In 30 Years of Information Technology, People Still Want the Same Things
Technology changes. But sometimes, people don’t.
Glen Willoughby has spent more than 30 years working in the ICT sector. From working with the United Nations and the World Bank to remove landmines in Sierra Leone, to listening to Bill Gates talk in 1995 about what would later become the internet, Glen has seen incredible amounts of change since he began in the tech industry in the 1980s. He currently leads IT at Downer New Zealand.
You’ve been in the ICT sector for many years, and have seen a lot of changes. What are some of the biggest things you’ve seen change over the course of your career?
The changes I’ve seen are changes that I really have underestimated or not really expected to be adopted at the pace they were. I remember in 1995 I attended a seminar with Bill Gates, and he was talking about connecting every computer across the globe into some international network. We all sort of laughed at him a little bit. And sure enough, five years later, the adoption of the internet was just staggering! But at the time, that seemed really far away for the group of people in the audience that he was talking to.
I think the other aspect of change that’s really noticeable, and it’s crept up a little bit, is big data and the ability to mine and pull data to inform decision making. Whether that’s 3D printing, or looking at baggage handling at airports, or even genome technologies and looking at the DNA of populations to try and make sense of the world. That’s another rapid change.
They’re probably the main ones. But aside from the technology perspective, the capability of IT graduates over time is a big change. The amount of info and level of education I’ve seen in some of these grads coming into the workforce has improved rapidly. It seems about every 5–10 years there’s a real jump in capability and awareness of how to apply technology. The type of people we have in the industry, especially new grads and younger people, it’s very impressive.
But it’s not all change, right? What do you think has stayed the same, and will continue to do so?
The use of technology is fundamentally a human endeavour. While tech has changed rapidly, what doesn’t change rapidly is the behaviour of people. I know looking at big data technologies that are available and have been available for some time, the rate of adoption is really around how people can use them, how comfortable they feel. That to me has been one of the consistencies, dealing with the people factor and applying any tech with a mindfulness of ‘how do people interact with it?’ What are they currently doing now and how is it going to change their working lives now and in the future? How do they really feel? How do you help them through that change process?
In any tech endeavour I’ve been involved with, I’d probably say the easier part is the technology. The harder part and lengthier part is interacting with people and implementing change. When I’ve looked at challenges around implementing tech, it’s primarily been around introducing tech too early, or not understanding the change management effort of people through that journey.
You’ve worked around the world on ICT for health and economics. Do you think different cultures or countries have different ways of engaging with ICT?
Actually, I think I’ve really seen little difference in how people apply and adopt tech. Ultimately, everyone tends to have the same objectives at the highest level. They want the best for themselves, the best for their families, for their communities. If I look at what tech does, it improves the lives of people. So where technology adds value, where people can identify what the tech does and can make a link to how it can help with lives, it tends to get a lot of support. The challenges for leaders is how to propel that energy and guide it in the most efficient way to give it the best outcome.
Downer has expressed its commitment to minimising the impact of the business on the environment. What does that look like in practice?
Working at Downer, there’s a strong ethos and culture around this. Not because it’s a trendy thing to do, but also because economically, it makes sense. We’re a large business, we operate in many sectors from mining to energy, telecommunication to oil and gas. Using green tech helps us ensure the way our company operates supports the land and the environment we work with. We’ve been rolling out electric cars for some time, for example. Not because it’s a nice PR picture, but because it’s a no-brainer. It happens to be good for the environment, but it also happens to be economically feasible for our country.
Another area Downer focuses on significantly is research and development. When I first moved to Downer, a big part of this was the build and maintenance of roads, highways, bridges and tunnels. In some respects, roading hasn’t changed much. But in the R&D dept, the research we do ensures we have effective roading methodologies that are not only sustainable for the environment, but are also high-value. When building infrastructure for the countries we work in, we ensure the way we work is cost-effective long term and also sustainable to support the environment we’re building it in. It’s an investment around R&D, and looking at the adoption of tech with a green effect is a commercially strong, strategic view.
A lot of people say we’re starting to see the beginning of the end of the industrial economy. This is particularly noticeable in the energy sector, thanks to renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric vehicles. What are the biggest opportunities and challenges for Downer in this area?
I think there’s really a lot of opportunity here. When I was doing my MBA, I looked into the economics of the industrial revolution, and during my career, the knowledge economy. The thing I think we’re entering into now is the innovation economy. My definition of innovation is creating the greatest sustainable value through the most efficient use of resources. If I look at opportunities for Downer in most industries, tech is involved in = nearly all of them. If I look at health, the way genome tech, pharmaceutical tech or just the advancement of clinical practice is happening, it’s significant and happening swiftly. If I take the legal industry, the advent of blockchain and advent of AI has changed the legal practice. If I look at the energy sector, a lot has been talked around the deployment of renewables. But it can also be about construction. For example, I was talking to a company in Europe a few weeks ago who are 3D printing bridges, and I recently looked a case study around solar embedded in roadways.
I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of new technologies and also the welding of different technologies together to create value. While we may not be 3D-printing bridges tomorrow, technology evolves quickly. If I look at the work NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is doing around HoloLens, how those sorts of human interaction techologies can be applied to different industries will be really significant. In engineering at Downer, AI will really change the way we prototype. There are exciting times ahead for engineering.
What are you most looking forward to about the future?
I’m amazed about how fast tech changes and how quickly tech gets adopted. I think we’re entering into a very different realm. Much like the industrial revolution, there’s always something new and exciting going on. I think the adoption of AI, the emergence of robotic tech, and quantum computing are incredible.
I think we’re also seeing a more balanced discussion between the commercial world and the public, and not just for profit. Innovators like Singularity University are taking a focus around entrepreneurship, using technology to solve problems of the globe such as environmental problems, human tragic problems, food, or economics. When I look at some of the new practices for implementing change, not just agile techniques but smart ways of applying technology, I think we’re entering an era where our adoption of tech will be much more balanced and focused on how to apply it for good. And not just commercially good, but truly for good.
There are many innovative, inspiring people out there who are changing the game for the better. What’s a ‘game-changer’ to you, and why are they important?
Everyone can be a game changer if they have time and freedom to think about a problem. Here’s a practical example. Not that long ago, I was working in a hospital. One of the problems was a large number of people post-surgery didn’t turn up for their post-op appointments, which are really important to ensure the effectiveness of surgery. We had a group of experienced people around the table trying to work out how to improve getting people to their post-operative care.
One very junior manager said ‘One of the things I did recently was I went online and I booked a parent-teacher interview for my son. It was really easy and I could set it at a time that suited me, online, in a few steps. Why not do that for our patients? What we currently do is tell the patients when we want to see them, whether it suits them or not.’
Making one small little change, we implemented a simple online tool that allowed patients with the right security credentials to book their own times that suited them. In one month, the did not attend rate dropped from 30 per cent to four. Reporting back to our board, they said 4% was amazing.
We said no no, not four per cent, four patients out of 80,000 patients per year.
It’s not always the CMO or the Chief Executive that’s a game changer, it’s the person with the great idea. It’s having the freedom to talk about that idea that allows people to focus and mould it. It’s a bit of investment and effort to get large change. When I look at my definition of innovation as creating the greatest sustainable value with least amount of effort, that junior manager revolutionised how we’ve managed patients for 50 years. That’s a game changer to me. The amount of time to develop that technology and that project took two weeks, and cost $5k to develop. It saved more than $10 million per annum for the hospital. I don’t know many innovative ideas have value like that.
The Elon Musks of the world are doing radical things at a global scale, and they’re important, they have their place and they’ll be significant in future. But just as significant is what can each individual do to look at the challenges in front of them, and the ideas they have to change the game.