by Bonnie Gardiner

RBA embraces competition and reverse mentoring to drive innovation

May 05, 20154 mins
CareersCollaboration SoftwareInnovation

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is driving innovation by embracing concepts such as reverse mentoring, internal competitions like ‘code-a-thons’, and regular collaboration efforts, according to CIO Sarv Girn.

This morning Girn discussed digital leadership, and the critical nature of collaboration, courage and culture. Girn was the keynote speaker for CEDA’s Digital Bytes Breakfast event, held at PwC headquarters, Sydney.

When it comes to generating new ideas, Girn said to look to the younger, more tech-savvy workers in your organisation and utilise their knowledge to solve business challenges and educate older peers.

“A new approach to people management is a critical success factor to leadership today,” he said. “The courage of leaders is being tested more now than ever. And new generations will bring more uncertainty.”

New demographics

Girn says the RBA has “a strong focus on understanding the needs and learning behaviours of the different demographics across the organisation”.

“That’s where we have a more highly interactive approach to getting viewpoints and ideas from the younger cohort that have joined the organisation on how to go about developing solutions.”

The central bank regularly hosts popular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions with its staff to encourage collaboration, generate ideas and start conversations.

It also hosts a “well received” internal competition for coding among its staff (i.e. a ‘code-a-thon’) to generate and maintain a level of excellence around the bank’s technical work, while finding new ways to improve internally with healthy competition.

Girn says a working group of around 70-80 people then decide which new ideas could be prototyped, in a 12-hour stretch while enjoying “many pizzas and cans of coke”.

“We’re certainly finding that the new recruits do have the appetite and the skillset to be innovative, not just in technical terms but also with the soft skills because innovation requires both technical and soft skills,” he said.

“The trick is giving them a challenge, because the younger generation coming through all love challenges, so creating that environment and finding business problems that are worth solving for them is really the challenge for leadership.”

Reverse mentoring

To help give leaders the courage to drive real change, Girn suggested that the traditional mentoring concept be flipped so that older, more experienced generations learn from younger peers.

“It’s about mentoring, but also the concept of ‘reverse mentoring’. Usually you find the younger entrants want a more senior mentor but the examples that are most successful are where the younger person actually ends up mentoring the older person on technology matters.”

Girn said this approach can help give confidence to leaders by demystifying all the changes in the digital world, with a more trustworthy source of information than their children.

He conceded, however, that despite its merits, ‘reverse mentoring’ is hard to set up.

Startup approach

One attendee at the event questioned whether it’s wise to adopt a startup approach that embraces more collaboration and agility, when it’s being applied to larger, more traditional enterprises.

Girn agreed that you can’t suddenly transform a 100-year-old organisation into a cultural startup, but that the key was approaching it on a smaller, segment-by-segment basis, rather than trying to change a whole culture upfront. He referred to this tactic as “innovation on the edge”.

“There will still be a part of the organisation that actually needs to do things in a more traditional way, with more structure and specifications and quality built in at every stage,” Girn said.

“The challenge is working out which part of the organisation needs to move in a startup fashion, with more agility and collaboration, and which part of your organisation needs to be stable and reliable and fully secure.

“That, for us, is obviously a key consideration – deciding which part of the environment we can give our users some new tools to experiment with, and which platforms like payments, banking and markets, will we need to keep stable.”