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CIO Association of Canada hosts BlackBerry’s John Chen in fireside chat

BlackBerry executive chairman and chief executive officer John Chen doesn’t like the term “turnaround”.

“I call it a chapter 2.0,” he told National Research Council of Canada chief information officer Philippe Johnston during a virtual fireside chat sponsored by the CIO Association of Canada (CIOCAN). “I don’t like the word turnaround; it seems a little negative to me. So we’re going to reinvent ourselves based on what we do well, and what our heritage is and what we’re known for.”

John Chen

That’s what he did, first with Sybase, then with BlackBerry.

He started by telling Johnston why he believed BlackBerry got into trouble and needed rescuing: the company had a sound strategy focusing on enterprise and security, but had not done enough work on the application and consumer space. The market shifted after iPhone and Android came out, and the individual became in charge of the buying decision; BlackBerry missed that shift.

“That’s where I think, from a marketing and a business point of view, Blackberry had stuck to its guns on security and enterprise but had missed the shift in the market of who the buyers ultimately became,” he observed. “And that’s the reason why we picked where we’d pivot. We pivot to our strength, to what we do best: our best reputation with all the governments and the legal systems and law enforcement and, and health care system, and financial systems that focus on not only security, but privacy.”

Canada vs U.S.

Johnston then asked what the differences are in running a Canadian company vs a U.S. one, and Chen’s perspective reflected what many Canadians know: we’re not good at self-promotion.

“I jokingly tell some of your colleagues in the government, when I go to APAC (Asia Pacific), for example, where the top 20 countries are represented, and you look at the Canadian display in the exhibit hall, what do you normally see? You don’t see technology, what you see is clean air and clean water. You see these nice-looking running streams, and a lifestyle and an environment,” he said. “All those are very important, don’t get me wrong, but when you want to focus on trade, it’s very hard to trade clean air; nobody has captured that yet.”

He said that if Canada’s strategy is to be a knowledge-based society, we should be emphasizing that in interactions globally, and we should be marketing ourselves.

“Canada tends to be more understated of its accomplishments and seems to be a little shy of going out there and saying, ‘Hey, I need your business. Give me your business’,” he noted. “And now you compare to the neighbour in the United States. There are more people in the Commerce Department and the State Department pushing the American brand everywhere in the world, and we in Canada don’t do as much.”

It’s not for lack of homegrown talent. Chen said that Canada produces a lot of technology-savvy grads, but we don’t have people to manage that talent and market its output; if a company wants someone as its global chief marketing officer, for example, it looks outside the country to find one. He said we need to do more to grow our own.

He also pointed out that we need a national agenda for a knowledge-based society, which could be tied to AI or smart cities, which in turn could be tied to privacy and security. These are areas where the government could step in. But, he said, these areas need to be addressed by a public/private collaboration; neither the government nor the private sector can do it on its own.

The conversation then shifted to the issues around intellectual property (IP), and the importance of keeping it in the country. Chen commented that, as a country, we should focus on IP generation. But at the same time, he said, “If I have an IP granted to me, I need to be granted and approved by EU, by US, by China, by Japan, by Korea, whatever market that I go to. It’s not just Canada. It’s a reflection of how we think about our market. Our market is not just United States. Our market is global. But in practice, do we really go after the global market as we should? I know I have question marks. I doubt it.”

What CIOs can do

Moving on, Johnston asked what CIOs can do to address cybersecurity challenges.

Chen said that he was alarmed that, in a recent survey, the majority of Canadian CIOs said they were cyber-ready, and when asked what else they could do to improve their security posture, they said they needed more talented people. He disagrees, pointing out that in the U.S., less than half of enterprise CIOs believe they’re ready.

“Why is the Canadian CIO feeling more comfortable than the United States CIO? I think it is worth examining. One group is wrong. That’s my assertion,” he said. He has noticed that Canadian CIOs seem to be comfortable with turnkey systems regardless of whether they’re more secure.

What’s coming from BlackBerry

Johnston wound up the chat by asking Chen about the coolest thing that will emerge from BlackBerry in the next year or two.

“One of the coolest things that we’re working on, we’re really putting a lot of effort and attention into, with no revenue but with a very promising future, is to create the security analytics on any IoT device that could move a process at both the edge of the component, as well as connecting to the cloud and using AI technology. I think this is extremely cool,” he said. “I will just use cars as an example, because that’s what I focus on right now. Your car will be your new future wallet, your car will think a lot about how to improve itself. And there are dozens of applications, whether they have to do with energy, or battery management, or payment systems, or generating encrypted ID and making sure you are who you say you are, and monitoring the health safety of all the occupants … These are all real things in the works, and some of this stuff we’re going to demo at CES.”

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