Icon in Crisis

Icon in Crisis: The reinvention of CSIRO

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: UNSW Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Icon in Crisis
    Book Description:

    In 2001, CSIRO’s future looked shaky. The Australian government had announced a big increase in public funding for science, but had pointedly left the iconic national research agency out when it came to distributing the cash. Facing the threat of funding cuts and loss of reputation, CSIRO set about reinventing itself through what became known as its National Flagship Initiative. This book is the story of that program, told by Ron Sandland who led the initiative and Graham Thompson who designed its systems and processes. To achieve the changes that were necessary for its survival, CSIRO had to wrestle with almost every aspect of its identity and culture. A new way of doing science was in the making, one designed to bring together the nation’s best minds to tackle some of its biggest challenges – including water, energy and the future of food. The result: the biggest shakeup in the history of CSIRO. And it paid off – the agency received extra funding and won the highest accolade at the 2008 Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management. Frank and unflinching about the internal conflict and soul-searching that gripped the organisation as it struggled to find its way in a changing political and financial environment, Icon in Crisis charts in detail CSIRO’s dramatic and successful transformation.

    eISBN: 978-1-74224-597-3
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acronyms
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xv)
    Catherine Livingstone

    As we entered the 21st century there was a growing recognition around the world that innovation was a key ingredient in the quest for continuing economic, and indeed social, wellbeing. However, at the National Innovation Summit in February 2000 – a joint federal government and Business Council of Australia initiative – the optimistic tone of the opening session of the summit was somewhat dampened by the announcement that, regardless of the merit of proposals recommended, there would be no new money from the government. Undeterred, the delegates enthusiastically embraced the intent of the summit, which was to provide an opportunity...

  6. Preface
    (pp. xvi-xx)
  7. PART I A glorious past:: but what of the future?
    • 1 CSIRO January 2001
      (pp. 1-16)

      Waking up on New Year’s Day in January 2000, most of the 6500 people who worked for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would have felt pretty confident about their lot. They were working with exceptionally bright colleagues for an organisation that had a strong international scientific reputation and the status of an icon within much of Australian society. While there had been changes in the work they had been undertaking since the late 1980s, they would have expected to continue basking in the glory of CSIRO’s significant past achievements for many years to come.

      However, all that...

    • 2 Big hairy audacious goals
      (pp. 17-31)

      In January 2001 CSIRO was not unlike the proverbial frog in a saucepan of cold water that is gradually heated up. Unless there is some intervention, the frog will not realise its plight until it’s too late. Goodbye frog. On the other hand, a frog that is dropped into very hot water will – so they tell us – immediately leap out of the saucepan because his immediate plight triggers an instant escape reflex. CSIRO was very much in the former category and the temperature was rising fairly rapidly.

      Having spent five months finding his way around the organisation and...

    • 3 A new way of doing science
      (pp. 32-47)

      When an organisation sets out to reinvent itself, the path of least resistance is usually to choose a tried and tested model, then provide a rationale for that choice and work hard on the change process needed to give effect to the transition.

      There were many different business model options that CSIRO could have chosen when it stood at the door to its new future in mid-2001, but none of these entirely met the organisation’s particular requirements in re-establishing its research agenda. The list below is not intended to be complete, nor is this chapter intended to provide a definitive...

    • 4 Building up steam
      (pp. 48-68)

      The well-known English historian, AJP Taylor, once wrote that ‘History gets thicker as it approaches recent times’.¹ This certainly seems to hold true when one looks at the history of the flagship initiative, even though it is barely ten years old.

      As mentioned, the structural entities CSIRO started to put in place to pursue the BHAGs were referred to as ‘flagship programs’, which was later shortened to simply ‘flagships’. At about the same time, the term ‘flagship initiative’ was introduced as the collective noun for all the flagships.

      CSIRO eventually agreed on the following definition of flagships:

      Flagships are multidisciplinary...

    • 5 Emerging challenges
      (pp. 69-83)

      When CSIRO decided to implement the flagship initiative, it might somehow have called down upon itself that apocryphal Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’, for the flagships undoubtedly ushered in one of the most tumultuous, even chaotic, periods in CSIRO’s 80-year history. The early days of the flagships were testing for both the flagship directors and their divisional partners. CSIRO was moving into new territory, and the maps available to help them on their journeys were less than complete.

      A lot of uncertainty stemmed from the decision to allow the flagships to develop organically. This approach had been...

    • 6 Finding the money to do it
      (pp. 84-97)

      In about 100 BC Publilius Syrus, a Roman writer of maxims, said, ‘Money alone sets all the world in motion’. He could have had the flagships in mind when he pronounced this maxim: CSIRO’s efforts to fund them indeed set its world in motion.

      Putting in place six large multidisciplinary research programs that aimed to address considerable and complex issues was never going to be cheap. Substantial amounts of funding were going to be required, and quickly, if the flagships were to make a successful start. Very soon after it had committed itself to the initiative, CSIRO started to look...

    • 7 The challenges of governance in a creative organisation
      (pp. 98-110)

      In research organisations, enthusiasm for exploring new areas of science can sometimes relegate the need for sound governance and management of those activities to a position of relative unimportance. Even when confronted with proposed changes as complex and as potentially disruptive as the BHAGs and the flagships, CSIRO management did not fully appreciate the importance of clear and transparent arrangements for managing them. As we have said already, senior management was, at the outset, not even able to explicitly define the kinds of relationships that were wanted between the divisions and the flagships.

      It was obvious from the outset that...

  8. PART II Dealing with the issues
    • 8 2001: A cultural odyssey
      (pp. 112-132)

      The culture of CSIRO in 2001 was one chiselled by history and current circumstance. Scientific excellence and freedom were highly prized and eagerly asserted. CSIRO’s history was a source of real pride for its staff. In more recent years, however, the quest for higher levels of external revenue changed the work people did, and also their appreciation of what scientific excellence actually meant, in ways that were both subtle and glacially slow. There was concern about the need to ‘chase dollars’ as an end in itself, and a silo mentality had the organisation in its grip. It was hard to...

    • 9 Roles, authority, responsibility: Who does what to whom?
      (pp. 133-154)

      Most effective organisations place great importance on clarifying lines of authority and reporting for their staff. As a rule, CSIRO does this well: since time immemorial it has produced job descriptions for each position in the entire organisation; it introduced a performance management system some 20 years ago to make clear to all staff what they are expected to achieve each year; and it has published details of authority at various levels of CSIRO for many years, the latest version being an intranetAuthorities Manualdocumenting authorities across the organisation.

      When CSIRO introduced the flagships the existing descriptions were not...

    • 10 Surviving in Horizon 2: Making ends meet
      (pp. 155-172)

      Running any initiative on the scale of the flagships involves significant investment. We have seen how CSIRO acquired the funding necessary to commence and then continue the initiative (Chapter 6). Despite major successes in redirecting CSIRO’s internal funds and winning increases in government funding for the flagships, the story of flagship finances has not been one of unmitigated triumph.

      In the early days of the flagship initiative those CSIRO divisions with large exposures to flagships experienced a significant and potentially disastrous drop in the external revenue they earned from flagship activities. This idea, of revenue flows getting worse before getting...

    • 11 Help wanted: But where to find it?
      (pp. 173-194)

      When the flagship initiative began, an impartial observer might have agreed that the roles of flagship director and division chief were about equivalent in complexity. Further observations probably would have led to surprise on the part of the same impartial observer at the differences in the sizes of their support groups: division chiefs had teams headed by professionals, providing strategic and operational advice and other services in human resource management, finance, communications, IT, strategic planning, legal services, business development, commercialisation and so on. Flagship directors, on the other hand, were restricted to very small establishments by the ‘PA and a...

    • 12 Getting the message across
      (pp. 195-210)

      Australia has two iconic public sector agencies: CSIRO and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). They have much in common. Both are brimming with exceptionally talented and dedicated individuals. Both share a passionate belief in their missions and a sense that they can change the world for the better. Both share a relationship with the general public that is the envy of many private sector Boards and unparalleled among other public sector agencies. They have both had a relationship with their principal funder and stakeholder, the Australian Government, which has waxed and waned with the issues confronting the agencies and government...

  9. PART III Facing the future
    • 13 Transition to a truly national initiative
      (pp. 212-236)

      We often hear it said that Australia punches well above its weight. Despite Australians accounting for substantially less than 0.4 per cent of the world’s population, our sporting prowess in many fields is known far and wide; we are supposed to be more innovative than other peoples (although Thomas Barlow debunks this as one of ten myths of Australian science)¹; and we produce far more than our fair share of published research papers, at about 2 per cent of the global total.

      Barlow puts this last achievement into perspective by arguing that this is more or less appropriate for an...

    • 14 Full steam ahead
      (pp. 237-262)

      In the preceding chapters we have focused both on the challenges that CSIRO confronted in implementing the National Flagship Initiative and the lessons learned along the way. Jim Collins, in his management classicGood to Great,¹ describes the factors underpinning outstanding and enduring business success. CSIRO is not called to account by means of the remorseless mechanism of financial markets; the criteria for its success are somewhat less immediately tangible than those discussed by Collins, but no less real, and the conclusions fromGood to Greatapply equally to organisations whose primaryraison d’êtreis other than building shareholder value....

    • 15 Lessons learned
      (pp. 263-277)

      CSIRO learned many lessons from the conceptualisation and implementation of the flagship initiative. Many of them can be applied more broadly to ‘big goals’ in business and society at large. We have generalised the lessons here to illustrate how they could be used in other contexts. We believe that they could greatly accelerate progress towards BHAG-type goals, and that the earlier these lessons are adopted the quicker and more successful such an implementation would be.

      We have classified the lessons according to domains of activity:

      Vision and mission




      Risk and risk management

      Operations and organisational design


  10. Appendices
    (pp. 278-334)
  11. Glossary
    (pp. 335-340)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 341-345)
  13. References
    (pp. 346-347)
  14. Index
    (pp. 348-358)