Sean Lloyd






International relations


Sep 2018 - May 2020

By Sean Lloyd

Disruption or distraction?

Where is disruption really valuable and when does it distract rather than lead to real change? As part of the Global Opportunities and Threats programme at Oxford, this week we presented on our findings on a range of “future of energy” themes. This saw visual analysis on topics ranging from battery storage and electric vehicles to home cooking in developing countries and international “green bonds” (not to be confused with the “green bongs” of the Canadian legal cannabis industry, one of our Strategy case studies…).

Part of the exercise involved looking at possible interventions in the systems around these topics which could effect change. All teams saw opportunities in their systems – which leads to the question of whether those interventions are viable and translatable into action. Can they lead to innovation or even disruption?

If “innovation” is the byword of the modern business strategy, “disruption” is the popular theme for everyone from start-ups to new political parties. My profession is an interesting case study for the trend. Diplomacy has changed (or been disrupted?) significantly over the past decade. The rise of social media has transformed how we do business as diplomats, and in a profession rich with arcane traditions this means necessary adaptation can be difficult.

The UK’s Tom Fletcher, former Ambassador to Lebanon, has been something of a leader on digital diplomacy, his famous blog entitled “The Naked Diplomat” from 2012 underlined the need for diplomacy to adapt in response to social media and build new skills and capabilities amongst modern diplomats. Australia’s former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, instituted the innovationXchange as a means of growing an innovation culture in the Australian foreign service.

So does disruption mean something useful in the business of international relations or is it merely an ancient profession being dragged along by the technological tides? In my last role working on internal departmental reform, we thought regularly about that question. What does agility mean in the context of a foreign service? What makes a modern foreign service more effective and responsive than just undertaking process reform every now and then?

One of the new ideas Australia instituted was “pop-up” embassies, taking a leaf from disruptive commercial tactics to accelerate the development of relationships in countries and cities where Australia has previously had limited or no presence. At the same time, instantaneous communication and mixed training programs allow foreign services to deploy teams for task in crisis situations to improve how citizens are served and how they respond to government demands.

Does this mean diplomacy has ‘got’ this disruption thing? Far from it. There are still major challenges in remodelling large, traditional bureaucracies to handle the speed of information in the modern era and the way crises spiral quicker than ever before. This means tackling issues such as the need to change how we record, store and transmit information – understanding the role data analytics and AI can play in our business. There is more that can be done in grasping modern theory on network effects and platform technology to enhance how embassies operate and connect people to enable inward and outward investment. These aren’t simple tasks but they’re fundamentally necessary.

At the same time, the core of the business is still an enduring presence that enables the development of deep relationships that serve our country in good times and bad. The answer to the disruption challenge isn’t to take on everything, but to find where modern disruptive technologies can make a difference to how we do that core business.

Back in that other ancient institution, Oxford, some would argue having a business school in the first place was the ‘original sin’ disruption. There’s something to be said for shaking up tradition – after all, shouldn’t business students get inspired by the dreaming spires too…?

Dinner at Exeter College

Class photo

Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are my own and not as a representative of the Australian Government.

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