Business must develop strategies to avoid becoming part of the fossil record

IT was my great pleasure this week to meet Scott Hocknull, just a few days after he was named Young Australian of the Year.

Now I don’t want to make it seem like I have come out all Aussie after the long weekend celebrations to bleat on about our great wide land.

Far from it. While I am an enthusiast for all things Australian (in a modest way, with a little less Oi! Oi! Oi!), meeting Mr Hocknull prompted me to write about something that may be perceived as slightly negative in what is our special week.

You see young Mr Hocknull is a palaeontologist – a student of fossils – and, at 24 years of age, the youngest-ever curator of an Australian museum.

Palaeontologists examine the ancient records left by nature, looking for clues about our planet’s past.

So what did this young achiever have to say and what has that got to do with business in WA, I hear you ask?

Apart from some good ideas about palaeontologists getting involved in tourism and a keen message about how we need to take care with development, I didn’t get a chance to speak much with Mr Hocknull. He’s a busy lad on a whirlwind trip, with a sore back from the congratulatory slaps.

But meeting him made me think of a book I am in the middle of: The Eternal Frontier by Australian author Tim Flannery, himself a palaeontologist.

The Eternal Frontier is Mr Flannery’s latest epic on continental development, choosing North America as his subject after his best seller on Australia’s pre-colonial history, The Future Eaters.

While I have yet to finish his new work, Mr Flannery is clearly driving home a theory he has about evolution.

It’s a very disturbing theory that, if you take it across to the world of business and apply it in the commercial arena, doesn’t offer Australia’s corporate operators much hope – unless they are smart enough to learn from the lessons of history.

Basically, Mr Flannery’s explanation of the development of fauna and flora is that those that develop in a bigger environment have the best chance of survival when they clash with animals and plants that come from a smaller environment.

In this way, much of North America’s animals herald from Asia, making their way to the smaller continent when climatic conditions allowed.

Similarly, North America’s animals largely colonised geo-graphically smaller South America, except in tropical areas, where the southern players had a bigger field to develop and could easily dominate the small northern zones.

Taken across to the business world, there is no doubt that the US has been the powerhouse of corporate activity for 100 years.

In this instance it is not simply about geographic and population size, though few regions before the EU developed and China woke up, could rival the US in either.

As US corporations have started to spread beyond their own shores they have been remarkably successful, proving more adept at adapting to other cultures than many would have expected.

The McDonald’s story would have been hard to believe 40 years ago. Yet US brands like McDonald’s dominate the world, while Australia for many years has had just one globally recognised name – Fosters.

It is not all one-way traffic but it is not hard to see this theory apparently proven many times over in recent corporate history.

Australian companies, coming from one of the smallest developed economies, have found it tough to crack it in the international market, particularly the biggest markets.

Of course, there are some good news stories, just as there were in the animal and plant kingdoms. Mr Flannery’s theory for the survival in Asia of the North American-spawned camel was based on specialties and niches.

The camel, adapted to survive in harsh North American regions, found few competitors in similar areas of Asia.

Such specialties become ever more prevalent as the environment size reduces. Australia has shown how vulnerable it is to invading wildlife, while exporting few things successfully.

The raven, in fact, is one of our earliest world beaters but almost matches Fosters for being largely alone as a global success story.

My point is there must be a lesson in there for all of us.

Maybe adapting the techniques of the successful will help us thwart their invasion, as well as succeed in their world. While this doesn’t seem to stack up as a successful ploy in the historical record, few animals or plants had the opportunity to study their inter-continental rivals’ business plans before they arrived.

There are plenty of examples of Australians travelling to the US in search of business ideas.

Bunnings’ warehouse concept is very close copy of a US model, albeit masterminded by a top retailer in the form of Joe Boros.

Hopefully, mimicry is not the only answer.

Perhaps our business environment offers us special lessons that we can use to our advantage to carve out new markets that have never been developed in nations that, despite having larger commercial environments. Our miners, for example, have proved they have the skills to take on the world.

Local shipbuilders are another example. Developing aluminium-building skills for the rock lobster industry, Austal has evolved rapidly into a global ferry builder and now operates in the US.

At Business News we will keep encouraging successful business with something special that will help them take on the world successfully.

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