ExecInsights – Mal Thatcher on the Digitally Capable Organisation

Professor Mal Thatcher
In this episode of ExecInsights, Mal Thatcher, Professor of Digital Practice, QUT Business School, speaks to Kate about the need for digital transformation of organisations. The conversation covers the current digital maturity of Australian organisations, the role of learning and development in the challenge of transformation, and the establishment of the QUT Digital Capability Practice.

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0:09 -Kate Joyner
Welcome to QUT ExecInsights, brought to you by QUTeX Professional and Executive Education for the real world. I’m your host Kate Joyner. With me in our recording studio is a colleague Mal Thatcher. Mal joined QUTeX in 2019 as Professor of Digital Practice. Before he joined the team here, Mal had a long career in the hospital and healthcare sector. He was Chief Information Officer of Mater Health in Brisbane for 10 years, and also took roles of Chief Health Information Officer with Queensland Health and CEO of eHealth. His PhD was focused in digital risk and governance. With some of our previous podcast guests, including professors Marek Kowalkiewicz, Michael Rosemann, and Kerrie Mengersen, Mal is establishing the QUT Digital Capability Practice – a community for digital thought leadership, lifelong learning, and partnership. Our conversation today will focus on what’s ahead for this new venture, and all things digital capability. Have I got that right Mal? All things digital capability.

1:11 – Mal Thatcher
Yes. Perfect, Kate.

1:12 – Kate Joyner
Yeah. So that’s what you’ve come on board to do. And you came on board as Professor of Practice, which is actually a new designation in the university. We haven’t actually had professors of practice as such before. Tell us about that role and why you’re excited to come and join.

The world of higher education is changing. The need for just-in-time learning and closer linkages with industry and what industry require is providing an opportunity for industry to be more directly engaged at university level.

1:29 – Mal Thatcher
Thanks, Kate. And it’s wonderful to be here with you today. The Professor of Practice I’m still working out what that role is, to be honest. Whilst it is new to QUT, it is actually quite common overseas and is being established quite prevalently within the Australian university sector. So what it really recognizes is that the world of higher education is changing. The need for just-in-time learning and closer linkages with industry and what industry require is providing an opportunity for industry to be more directly engaged at university level and hence the role of Professor of Practice. So, the professorial appointment is not a traditional academic trajectory. It is certainly based on, for my particular example, having come from industry for nearly 40 years in technology and having held senior roles in technology and bringing that industry experience, insight and ultimate linkages into industry, into an academic setting. So, I’m excited about the opportunity because being a new role for QUT it gives me great latitude to actually define what this role is and to follow my passion which is about digital risk and governance and how to uplift capability in this particular domain.

2:54 – Kate Joyner
Yeah, very exciting. An emerging area which has the attention of research and teaching across the university. So we’ve said that we actually have already had conversations with Marek Kowalkiewicz, who also has a concentration in all things digital. Kerrie, who’s very focused on the possibilities of data. And also Michael Rosemann, who you know, who is colleagues with Marek and also interested in digital capability and leadership. So together, you’ve got this exciting new initiative, the Digital Capability Practice. What, together, are you hoping to achieve through the digital capability practice?

3:34 – Mal Thatcher
Our approach to this and calling it a practice is really recognizing that across the university, there is significant capability in digital. We look at all our faculties whether it be in education, health, law, creative industries, traditionally, of course, business and science and engineering. We find that we have deep pockets of capability in digital. So QUTeX’s role is to bring that capability together to be able to present a coherent and cohesive product offering to the market. So what we find is that whilst we have great thought leadership from the professors that you’ve indicated, we also have some deep capability in some of the other faculties, which we think we can create that thought leadership, cohesively present that to industry, but also start to focus on the how of digital capability, because a lot of that thought leadership is why it’s important what what it looks like, and what organizations are really struggling with is how to do it. And that’s what the Digital Capability Practice is focusing on.

4:43 – Kate Joyner
Yes. So as you thought about how we might engage with industry, what would be some of the planks of the practice that we we would hope to share with organizations so I would imagine there might be a learning and capability opportunity, some opportunities to go into organizations and help with some of their processes and practice and maybe advisory, those sort of ideas?

5:07 – Mal Thatcher
Yes, so we’re looking at a number of pillars that underpin the structure of the Digital Capability Practice. Teaching and Learning is obviously a core strength of QUT and we will leverage that. What we have identified in discussions with our customers is that there is a competency gap. And we’re looking to build a competency framework in three specific domains. So first, what we refer to as the digital citizenship and that is looking at competencies across the entire enterprise. So all staff, about the new age skills that digital require, and that can be everything from basic digital literacy, information management, cyber awareness and vigilance, how to use multiple different types of devices. So how to contribute as a, I guess, a functioning citizen in a in a digital enterprise. The second domain is around digital transformation. And this is where the rubber hits the road. All organizations are on a digital transformation journey where they think they are or not. And that’s just where we are in 2020. So this is about how to upskill competencies on delivering digital transformation at a middle management level. And then the third domain is around digital leadership. So how do executives, Chief Executives and boards grapple with this issue about digital disruption, digital transformation, driving new business models, and then planning for and executing on those strategies?

How do executives, Chief Executives and boards grapple with this issue about digital disruption, digital transformation, driving new business models, and then planning for and executing on those strategies?

6:46 – Kate Joyner
So digital capability, what I’m hearing is that there’s there’s part of the digital capability agenda that everyone in an organization needs to engage with at some level. So you may not think that your role will be impacted by digital but in fact, we all do and we all need to understand how to be a digital citizen, as you say. And then there’s some more specific and possibly strategic capabilities that, as we move higher up in the organization, we have to have a mindset for, and skillsets to embrace that, and to see what the possibilities are for transformation of our organization. I probably completely re-paraphrase what you say, but that’s what I’ve heard. Am I on the right track?

7:27 – Mal Thatcher
Absolutely, Kate. And what we’re seeing is that if you think about your own personal life, and the digital immersion that that you experience every day, and we are also now seeing a generation of digital natives entering the workforce, and their expectation. So we have to find the right blend of skills at all levels of the organization to make sure that they’re prepared for what is now a very accelerated world of change. We’ve been through the third industrial revolution, which is the Information Age, or the age of the World Wide Web, and how that’s transformed the ability to deliver services and get access to information. But you know, the fourth industrial revolution is about the convergence of machines, with technology and with humans. So we are very much required, and organizations are really grappling with, this huge increase in speed of change. So we have to have the right skills and we have to have the right mindset around innovation. What does it mean to be “fail fast”, but move quickly on opportunities? And it doesn’t matter if you’re in government or in the private sector or the not-for-profit sector. The challenges are there for all those groups.

8:50 – Kate Joyner
What I’ve heard too, about the fourth industrial revolution, it’s actually Alan Kohler, that great management pundit, Alan Kohler, who said that what we don’t understand about the fourth industrial revolution, while it’s about digital everything and everywhere, he said that the real core of it is the customer-centricity. That we think that we are customer-centric, but the organizations that are truly customer-centric and getting all the advantages, all the leverage available in artificial intelligence are the ones who are going to win, certainly in market-facing firms. So that digital and the availability of data, as Kerrie has taken us through, gives us that strategic advantage if we can leverage data and be truly customer-centric.

9:35 – Mal Thatcher
Absolutely. And there are three big drivers of disruption at the moment. So, one that you pointed to which is the customer. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Apple, or one of the big tech companies, or a retailer, or in manufacturing, you know, community centered organizations, the role of the customer in Human Centered Design and actually the voice of the customer is so critical. So that’s definitely a big driver. And part of it has been through the internet democracy, the drive for customers to now be empowered through mobile devices and access to information. The second big one is data. So organize, you know, the future, greatest tangible asset that will be on the balance sheet of organizations will be data. Today it’s an intangible, but it is very quickly moving and there are models moving towards data being a tangible asset, and in the future, I predict it will be the only tangible asset of organizations. And then the third is this huge drive to automation and artificial intelligence and machine learning. It is accelerating incredibly rapidly in most sectors. So if you bring those three together, organizations really need to get ahead of the curve, to make sure that they’re riding that wave of innovation. They’re riding that wave of digital disruption, rather than than being swamped by that wave, and I think what we’re trying to achieve here at QUTeX, with the Digital Capability Practice is give you the skills and the competencies to be able to ride that wave.

11:13 – Kate Joyner
That’s so that kind of brings us into, we’ve said that this is the digitally capable organization, the one that who can harness the benefits, harnessing the power of data, use artificial intelligence skillfully. What is the actual state of play? So it’s very hard to get a fix on what organizations are actually doing now in this space, and I get a sense that there’s mature organizations and of course, we can point to the Facebooks and the Googles and the Apples in that domain, but … I’ll put it again. How are we traveling in Australia? What is the actual state of play in digital transformation of organizations?

11:58 – Mal Thatcher
It’s a great question, Kate, because it’s happening at different levels and different intensities. So the sectors that are being most disrupted at the moment, particularly in retail.

We’re gonna see a lot of brains disappear. And we’re seeing it now.

12:17 – Kate Joyner
We’ve actually already had Gary Mortimer, speak to us about retail transformation. Absolutely. So just to bring in some of our previous interviews.

12:25 – Mal Thatcher
Definitely. So I think if you look at just about every sector, there’s degrees of disruption, but I want to focus a little bit on the government, because government is in to some extent, they’re at a crossroads around the digital transformation journey, because the challenge they really have is understanding what is “digital government” moving forward, and our own thought leaders within QUT have done a great job at expressing what digital government might look like in the future. The real challenge around digital government is understanding the role of the citizen. Because ultimately, when you think about the basis of government, you know, that social contract where citizens forego certain liberties on the basis that they’re going to be kept safe, and that there’s going to be order, and anarchy won’t rule. So a big component of that is trust. And governments in Australia, you just look at the amount of change every time we go to the polls, that signals that there is a lack of trust in government. So digital has this wonderful opportunity and perhaps a unique opportunity to establish trust, reestablish trust, with citizens by government. And part of that is about how you develop a multi channel approach to the way in which you engage citizens. And the challenge that governments have traditionally had in this space is that they think about the citizen journey as being these discrete interactions and engagements and touchpoints with government. But that’s not how citizens view their particular engagement with government. So government needs to start thinking laterally about the end-to-end experience and life journey of a citizen through government services. My background coming from health, it’s very clear that disconnectedness between the components of the health system. I think government needs to start thinking about – How do we put the citizen at the center of the digital journey, irrespective of the touch points? So the problem with that is that government is traditionally very siloed. So how do you bring government organizations together, and this is the future of enterprise it’s about team based thinking and team based organizational structure, not thinking about traditional siloed structures of operations and maintenance and support. And, you know, it’s how do we actually bring teams together and team-based structures will, I think be very prominent in the future. And government needs to get their head around that. Siloing agencies into particular disciplines and services is not the way of future digital government.

Government needs to start thinking laterally about the end-to-end experience and life journey of a citizen through government services.

15:19 – Kate Joyner
Yes, we’ve seen some government agencies, I think, actually physically set up their workplaces to support a team-based environment. So, does actually require that really physical change to enact some sort of different kinds of team-based workplace practices, or can you take a legacy organization and try to reinvigorate with some of these new practices? From your experience, what do you think?

15:48 – Mal Thatcher
I think if you want that the outcome and the process to be authentic, you have to physically change the structure. You can’t simply have a community of practice try to come together to solve a problem. And that’s because, you know, ultimately, government’s quite authoritarian in the way in which it structures its workforce. So you have to give structural authority to that particular work project or outcome that you’re seeking. I think it does require a different way of thinking in the way in which teams are brought together and the structural authority of that team in terms of its constituent agency, for example, or who it’s ultimately accountable to.

16:40 – Kate Joyner
Just going back to some of the aspects of this Digital Capability Practice and we talked about building competencies, particularly for the the digital citizen, which I think we’ve established is the foundation. So, what are the best ways for organizations to think about building these competencies, for example? Would they come and do a workshop? Like, face-to-face? Or will there be sort of embedded workplace learning enabled, by digital learning tools? What’s your vision for how organizations might best affect that?

17:15 – Mal Thatcher
If you think about the three domains that I talked about, so digital citizenship, digital transformation, digital leadership, there’s an impact curve to those. So the highest impact sits with leadership and then it sort of tails back to the digital citizen. So I think when we’re looking at how to uplift competencies at the whole-of-organization level, it has to be a micro learning approach. You can’t bring you know, in the case of my previous organization, Department of Health in Queensland, 100,000 staff to a workshop. So it does need to be a look at innovative ways of delivering that content and ways that are very engaging as well. Because as you know, to sit through a piece of micro learning online, you want it to be an engaging thing. What I would love to see is that some of these really important core competencies become part of mandatory education within organizations. And cyber is a great example of that. That cyber awareness and your role in keeping information secure is really critical.

18:29 – Kate Joyner
So I think we’re grappling with that. This is another sort of area of learning curve about engaging work-based microlearning. I think we’re going up that learning curve, but I’m imagining something that very much also incorporates artificial intelligence so that an algorithm would know how much you’ve achieved and what kind of areas you have strength in where you need some sort of uplift and will direct you to that kind of content, and also show you what’s possible next, without having to physically search that. I’d imagine that the brave new world of learning.

19:10 – Mal Thatcher
I’ve seen some great examples of what the future of digital learning can look like in regard to virtual and augmented reality. And I think that will be a big part of how we improve that engagement and how individuals are going through that learning process.

19:27 – Kate Joyner
Yeah, we certainly have our VR equipment set up here, I think we’re still on the learning curve about how we can best incorporate that kind of learning into our establishment, workplace, workshop-based learning, but how organizations might also use that. That’s quite exciting and I think there’s all sorts of wonderful possibilities with virtual learning, and it would be great for lots of organizations to join us in that learning curve. I suppose we all have to learn, practice and share reflections together, I think, so you have to join hands I think, Mal.

20:04 – Mal Thatcher
Yes, definitely. As we go up that curve towards the executive leadership development and digital leadership, the ability to immerse those leaders into case studies and real world situations, I think becomes really powerful.

20:22 – Kate Joyner
And that’s why we called it a practice. I think it has, you know, the potential for everyone to be able to engage, for organizations to come and engage with us, wherever they are in that learning curve and to learn with other organizations. I think that’s the promise. So, you know, if organizations want to take that experience with us and learn together, which would be our fondest hope, how would they best do that, Mal?

20:48 – Mal Thatcher
So a key pillar of our digital capability practice is around community. And we see that whilst QUT has some wonderful thought leadership and can curate and create content, we see the greatest value in co-designing with industry and with our customers and that’s the process we’re currently undertaking. We invite all organizations to join that community and to become part of that co-design process.

21:14 -Kate Joyner
So they need only find a link for QUTeX, which is the portal to QUT for all things, including the Digital Capability Practice and they can find a way through to contact someone from the practice?

21:29 – Mal Thatcher
Absolutely. Just searching for Digital Capability Practice at QUT will direct them to the right place.

21:36 – Kate Joyner
Okay, that’s that’s a good link. So thanks, Mal. I’ve enjoyed that conversation. Lots of challenges there, which I’ll enjoy exploring with you and their use, I hope for years to come.

21:48 – Mal Thatcher
Thanks, Kate. We could talk for hours on this.

21:50 – Kate Joyner
We could. And I’m sure we will in the future. But for now, I say thank you very much. Thank you.

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Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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