options. U.S. companies, for example, are more willing to understand the outcomes and then decide in an afternoon.

The competitive nature of the U.S. is such that the consequences of not making a quick decision are so significant, that they must gamble a little bit and make some investments. Our friends in the US are one of many countries afraid to fail to make a competitive decision, whereas, in Canada, we are afraid to make a mistake. That’s costing us.


Bahr-Gedalia: How can Canadian leaders get started on greater digital adoption or accelerate and expand on their current efforts?

Webb: Let’s start with acknowledging there is a problem. Canada sits near the bottom for economic growth, and we can’t hire our way out of it. If we are going to advance this country forward and be relevant in the marketplace, we are going to have to look at new technologies and believe that the heavy lifting to adopt them is worth it.

But the silver lining is that we don’t have to be pioneers. In addition to already having some forward-thinking businesses in our own backyards, there are companies south of the border in our industries doing these things. All we have to do is be willing to look, observe, and learn. What I find crazy is that a competitor in your own marketplace won’t talk to you about what they are doing, but if you phone a competitor two thousand miles away, they are more than happy to share their experiences. Reach out and make those connections.

Finally, be bold. When you see the transformations you need to make, commit to the investment, make the change, and do it quickly. Once that’s done, you start to wonder why you did not do this much earlier. This isn’t rocket science. It’s a very doable cultural shift.


*Business Development Bank of Canada — Productivity Matters: Benchmarking Your Company to Up Your Game

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