Moving on from the Matrix

CSIRO employees need to keep their eyes on the prize as the transition to new organisational arrangements takes shape, argues Staff Association Treasurer and Research Scientist Dr Scott Wilkinson.

THE VERDICT IS IN. CSIRO’s Matrix organisational system looks set to be scrapped. This is an outcome the Staff Association membership has long advocated. Yet many questions remain about the proposed replacement.

What will be the impact on job security in a climate of cost cutting and shrinking budgets? Will current role classifications remain safe? How will we protect our working condition as our enterprise agreement, policies and procedures adapt to the new system?

Achieving the full benefits of a new structure will require much deeper engagement of staff in the months ahead. The Organising Arrangements Review (OAR) took a selective and exclusive approach to consultation that denied many staff an opportunity to express their opinions.

By contrast, the Staff Association has consistently argued for greater employee involvement and consultation at every stage. The results of our Matrix review survey – involving the participation of over one thousand Staff Association members – demonstrated the clear value of staff having their say. It is worth revisiting the key objectives for change that members nominated in our survey.

We clearly said that a new CSIRO organisational structure should:

  • Reduce transactional load and the complexity of organisational (matrix) structure
  • Bring science planning, project allocations and line management back within a single management structure, while retaining the ability to assemble multi-disciplinary teams
  • Invest more in capability development
  • Reduce expectation that all research should be multi-disciplinary / inter-divisional to that being part of the mix, with more space for disciplinary projects to maintain scientific capability
  • Give scientists more flexibility to operate
  • Invest more in effective research support services
  • Ensure equity in resource allocation to regional sites

It seems that the proposed structure – removing divisions and locating staff and resources among nine flagships – will go a long way to reducing complexity, transactional loads, and simplifying planning and resource allocation. However, care will be needed to avoid the silo mentality, which in one sense helped create the Matrix in first place.

In some ways the new structure appears not so different to older arrangements of relatively focused and autonomous divisions. With an increasing emphasis on Themes as mission-directed units of a manageable size, effective collegial interactions will become more important than ever. Diversity in structure is a reasonable expectation, given the breadth of scientific areas CSIRO has coverage over.

When it comes to capability development and networking arrangements between scientific disciplines – the implications are not yet clear, especially for cross-over specialists such as statisticians, economists, social researchers, etc. Capability development and ‘deep-dive’ disciplinary investigations will remain essential for the ongoing sustainability of all science areas.

A key objective underpinning the Staff Association sustained push for this restructure is to move towards a well-resourced organisation which empowers staff to put forward ideas and influence the strategic priorities for research. This flexibility to operate and perform research is something that many of us strive for. The complexity of the previous structure had come to stymie creativity, collaboration and collegiality.

Conversations about science objectives, science priorities and decision-making should be open to all – and the new arrangements must be designed to facilitate this exchange. How Theme Plans relate to national priorities seems an obvious topic for discussion.

Enabling bottom-up staff participation in strategic planning and decision-making will require committee and other processes which transform staff into active participants of the strategy discussion rather than passive ‘receivers’ of intermittent consultation.

This is essential if CSIRO is to fulfil its leadership role in the innovation system. Leadership must become more about recognising and facilitating innovative ideas and creating the opportunities for them to flourish, aligning them with the organisational mission, and committing to them for the medium term. It will be interesting to see how the culture of the organisation will change with this restructure, if at all.

Our regional sites have been isolated from resource allocation under the Matrix, withering on the vine despite being highly effective environments to undertake collaborative science – will they benefit or be weakened by the new operating arrangements?

Time will tell whether this restructure leads to more effective research support as called for in our survey. There are worrying signs that management’s intentions are to move in the opposite direction – towards self-service via SAP. Staff and their representatives will need to watch closely to ensure self service is required only in situations where it reduces the administrative burden on research staff. Will availability of support continue to be dependent on how high up the pecking order one is?

Meanwhile, the role of science in society continues to be challenged in public debates. Scientific integrity has never been more important. And yet the pressure to demonstrate value – especially for organisations that depend on a mix of public and private funding – is ever increasing.

Big questions remain for the new organising arrangements at CSIRO. It is up to us as members to remain engaged. We as the Staff Association will be looking for opportunities to truly influence the implementation of this new structure, and ensure its success. This will include broad participatory forums for science planning and designing science support. Discuss your reactions to the proposal – plus ideas for improvement – with colleagues, fellow members and delegates in the workplace.

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