Back to the Future reminds us to be careful what we wish for

BTTFWhen it comes to embracing new technologies, sometimes what seems like a great idea can have unintended negative consequences. Just ask all of the small business owners that used to make money from processing your rolls of holiday snaps on 35mm film …

Last weekend I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation on change and technology to a group of tyre dealers, on behalf of local Cooper Tires distributor Exclusive Tyres (yes, I never realised there was two different spellings either). As the presentation took place in the week of Back to the Future Day (when Marty and Doc travelled to 21 October 2015) , it seemed fitting to use the film as a starting point for the presentation, to point out the dangers of trying to predict the future.

One of the most memorable predictions that the film made was that skateboards would hover. The idea of a hoverboard captured popular imagination, and even led local hiphop artist Seth Sentry to ask ‘where’s my hoverboard?’ in his song ‘Dear Science‘. He definitely wasn’t alone in asking that question – most of the people in the audience conceded they’d buy one if they were on the market.

But great innovations like hover technology can have unintended consequences. If you can make a skateboard hover, then why not a car? And what don’t hoverboards have that skateboards have? Wheels.

So if you can make a hoverboard without wheels, it stands to reason that you can make a hovercar without wheels.

That’s not so good for anyone who sells tyres for a living.

Its anyone’s guess as to when we will see commercial hoverboards, but this Canadian inventor is one of many working hard to bring that dream to reality. It is a vision that perhaps should give tyre sellers cause to pause and think about their future.

SmartCompany – Australia’s 10 most influential people in tech

Peter BraddIt’s never easy trying to determine who the most influential people are in Australia’s IT industry, but that doesn’t seem to stop me doing so year after year. There can be little denying that this year’s list of Australia’s 10 most influential people in tech for SmartCompany are people whom others listen to. Whether they are the most influential – well, I look forward to seeing your feedback

The Australian – Industry must invest in skills or fall prey to disruption

iStock_000014006813MediumFor a while now I’ve been chairing meetings of senior CIOs around Australia, with skills a central point of discussion – more specifically, the difficult that many are finding in recruiting the skills they need to manage a modern IT function and engage strategically within their organisation. While there are no easy solutions to the skills shortage, it also seems no one else is as motivated or well-positioned to fix the problem as the people who are experiencing it first hand … as I discuss in this piece for The Australian/Business Spectator.

CMO – What the new breed of Data Management Platforms mean for marketers

SXC digitalThe speed of growth of the digital advertising industry has been staggering. In little over a decade it has become the single largest advertising category by dollars spent, and shows little sign of slowing down. Yet the path to digital has not always been a smooth one for advertisers, who have had to contend with complicated and conflicting advice on how to best build a campaign. Needless to say, the ratio of knowledge in the digital ad space has not always kept up with the dollars spent.

With such rapid growth, ad tech companies have also readily emerged to try and take on some of the heavy lifting for marketers and agencies, offering a slew of tools to help them better manage data regarding audiences and effectiveness. Front and centre amongst these are the Data Management Platforms (DMPs), which serve to hold the various forms of data used by advertisers to define their desire audience.

DMPs were the focus for my most recent feature for the CMO website, and you can read all about them here.

SmartCompany – What your business can learn from startups

SXC digitalStartups scare the daylights out of many execs from traditional businesses. Its common to hear them speak of their fear of some business currently being incubated in its CEO’s mother’s garage that one day will emerge and steal a large or lucrative slice of their business.

Why? Because it happens – Uber and Airbnb are cited so often as proof of this that they have become a conference cliche. But they are not alone, and the low barriers to entry into numerous markets for startups means there will be many more to come. There is always a margin to be taken somewhere, and a market to be disrupted in doing so.

What a lot of execs in traditional businesses fail to realise however is that all of the tools and processes that startups wield with such effectiveness, such as lean and agile product development methodologies, are also available to them. All they need to do is master them.

Of course mastery takes time, and these tools can be harder to wield in an environment that already includes significant legacy tools and processes. But that shouldn’t stop them from trying. The transformation taking place within organisations such as Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank is proof of that, with their new systems and processes owing much to methods refined in the startup sector. And if it can work in those organisations, there is no reason that it can’t work in any other, given the right stimulous.

I’ve written a few articles on what existing businesses can learn from startups this year, but probably the most comprehensive is this one for SmartCompany.

I’ve been fascinated with startups for most of the 20 or so years that I’ve been writing. My first book, Innovation and Emerging Markets, published way back in 2004, was all about Australia’s indigenous startup talent and their path to death or glory (mostly death, unfortunately). What I know for certain is that we need both more startups, and startup-enabled traditional businesses, if this country is to maintain its economic status.


CMO – Why it’s time to bring mindfulness into marketing leadership

xl_6501902Technology has ensured that we can live in an always-connected world. It has also ensured that we can live in a world where we are always distracted, our minds able to wander to places far distant from that which we actually inhabit. We can choose to ignore the moment in which we live.

Perhaps we have always found ways to do this – people daydreamed long before they hung out on Facebook – but the lure of technology and digital media is making it all the more compelling for us to allow our attention to be taken away from that which is right in front of us.

So perhaps it is not surprising that one of the most talked-about concepts in marketing (and business circles) this year is one that advocates living in the moment, and gives us tools for ensuring that we can. Mindfulness is itself centuries old, but perhaps in 2015 its time has come, as the antidote to the always-connected, never-present world.

For more on mindfulness and its application in business, check out my latest article for CMO.

Do we need a new approach to the social sector?

Tania with the With One Voice choirs, ANZ Diversity Week, March 2012I first met social entrepreneur Tania de Jong a few years ago through her work in bringing together the Creative Innovation festival.

Now she has set a goal of reshaping Australia’s social sector by taking a leaf out of the books of Uber and Airbnb.

De Jong is chief executive officer of Creativity Australia and founder of With One Voice, a charitable organisation that brings together disadvantaged people from across a spectrum of circumstances to sing together in weekly choir communities with people from more fortunate backgrounds.

People within the program nominate a wish they hope to see fulfilled, which can range from helping with a resume to purchasing a new appliance, with more than 500 wishes granted through 2014.

“They request from one another what they need in life, and miraculously enough people put up their hand and say they can help,” de Jong says. “Over the past five years, hundreds of people have got new skills and jobs. It is about creating meaningful outcomes so people can be contributing participants to society.”

Speaking ahead of her keynote presentation at the Ci2015 conference happening in Melbourne from March 23, de Jong says the With One Voice program represents a new model for the Australian social sector, which she says isolates problems into siloes and funds them in a very top-down manner.

She says this approach is at odds with the sharing economy now being defined by companies such as Uber and Airbnb, which excel at connecting individuals with needs to those who can service them.

“It is a model that needs to be adopted across the community sector, because there are all of these 20th century top-down institutional models, and the world is no longer in that mode,” de Jong says. “We are now in a mode where it is all about the individual, not about organisations.

“We are moving from a top-down centralised model to distributed connected communities, we are moving from consumption to collaboration, and from assets to access. But how do we achieve this for all communities?”

Executive and former Coles Myer executive Paul Kronborg admits he was sceptical when he turned up to his first choir six years ago, but now attends as many as he can.

“I now have some very deep understandings of actually what it is like to be a refugee, and what it is like to be strapped in a wheelchair, or be unemployed,” Kronborg says. “Spending time with the disabled or people who are gravely ill or bound in their beds brings a different level of understanding to the experience and the connection.”

With One Voice now convenes choirs in 11 locations around Australia, and is actively recruiting more.

De Jong says the group receives support from numerous commercial organisations, including law firms and health providers.

The deputy chief executive officer of Geelong healthcare provider Barwon Health Paul Cohen says a number of his staff attend choirs regularly,

“You see the benefit that they get out of it both from singing and the joyousness that comes from that,” Cohen says. “And there is also a benefit in working with others from different backgrounds and disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Organisations that participate in community programs through volunteerism get back a disproportionate value and benefit into their own organisations – all the research says there is absolutely a commercial benefit.”

De Jong says With One Voice has proven popular because it gives individuals a real chance to connect with the people they are helping.

“A lot of corporates donate to charity in quite a tokenistic way,” de Jong says. “If we really want to solve some of our entrenched social problems, then it is about much more than just a charity day – it is about people giving of their time and their business skills to help solve some of these problems in their community.

“So this is about enabling and empowering individuals and building communities and social cohesion. Everything is moving to the individuals and the power of collaborative communities.”


Why I do what I do

In the decade since I last had a full-time role I’ve often been asked what I do. It used to be an easy answer – freelance journalist. Over time however the list of services I find myself providing has blossomed – author, speaker, facilitator, host, communications trainer, analyst, writer, consultant, etc – to the point where I pretty much have no idea how to succinctly explain  what I do. It is on the whole probably a good problem to have.

But it is worth thinking about the question itself. ‘What do you do’ is a question that provides an easy way to define us, but it doesn’t really do many people justice now, especially when many of us are doing more than one thing. Describing what you do gives only the slightest inkling of what it is you can do – and in a world where increasingly I feel that we are making it up as we go along (I’ll explain what I mean by that in another post soon), skills and potential count for a lot.

Partly as a result of a project that I am working on now (and yes, that will be the subject of yet another blog post) I started to realise that there is a far more interesting question waiting to be answered – ‘why do you do what you do?’. I’ve tried it a few times and the answers have been surprising.

So here is my answer – ‘why I do what I do’.

Firstly – the heart of my motivation. I have a strong belief that the Australian economy is poised for an unhealthy future. Too much focus on (based on previous success) in mining has left us lagging in other sectors – especially in information-based industries. We are vulnerable to encroachment from foreign competitors – both online and off – and too few of our traditional successful domestic companies have parlayed that success on to the international stage. Our boards lack courage and vision – and are too hampered by the need to return shareholder value in the short term to take the steps they need to if they are to ensure their long term future.

The answer? In short, I believe we need to make more ‘things’ (including intellectual property) that people in other parts of the world need (or at least are willing to buy), lest we fall behind emerging nations and find ourselves with a declining standard of living.

It is a sentiment that is echoed in numerous reports, including Accenture’s report For Richer, For Poorer, released last year, which found: if the government in Australia does not respond with urgency and decisiveness to address the fundamental challenges in its labour market, the country will see declining levels of productivity growth rates and overall shrinkage of the workforce. That, in turn, will result in a decline in the living standards in Australia.

More starkly,  earlier this year PwC released its World in 2050 report which suggested Australia would slip from 19th place in 2014 to 28th in 2050, behind Bangladesh and Iran. Go Team Australia …

There is no end of reports that suggest similar futures. There is also no surplus of ideas of how to turn our progress around.

So back to the question – why do I do what I do.

For starters, I am a passionate believer that for a country to succeed then it needs everyone – EVERYONE – working together to achieve growth (in whatever metric you consider important). Perhaps it is the bias that comes from more than two decades researching the impact of internet/digital technologies on Australian business and society, but my own conclusion is that a more digitally-capable Australian society is a key ingredient in our long term competitiveness. That means raising the digital skills of EVERYONE.

Hence I am working with groups such as the Broadband for the Bush Alliance, which seeks to improve access to and utilisation of digital services in remote and regional Australia (please join us in Darwin in July for the next annual Forum, for which I am an ambassador). I am also lending some effort to the Australian Smart Communities Association, which will be holding its inaugural convention in 2016, and aims to showcase the work to improve digital services in communities around Australia.

I’ve also spent much of the last few years speaking at events in locations ranging from Longreach to Mount Gambier, helping to raise digital awareness and skills. This work will continue to be a focus for me, and it is my hope that in future situations I might be able to do more than just raise awareness. Have a look at Infoxchange’s Go Digi program as an example of a program that I fully support and will be looking to promote further.

But it is not enough just to be smart users of technology – we have to be smart creators too. That means more start-ups. Start-ups do amazing things. They create new markets, and improve old ones. The show how inefficiencies can be stripped out. They incubate new processes and new ways of running businesses (cloud computing, agile development and dev ops, etc), the socialise new working models (flexible working, remote working), and so on. And occasionally they go on to become multi-billion dollar employers in their own right. These companies quickly outgrow their domestic market, and we need to be generating a lot more of them if we are to have a healthy future.

Many of these companies are founded purely off the cleverness of the people at their core (not off a mineral resource) and no country has exclusivity in smart people. Hence the more we can do to bring people into digital careers and support start-ups and entrepreneurs, the better. This will be the focus for another project in 2015 (and yes, another blog post).

I also am convinced that having smart users and smart creators in the same environment benefits both groups – one can learn from the other – and hence both are needed for long-term sustainable success.

This also leads me to believe that if Australia is to have a successful future in digital technologies than we can’t afford to leave half of our potential talent out of the game. Australia already suffers from too few high school students choosing careers as digital creators (hence my support of initiatives such as Digital Careers). The need to get more women into the IT industry is critical.

A lot this work is realised through writing and speaking, and the occasional direct engagement. Its what I refer to as ‘working from the edge inwards’ – and is based on what I saw in Africa a decade ago, where you can do a lot more for a village with $1000 and a few shovels – more seemingly than you can do with a million dollar aid budget. Making the digging of clean wells work at scale however is a difficult exercise.

I’ve also done the odd spot of work with larger organisations, helping to seed and stimulate ideas of what the future holds and how they might not just adapt to it, but anticipate and profit from it. I am constantly seeking an answer to the question of whether large organisations can innovate at the pace required to compete with digital upstarts or changing customer preferences – and if so, whether the formula can be distilled and administered  elsewhere. The jury is still out on that one, with the exception of a handful of examples.

But ultimately – why do I do what I do? Because I have two little girls whom I want to see grow up leading the best possible life that can be provided for them, with options in what they choose to ‘do’. If I can contribute to a better future and pull other people with similar goals together to work towards that future, then I know I will have done all that I can.

A lot of my thinking still needs fleshing out, but this is a start.

Hence when it all gets stripped down to the things that I earn money from, I am more likely to accept those commissions that see me building towards the goals listed above. If it is a task through which I can help individuals become more aware and capable regarding the tools that are available to them, then I am more likely to be interested. If I can contribute to the success of Australia’s entrepreneurial community, then I am more likely to be interested. If I can help larger businesses successfully transform and ensure their long term survival, then I am interested. Even if I am only the smallest part of the process.

Fingers crossed, maybe writing it all down might help me realise some of this.

My new book – Managing for Change – now available

M4CI’m very pleased to say that my new book, Managing for Change, is now available, in paperback and ebook formats. Co-authored with with Peter Fritz AM, Managing for Change sets out practical advice to help people get more out of life, personally and professionally.

The book is the product of numerous discussions between myself and Peter, as well as contributions from numerous people who have been successful in their own lives, including entrepreneurs, public servants, and politicians. Other contributors include HEAT Group CEO Gillian Franklin, Pollenizer co-founder Mick Liubinskas, former Australian Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton, young federal parliamentarian Wyatt Roy and investor Su-Ming Wong.

While the book is very much a joint effort between myself and Peter, my own path to Managing for Change came about partly as a result of my public speaking work, particularly those presentations related to the impact of technology which flowed from my last book, A Faster Future.

While it is not difficult to alert people to the changes that are happening around them, it is much harder for someone to assimilate that knowledge into their lives and do something about it. Managing for Change aims to help them do just that.

Managing for Change also comes somewhat from my own observations that many of the most successful companies are those that have got in front of changing market conditions, or even changed market conditions to suit themselves – Apple being one of the best examples. To often in life we simply wait for change to happen and then react to it. Managing for Change is about getting in front of change and wielding it for your advantage.

Managing for Change is available from numerous booksellers, and online from Booktopia. You can also pick up the Kindle edition from Amazon by clicking here.

Where are the women? SmartCompany’s 12 most influential people in Australia tech

A couple of weeks ago I compiled SmartCompany’s annual listing of the 12 most influential people in the Australian technology industry. It’s a difficult task, and regardless of the criteria set, leads to agonising decisions as to who makes it on, and who doesn’t. As such, you can only be certain that the people who are happy with it are the 12 that make it on.

It was also noted fairly quickly however by Angela Priestley from Women’s Agenda that as a representation of Australian technology influencers, it was heavily weighted in favour of men, with only one woman, Telstra’s Catherine Livingstone, making the cut. This was an issue that I grappled with while compiling the list, and there were many female contenders who for one reason or another were eliminated. Suffice it to say, leaders such as Microsoft Australia’s Pip Marlow and Intel Australia’s Kate Burleigh were high in the list of contenders, but didn’t make the final 12. Angela has since compiled a comprehensive list of influential women in IT, which you can read by clicking here.

The lack of women in positions of influence in the Australian tech industry is – sadly – nothing new. And it is possibly getting worse. While it is great to see women running four of the local branches of powerful multinationals (Burleigh at Intel, Marlow at Microsoft, Angela Fox at Dell and Maile Carnegie at Google Australia) there are few running locally-domiciled tech companies. The start-up scene is also bereft of female leaders, and with the retirement of AMP CIO Lee Barnett, we lose one of the few remaining women in senior leadership roles in the user community.

The issue has also been thrust back into the spotlight recently thanks to several stories detailing the discrepancy between the pay earned by men and women in the industry for performing equivalent tasks – something that needs immediate correction.

The sad fact is that young women are simply not choosing technology-oriented degrees to the same extent as young men, and the result is a technical cadre which is heavily biased towards men. Thankfully the team at Digital Careers have taken up the challenge of trying to bring more women into IT, as part of their overall mission to raise student uptake of technology degrees. It is also true that many technology leaders have come into the industry from non-technical backgrounds, with finance being a common qualification amongst modern CIOs.

But the truth is, until we see greater representation of women in IT, we are never going to have an IT industry that is as strong as it should be.

Technology is a rich and rewarding industry to work in. It is fast paced, pays comparatively well, and provides a wealth of opportunity for personal and professional development. And with technology so thoroughly embedded into our lives, its importance within society is surely only going to rise.

The importance of the technology industry to Australia is also hard to dispute. Which should be a worry to us all, when as an industry we are barely tapping into more than half the available talent.