Australia has a great opportunity to innovate, so why isn’t it taking it?

Jonathan OutlawAustralia needs to step out of its comfort zone and work on the basics in order to attract and retain talented people in the tech space before we can get excited about the future, argues PwC Digital Change senior manager Jonathan Outlaw.

Last week, I celebrated my one-year anniversary in Australia. When I made the decision to move here, my friends (perhaps in an effort to get me to stay) said I was making a big mistake and that I would be frustrated by how far behind Australia is compared with Europe. Unfortunately, my friends were right. However, only partly.

Australia is undoubtedly the underdog when it comes to digital innovation. Actually, it’s behind in pure customer/ user experience. I’ll provide two examples that really stood out for me. The first was when I tried to buy something from one of Australia’s largest retailers on my iPad. I was shocked and frustrated that I couldn’t (the site is not responsive) and that I had to fire up my laptop to complete the transaction. In the UK, I would have just abandoned the retailer altogether but unfortunately not having a mobile/tablet optomised site is common for many Australian retailers.

My second example is when I tried to sign up to an home multi-media provider. As I needed broadband and TV, I couldn’t sign up online and was given a number for the call centre. Long story short, it took me 45 minutes on the phone with a customer services rep to complete my transaction. I don’t know any Londoner who would have done that.

Now, I know what you’re thinking ‘well, if everything is so rubbish go home!’ The thing is, I don’t want to; Australia is an amazing country and the opportunity here is tremendous. However, Australia’s big fight at the moment is playing catch up. To do this Australia needs to bring in the best talent from Europe and the US and the selling point should be easy right? Sunshine and lollipops! Well, not exactly. The best talent want to work on the best jobs. They don’t want to improve retailers’ mobile site (they did that 3 years ago for M&S) so we need to think differently about how we get the best digital talent over here.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the magic answer here. I think Australia is producing some great talent from its Universities but I fear we’re losing too many to Silicon Valley and the UK. I also think Australia has a fundamental size issue. 23.13 million disparately spread across four key cities is not a big enough workforce, which means our companies can’t grow. We don’t have a Google HQ with graduates globally scrambling at the door to get in. My final concern (this one may sound strange) is that I think Australia is too comfortable. The GFC shook Europe to its core, average was no longer good enough and it forced companies to differentiate their brand and customer experience just to survive. Similarly, if we look at the fantastic innovation happening in places like Tel Aviv and how Africa is leading the way (ok, behind Japan) in mobile payments, the message is clear: necessity is the mother of invention. In short, I think Australia needs to step out of its comfort zone.

Despite these issues, I honestly believe if Australia can catch up, getting ahead will be much easier.  Australia is a great market to test new ideas, to innovate.  When I worked with Amex in the UK, they often launched new ideas in Australia as they found it to be a more forgiving environment to test and learn before launching solutions globally. In Australia, we do have pockets of excellence and I’m seeing more and more agencies adopting lean and agile methodologies. At PwC, our Ventures team has created some good products using lean startup techniques and our Digital Solutions team has shown how UX and Development teams can effectively work together in an agile environment to launch solutions to market in as little as six weeks.

However, until Australia gets the basics right, we can’t get excited about the future. There’s no point having an awesome voice recognition music system in your car, if the steering wheel doesn’t work properly. The good news though is that everyone loves the underdog. The challenge may be greater but the success is that much sweeter; I for one am backing Australia to win.

Jonathan Outlaw is a senior manager at PwC Digital Change.



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