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There’s a term that’s particularly loved by IT-oriented start-ups, ‘building the plane while you’re flying it’.

The business case put forward for and by Callaghan Innovation doesn’t use the term.

However, that’s what I interpret from the ‘Purpose of this document’ comment on its fourth page. (It follows an earlier sentence – Callaghan Innovation’s role does not currently exist in the New Zealand innovation system, and it is in effect a “start-up” organisation. [CI’s quotation marks]).

A bit of a pre-amble later, the document goes on to state:

Recognising these uncertainties, the draft business case submitted to Ministers on 13 December 2012 provided a development path with high levels of optionality and choices in the short to medium term, Callaghan Innovation’s investment in new tools and instruments being made in line with progress in this discovery process, and demonstrated results from pilot and service testing.

Now, perhaps unfairly, this can be interpreted as ‘we’re making it up as we go along’.

But, given:

1. The stealth-like, non-consultative manner an originally proposed Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) morphed into an all-singing, all-dancing CI
2. The fact that the CI establishment board chair (Sue Suckling) reported only and directly to minister-of-everything Steven Joyce, and
3. The lack of any (even loose) overseas model on which CI might be seen to be based,

Then there’s very little other conclusion that can be drawn.

I’m sure too that in his private-sector dealings, Steven Joyce would’ve never okayed the setting up of a new business venture before a business plan/case had been developed, but that’s what’s happening with the allocation of $166 million to be spent by CI over the next four years.

For all that, no one is going to be anti CI’s strapline ‘we accelerate commercialisation of New Zealand’s innovation’.

It is just that for all its 65 pages of business case proposal, we’re not that much wiser.

In fact, you have to wonder if recently announced chief executive Dr Mary Quin quite knows what she’s letting herself in for in taking up the new role.

In the absence of an actual nationally integrated science and innovation plan, the danger is that there’s no coherent sense of direction for our country.

At least (with a background as an engineer in materials science), Mary Quin isn’t an academic or professional manager.

Her recent experience in managing the 2,800 person USA support services company NANA Management Services, jointly owned by Alaska’s indigenous Inupiat people will no doubt serve her well in her new role.

From NZ Inc’s point of view, how and to what, she moulds an extremely amorphous Callaghan Innovation will be crucial for our country’s future.

Equally, managing relationships between CI’s chair, minister, stakeholders, researchers and the industry it is supposed to be serving will be no insignificant feat.

So, in welcoming you to the new role Dr Quin, you could do much worse that reviewing the ATI blueprints put forward by the now extinct Industrial Research Ltd.

At least those blueprints provide some idea of how to keep the CI plane in the air.

P.S. As a number of readers pointed out, Dr Michael J Kelly (ex-pat Kiwi now at Cambridge University, and former undergraduate colleague of the late Prof Sir Paul Callaghan) was interviewed by National Radio’s Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon on March 13. (CI chair Sue Suckling was also interviewed at the same time). One of Kelly’s main points is that there’s been no debate about how to structure the new organisation……and an inherent danger it becomes a mere broker of technical knowledge. The podcast can be found here.

Callaghan Innovation – building the plane while they fly it

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