Sitting on the Fence

Take hard look at corporate New Zealand in the past decade – has it really inherited the number-eight-wire boldness of its predecessors? Are we striding forward to chase new opportunities, do we put ourselves on the line, or challenge the status quo?
Or are we developing bunkering mentality? Is corporate culture becoming case of protecting one’s CV, either for internal promotion or promoting oneself out of the organisation?
Has the silent mantra become “Stridently go nowhere”, “Copy what has gone before”, “Do the acceptable and avoid at all costs the new”?
Is this the everyday modus operandi of non-decision-maker’s career?
Ask the legion of frontline workers, corporate sales reps and proselytising entrepreneurs who have walked in to find the department head quietly terrified, if not by the new idea, then by the idea that it’s they who will need to promote it.
Do whatever it takes!- To avoid all things new, Even opportunities where, One and one make two. To what extent then, is corporate New Zealand dominated by the power of the CV, by image projection and office politics? And what are the dangers of burgeoning risk averse culture?
Forget the All Blacks, Black Boats or our boys and girls – the Lange Ministers weren’t the only ones to take cup of tea and scone; so did most of the rest of us.
Has striving to secure career in an insecure world stripped many managers of the courage of their convictions?

Myth of the intrapreneur
Going back for minute now. It’s 1988 and the Porter Project exhorts the potential of Kiwi industry clusters taking on the world.
One winter afternoon, senior lecturer Richard Higham addresses his stage III entrepreneurial behaviour class at Auckland University. Higham outlines for his students unique breed of in-house company entrepreneur known as the ‘intrapreneur’ – someone who, in theory at least, will reward both themselves and their employer by following their entrepreneurial instinct – taking risks like their entrepreneurial cousins yet with all the resource and backing of their larger entity.
It’s the introduction so Higham doesn’t dwell too long on the flip side of corporate life, the side that stifles individual go-forward and innovation. The former ICI Chemicals executive knows only too well what his young pre-corporate charges would soon discover for themselves.
Today, over decade later, and as an example of not only government but corporate atrophy, commentators contrast with regular monotony the knowledge economies of Ireland, Singapore against our own phenomena of local number non-portability brain-drain frustration.
In hindsight the Kiwi intrapreneur appears to be some migrating Siberian bird one heard about those years ago but rarely got to glimpse up close. We talk, talk and talk about knowledge and learning economy but (as ever) still pay our way via the farming industry. Yes, we theorise most eloquently but when it comes to decisions, actions, we are slow. Very slow.
Fact is, if you’re non-decision maker, Kiwi corporate life is the perfect environment.
“Where is the leadership?” commentators bemoan as if waiting for another Ralph Norris-like zero pilot to break through corporate system that tut-tuts those that do promote different angles yet warmly embraces those that don’t.
Sure there are entrepreneurs with ideas aplenty and enough lateral thinking to sink dozen America’s Cup opponents – and yes, it’s great having business mentor programme up and running. But the little guys – the external and internal solution providers – are they not held back by morass of non-decision making gatekeepers?
Where is the required elder sibling partnership of corporate custom or idea-sponsorship to start them on their way, in-turn driving the entity forward?
Overseas, if media darling Virtual Spectator is anything to go by. While CEO , Lindsay Ferguson, is careful to mention that his company started off with private Kiwi capital, financial boosters came by way of overseas interests, One World Sport and Snider Capital.
Today we proudly backslap our local heroes made good but was there local corporate support when Virtual Spectator first started?
“Not really,” replies Ferguson. Why was that? “They’re all too busy going to forums and talk-fests about creating knowledge economy instead of actually doing it.”
Is there some sort of block going on at corporate level? “Absolutely; but there are lot of New Zealanders privately doing it, there’s no doubt about that,” says Ferguson.

Where is outside-the-box thinking?
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, sociologist and professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests the twin factors of corporate hierarchy and respect (the lack of) play key roles in diminishing company’s will to investigate or take on new angles, committed as they may appear to the knowledge environment.
“Respect plays crucial role in learning,” says Lawrence-Lightfoot. “People who feel respected feel freer to be curious and freer to ask questions. Unfortunately, curiosity and questioning are qualities that aren’t always rewarded; even in the workplace. Without trust and connection between bosses and employees – it’s impossible to develop the kind of relationship that enables learning.
“What undermines respect and, therefore, learning? Hierarchy. Rigid power relationships can block communication and can keep people from behaving authentically toward one another.”
Lindsay Ferguson sees local lack of innovative decision-making more bluntly: “Many local corporates are pretty risk-averse. Most New Zealanders have built their businesses privately on domestic base and then have gone on to export… but there are few who have done exceedingly well on [straight] international basis like Christchurch-based software firm Jade.”
Higham says: “We should not castigate corporates who make sugar or fell lumber or create milk solids or send meat in bulk to make hamburgers, for lacking imagination and concentrating on low cost materials.
“We are very, very good at it and they are like engine-roomers in an aircraft carrier. But we should also ask where are the flying aces with imagination? different culture is needed. We have both in New Zealand but we starve the flying aces.
“Why change the engine-room when what they really need is better aircraft carrier for their flying aces to take off from and land?”

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Creating the ideal corporate square to think outside of: turning the non-innovative corporation around

Richard Higham proffers strategic view of how established corporates specialising in process innovation and lowest-cost positions can enhance product and service innovation: “Some try to do it by telling their more product innovative people (there are usually some left) to do something but often it ends in scape-goating and recrimination because the routines are so counter to the culture of ‘improve what we have’.”
The alternatives:
1. Create separate division and give them guidelines as to areas of business they should concentrate on: like Freedom Air in Air New Zealand, where an existing executive was given free reign to compete and has come up with multiple innovations in an existing industry. Thus, set up the people and back them.
2. Create venture capital division and invite ideas in particular industry areas and then (with outside expertise) back portfolio of likely growth businesses. Thus put up the capital and vet the people with ideas (from inside and outside of course). Carter Holt is trying it, FCL building division tried it.
3. Encourage the people who leave with good ideas to stay in touch. Go back over the records and see who has gone and what they are doing. Help them with orders or materials or facilities so that they remain in orbit: then capture those which succeed with investment.
4. Adopt “knowledge creation” revolution. Put out team of people from different parts of the

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