How universities can lead during times of disruption

"Those who are able to attract, retain and harness talent will win," writes the new chancellor of the University of Waterloo

McKinsey & Co. managing director Dominic Barton

McKinsey & Co. managing director Dominic Barton. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty)

I recently assumed the role as the 11th chancellor of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. I did so mindful of the institution’s great history and legacy, but also with the belief that universities, in general, have a profound role in shaping our future.

As I addressed the graduating class during their recent convocation, I offered my perspective on their university and how far it had come since its founding in 1957. Conscious of the uncertainty many may have felt in a changing world, I spoke of the disruption we are seeing today and compared it with the social, political and economic challenges the world was seeing when their university was founded in 1957.

In both eras, society faced changes that had the power to influence the direction of societies and countries across the globe.

Looking back 60 years, we were in the era of the Cold War, and with the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite , there was concern the West was falling behind in the technology race.

That era of competition left many individuals as well as the businesses they worked for feeling underequipped and concerned that they may not be able to keep up with their competitors. Nations and the economic engines that fueled their growth worried they may not have the right skills to keep pace and drive their countries forward as a global leader, including many Western nations whose abundant resources had historically all but guaranteed them wealth and security.

Feelings of insecurity across the globe, including in wealthier countries such as Canada and the United States, were also fueled by the emergence of new technologies that altered our way of life, such as commercial aircraft which changed the way we moved, and television which made the world smaller by bringing it into our living rooms.

The world’s societies are facing similar pressures and forces again today. The global population is aging at an unprecedented rate. The world’s economic centre is shifting quickly from West to East, and the rapid pace of technological advancement has made the changes we face today even more dramatic than what the world faced 60 years ago.

The rapid changes we are seeing today will ripple across generations and will disrupt how we work, where we live and the futures we may expect for our children from just a few short years ago.

And while the temptation to give in to fear may be great, there is cause for optimism if we harness the creativity, curiosity and technical skills so abundant among those attending institutions of higher learning and so critical for business, government and the social sectors.

Our future will be built and shaped by encouraging people able to predict where trends are going and those deeply passionate about their research and we need to support them as they engage in technological, entrepreneurial and social innovation.

Innovators will create our future and those who are able to attract, retain and harness talent will win because talent will become even more critical to success.

It was for this reason that I agreed to work with a university so dedicated to innovation, interdisciplinary work, and expanding its global reach and connections because those are precisely the qualities that individuals and organizations will need to embrace in this new age of disruption.

These realities are particularly true for today’s universities as they are largely responsible for developing ideas and talent, truly global talent, that will help traditional organizations adapt and respond to new realities and new organizations to create for themselves a place at the table.

Universities can do this not only through building a philosophical understanding of other parts of the global landscape but by ensuring they become truly global through initiatives such as exchanges and international work placements.

Because you cannot teach the kind of experience that creates knowledgeable, global citizens, we must create opportunities for that to happen, as many leading institutions like Waterloo are already doing.

We need to support those we will rely on to continue to steward us through this new age of disruption, to compete and to succeed so that we are able to grasp the opportunity that lies on the other side of disruption lest we get stuck in the uncertainty that lies within it.

As I try and act as a champion for my new, adopted university, I look forward to the things I know it, and its future graduates will achieve.

I know these graduates and millions of others across the globe, if properly supported and guided, will not only help their respective societies survive in an age of disruption, they will help them thrive.