Innovating our businesses to remain relevant in the age of big data

I had a great catch up with an ex colleague recently. A charismatic people-person who managed me briefly during a tumultuous company restructure around 8 years ago – another continent, another career, another lifetime ago.

We got to talking about innovation, and the lack of appetite for it in our particular industry in Australia compared to other countries where we have both worked. This has been partly driven by a number of factors, including economic downturn and the usual cycle of redundancies, caution and low morale that follows; but is also partly down to traditionally conservative views held by the Australian public sector – even those that have been partially or wholly privatised in the last two decades. The private sector, who we always associate with having the economic means and the will to innovate, are consequently less compelled to do so if Clients aren’t willing to pay for the efforts.

Is Australia a nation of conservative thinkers?

Making some broad generalizations, Australia’s geographical isolation as an island-continent means that there is an inherent isolationist culture. Australian politics has a history of mobilizing racial fears, or marginalizing minority groups for political gain. In such a confrontationist environment it is often a safer and more popular option to just maintain the status quo rather than rock the boat with new ideas.

The construction industry in Europe has for at least the past decade, if not more, adopted an approach of maximising off-site construction and testing, with strong justifications for doing so:

  1. Less time spent on site, leading to:
    • shorter construction programmes,
    • fewer on-site personnel, and
    • reducing occupational health and safety risks.
  2. Optimising modular off-site design and designing for transportability, meaning:
    • reduced production costs,
    • improved on-site logistics and specialist skill requirements.
    • bottom line cost savings.
  3. Less down time due to injury and less down time due to delays = lower project costs and construction programme.

The ingredients required for innovation

However, innovation doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is a creative process that may require trial and error, and the coming together of different types of thinkers with different personalities.

Too often I hear the upper tiers of management decree that “we must innovate”, but there isn’t always a budget or the patience from these same people for innovation. “We need to work smarter” – but usually within the limitations of their existing ways of working.

If we want to be the young go-getting nation of achievers – Malcolm Turnbull’s “Innovation Nation“, we not only have to contend with our comparatively high energy and wage costs relative to our key competing nations, we also need to allow innovation to happen. For large corporations this means:

1. Separate an innovation team:

If we want to innovate our companies we need to identify the right talent and separate an innovation team from day-to-day responsibilities – let them come up with new ideas. This might be hard with today’s budgetary constraints, but remember that Dyson innovated for 10 years before turning their first profits, and now they’re a world leading technology brand.

2. Strong leadership:

We need strong leadership to recognize existing problems, see the future and lead companies through the challenging transition to the age of big data.

3. Collaboration:

A single company or a single person rarely holds all the best ideas. In fact Lego – a globally successful organisation that has remained relevant through the generations, recognise that 99.99% of the brightest people in the world don’t work for them. They collaborate with customers and other partners to create products that people want to buy.

4. Ensure your staff remain relevant:

In 2006, then CEO at Australia Post recognised that the industry was on the precipice of a technological era that would render many of their roles redundant. They re-skilled many of their employees to ensure continuity of the business.

5. Allow your staff to think BIG:

The best innovation sessions I’ve attended have been the ones where at the start, a facilitator declares that “No idea is too stupid or too ridiculous” – I notice in these sessions that most people will come up with very good ideas, workable, practical and sensible. Others will come up clever ideas that we all wish we had thought of. Then there are the ideas that everyone initially dismisses as being too hard, impractical or just weird. Like when the scientist Brian Cox comes up with the idea of mining minerals from the Kuiper asteroid belt in outer space. Crazy? Apparently it’s an idea that some of the world brightest (and richest) minds are already looking into. Don’t dismiss the wild ideas too soon.

6. Set Innovation Metrics:

Companies love reports and governance, but innovation takes time, so set some metrics you can measure your team against if  you don’t want someone to decide that an innovation team is an unnecessary cost to the company.

See. Lead. Realise. Evolve.

I’m going to leave you with this tag line from Business Transformation services company, Squiz. It’s their roadmap for helping business leaders to drive change and remain competitive in today’s ever changing world.

SEE the change

LEAD the change

REALISE the opportunity

EVOLVE to remain competitive


Next time you’re tempted to tell your employees to “Work smarter, not harder”, remember, you’re better than this, so are they, and so is your company.



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I'm a water engineer with a keen interest in urban water issues, including water security, creating liveable cities, and developing easily adoptable sustainable practices for businesses and the community. I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything and everything.

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