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University of Sydney MBA students expand CSIRO's future strategy horizons

27 Nov 2013

University of Sydney Business School MBA students have lent their strategic thinking to the future of Australia's National Science Agency, the CSIRO. The project invited the MBA students into an 'open strategy' environment, engaging with CSIRO leadership teams to apply their business knowledge and fresh perspective as a part of CSIRO's strategic planning process.

CSIRO said the project was 'audacious'; the students described the challenge as both 'inspiring' and 'overwhelming'; and the outcome was a successful collaboration between a talented MBA cohort, the University of Sydney Business School and Australia's premier scientific research organisation.

After six weeks of strategic research, the students advised CSIRO on what they saw as the best strategies to offer "distinctive and sustainable value to Australia in 2025". 

The result, according to CSIRO's General Manager of Strategy, Beau Leese, was an "excellent piece of work from the cohort who, as a group, managed to ask the right questions, synthesise a lot of information, and deliver an insightful analysis within a very short time frame". 

Beau also said, "This project brought a diverse set of business thinking into CSIRO's strategy process, as well as got 40 future business leaders thinking about science, research and innovation in Australia. With Australia ranking relatively low in the OECD for business-research collaboration, that is a really positive thing!"

The students were aware from the outset that they were dealing with an extraordinary organisation. 

With 55 sites and nearly 6500 staff working on projects ranging from mining, to climate science, to digital technology, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation is one of the world's leading applied research institutions. CSIRO plays a distinct role within Australia's innovation system, delivering positive impact as a mission directed multi-disciplinary applied R&D organisation.  

"It was a great project involving an amazing organisation," said MBA student Renee Connellan. "Putting a strategy together for CSIRO was completely different than it would be for any other business."

"The challenge was quite complex for a single project," said CSIRO's David Burt, the industry mentor for the MBA students. "We asked the students to understand and analyse a large, complex organisation with multiple impact objectives and stakeholders, operating across all Australian industries, and straddling the boundary between public and private sectors."

The cohort delivered their advice in two parts - CSIRO's distinctive strengths, and how the organisation could deliver sustainable value into the future.

The students advised CSIRO to build on its capabilities to enhance the Australian economy, society and environment; its ability to provide trusted foresight and address future mega trends, and to create commercial advantage for Australian industry.

The students recommended that CSIRO focus on areas of global and national distinctiveness, lift rates of partnering and collaboration, unlock value from its property footprint, and enhance efforts to support industry innovation and commercialisation. 

"There were some heated moments during the project but we learnt to deal with complexity, to work in groups and to build teams," said Ms Connellan. "The outcome was one that we can all be proud of, and it is great to know that we had an opportunity to influence real strategy that is important to the nation's future."

"Throughout the project, the CSIRO was impressed by the professionalism and enthusiasm displayed by the MBA students," Mr Burt said. "The speed with which the students were able to pick up, comprehend and analyse the difficult subject matter should be commended."

"Despite CSIRO's success over many years, it faces significant challenges in the future," said project coordinator, Professor Suresh Cuganesan. "Through this project, our students had an opportunity to work closely with some of the world's leading scientists and to provide input into the future development of this great organisation."

"It really was a once in a lifetime learning opportunity that helped to provide our students with the skills and insights they need to develop strategies in a complex and changing world," Professor Cuganesan said. 

CSIRO also gained much from the project. "It delivered real value in both the recommendations made and through the analytical tools and models provided by the students," said Mr Burt. "This work will contribute directly to planning CSIRO's future strategic directions."