Silicon Valley North #64                                       April, 2004


The Way I See It… by Michael C. Volker


Business development begins with personal development


Business development means growth. One attribute that distinguishes a technology company from other businesses is rapid growth. That’s also what makes high tech such a dynamic, changing industry.


Technology entrepreneurs usually start with the proverbial better mousetrap – a new technology or idea. Complement this domain knowledge with business theory and expertise and you have the makings of a successful technology venture.


That’s why boot camps, executive development workshops and Technology oriented MBA programs are hot. In B.C., for example, this year’s Telus New Ventures BC program has 77 startup companies enrolled in its seminar series and business competition. AceTech, the Academy for Technology CEOs, is another way for entrepreneurs to acquire the skills required to create winning companies.


That’s great for the founders and managers, but what about the rest of the team? In addition to getting free pop and snacks in the corporate games room, are employees also being encouraged towards self-development and improvement?


Many studies have shown that, even after several years of success, technology companies get tired and slow down. They fail to displace their own technologies –before competitors do the job for them - and they fail to nurture their collective brain trust.


A few years ago, I visited a small software engineering firm in Switzerland that made individual enlightenment a cornerstone in their corporate culture. This company does not only offer – it commands – that its employees allocate ten per cent of their work week, i.e. a half day per week, towards personal and professional development. This could involve learning a new computer language or studying  the teachings of the Dalai Lama – the field is wide open. Employees’ weekly calendars must show this as a scheduled activity. It is not something that can be deferred or done when time permits (it never does!). And, it applies to everyone in the company!  Those that don’t do so, aren’t not doing their jobs.


We tend to do this sporadically – when we hear about something interesting or when we feel inadequate about some subject matter. Most of us lack the discipline to adhere to a regular program.


Let’s face it, ten per cent is not cheap. I can’t imagine too many Canadian or American firms embracing such a policy. On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if they did?


When we first start out in our careers, we are armed with some fresh knowledge from academia, but we lack seriously in experience. That’s why mentorship is valued so highly. As time goes by, we acquire that experience and rely more on that when making business judgments than we do on theoretical knowledge.


I recently attended a Deloitte’s seminar by Michael Raynor, co-author of the best-seller, “Innovators Solution”, a book that’s focused on how to create new growth in business. He addresses the dilemma that faces managers, i.e. resource allocation for profit maximization versus taking risks with disruptive new innovations. But, the take-home for me was the importance of learning about new theories and applying these even when they appear counter-intuitive.


Just how often do we schedule time for ourselves to learn about new theories – be they in business or technology? How many of us (including our employees) are stale on both fronts?


We should take a lesson from the Swiss company. They know that decision making in business is largely a matter of judgment. And judgment can be improved by acquiring new knowledge and understanding.


The way I see it, company mandated personal development will not only provide a meaningful perquisite to employees, it will serve the company’s business development goals through the development of its most valuable asset – its people.


Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and director of Simon Fraser University’s Industry Liaison Office. He oversees Vancouver’s Angel Technology Network and is past-Chair of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and the Vancouver Enterprise Forum. He may be reached at