How we are transforming for peak performance


New head of IP Australia Michael Schwager discusses what his organisation is doing to manage the pressures of an increasingly complex and digital world.

“It’s up to all of us to innovate to make the most of it, and in doing so we will create a new and highly prosperous economic age.” — Andrew Stevens, Chair, Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre and Independent Non-Executive Director, MYOB Group (then-managing director of IBM Australia and New Zealand) (see full speech)

At IP Australia we take innovation seriously. We do more than just support creatives, entrepreneurs and inventors in protecting their creations. We realise that we also need to continually reinvent, improve and transform ourselves, systems and processes from the way we run our business through to how we deliver services.

The public service is not immune to the pressures that exist for all businesses and organisations as we enter into an increasingly complex and digital world. We can’t deny that the future is digital and we need to be ready for that. We want to get ahead of the game — not keep up with it. We need to continue attracting the best and brightest minds if we are to keep delivering value for our customers while meeting their growing expectations.

We are preparing our workforce to be change ready and change willing, and working in partnership with our customers to ensure we collectively enable bright ideas in Australia.

As we navigate through this age of digital disruption it is important to act quickly but it’s equally important to think deeply. We have sound governance and processes underpinning our transformation to a customer-focussed agency. This is important. Governance is not a bureaucratic hindrance. The right governance done well is an enabler of change. We need our audit committees, taskforces and public service reviews to keep us on track as we steer ourselves towards the vision outlined in our Strategic Roadmap to 2030.

We are preparing for a future where our customers will expect increasingly integrated, seamless and easy to use government services and meanwhile our multigenerational workforce will also have a variety of their own expectations. This dual-challenge demands us to equip ourselves for an increasingly mobile, ever changing environment where we can be agile and meet both customer and staff expectations.

In essence, we are embracing and creating ways we can be ready for the future.

Customer-focused

Let’s start with what we are doing for our customers specifically. In addition to having a highly mobile, agile and engaged workforce, we are changing our digital services to make them easier to use and better meet customer needs now and into the future. This includes enabling our customers to automate and optimise business processes, designing new easier to use interfaces for our search databases and exploring the use of APIs to better deliver B2B and electronic services. We’re exploring artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies and how we can innovate to enable us to more efficiently process and deliver IP rights.

We are also continuing to curate and use our data to better support customer service, becoming recognised as a global leader in IP data provision and analysis in the process.

Our Rights in One (RIO) program is the largest business and ICT transformation program the organisation has undertaken, with over 469 million trade mark records migrated. RIO encompasses shaping the way we do our business, improving our business processes, the systems we use and how we interact with our customers. The project supports an agile business environment underpinned by modern systems where change can be implemented faster, with less risk, more consistency and at lower cost. The freed up time will enable more opportunity to innovate, while making it easier to respond to customer needs.

One of the unique aspects of this particular project is the way that it is being built by staff for staff using an agile methodology. This means business is intimately involved throughout the development and testing process. This makes sure that when the new systems and platforms are first released, business gets a minimum viable product that improves on what is currently in place.

Following the initial release there will be continuous improvement led by the RIO Support team, again with lots of business collaboration and guidance throughout so that ultimately business gets exactly what they want from the project. Think of this continuous delivery as the same method Apple uses with the iPhone’s background refresh to apps. By doing this, Apple eliminates tedious change management and disruption. The RIO Program has completed 15 continuous improvement releases without business interruptions since the release of RIO in November 2018. This is proving to be a very successful approach for getting the best results and increasing the buy in from the agency.

We are also exploring the potential of blockchain and last year began working with a blockchain start-up to deliver a proof of concept applying smart contract blockchain technology to automate parts of the patent application, examination and granting process. The proof of concept was able to demonstrate that blockchain could emulate current patent IP rights process with digital tokens deployed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In the spirit of continuous improvement we have recently started a large program of work which will transform our digital business experience. Building on our technology successes and by putting users at the centre of what we do, the program will deliver world-leading IP related digital services that are modern, efficient and effective. The program will enable our customers and the software industry to harness our digital assets to create innovative customer offerings, and position IP Australia for whole of government, citizen centric service delivery.

People, place and technology

In order to survive – and thrive – in the digital space it has been essential to build a change ready and resilient organisation. Our change management team has been working with staff to build change resilience so that individuals understand the drivers of change — and actually sit in the driving seat themselves as they contribute to the future of the organisation. The organisation’s change maturity has improved over the past two years through these focused efforts.

Our internal vision of creating a highly flexible work environment connecting people caters to different preferences of a multigenerational workforce. A shift to activity based working incorporates people, place and technology so we have fit-for-purpose spaces that enable fully focused, team-based delivery, flexibility and agility. In plain English this means there are fit for purpose spaces co-designed with the staff that will use them. There are spaces for quiet focussed work, spaces for collaborative work and in-between spaces for semi-collaborative work. Staff can make the choice to access the space that is appropriate for the type of work they are doing. There are also scrum rooms and additional video conferencing facilities. Our technology is an integral part of this picture, enabling our people to be truly mobile and empowered to work flexibly. We are, for example, aiming to be a desktop free workplace by April this year.

Our internal improvements match and serve our external system improvements.

I know there are organisations in both the private and public sectors that are looking at making similar changes so I thought there would be value in unpacking some of these initiatives. Hopefully it inspires the adoption of these strategies.

How we are transforming ourselves

The first horizon in our strategic roadmap is to ‘invest and innovate’. We are investing in an upgrade of our accommodation and technology to enable a flexible workforce practicing activity based working. The upgrade also ensures we are meeting government obligations and reducing our ecological footprint.

We are also acutely aware that any organisational transformation is ultimately about people and an organisational culture that drives staff engagement. Engaged staff are productive staff.

For change to be a success it is critical that leaders lead — not the HR or change management teams. Critical elements of the changes efforts include training and education to take managers on the journey to lead flexible teams. There is also an ongoing communication campaign around activity based work etiquette and we are reviewing our strategies and approaches to ensure they support and effectively underpin the philosophy of flexible work. This means we are pursuing a critical re-think of a great range of policies including WHS, security, risk management, workforce planning and recruitment strategies.

Meanwhile as KPMG’s Libby Hakim recently mentioned, we have for a while now been working on a flexible work policy and on changing our performance management system to better support future ways of working. We are already well under way with moving our performance model from being output focussed to one where people are at the centre. We have increased the focus on their work life needs and their motivations allowing us to better utilise their strengths to deliver high quality, timely products and services to our customers. There is a strong focus on having ‘constructive and regular conversations’ moving towards a continuous improvement model. We are seeing great success with this already with more managers having performance review conversations more regularly rather than the previous norm which was a once-a-year review discussion.

The importance of this model will only grow as we continue to change our work practices. Staff and managers will need to increasingly think differently about performance management when more people are working flexibly. For example, managers will need to know how to effectively discuss performance with someone that might not sit next to them regularly or at all. This will challenge the way we think, measure and engage. We have a number of programs in place that are providing guidance on these matters to both staff and managers. We will continue to develop our education and development in this area. We have a program running that focusses on corporate contribution — where all staff are expected to engage at some level with corporate activities. This is an example of how we aim to encourage and stimulate collaboration as well as activity based working. This stuff takes time. It’s a multi-tiered journey but a highly worthwhile one for any organisation wanting to stay relevant in the age of digital disruption.

These are just some of the bigger stepping stones on our pathway of transformation. If you are interested in what we are doing to stay ahead of the game and be ready for the future, keep an eye out on our website — especially our beta page or be in touch page. I encourage all leaders to start thinking about how they are getting ready for a digital future. It’s an investment. There are risks and uncertainties but the risk of doing nothing is by far the greatest risk of all.

As Andrew Stevens says, “It’s up to all of us to innovate to make the most of it, and in doing so we will create a new and highly prosperous economic age.”

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