posted 26 Oct 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 2
The knowledge: Ross Dawson
Collaboration is at the heart of the new economy - within organisations, across national boundaries and online, as well as face-to-face. Sandra Higgison talks to Ross Dawson about 'connecting ideas and people at the edge of the future'.
In a list of Ross Dawson’s qualities and attributes, ‘drive’ would most certainly come close to the top of his most prevalent characteristics. Author of two books, founder of two consulting companies, international conference speaker and a pathological networker, Dawson’s career has undergone a number of transitions that have not only exposed him to a variety of industries and challenges, but also introduced him to new countries, cultures and languages. Listening to him speak about the future of the media industry, open innovation, his ambitions as a musician or the recent birth of his first child, it is clear that Dawson is never less than fully committed and does nothing by halves.
High-value relationships and the role of knowledge within them is the central theme across Dawson’s work. With the economy now dominated by the flow of information and ideas, his first book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, explores how businesses must respond by building lasting customer and partner relationships based on transparency, collaboration and shared value. Since his early work in this area he has uncovered, pursued and developed many new avenues of thought that have already resulted in a second book, Living Networks, and a list of ideas for a dozen more to come.
Of the many areas he is currently involved in, he picks out a few that he finds particularly interesting. Working closely with Rob Cross, a pioneer in social network analysis (SNA) and research director of the Network Roundtable at the University of Virginia, Dawson is applying SNA to high-value relationships. “I’ve been looking at large clients’ buying relationships and how major technology decisions are made through what I call influence networks,” he says.
He is also taking SNA into new domains, such as open innovation, which concerns an organisation’s relationships with the rest of the world, enabling it to be aware of, touch and draw on the best innovation relevant to its business. “The network approach to open innovation is very powerful, especially when you can uncover the nodes, find out how these domains are connected and how you can link people more usefully,” he says. “Some people don’t understand the idea of open innovation. They had better get it soon as you haven’t a hope if you rely solely on your own internal innovation capabilities.”
At a global level, Dawson is also interested in cross-border networks in such sectors as biotechnology, IT and academia. By uncovering the nodes and ways in which these domains are connected he tries to identify the opportunities for linking people more usefully. “What I’ve seen is that one of the ways to draw on the best resources around the world throughout the innovation chain – from conception to development to commercialisation – is through ethnic and country dispersion. As people immigrate they still have deep roots in their native countries and have global networks that are a key source of innovation.”
It was through investigating such cutting-edge concepts that Dawson decided to create the Future Exploration Network earlier this year to help organisations think about their long-term future. The business itself is a network, based around a hub that finds clients and opportunities with the organisation drawing on the best consultants around the world to deliver value. “While this isn’t a new business model it brings to bear a lot of my thinking, ideas and practice from the past 12 years, and offers a real alternative to the traditional consulting firm. Rather than choose a company because it has good people, go to an organisation that can access people whether they are inside or outside the company.”
As the business tag line reads ‘connecting ideas and people at the edge of the future’, it was fitting that one of its first ventures was the creation of a report and summit on the future of media. Running simultaneously in Sydney and San Francisco, California, the event hosted presentations from some of the industry’s sharpest minds including Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine; David Sifry, founder of Technorati; and Craig Newmark, creator of Craigslist. “Using collaboration technology we were able to explore the outlook for the media industry in two places at the same time.” With great attendance in San Francisco and a sell-out audience in Sydney, the report has had more than 15,000 downloads in the past two months and has sparked conversations in at least 20 countries.
In addition to discussion and debate, these activities provide a reference point for an industry that is changing at an extraordinary pace. “Change has been rapid and we can see that social media is now a key part of the landscape. The fundamental issues for media companies are about creating content in different formats, distributing it through new channels, accessing audiences and generating revenues.” Using systems approaches to understand these industry shifts is another focal point in Dawson’s field of vision. “By bringing multiple parties together to look at the enablers and roadblocks you can collaborate and map a path that will bring about change.”
Drawing parallels between Dawson’s work and knowledge management is not difficult. To make the distinction he defines information as anything that can be digitised and knowledge as the capacity to act effectively. “Knowledge and relationships are inextricable. If a relationship does not have a knowledge component then it’s a commodity. There must be mutual knowledge: an organisation must have knowledge of its customers and they must have knowledge of the business. You create value beyond simply delivering a product or service when you make clients more knowledgeable by, for example, helping them make better decisions. It’s about human connections, not just digital flows.”
Dawson’s astute insights into the nature and value of relationships and his chosen areas of work are in no small part attributable to his own diverse background. Born in Canberra, Australia, his family moved to Geneva, when his father accepted a position at the United Nations when Dawson was three. After doing most of his schooling in Switzerland he studied physics at Bristol University in the UK, before returning to Australia where he worked in computer sales and product management at technology vendor NCR. Shifting into international equities at investment bank Merrill Lynch, he then made an even bigger leap to Tokyo where he ended up as bureau chief at financial information supplier Thomson Financial. He moved to London with Thomson to become global director of capital markets, which is where he finally took the plunge into self employment.
This potted history includes two of the main junctures that Dawson says have shaped his career. The first was his decision to uproot from Australia to move to Tokyo. Dawson arrived at Narita International Airport in 1991 not knowing anyone or able to speak a word of Japanese, with nowhere to stay and without a job. “It was an extraordinary challenge that changed my career in a very positive way and opened up many new opportunities,” he says. “I already spoke French, Spanish – and later learnt Portuguese – but I wanted to master an eastern language to give me a new way of thinking.”
Even though his itinerant lifestyle started while still a toddler, Dawson’s time in Japan awakened his appreciation for the value of multiple perspectives. “Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist from the last century, said that if we have a single perspective on anything then we know it is fundamentally flawed. We can only really understand and relate to our world through multiple perspectives, which we can get from different people, languages and physical viewpoints. This relates to how relationships in a knowledge context give you multiple perspectives and a richer view, which result in more effective decision-making and analysis.” Some of Bateson’s thinking is embedded in neuro-linguistic programming, techniques that Dawson studied – and have become implicit in everything he does – to better understand the way we think.
His choice to leave employment in 1996 was his second major milestone. “I always knew I would work for myself at some point, so while it was a big step it wasn’t that hard to take. I knew so much was possible and couldn’t live my life asking ‘what if?’” Having worked in financial information for many years he considered building an information company focused on the Asian and emerging markets, however it struck him that while most organisations had plenty of information what they needed was help in using it to create value.
As he weighed his options Dawson ‘discovered’ knowledge management and realised that it embodied many of the areas he felt were important to business and social issues. “Everybody was looking internally at their employees and finding processes to leverage their knowledge. There was very little talk of how businesses touch clients, suppliers, regulators and the outside world.” To address this gap Dawson set up Advanced Human Technologies as a platform for working with networks and relationships. He also dedicated his first book to the subject. “It was a fairly new idea, but people picked it up as it was so obvious. Today, in a world of web 2.0, business process outsourcing and globalisation, people accept and understand it implicitly.”
A recent post on his blog (www.rossdawsonblog.com), which incorporates research by fellow KM thought leader Tom Davenport, shows how companies can successfully leverage these networks. “Few companies actively support some of the key determinants of high-performing knowledge workers,” he says. “One of their major characteristics is that they actively build networks. The knowledge management movement has helped build yellow pages tools and knowledge broker roles, and most companies see the value in networking events that bring high-potential people together. What I don’t see, however, is a broader or more structured approach where companies encourage people to reach out across departments, divisions and organisational boundaries and coach them on how to build these networks.”
In addition to looking at what the next few years hold for different businesses and industries, Dawson also has big plans for his own future. “Writing books is a big part of who I am,” he says. “I have a long list that I want to write but am almost certain that the next one will be on supplier management. In a global world and modular economy, how can we find, work with and build relationships with the best people, organisations and resources available? This will be a fundamental differentiator in the future.” As the subject mirrors his current work, building the Future Exploration Network, his practical experiences will help shape the book.
With so much to work on one would assume that Dawson couldn’t have much time spare. However, when not writing books, giving keynote speeches or being interviewed by illustrious knowledge management magazines, he has other, no less challenging, ambitions. “Music has always been a core part of my life,” he says. Playing four instruments and using technology to make music, Dawson describes his band’s musical genre as psychedelic funk. “We haven’t performed live for a long time but plan to do so again soon and get a CD out,” he says. “It has always been a dream to do more with my music.”
And if that were not enough for one person to deal with, his life underwent a dramatic shift on 12 August 2006 when Leda Bella Dawson was born. A name taken from Greek mythology, Leda was a potent source of inspiration in the post-classical arts and will no doubt have an equally immeasurable impact on Dawson’s life and work. Recognising that this is a life-changing experience Dawson is curious to see how his blogging, book writing and consulting will adapt to his new role as a father. But if anybody can juggle multiple projects, initiatives and changes in lifestyle, Dawson’s work and experiences so far have already shown that he’ll probably do so with ease. n
Ross Dawson can be contacted at email@example.com.
Name: Ross Dawson
Place of birth: Canberra, Australia
Education: International School of Geneva, Switzerland; Bristol University, UK, BSc in Physics; Macquarie University, Australia, Graduate Certificate in Applied Finance
1984-87 NCR - Major Accounts Sales/ Product Manager
1987-91 Merrill Lynch - International Equities Sales
1991-94 Thomson Financial - Tokyo Bureau Chief
1994-96 Thomson Financial - Global Director, Capital Markets
1996-present Advanced Human Technologies - CEO
Personal strengths: Diverse experience and global perspective. Good at coping with jetlag
Must improve: Desperately seeking distractions when I'm writing. Keep my desk from going wildly out of control. Need to let go and delegate more
Can't live without: My children, Victoria and Leda; the beach; a regular change of environment
What I do to relax: Body surfing; improvisational music; travel to exotic places