Expert Review - CAE, when partnership rhymes with societal impact

Article published on
May 27, 2021

Social impact initiatives are multiplying and are not alike. There is no miracle solution or magic formula.However, there are good practices to observe. Very often, societal engagement starts with a reflection, then an action, then the observation of the effect or the impact of it and quickly, it can become addictive. We offer you our expert view on different initiatives, to bring some ideas and to underline some good practices, hoping that this will inspire you.

The first initiative we wanted to examine was the CAE Air1 respirator project from CAE, a Montreal-based company specializing in safety, mainly in the aeronautical field but also in the defense and health sectors. We met with Hélène V. Gagnon, CAE's Senior VicePresident, Public Affairs, Global Communications and Corporate SocialResponsibility, about this atypical project with a strong component of societal engagement and partnership, two subjects that fascinate and motivate us.

CAE's CAE Air1 respirator project is a good example of value creation, at the crossroads of advanced technical expertise, a major societal issue and exceptional mobilization.


« What could be our value-added role based on our competencies to advance our mission of improving safety?»

In general, at Umalia, we encourage alignment between the actions taken and the mission of the organization. This concern for alignment and anchoring in the mission goes beyond the apprehension of a potential identity or communication dichotomy. It is about giving meaning to the action for all internal and external stakeholders.

At no time did CAE deviate from its primary mission of "making the world safer" by conducting the CAE Air1 project. On the contrary, this project and the mission feed and reinforce each other. It made sense for the various stakeholders, employees, partners, customers and even the government, to engage in such a project with CAE in an almost organic way.  

By approaching societal engagement as a continuation of the primary mission and not something extra, were move barriers that could arise from inconsistency of meaning before they exist.

In addition to guaranteeing coherence, anchoring with the organization’s mission ensures that the results obtained, whether sought or not, will be nourishing for the company. We can see this with the example of CAE, for whom this project has become synonymous with new lines of business and new partnerships in the continuity of what they already are in their DNA.

Another aspect to take into account when societal commitment is concretized in projects is the alignment to the measure of the organization, so that the initiative is:

- Possible,

- Successful,

- Integrated into the workings of the organization, institutionalized and therefore sustainable.


« A partner that is underestimated, is the internal partnership»

In a society where 78% of millennials say that societal impact is a criterion for choosing an employer, finding meaning in what a company does, especially in times of crisis, becomes a necessity. Especially when the "essentiality" of some of its workers is questioned, which can trigger individual reflection on their own raison d'être and their organization's.

With the CAE Air1 respirator, CAE offered its employees a project that captures all the energy released by personal questions such as "what can I do in all this? "What is my contribution to this crisis that is shaking us all? "Why do I come to work, for whom?”


« There was significant governance, right up to the executive leadership team»

A key element in the success of any partnership, particularly when it involves multiple stakeholders, is its governance and facilitation. In addition to preparing the groundwork for the partnership, it is necessary to sit down together on a regular basis to ensure that it is moving forward smoothly. By governance, we mean, among other things, the clear establishment of roles and responsibilities, decision-making methods, communication strategies, monitoring and evaluation methods and impact measurement. It is important to establish inclusive governance that represents all parties.

Although the urgency of the situation and there markable speed of this project did not allow for the governance mechanisms usually found in such complex partnerships, two elements of governance are very interesting and should be remembered from the CAE project: the commitment of the entire organization up to executive management and the availability of the partners. Of course, this must be put into the context of the pandemic, but this agility in the service of the common objective ensured the fluidity of the partnership and the ownership of the project by all.

It is obvious that this commitment up to the highest level, in such an ongoing manner and with clearly allocated resources also touches on the notion of project prioritization.


« It was agility at its finest »

Responsiveness and flexibility indecision-making and action, two elements that characterize agility, are mobilized in emergency situations and are particularly present in crisis units.

It is easy to understand that with the CAE Air 1 respirator project, the design, certification and manufacturing of this type of product, in this quantity and in this context, have imposed this responsiveness and flexibility on the daily work of the entire organization and its partners. We can almost speak of systemic agility here, as each change impacted the entire system.


« We were there together to save lives »
« The mobilization was so linked to the pride of everyone, (...) that mobilization was not an issue.»

This is the classic pattern of multi-sector partnerships:the encounter of a major challenge and the need to collaborate due to the complexity of the response. When the objective is clear and everyone sees a potential benefit, it is easier to row in the same direction and mobilize energies in a sustainable way.

Here, in the case of CAE, not only did the organizations saw a potential benefit, but everyone saw the opportunity to make a clear impact.The positive impact was significant because it did not only resonate in one sector of society but in its entirety, beyond all borders, with an urgency known by all (unlike other types of societal or environmental issues where the direct consequences are not yet experienced by all).

The mobilization and commitment of energies also resonated on a personal level, what could be more noble than saving lives. This feeling of accomplishment and of working for 'something larger than oneself' leads the individual to invest more.

A key element of the mobilization and its consistency over time and through each of the organizations involved was communication. This project, because of its relevance, its scope and its raison d'être, brought people together (more than300 spontaneous contributions!). Once again, the alignment with the mission, the concrete response to a societal problem known to all, and the authenticity of the approach allowed CAE's communications to have an engaging and mobilizing effect. We also note that in these communications, employees and partners were given the floor first. At Umalia, our clients often express fears of being labeled "greenwashing" or appearing opportunistic; these practices have allowed CAE to remain grounded and authentic.


« Whether it was CAE or others, it allowed us to develop new skills and business lines»

As mentioned earlier, to ensure the success of a multi-stakeholder partnership, it is essential that each party finds value and benefit in its involvement. Opening up to this kind of partnership means accepting to use one's skills, tools and knowledge in a new context, to transfer them and to confront them with other frames of reference, other expectations and, in the case of the CAE Air1ventilator, other deadlines and other volumes.  

How could this bold challenge be met in just a few months? The innovation created made possible what a few months, weeks or days before would not have seemed possible, especially in such a short time. One way of answering this question is that CAE and the other partners involved relied on skills that were rooted in their organizations and used their strengths (contacts, skills, various resources, etc.).  

For CAE and its partners, this project allowed an innovation that opened the way to new business lines, in a context - aeronautics - where the main business lines were seriously compromised for the short and medium term. 


« This led us to completely redefine our our mission, vision, and business plan.»

This experience has allowed CAE to reveal some of its strengths, such as high technology, and to center them at the heart of its identity. The experience, the new assets made possible by its agility, its unique resources and skills have allowed it to see new perspectives and rethink its mission.  

With a context more than ever focused on health and safety, its mission now goes beyond training and focuses on safety and technology, opening up new business lines and opportunities.

Without forgetting the essence of its identity or its core values, CAE has succeeded in stimulating innovation not only in its products but also in its business model and in adapting to a world in great transformation.

Thus, this example of CAE demonstrates all the benefits and added value that can be derived from a commitment that responds to a societal need while nourishing the company and its stakeholders in multiple ways.