by CIO Staff

Five Things CSIRO’s Dr Alex Zelinsky Has Learned About Leading in Science and Innovation

May 13, 20097 mins
CareersGovernmentGovernment IT

Dr Alex Zelinsky is the CSIRO’s group executive, Information and Communication Sciences and Technologies, as well as director of the Australian scientific research organisation’s Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Centre.

Starting out his career as a systems engineer with BHP Steel in 1978, Dr Zelinsky joined the CSIRO in July 2004 and is currently charged with leading the organisation’s efforts to develop innovative technology platforms in such areas as sensor networks, computational and simulation science. As part of that role, he is also responsible for building the ICT Centre’s research capabilities to address Australia’s national challenges and to commercialise technology developed by the CSIRO. The results of these efforts are currently being applied to cross-disciplinary research throughout the CSIRO, particularly in the areas of energy, health, agriculture, manufacturing and the environment.

Capture the imagination of your people and their hearts and minds won’t be far behindDr Alex Zelinsky

Before joining the CSIRO, Dr Zelinsky was chief executive officer and co-founder of Seeing Machines, an Australian technology company dedicated to developing state-of-the-art computer vision systems. Prior to founding Seeing Machines Dr Zelinsky was Professor of Systems Engineering at the Australian National University, Canberra. He has also worked as a research scientist in the AIST Electrotechnical Laboratory in Japan, conducting groundbreaking research into robotics and computer vision.

An internationally recognised scientists for his research in robotics and real-time computer vision systems for human-machine interfaces, Dr Zelinsky has published over 120 refereed papers and served on the editorial boards of some of the top journals and magazines in his field. He also has won several awards in Australia and internationally, including the Australian Engineering Excellence Awards (1999 and 2001), Discover Magazine’s Top 100 Innovations of 2001 Award and the Australian Eureka Science Prize 2002. He was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Below, Dr Zelinsky shares what he’s learned during the course of his distinguished career as an IT scientist and academic, as well management techniques he’s acquired during his tenure as head of the CSIRO’s hub for creating innovative information and communication technologies.

1. Create a compelling and focused vision. To quote Lewis Carol and Alice in Wonderland “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” A knowledge-based workforce typically needs to believe in and embrace an organisation’s mission and objectives. Scientists are attracted to work for CSIRO, the national science agency, by our organisation’s focus on addressing national challenges — in areas as climate, water, environment and creating high technology products and services.

Along with a core purpose it is also important to create a “buzz” — people enjoy working somewhere that is exciting and dynamic, where they feel they make a difference and can see their ideas blossom. Capture the imagination of your people and their hearts and minds won’t be far behind. A key element is keeping the problem grand while making the steps to the solution small. We have found that having researchers plodding towards a far-off goal will be initially well motivated by its scope but may become discouraged by its distance unless smaller goals are met along the way.

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2. Resourced for success. A great vision that is not matched by brilliant execution is of no value. It is important that strategic initiatives to have sufficient resources allocated to ensure success. Too often in research and innovation, insufficient resources are allocated to a project. There are always and will always be resource constraints., coupled with other competing priorities. The ability to marshal resources is critical to success.

Even with excellent project management, doing something for the first time, particularly in RD, it is difficult to judge the correct resourcing levels. Typically projects nearly always overrun in time and cost, despite best efforts. Revisiting the resourcing issue must be done on a regular basis. In global RD where the competition is intense there is rarely a prize for coming second. The ability to objectively evaluate the progress of projects is vital. Projects that have fallen behind and can’t get be resourced to get to the front — must be dispassionately terminated.

3. Commitment to developing and attracting talent. The fact is that in science, technology and innovation there is a global war for talent, coupled with the reality that smart staff are highly mobile and are prepared to move around. CSIRO has learnt that “talent attracts talent” getting one outstanding individual onboard and other high achievers will flock to you, seeking the chance to work with the stars.

Senior staff is often recruited from expats relocating back to Australia — bringing invaluable international experience to the organisation. In reality. it is a real challenge to hire an array of stars, for this reason we need to grow and nurture indigenous talent. This means investing in skills training and supporting placements with leaders in other institutions — the “prodigal son” policy.

When staff return they bring with them better skills and new contacts. CSIRO supports summer vacation study programs for undergraduate students, PhD students through scholarships and hosts smart interns who are studying at university. We simply hire the best after graduation, which is much easier since the students have had a direct relationship and connection with CSIRO.

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4. Building first-class teams. The popular management quote “People with the best people win” reflects the importance of talent dimension to success. These days it is also generally recognised that teamwork amongst talented people is also required. Perhaps the management quote should be the “People with the best teams win”. Today’s science is increasingly becoming multi-disciplinary requiring collaboration between large teams that are geographically distributed often over institutional and national boundaries. It is increasingly difficult for single “god scientists” to make the big breakthroughs. These days the breakthroughs are coming from teams of scientists.

People who can successfully work in multi-disciplinary teams, have broad scientific interests and a thirst for knowledge are required. ICT has become the productivity and innovation enabler for almost areas of science and business. Within CSIRO ICT is being applied to develop innovation technology solutions to water, climate, energy, mining, agriculture challenges.

ICT is now a key enabler for multi-disciplinary collaboration between distributed teams through video conferencing and online collaboration and tools. CSIRO seeks scientists who are not just narrow technical specialists, they are people who have superior communication skills and are comfortable working across boundaries — disciplinary, institutional and geographical.

5. Living and breathing performance management. Science is a global business that is highly competitive. The public expects CSIRO, our national science agency to have world-class scientific capabilities. Within CSIRO, we always seek to be the best. This requires us to continually seek constructive critiquing and feedback on how we can improve our science and innovation.

In sport the saying is that “Feedback is the Food of champions”, it is no different in scientific endeavours. We seek to benchmark ourselves against the world leaders in our scientific disciplines. We encourage our people to provide constructive and direct feedback to colleagues on improving performance. The quest for excellence is handed down to individuals — expectations are set and performance is monitored. Complimenting performance management is a culture of celebration and recognition of success and achievement. We reward our people through awards, prizes and cash incentives.