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Is innovation a strategic imperative for every business?

CEO Forum hosted by SRB, Nov 2017

This was the question the SRB partners asked a select group of CEOs who attended our CEO Forum in Melbourne last week. We knew it was a big topic that would lead us down all sorts of rabbit holes, and we were interested to hear what this group of sharp minds had to say on the subject. We weren't disappointed.

Three mega-trends – technology, globalisation and a burgeoning global middle class – are not only a preoccupation for public policy makers, they are also front of mind for business leaders and tech innovators from here to Silicon Valley and beyond.

Why? Because everything we thought we knew, has now changed.

A power shift from supplier to consumer has been enabled by the arrival of some very new kids on the block – democratised data, the internet of things and Artificial Intelligence. This change is nothing short of revolutionary and you could argue that people have never had so much power at their fingertips. As with any revolution worth its salt, disruption is the new normal.

As recently as three years ago business transformation was a cutting-edge concept, now it's business as usual. Decision makers are needing to rethink not only how they use data to drive strategy and create a compelling vision for their brand, but also the skills-composition of their workforce so they can make sense of this new data-driven reality.

Tiziana Pittui, Insights Leader at MGP&Co, observed that demand for graduates with data analysis skills seems to have accelerated in recent years. For Tiziana, analytics isn't an end in itself and there still needs to be a pathway between the ability to crunch data in ever increasing minutiae, and the vision to convert it into viable business outcomes.

"What do you do when you get super analytics people? You still actually need a person with the leadership skills to help them understand how to commercialise that data into something pragmatic that CEOs can actually use," she said.

Does data drive innovation – or do people drive innovation?

Technology and innovation are not horses and carriages – one does not necessarily follow the other. We now have tech at our disposal that lets us glean insights about every site visitor, every social mention, every product interaction and every press article connected with our brand – but are we using this technology to innovate, or are we simply using it to naval gaze? Are we letting machines do the work that the human mind should be doing?

Director and Principal at Watermark Intellectual Property Karen Sinclair summed this conundrum up neatly when she said, "The revolution has been in our ability to crunch data...but it's all rearward looking not forward looking...this ability to crunch data and to predict based on a rearward view of what is going to happen looks a lot like the replacement of the human brain to us – and that's terrifying, and it makes people fear innovation...but the point is that it's not actually innovation, it's analysis. We have to be smart about what the next paradigm is beyond the number crunching, because that's (where the) innovation happens."

Executive Director at the Victorian Chamber of Commerce Dianne Smith recalled an example of data being the glue that helped reshape a long-held public policy in a way that simply wouldn't have been possible without this human element. By bringing together a team of experts from industry and academia and combining their expertise, they were able to apply a meaningful story to a set of numbers and use it to change public health policy.

"It's about collaboration. I worked for National Parks for 10 years and it wasn't until we got Deakin to do some data gathering about the whole public health debate which led to (the creation of) Healthy Parks Victoria. Beforehand it was all about conservation and recreation, but now the debate is (about) funding parks to reduce public health costs – there's a direct correlation. It wasn't until the data came into it that it was a really powerful argument."