When Westpac first considered becoming a founding member of Hargraves Institute, this major Australian corporation saw opportunity in the collaborative network that would enable them to launch a new initiative. The innovation leaders at Westpac had been keen to establish an 'experience gathering' executive exchange programme and asked Hargraves to develop this as a member service for all members to share. Westpac had already called their proposed programme the Marco Polo Initiative and Hargraves Institute members agreed this would be a fitting title to adopt.
Establishing the Programme and Lessons Learned
The first stage in developing the Marco Polo programme was to arrange a pilot exchange between Westpac and another member company willing to participate. Several members responded to our first call for expressions of interest and of these companies Cochlear became the first exchange partner.
The pilot, in 2007, demonstrated that foreseen possible issues could simply disappear as Westpac and Cochlear joined forces in the true spirit of collaboration.
There were, and always will be, certain challenges to implementing these exchanges and the following is a brief list of points for potential participating member companies and participants to consider:
Selecting the Explorers
Most benefit appears to be gained if the explorer is senior enough to appreciate what they are seeing in the host company and how this might be relate to their own business.
The explorer must clearly be able to adjust to a less structured work environment for a few weeks since it is impossible and indeed unwise to provide a day by day fixed itinerary for the visit.
The explorer's brief, we found, should have some proportion of agreed outcome combined with an open blue sky component which encourages true exploration leading to unexpected outcomes.
Explorers need to understand at the outset that they are not to carry out their regular jobs remotely when assigned to the host company but use the time to really become engaged in their expedition.
Scheduling the Exchanges
Normally the exchanges are expected to be of 1 or 2 week duration although this is entirely determined by the companies involved and may be more or less.
It was recognised just how difficult it is for a valuable experienced executives to take time out for such a venture and it is important to consider this in the selection process and in scheduling the exchange.
In one case, the explorer split their visit into two sections. The first brief visit was used as a reconnaissance visit so that the explorer could gauge which areas of his host organisation might offer the best opportunities. This completed, the explorer requested their host to arrange exposure to those areas of opportunity during the main expedition period some weeks later. Later reports confirmed this was a very effective method of maximising the experience.
It was discovered that a parallel exchange where two people swap organisations at the same time would rarely be practical and there is no reason to expect this. In fact separating the visits by a few weeks provides an opportunity for the explorers to be available as hosts in their own organisation and a useful support for their counterparts.
It should also be noted that while the initial expeditions are each planned in exchange pairs occurring within a reasonable time of each other, this may not necessarily be the norm. In fact there is no reason why Hargraves cannot arrange disassociated exchanges where company A hosts company B and company B hosts company C etc.
Selecting the Host/s Within an Organisation
The host organisation's prime responsibility is to ensure that the guest explorer is provided with a support and facilitation structure that maximises the learning opportunity and provides a feeling of inclusion.
A single point of primary responsibility (the primary host) is considered essential; however it is desirable that this primary host can engage others in the organisation to assist when necessary. Those recruited by the primary host may take the explorer for short periods to provide exposure to a different department or process. The host organisation should make sure that there is sufficient understanding and enthusiasm for the exercise to make the explorers experience a rewarding one.
At the outset the non competing nature of the exchange partners was established and both agreed to each sign the other organisation's standard confidentiality agreement.
It was further agreed that the explorers would present an expedition report to their host company so that any findings could be reviewed with regard to allocating confidentially limitation on their use and publication. This provided a high degree of confidence that no material would move into the public domain for use by competitors.
Discovery of mutual business benefit to exchange partners is similarly handled by joint agreement of the extent to which it can be used and/or made public.
Hargraves Institute does not become a party to the confidentially agreements between participating companies, and it is taken that any material provided to Hargraves for publication to members is not of a sensitive nature.
It remains the responsibility of the explorer's employer to carry workers compensation cover for their employee while on assignment at the host company.
The Explorers' Perspective
From the inaugural exchange, Westpac and Cochlear Marco Polo explorers reported their experiences. Both were enthusiastic in their support, and recounted the highlights of their expeditions. Some of the key points included:
- Experiencing and learning through very different business environments in terms of:
- Geographic focus ie Global vs. Australia
- Scale of organisation and associated challenges and advantages of each
- Differences in systems and procedures of a relatively new company vs. Established Australian icon
- Difference in the internal communications structures and use of intranet for knowledge sharing
- Difference in service vs. technical product focus organisationsInnovation techniques used that each could add to their own tool box
- Developing a new network of intercompany contacts who could provide help and advice in future
- Discovery of new business opportunity insights
The explorers were unanimous in their support of the program after experiencing the benefits first hand.
There is no cost involved for members participating in the Marco Polo program however the following prerequisites apply:
- All companies involved must be members of Hargraves for Hargraves to facilitate the program
- Explorers must be graduates of Hargraves Leadership For Innovation Program (paid at full member rates)
Explorers and Hosts will be asked to provide a joint brief case study and/or invited to present at a subsequent Hargraves Conference or Member Congress to share learnings with other members (subject to confidentiality issues).
Future participants are encouraged to adapt the structure and nature of their exchanges to meet their own particular needs. This is, after all, an exercise in innovation and we would therefore expect the programme itself to evolve as people add their insights to the mix.
We believe this program is one of the best examples of true collaboration and would take this opportunity to thank Westpac, Cochlear, Roche and Coca-Cola Amatil for their early support.