Paint by numbers: Why Karina Collins swapped art for accounting

Karina Collins, the national leader of BDO Australia's consultancy division, has made a career out of advising clients on innovation

Swapping art for accounting, Collins made a career applying technology to strategy.

In a business world full of disruption, Karina Collins is in her element. The national leader of BDO Australia’s consultancy division has made a career out of advising clients on innovation, technology and transformation. She sees it as an opportunity to give them simple but powerful strategies allowing them to respond to market changes and to achieve sustainable, profitable growth.  

The successful digital platforms such as Facebook and Google demonstrate how much can be done by a business with a rich flow of digital data.

Collins admires Amazon, which has disrupted markets such as e-commerce and cloud computing by continually investing its profits into new business areas and finding new ways to use its customer information.

Likewise, Facebook, Google and LinkedIn are using their data strength to broaden their market reach.

“They are continuously extending the markets they are playing in and finding ... space for new initiatives,” she says.

Collins’ enthusiasm for innovation and new technology may have lain dormant, had it not been for a change in discipline after secondary school. She had initially studied art and design before switching to accounting. In her 20s, realising that she preferred management consulting and advisory work over compliance, she moved to a consulting role at EY.

That experience and stints at firms including Solution 6, Comdisco, Deloitte and now BDO confirmed for her a love of creating change, building things and executing on strategy.

“Businesses can get lost in the complexity of data analytics.” 

She has forged a consulting reputation in technology-related fields such as digital transformation, data analytics and information and communications technology procurement.

“It’s all about critical thinking and problem solving,” she says. “You have to be able to stretch outside your traditional boundaries to be able to do that.”

Yet Collins believes the concept of business strategy is relatively simple. Organisations need to set a vision (for inspiration, she says, think of Oxfam’s dream of “a just world without poverty”); articulate a mission that can evolve depending on market cycles; develop a clear and specific strategy within an overall framework; identify goals to achieve that strategy;and ensure that senior leaders translate the blueprint into a set of executable actions, complete with clear accountabilities.

“Those component parts all need to be very well aligned,” says Collins. “Leadership may change, but it’s a big deal if the vision changes.”

The technology/innovation connection

At EY in the early 2000s, Collins helped roll out the firm’s online customer-engagement platform. She credits that with sharpening her focus on advances in the digital space.

“That experience really opened my eyes up to innovation and technology. I got addicted to it,” she admits.

She also learned about the importance of being an early adopter of technology and challenging the status quo – factors that remain relevant with both her strategy work and her leadership role at BDO.

Today, her digital transformation work extends beyond private corporations to a diverse range of public sector, not-for-profit and infrastructure clients.

“We are extremely focused on strategy and digital data – what that means for our business model and how we need to make sure we’re delivering that exceptional digital client experience,” she says.

Collins singles out the power of modern data analytics, which “blows out of the water” the older discovery and analysis that have traditionally informed strategy development

Using data to take an evidence-based approach

A case in point is the work BDO’s data analytics team did in 2016 with the South Bank Corporation to help it better understand the value drivers at Brisbane’s South Bank precinct, home to restaurants, retail outlets, parklands and even an artificial beach.

In days past, says Collins, such strategic analyses would have relied on simple surveys, web scanning, focus groups and mining of financial data. Such rudimentary tools simply do not cut it today. “With the power of data analytics we can take a much more robust approach,” she observes.

At the South Bank precinct in Brisbane, BDO teams have taken an evidence-based approach to strategy, “mashing up” various datasets from different areas of the site, including internal factors such as car-parking attendance, retail sales and events schedules. They also examined external datasets relating to public transport arrivals, weather data and holiday calendars.

According to Collins, the use of such statistical methods coupled with the latest analytics software means South Bank can now look at data visualisations for valuable insights into the precinct’s performance. They can see differences in performance in winter or summer, as the weather changes and as school holidays arrive.

“It’s about getting to a point where the insights can actually be meaningful.” 

Such data can help event organisers anticipate the popularity of an event depending on the time of year and day it is held, and can play a role in shaping South Bank businesses’ promotional offers and future developments within the precinct. “We were able to give them the data so they could understand how each of those events would actually contribute to the performance of various businesses,” says Collins.

As well as helping current tenants, the data gives South Bank powerful information to woo prospective tenants. The biggest challenge with such projects is the sheer number of different datasets and assessing where data intersects. “It’s about getting to a point where the insights can actually be meaningful.”

To avoid the risk of data overload, Collins advises taking strategy maps that focus on vision, mission and goals and overlaying them with data maps to identify the data and information that really matters to an individual business.

“Businesses can get lost in the complexity of data analytics because of the sheer rate at which data is created,” she says, adding that a clear data map showing which data is important can help to cut through that complexity and enable businesses to make smart decisions.

Being agile, acting quickly and showing resilience are crucial, too, as enterprises try to find common ground to make disruption and digital strategies meaningful to all stakeholders.

The digital challenge for the public sector

Collins currently advises the Queensland Government on business transformation and technology procurement – work that she particularly enjoys.

“If you get in and you’re an ethical operator and you’re consistent and you deliver value, government is a very exciting place to work,” she says.

“I love the policy connection and the fact that you can do some things in government and think, ‘gee, this project is making a difference’.”

At the same time, she notes that more government agencies need to respond to the rise of digital technologies and data as they seek to improve service delivery.

“Change is hard – it can take months or years,” says Collins.

“Transformation is harder – hang in there!”

Professional Development: Business analysis and strategy analysis: this online course will teach you to conduct a complete strategy analysis where you will critically assess your organisation’s current state as well as its desired future in order to determine what the change strategy should look like.

Integrating work-life balance

Disruption aside, Karina Collins believes one of the biggest challenges facing organisations is managing the balance between work and life, especially for female leaders. BDO promotes a flexible workplace environment and, as a mother, Collins has found a way that works for her.

“I tried the whole work-life balance thing and then about five or six years ago I figured out that you just have to integrate the two ... so you can meet the priorities that you have in both.”

She believes flexibility and gender balance should be part of firms’ strategy discussions and is encouraged that the issue is being seriously addressed by male and female business leaders.

“It’s not just about because you’ve got kids – it’s because you’ve got to have a life.”

4 ways to keep strategies on track

1. Reset goals regularly

Collins encourages her clients to adopt quarterly strategy cycles so “strategy just ends up being part of business as usual”.

Firm goals are then set for the quarter and accountability measures put in place to ensure all team members understand their objectives and work continuously towards achieving them.

2. Have daily “huddles”

Getting people together daily or every few days, whether it’s through emails, social media or stand-up meetings, is an effective, quick way for teams to ensure that strategic, business and client priorities are on track.

3. Offer rewards and recognition

Where possible, Collins suggests linking rewards or recognition to people’s contribution to the overarching business strategy. Measuring their input is crucial.

Some employees will prefer monetary rewards, while younger generations are increasingly favouring promotions.

4. Hold interventions

If underlying behavioural issues with executives or staff members are hurting the performance of the team and its strategy, Collins recommends interventions to address the problem.

This requires strong leadership – especially if the problem involves a high-ranking figure – and some people may have to exit the business.

Collins explains: “Often you will see that strategy is not hitting the ground at the lower levels because there is some element of dysfunctionality within the team dynamic.”

Who is your favourite business thinker and why?

The stand-out for Collins is Clayton Christensen, the acclaimed Harvard Business School professor who was named in 2011 as the most influential business thinker in the world.

In his seminal 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Christensen explored disruptive innovation theories. He also warned leaders of successful companies that they were at risk of new players coming in and offering more for less.

Collins says this book and later works from Christensen set the standard for business teams dealing with managed innovation. Those ideas remain relevant in an era of digital disruption, when companies such as Airbnb are offering more (better customer service and a more home-like accommodation experience) for less (it is cheaper than most mainstream hotels).

“His theories are tried and tested,” says Collins.


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