A new leader

15/03/2013 Comments Off on A new leader

We had news this week that a group of senior people selected a new leader, someone who could help New Zealand address some of its thorny issues.

No, silly, not Francis (although, since you raised him, why have we gone from God’s Rottweiler to one of God’s Marines? What happened to the Good Shepherd?).

Callaghan Innovation, formed from the old Crown Research Institute IRL, announced the appointment of their first CEO, Mary Quin. They are touting her experience at technology companies in the US and experience at a management firm in Alaska.

She has a difficult job ahead of her, so here’s some free advice. The presser focused on her international connections and their potential for improving New Zealand’s links overseas. Sure, that’s a concern, but the job’s much bigger than that. Here’s how it breaks down to me:

  • The company — the conversion to Callaghan has been a change, and that requires management. Although IRL is one of the more industry-focused CRIs, in general CRI scientists sit somewhere between university researchers and corporate scientists. They aren’t there for the big bucks, and they aren’t necessarily focused on solving somebody else’s problems (which are notoriously difficult to see). This is a well-known issue with CRIs (see this note from 1997), but at the same time the signals from their shareholder (the Ministry) change with fads and governments while some of their staff have been around since the DSIR days. Quin will need to figure out how to get the culture she needs, but starting with the culture they’ve got.
  • The science system — they were always going to choose someone from off shore (the search company was Australian, which set the tone). The difficulty is that the New Zealand science system is run as much by personalities as by policy. Things happen because someone wants them to happen. I’m not making a value judgement here, by the way — it’s a fact of living and working in a small country that there are two degrees of separation and sometimes one degree of freedom. In addition, there are lots of moving parts to the system. Sorting out the who-what-where-why will take time and a deft touch. Quin will need to play those relationships right.
  • Industry — this is clearly the area where Callaghan hopes Quin will shine. Some CRIs have excellent relationships with their industries, and they work cooperatively to direct the science in ways that support the industry. IRL was more fragmented than some of the others, and doesn’t have the same strong industry bodies that agriculture has. But, the plan is that the fragmented high-tech and manufacturing sector can learn to work well with Callaghan. That’s going to take a lot of jaw-jawing and some obvious successes to show the way. Quin will need to get out there and talk with the companies where the Ministry sees promise, and then produce something of value within a year or two.
  • Overseas — meh. I’m not convinced that the mythical land of milk and honey called ‘Overseas’ is all that important to this job. Yes, we do sell our knowledge and science overseas. For example, IRL’s Richard Furneaux has well-publicised international collaboration with a US group. But all that does — if and when it works — is provide a few jobs for our scientists. What we really need is science that supports our other sectors — ICT, manufacturing, medtech, etc. — so that those companies can take care of the overseas part of the equation. Put another way, Callaghan Innovation shouldn’t be doing NZTE’s job. Quin will need to figure out where ‘overseas’ fits in the business plan to deliver the economic growth that the Ministry envisions.

I wish her luck. It will be interesting, if nothing else. Let’s hope it’s successful, too.

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