Solving the Problem. With Labour.

By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Board of Directors

Originally published in STAY

It will be hard to navigate the case for Social Design without sounding esoteric. Stick with me though. We can make it land together.

Not much more than uttering “labour crisis” is needed to paint a vivid picture of the present state of Canada’s hospitality and tourism industry in 2022. We have a crisis for certain. But is it really about labour? Or could labour itself be the actual symptom of a much more wicked problem? And why does that matter?

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons, including incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Doesn’t that sound exactly like what we are experiencing with our labour problem?

This may sound academic already, but it really isn’t. There is quite a direct correlation here. If we want to move beyond this present crisis and get back to building a sustainable future for our businesses—economic, environmental, and socioeconomic—we need to start by developing a sustainable workforce. Why? One thing our industry seems to agree on is that our people, the people of hospitality, are at the centre of our business model. So maybe they need to be central to our solution?

There is a fundamental question I have posed in my previous articles. And it bears repeating here. And maybe even further exploration. How often do we as leaders think about how we think?  Going further: what model do we use to solve problems? Do we use an intentional model at all, or do we just repeat what has been programmed into us since our school days or since we were trained by past generations of leaders? I would argue that we are collectively engaged in clouded thinking while trying to solve the very real labour problem because we continue to be told that it is the problem, and we are the solution. As they say, when you’re walking around with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The Real Social Dilemma

At one point along the way, I too believed this was a matter of supply and demand. I believed we simply did not have enough talent across this country with the skills and experience needed to serve our industry adequately. This is the conventional thinking that led me to identify the labour problem. But rerouting, I recognize this really is a limited way of thinking. It’s binary. It’s economics. It’s not people centric. Even now, our governments seem to be buying into this myopic perspective. Immigration targets are now set at well over 400,000 new Canadians each year, with informal remarks by some hinting that the number will soon reach 500,000 annually. International student targets have also been ratcheted up after dropping during the pandemic. Canada welcomed a whopping 450,000 international students in 2021.

Now, quick questions. Hard left turn here. How is our supply of affordable housing in urban and rural areas across this country? How about our social services for newcomers trying to rapidly learn about our culture so they can build great careers and fruitful lives for their families? How about our clear and attainable path to permanent residency for our international graduates?  Supply is not the problem or the solution. Until we can figure it out, I would argue more supply only worsens the problem. Especially when we are taking a linear approach to solving this problem. A raging fire doesn’t always need more water to put it out. There has to be a better way.

Cue the Expert

Cheryl Heller is a creative leader and innovator who has founded and grown multiple companies, divisions, and programs in the corporate and social sectors and in education. She has taught creativity to leaders and organizations around the world, including the USA, China, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and South Korea. As an advisor, she has helped grow businesses from small regional enterprises to multi-billion global market leaders and helped design strategies for hundreds of successful entrepreneurs. She has extensive experience facilitating collaborative efforts toward culture change, social and health equity, and creativity for multinational organizations. She is the author of The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design. She outlines the Social Design Thinking process eloquently and effectively—a blend of Social Design and Design Thinking:

Design thinking is a process for developing multiple ideas with a particular user in mind and new ways to solve problems based on the creative design process. There’s nothing inherent in design thinking that has benefit or no benefit to society. Social design is looking at ways to affect entire communities or organizations. And social design inevitably has a moonshot objective, a north star that defines a vision that’s an ultimate condition that people want to create.

Typically, the way we solve problems and the kind of problem solving that humans are really good at are technical problems. We know how to create a new app and we know how to make a driverless car. We are constantly creating and building and innovating. When it’s very concretely defined and it’s linear we excel at that. So how do we succeed at solving the big complicated social problems we have? Social design is an approach that works at a systems level that brings cross-disciplinary teams together so that everyone who has a hand in or who has responsibility for making something happen is a participant from the beginning.

The sequential steps of research and engineering and iteration and designing are collapsed and in the social design process we talk about making to learn. And so as a part of research there are prototypes developed at every stage, there is a kind of testing that goes on at every stage with the people that are intended to use it and that feedback becomes information for the next step. Instead of following along the strategic plan, people are, in real time, observing the reaction to what’s happening and adapting whatever they’re developing as it happens.

We find that the biggest changes happen in the people who participate in it and so in developing this capacity for reframing problems and for developing ideas and for prototyping and for navigating ambiguity that capacity resides in people, and they take it on to other things and it changes cultures.

Isn’t this really what we’re after? Change? Building capacity within our people? So they in turn can help build capacity in our businesses and in our communities and in our cultures? Building livelihoods for themselves and the next generation? That’s certainly what I am aiming for.

And Now This

We tend to over-index on sharing and listening to the negative stories. It’s also programmed into our human culture. Another opportunity to remain mindful and seek a more empowering narrative as we learn from new approaches to leadership and problem solving. There are people and organizations within our industry actively engaged in Social Design.

I recently caught up with Kate Monk, Senior Director, Regenerative Tourism Development and Communications for Explorers’ Edge/RTO12. RTO12 is one of thirteen Regional Tourism Organizations (RTOs) supported with core funding by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. As the regional Destination Development Organization for Algonquin Park, the Almaguin Highlands, Loring-Restoule, Muskoka, west Parry Sound district, and South Algonquin, Ontario, the company uses a regenerative approach to ensure the sustainability of the tourism industry across the region, the organization itself, and affected communities.

Kate earned her Professional Certificate in Sustainable Tourism from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. She is responsible for developing innovative regenerative tourism strategies and programs for the organization, its stakeholders, and the wider communities. She also oversees consumer and corporate marketing communications, product development, and workforce development at Explorers’ Edge. Kate was a key contributor to the RTO12 Business Case for Commercial Air Service at the Muskoka Airport, which successfully attracted Porter Airlines as a partner, commencing with seasonal service in 2019.

Monk stated, “Explorers’ Edge is currently working to attract workers and develop professionals with our innovative workforce thrusters strategy. The most significant component of this strategy is our work to build social enterprise catalyst housing to meet the accommodations needs of workers in our regional industry. This is part of our region-centric regenerative approach.’”

She continued, “At RTO12, our objective is to design workforce programs that make a career in tourism a popular and desired goal.”

This way of thinking and problem solving doesn’t mean we have to figure out all the components of the huge, wicked problems we are facing. It doesn’t take away from any of the workforce development initiatives that have been launched to support our industry. It means we now have the chance to try new things. And continue with what works while we sunset what doesn’t work anymore. Old ways of thinking, being, and doing that quite frankly no longer serve the people of hospitality—our most essential and scarce resource. And we need to persist. Because, as Robin Sharma reminds us, greatness loves the relentless. And greatness is an aspiration many in our sector are aiming for and working towards. Let’s get there together.

Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality and education sectors and a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people. Baker was dean at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts where he led the most significant transformation in the school’s over 50-year history. He serves on the board of directors at Tourism HR Canada and Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.

Joe can be found everywhere @thejoebaker.

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