Ideas can be easy to come by, but making them work is where many businesses stumble. Last year, the government announced it will come to the aid of businesses that dare to dream big, pledging more than $1 billion over four years to foster a culture of growth and innovation.
A major driver of this ‘ideas boom’ will be the third platform – the confluence of cloud, mobile, social media and big data that is already disrupting business models. IT systems that cost thousands of dollars a few years ago can now be run from the cloud inexpensively, or for free.
Besides the obvious cost benefits, how does this affect small businesses?
Consider the role that big data now plays in guiding many of our day-to-day decisions. It's no longer a software buzzword – businesses large and small can now use social media, apps, the web and other digital sources of information to discover what the consumer really wants. With the proper IT tools to aggregate and analyse big data, small businesses have the opportunity to uncover hidden patterns and correlations that basic customer records may lack.
STEM skills are the catalyst to innovation
Small businesses may be able to pivot more quickly around those shifting expectations, but they need access to workers with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills to do so.
Raising awareness of STEM’s importance is critical to the success of the government's innovation initiative. The CSIRO’s $200 million co-investment fund is aimed at helping to bring to market early-stage commercial opportunities that are based on “excellent science”, but it reflects a bigger push towards encouraging STEM-based innovation and upskilling across all industries and businesses.
The new digital workforce
If you want a picture of how much technology has already disrupted the business world, look no further than all of the jobs that didn't even exist 10 years ago – roles such as mobile app developer, information security analyst and digital strategist. In five years, it's possible we'll have more people studying data science than accounting.
But as the world goes digital, Australia's workforce risks falling behind. A 2015 ACS/Deloitte study predicted we'll see demand for 100,000 more information and communication technology (ICT) workers over the next five years, despite ICT graduate numbers declining since the early 2000s. This is one of the motivators behind the government's AIIA-backed Digital Careers initiative, which is designed to encourage the study of STEM in high schools and universities. The goal is to create a new generation of entrepreneurs armed with the problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and communication skills necessary to keep Australian businesses competitive as the world goes digital.
The value of internships and academic partnerships
One way to instil entrepreneurial skills in the nation's future startup founders is through internships. These programs provide students with direct exposure to the evolving workforce and allow them to see firsthand how ICT fits into a business. Programs such as The Big Day In careers conference and the Young ICT Explorers challenge have also been successful in getting students thinking beyond the classroom. All of these can serve as valuable precursors to entering the workforce or starting a small business.
There's been a lot of discussion around the value of private sector partnerships for funding research, but the benefits can also go the other way. University ties can give your business better insights into the expectations of the emerging workforce – whether it's in terms of how they view and use the latest technology, or their attitudes about work-life balance, which will almost certainly differ from the expectations of the 35-plus crowd. A positive development has been the push for diversity, with the government recently contributing $13 million to encourage more women to complete STEM education.
Encouraging calculated risk-taking
I've paid a couple of visits to America's Silicon Valley, and was struck by the willingness of young people in that region to embrace risk, take a bet on original ideas and learn through failure.
Obviously, you don't need to be Mark Zuckerberg to find success through entrepreneurial thinking. Risk-taking underpins almost every business growth story, and the smartest risks can lead to multiplied returns. That's why it pays to have someone in your team you can take a bet on. If you really want to maximise your resources, you must also have a framework that will empower and enable the risk-takers. This framework must prioritise leadership, collaboration and being open to all ideas – even the wacky ones.
We always try to encourage innovation and creative thinking at Lenovo, and it has paid off in a number of industry firsts. One is the multi-modal Yoga Tablet, which has sold nearly two million units since launch. In the service space, we have also been able to cut service outcalls in regional areas by giving customers a mobile app that provides direct access to our training and support resources. Offering a single service touchpoint for all our customers continues to save both time and costs at both ends.
Be open to change
Being STEM-smart isn't just about having the most cutting-edge products. It helps you to analyse your business and understand its challenges. I've seen my own business unit double in size in the last few years, but we still continue to aim for something better.
That's what the focus on innovation means for Australia's small businesses – tomorrow's innovators are the organisations open to change and willing to take risks. Technology is levelling the playing field in many ways, but it's the next generation of business with entrepreneur-minded STEM workers who will be kicking the goals.