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Australian Business Culture -Is Innovation in our DNA?

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Australian Business Culture
In the late 80’s and early nineties, I spoke at a number of conferences as part of the award restructuring debate. The focus of my work then was Australian business culture and I published a paper asking “How does the Australian culture affect your business?”

At the time I was national president of a professional body and our interest was Training in Australia. In my reflections then,  Australian business culture was very traditional and “lifestyle-oriented”.  As life moved on, I resumed my work as a management consultant working to change the culture of a few Australian businesses!

In this new journey of blogging, I have rediscovered my interest in the topic especially through the lens of Innovation. As part of my research into Innovation in Australia (much of which is published in previous blogs), I discovered a web page headed  Defining Moments in Australian History  and thought it might be interesting to do a “ review” of what these defining moments looked like under certain categories.   Given my interest in Australian business culture, I settled on three headings:

  • Emerging Business in Australia
  • Nation Building Infrastructure
  • Industrial/Social Innovation

This is a first pass only and I am open to the possibility that I am off the mark.  It is interesting to reflect on defining moments through a business lens.  Of the 100 defining moments, approximately 20 in my estimation  are business related.  What does this say? See below.

Emerging Business in AustraliaNation Building InfrastructureIndustrial / Social Innovation
1797Introduction and improvement of Merino Sheep
1851Gold Rushes in New South Wales and Vic
1854Australia’s first Railway Line opens in Victoria
1856Melbourne Building workers win an 8 hour day
1872Completion of the Overland Telegraph from Darwin to Port Augusta. SA.
1880The Bulletin Established
1885Victorian Employers Union formed
1885BHP begins mining silver, lead, zinc, NSW
1887Chaffey Bros. introduce irrigation to on Murray River
1901Inauguration of Commonwealth of Australia
1903William Farrer begins distribution of Federation Wheat
1907Justice Higgins hands down ‘Harvester Judgment’

Minimum Wage

1912Maternity leave
1913Foundation of Canberra as the national capital
1917Completion of Trans Australian Railway linking WA and the Eastern States
1920QANTAS established
1932Foundation of the ABC
1945PenicillinNational Introduction of Employment and sickness benefits
1945Post War Migration
1945Australia’s first locally made car the Holden 48-215 launched
1945Snowy Mountains Scheme
1956Television Introduced for Australia’s first Olympics
1960Restrictions on exports of iron ore lifted
1972Equal Pay for Men and Women
1978SBS Established
1983Floating the $AUD
2004Australia signs a free trade agreement with US

For me, it raised some interesting questions:

  • What role does business play in Australian society?
  • Should business play a larger leadership role in establishing Strategic Directions?
  • Why is it “the founding” of more Australian businesses is not listed?
  • Why is that “the sale of” Iconic Australian businesses is not listed?
  • Why is it that there are not more Nation Building Projects on the list?
  • What role has innovation played in the history of business in Australia?

I could go on, but business references are minimal. Nation Building projects are few and our record at social/industrial innovation in business led the world.

I have no doubt there are other lists that I am not aware of and that not everything is listed e.g. the founding of Commonwealth Bank, The Bank of New South Wales, CSL, CSIRO, PMG (Telstra, Australia Post) and many others.  All of these might be considered Nation Building projects.

I am interested that the Harvester Company is remembered for the minimum wage case and not for the fact it was a major manufacturing company, which employed many Australians. (And then was sold overseas)

Why is it that in Australian milestone moments there are very few entrepreneurial businesses named?

While in previous blogs I have written about our Innovation history, there is very little of substance published.  There are listings of ideas and products we have invented but very few businesses started.

It might be argued that we are a small country and there is a shortage of capital. On that basis we only have a small number of businesses.

But Israel has done reasonably well over the last 60 years: the Start Up Nation (Senor and Singer -2011).  Sweden  has a robust business sector and a number of Global Brands.  And Australia?

Our business culture is committed to lifestyle and letting the Government do it.

My hypotheses are that Innovation and Commercialisation are NOT in our DNA!

We were started as multiple government “outposts” and England literally funded everything for the first 70 or 80 years. We were a ‘little brother/sister” in the New World.  I t took 113 years before the concept of Australia as a nation came together.  It was a groundbreaking idea.

In the establishment of Australia, the political and the legal system were effectively the English legal system with some minimal modifications –e.g. a Federation. Innovation was not paramount in our founding. We actually swallowed the English legal and political system whole.

When reviewing the major moments in Australian history, the area of Nation Building projects is thin. The foundation of Canberra is the outstanding exception. As I have written earlier, when Australia was founded there were two major “competitive disadvantages”.

There was limited water and geographically we were isolated.  In over two hundred years we have done little to address these two issues.

Israel, on the other hand, had two major disadvantages.

There was no water. They now lead the world in irrigation systems.

They faced an existential threat from their neighbors.   They have built a leading edge defence system that has spawned a major technology industry. Many of the major technology companies have R&D facilities there.

Australia was founded on a very government-centric model and very little has changed.

In our founding years, there were images of Australia as a Social Laboratory (experiment) where multiple social policies were initiated.  Many have worked well and are the platform for a socially progressive country.

The conversation about business in that era was the debate between Free Trade and Protectionism.  It is worth considering, that as result of many of these policies, Australia was considered a working man’s paradise.

If Australia is to be an innovative nation, there has to be a major shift in our national psyche.  Given the current level of thinking in business and government, it is hard to see it happening

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