Interview With Craig Buszko, Strategy Lead & Advisor World Vision International

'Creating & implementing innovative strategy'


In anticipation of his Q&A: Adapting business strategy for AI & new technologies at this year's Chief Strategy Officer Summit in Melbourne, we had a chat with Craig Buszko.

After a 15 year career in strategic and operational roles for digital businesses across the USA and Australia, Craig joined World Vision Australia in 2010 to lead digital strategy formulation and transformation programs. Since 2014, Craig has been working with World Vision Australia on broader corporate strategy development and execution, most recently supporting the CEO and Board on defining a new 5 year strategy. Craig also supports several strategic initiatives for growth markets including peer-to-peer fundraising, corporate shared value and impact investing.

How did you get started in your career?

My career probably started when I was 6 years old, around the time when I built my first computer program (it did something basic like scrolling text on the screen). My father was a career man at IBM working in the innovation space, so I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s surrounded by technology at home. I was always fascinated with technology, particularly how a combination of hardware and software could help solve problems. For example, I built my first website from a university dorm room in the USA back in 1993 when I was studying computer science. I was no Zuckerberg on the business side, but I think I shared a similar passion for new clever ways to solve large-scale problems. Over time I molded my technology knowledge into broader business strategy contexts, operating at the intersection between strategy and technology. The career I’ve been on took a nice turn about 8 years ago when World Vision started to really explore this space and I was brought in to help.

What are the main components of a successful business strategy?

I think there are several but I’d like to highlight two I think are most critical. The first one might sound unusual coming from someone working at a non-profit, but I believe what’s most important for business strategy is clearly delivering customer value. I believe in taglines like “relentless pursuit of customer needs”. At World Vision, our customers are 2 types: the supporters who give us money to do work in the field, and the people in communities we benefit. Strategically, we have to start with these two customer types, frame these groups just like you would customers, and use this as your primary lens for value creation and capture.

The second most critical component is the fundamental role of strategy: make clear choices! This might sound trivial, but I feel this fundamental is often lacking in business strategy. This is the space where organizations have to make choices. Choices may be exciting; revolving around growth, innovation, what the “digital future” might look like (through the customer lens) and, how we choose to create and capture value. But there are also difficult choices, ones around what you won’t do, or might have to stop doing. The role of business strategy is to successfully get an organization, particularly senior executives and the board, into a space where they can make clear, strategic choices and hold the organization to those choices.

In this digital age, contexts are often fluctuating and changing. Organizations are grappling with their transformation into more agile or “lean” organizations, so I think we need to remind ourselves that good strategy is about making clear choices.

In what ways do you think the role of a strategist is going to evolve/transform in coming years?

First is how strategists provide insight. We are in the data/information age, where staggering amounts of data/information are flowing in and out of businesses. From detailed tracking of consumer behaviors via mobile devices through to sensors across supply chains. An organization’s success is predicated on its ability to use the information flowing around them.

The role of the strategist needs to evolve around employing the use of data and information in new ways to inform business strategy. A way to describe this is to contrast where classical strategy formulation has come from and where modern-day strategy needs to work.

Historically, formulating a strategy based on annual markers of your market, your organization, and your competitors would have been sufficient. Implementing your 5-year strategy into annual business plans with quarterly reviews would have been sufficient. But today, your organization and your competitors literally have access to terabytes of information in real time.

As a strategist, can you honestly sit on that and only sample it a few times a year? The reality is the strategies that succeed are the ones that employ the richness of data in new ways, and strategy processes and strategists need to flex around this. I’ve noticed many of the leading business schools are evolving their MBA curriculums to include more on business analysis, some even offering dedicated degrees. I think this is a clear sign of the reality today organisations are facing.

Second is tougher; how do strategists provide foresight? I think the time horizon for decisions based on insight is squeezing based on the flow of data. So the directional future strategists help determine for organizations are going to need a more foresight approach.

Running scenarios that model different futures to inform the choices you make today are absolutely essential. At World Vision, we are already seeing things we thought would occur in 5 years are happening now, and things we thought were going to happen in 12 months are more likely a few years away. It’s getting tougher for executives and boards to make decisions given the increasing uncertainty that the future holds within many industries and sectors. I think the strategist needs to help provide more in strategic foresight.

What do you think is the most common mistake strategists are making when it comes to dealing with new technology/innovation?

I think all organizations see new technology/innovation as ways to help reduce costs. However, I think more mature organizations see innovation as a way to help revenue, including attacking new revenue sources. I think few organizations are successfully dealing with new technology/innovation as ways to reimagine what their business could become. I think as strategists we need to help businesses grapple with the value new technology or innovation could bring, and be willing to explore the implications it has on the current business model. New technology and innovation needs to be able to challenge the status quo of your business as much as the markets or industries you operate in. Strategists are well positioned within an organisation to influence the conversation.

Whats your best guess for how your industry will look like in 3 years?

Our 'industry' definition is tricky, perhaps best described as 'helping people'. I like using the phrase 'helping people' as the planet is really changing quite dramatically in terms of technology infrastructure. Today many developing countries are more likely to have technology infrastructures like mobile phone services and solar electricity than access to food and clean water. The underlying technology enables concepts like 'information ecosystems' where World Vision’s footprint can intersect in new ways to partner differently with other organizations in the field. That is our aspiration for the next 3 years and the reality is, the investments to get there might be tough to secure so it might take us longer than we would like.

In Australia, World Vision operates primarily as a fundraiser. In this context, the next 3 years will also be very different. We expect a significant amount of donations to come through online channels, funds being raised through new platforms like peer-to-peer fundraising (where a friend runs a marathon to raise money for a cause). Online crowdfunding platforms are available to help raise funds to build schools and hospitals. Even the very concept of 'money' is changing – money from Australia to the field is all electronic, and there’s the possibility that different models like cryptocurrency will help reduce the costs associated with international funds transfer and remittances. We think that the way Australians give to charity is changing and will continue to change, and therefore World Vision will need to change as well.

How do companies build brand loyalty in today's marketplace?

Brand loyalty is perhaps more a function today of peer influence as it is direct communications. It’s important to understand branding in the digital age, and how the control dynamics are shifting. Building brand is about getting permission to engage with your customers and their communities. Listening to what they are saying and responding in ways that surprise and delight them. Most of this is occurring online.

What are some big changes you feel need to be made to the corporate mentality in order to make them more effective at embracing innovation?

I think it’s important to understand the concept of disruption. Understanding common patterns of success and failure and where your organization might be on the disruption 'curve' are important framing for innovation. This is especially important for long-established incumbents like World Vision, where the threat of disruption might be harder to detect. From the board down, established organizations need a mindset that is fundamentally willing to disrupt themselves. Without that, innovation will not able to flourish in pursuit of delivering greater customer value. The track-record of organizations who failed to respond to the disruption caused by other organizations innovating shows a common pattern in failed mindsight. I don't see the word 'disruption' as merely a buzzword; it's a mindset all organizations need to adopt. With it, they can navigate choices, particularly difficult ones such as potentially shutting down core “cash cow” businesses.

What can your audience expect to hear from you in Melbourne?

My career has led me into a field I can best describe as 'impact strategy' for a sector which is revolving around technology and innovation. World Vision exists to help eliminate the causes of poverty and injustice, and our primary success metric is the impact we create. Technology and innovation are available to us in ways to not only make us more effective, but challenge us to reframe the causes of poverty and injustice and reimagine new models for addressing these. Learn about what approaches we are taking, what looks to be working well and not so well in our pursuit to become what we call 'a 21st century NGO'. 

To hear more from Craig Buszko, join him on the 15-16 March in Melbourne for the Chief Strategy Officer Summit.

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