Technical innovation in the boardroom

Friday, 01 December 2023

Susan Muldowney photo
Susan Muldowney

    How can boards future-proof their organisations in a global economy that is rapidly changing? For Christian Ruberg, director of Robotics Australia Network, the answer lies in embracing technical innovation. 

    1. Break with tradition

    Innovation must be driven from the top. Ruberg says it requires three key steps. “Step one is gaining director-level commitment to embracing innovation, including new technologies, new ways of thinking and challenging the way things have always been done.”

    The next step is creating a new management structure to foster innovation. “In my experience, this requires pairing people with deep industry knowledge with an early career professional who doesn’t carry the baggage of an organisation and industry sector, and sees things in new ways,” says Ruberg. “This generally requires some training and capability development exercises and, through that process, you start to identify the innovators within a company — people who may be a little bit quirky, who think outside the box.”

    The third step is to apply new skills to organisational strategies and to explore links to emerging technologies. “A portfolio of opportunities starts to emerge because it’s prudent to get a number of relevant horses in the race,” explains Ruberg. “And it’s not a one or two-year commitment. It’s a three-to-five-year journey to start seeing results.”

    2. Harness domain knowledge

    According to Ruberg, an organisation’s domain knowledge or subject-matter expertise is a rich source of untapped value. “Australian companies that have big investments in plant and equipment also have deep domain knowledge, in that their people really know how this equipment works — they know all the limitations and risks, and they generally have a really good idea of the international market opportunities.

    “Based on that domain knowledge, they are well-positioned to work with Australian technology companies to create additional value. Also, the universities are determinedly churning out strong numbers of young, ambitious scientists and engineers who want a chance to marry the latest technology with that kind of domain knowledge.” 

    3. Visit the shop floor

    Ruberg says employees on the shop floor should never be viewed as “just the workers”. He believes the shop floor can be the engine room of innovation and is worth a visit. 

    “Inspirational directors are those who come down to the shop floor and go to the canteens and have a bit of a chat — they’re the ones who roll up their sleeves and take a real interest,” he says. “You still need the middle management who are trained to facilitate innovation and who can weave together the high-level strategic people and allocators of capital with those people on the shop floor who really know the equipment.”

    4. Foster collaboration and partnerships

    Companies could once rely on one innovative partner to develop solutions but Ruberg says those days are over.“The challenges are now more complex. Developing robotic and automation systems, for example, means you’re not just relying on a single supplier. It’s a syndication or a consortium of companies. It requires mapping what capabilities different companies have.”

    He cites his experience in developing and commercialising innovations in the red meat processing industry. “Companies usually hold their strategies really tight and it’s top secret, but we went the other way. We said, ‘Look, this is our strategy to win in this global market. These are the ideas we’ve got and who is out there who can help?’ Then it was a matter of identifying and mapping the kind of capabilities that are out there and establishing who was interested in contributing.”

    5. Value creativity

    Ruberg likens innovation and technical creativity to an art form. “It’s not formulaic,” he says. “You need to be aware of relevant standards and identify the people to manage and facilitate innovation, but these are just some of the stepping stones, because every organisation and industry is different. But having boards that value and promote more creativity is a win for everybody.”

    He adds that directors must also maintain a commitment to innovation, as transformation won’t happen overnight. “Innovation is rewarding but challenging. Failure can be ideas just not reaching their fully anticipated value or it can come from an unanticipated loss of staff. Nevertheless, the successful organisations maintain commitment.” 

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