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How the boot can be lifted

By Dick Davies - posted Monday, 7 November 2011

Concern about making the Australian economy more innovative has been in the news for some years and has now broadened into a concern about productivity generally. Public discussion centres on questions such as how productivity should be measured, whether the government or business should invest in this or that, how big a part the strong dollar plays, what training or education could offer and how other countries deal with all these matters.

I suggest that important as these considerations are, they are secondary to a fundamental goal: Australia needs workers who act as if they had been promoted three levels, while their leaders (bosses, as they are now thought of) take responsibility for them succeeding. The goal should be to build a work culture in which people thrive and amaze themselves by contributing in far more ways than they now imagine possible.

Framing the challenge in this way makes it a commercial proposition. It amounts to a bet that developing new work arrangements will lead to a productivity increase that will flow through the economy, creating a handsome return for investors. The 'product' is a new style and culture of work open to all who choose it, which promises a tangible payoff in productivity and profitability.


Technical problems are not the issue. We are surrounded by new ways of doing things and new forms of expertise. Radical new approaches are happening successfully all over the place from entrepreneurial start-ups to thriving Fortune companies and from workers cooperatives to client-managed delivery of welfare services. Work patterns have changed for almost everyone in the last few years. The problem is that hardly anybody looks at these novelties to see whether they might be of benefit to the work they are engaged in. It's their job to do as they are told, not to go round questioning things. The institutional culture typically punishes rocking the boat. Who wants to be a tall poppy?

Today's work environment has evolved over a long time and is held in place by powerful interests. It is hugely regulated and a lot of people live by commentary from the grandstand about how the people conduct themselves who are down and dirty on the ground. Many people are very comfortable with all this and do not want to see it change.

The priority is not to create a new technical initiative, but rather to find a way to turbocharge what is already happening. This proposes the creation of an alternative way for people to engage, by joining a Greenfield environment (which I'll refer to from now as 'Greenfield') designed to meet the needs of the economy in the 21st century. Everyone who joined would be there out of choice. Financial arrangements would be based on commercial contracts between parties who are equal in law. Greenfield succeeds or fails by its competitive performance in contracts it undertakes.

Greenfield would require a lot of preparation involving the resolution of many difficulties. One of the biggest of these will be finding ways for large numbers of independents to cooperate in the delivery of complex projects. Even with the groundwork laid, the first commercial undertakings would involve great care and much caution. Greenfield's success depends on the reputation its customers give it. But at a gathering pace, once the basics are in place, more and more can be done. Upfront investment in finding the formula that makes Greenfield happen leads to a steadily growing long term return as the formula is applied and developed more widely.

Greenfield rests on the view that there is unexploited human capital in the economy, a reservoir of talent that can be unlocked and would love to contribute more, enjoying the recognition and other rewards of so doing. Greenfield would be open to all stages from young people entering work to retirees choosing to return and anyone in mid-career looking for a change. It would draw widely on outside expertise when a need for such was identified, but members would learn a lot from interacting with one another. Experienced members would develop a rich mentoring environment to offer challenge and fast growth to the less experienced.

How does this all this come about? It could happen something like the following.


Some organization concerned with freedom and independence sponsors a weekend conference on Greenfield with invited attendees. This clarifies opportunities and subgroups hold further meetings and get back together for another weekend a few months later. By this time, possible financial backers have become interested.

Whereas up to the second meeting all work had been pro bono, with only expenses covered by the original sponsor, the second weekend results in sufficient identification of the potential of Greenfield that a three-month project to draft an overall business plan is funded by backers. Two pilots are focused on, one located in a large town to concentrate on local services and one hosted by a large organization to outsource areas of work. The business plan shows potential, projects get started and the whole cycle of experience to date makes it far easier to approach and evaluate the next possibilities considered. Resources are put in place to coordinate information, knowledge, experience and understanding amongst everybody involved in Greenfield.

Universities and Tafes become integrated into the program so that appropriate formal accreditation can be awarded to people on the basis of their work. Additionally, learning from the start of Greenfield is captured. In this way, Greenfield becomes recognized as a source of skilled labour to an economy in need of as much as it can get. In due course, Greenfield gains recognition as The Independents' University. Trade unions see benefit in offering services to Greenfield members and most join a union for benefits such as health cover, professional indemnity and contractual advice.

Others, I'm sure, can improve on this account of Greenfield's birth, but I hope this conveys the gist. Creating Greenfield and turning it into a major force in the economy is a collective leadership challenge of a high order, but it is one which can make a big contribution to Australia's future.

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About the Author

Dick Davies is a technophobe who has made a career in the computer industry. He started out as an “ineducable” programmer (quoting from the course report), but later made his way to a range of management positions. He saw in computing an industry that thrived on “toys for boys”, not customer benefit and in response to this, scoped out a radical way of transforming how the industry related to its customers. His employer (an F100 corporation) funded an exploratory activity to apply these ideas, which generated business opportunities of an enormous scale during the ten years he led it. He continues to see a huge strategic opportunity if business leaders align how power operates, how employees see themselves and how technology is used.

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