Meet the UTS talent using his tech expertise and EMBA smarts to help define CHOICE’s new business strategy.
Tech skills on company boards should no longer be a nice to have, but a core component. That’s the recommendation made by Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) recently, with the anticipation that “prioritising seats at the table to those who can offer these insights (will be) a key challenge facing Australian boards.”
One such organisation taking this challenge head on is consumer advocacy group CHOICE. CHOICE has appointed UTS Executive MBA graduate David O’Connor to its board to align its technology strategy with its business strategy.
For an organisation with its roots in magazine publishing, it’s a big job for an ambitious individual with the right skillset and mindset. But in David, who also happens to be UTS’ Deputy Chief Information Officer, CHOICE has found the right fit - all through a new alumni not-for-profit board placement program, managed by the UTS Business School.
“It’s an interesting time for CHOICE because they are coming to the end of a three-year business strategy cycle. Now they’re planning the next three-year strategy, which is why they wanted technology input because they’re becoming a tech-heavy organisation,” reflects David.
Moving towards a tech-driven future
A lot has changed in CHOICE’s 50 years. Much of the organisation has already transitioned to digital, with an internal innovation function set up around two years ago to generate new business ideas. However, the brand’s role as a consumer advocate remains firm, and its membership model still generates a significant proportion of revenue. Bringing these core elements in sync with a new, tech-driven future is crucial.
“That brings up new challenges because you have the business moving at different speeds,” David elaborates. “CHOICE has done it well so far. The team are rightly thinking about the challenges ahead, what that means and how they position themselves.
“They need to understand how technology is changing consumer purchase decision making; so what do things like Amazon moving into Australia with products like Alexa mean, and the increased automation of purchasing decisions. What part do consumer rights organisations play in that, and how would they advocate in those types of scenarios in 10 years time are big questions to tackle.”
David’s work with CHOICE echoes and affirms the ISA’s statement about technology expertise at board level. However, David warns that when it’s not executed correctly, technology can become a hindrance rather than a help. By appointing David, CHOICE is staying a step ahead, and the potential is promising.
“There’s lots of opportunity for CHOICE to be more data-focused with technology driving that,” David predicts. “Think of all the data they have in terms of all the product testing done over the years - that’s an asset that can be used in different ways.
There’s no reason why we can’t open that data up and become a platform for other organisations to work with. There’s a core technology environment and ecosystem we can build to allow us to be flexible in future, and that’s key. If we can get that right with a data-centric infrastructure, that will enable new business models.
Testing, learning and succeeding
The collaboration is also enabling David’s own professional development with valuable board-level experience. The strategic know-how learnt during the EMBA also gave him the framework to bridge the gap between technology strategy and business strategy.
“Working with an organisation of CHOICE’s calibre - and to understand different operating and business models - can only be good for my career. I’ve worked in enterprise IT for a couple of decades, so to work with smaller organisations which can sometimes be more nimble is eye opening,” he says.
But it’s also been a real test of David’s own abilities. “It’s not easy to be parachuted into board level with a fast-moving organisation - figuring out how you add value is a very different skillset. It’s a way of testing myself if I can work at that level - it’s a good challenge to have.”
The CEO's perspective
Q&A with Alan Kirkland, CEO CHOICE
How does CHOICE’s collaboration with UTS make a difference to your capabilities?
It’s a good way to improve the diversity of skills and backgrounds around our board table. Like any established organisation, we're juggling a mix of old and new platforms. Working out the balance of investment between fixing technical debt and building new products is difficult, so we were looking for somebody who could help us prioritise our decisions. David brings a combination of general EMBA business smarts with direct experience in major technology strategy decisions within the university.
How do you feel that CHOICE can now ‘future proof’ itself?
David’s EMBA means he gets our organisational strategy, and can help us think about how technology strategy can support it. This is ultimately about how we get from technology that was built for yesterday, to technology that supports where we need to be tomorrow, so that we can introduce new products and services more rapidly. That will make us more sustainable, because it will be easier for us to remain relevant to the changing needs of consumers.
Why collaborate with UTS rather than hiring in a traditional sense for this role?
In this case we were looking for more of a governance-level role - somebody who could help us to think through and prioritise our strategic needs. That's why the idea of a ‘board observer’ from the EMBA program was so attractive.
David is not in the business doing hands-on work. He's helping us to articulate our future strategy, identify the technology capabilities we need, and work out how to prioritise our investment to build those capabilities.
We have hired a number of key staff from UTS and collaborate with the institution in a range of ways. We only see this growing in the future.
By MaryLou Costa, UTS Innovation & Entrepreneurship.