Cogent Conversations: Episode 11
Lailani Burra, CEO of .ID
Episode 11: .ID
– Lailani Burra, .ID
When .ID (Informed Decisions) was founded, the term startup didn’t exist. The founder was Ivan Motley and after spending a period of time working within larger organisations, he thought that by starting his own business he could create the change in the world he wanted to see. It’s a familiar story for many of us today, but one that was a little more unusual 20 years ago.
.ID are all about harnessing data that tells a story, enabling those who are shaping our communities to make better decisions. They are demographers, geographers, economists and technologists, and have created an organisation that contributes significantly to impacting our society for good.
Our guest for this episode is Lailani Burra, the CEO of .ID. Lailani originally came to the company to work within client services, and when Ivan decided to step back from the day-to-day of the business Lailani was appointed CEO. Now fifteen years into her time at .ID, Lailani is facilitating cultural change that’s enabling this organisation to get even better at delivering products that improve our lives.
We find .ID inspiring, not only for its vision, but also for the way they’re going about it. ‘Humble’ and ‘bold’ are two of the values that drive the way .ID does business. Those values describe Lailani, they describe the culture of the organisation and they describe the way .ID approaches its customers.
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Meet the host: Adam Murray
Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture (but just quietly, the thing he loves most is coaching his son’s team of aspiring under-10 footballers).
Full Episode Transcript
Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast, made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.
Lailani Burra: When you talk to a demographer, the first question they ever ask you is where do you live? Now, guys, where do you live, and then where were you born. And then from that, they’ll probably tell you your housing journey.
Adam Murray: Hello, it’s Adam Murray here, and welcome to this episode of Cogent Conversations. In this season of the podcast, it is all about tech businesses that are having an impact. The organisation we are focusing on in this episode is .ID or informed decisions. For over 20 years, they’ve been having a significant, positive impact on the way those of us in Australia experience our urban areas, and they’re also having a profound impact on the work experience of their employees, many of whom describe themselves as corporate refugees.
We spoke with Lailani Burra, the CEO of .ID, who has been part of the organisation for 15 years, and is humbly and boldly enabling the organisation to evolve into one that has even more impact. Let’s get into it. Lailani, it’s so good to be chatting with you back in these offices again on a floor that I haven’t been at before, but yeah, great to be chatting.
Lailani Burra: Yeah. Good to see you, Adam.
Adam Murray: We worked together about a year ago, I think. We were remembering just before this conversation started.
Lailani Burra: I think it was in February.
Adam Murray: February, was it? Not quite a year ago.
Lailani Burra: Yeah, not quite a year. I think we kicked that project off.
Adam Murray: A lot has happened since then in that project and I guess in the organisation as well.
Lailani Burra: Yeah.
Adam Murray: There’s a bunch of things I want to talk about that maybe … Where can we start? Maybe even start with thinking about this building and where you’re situated in Collingwood, in Melbourne. Tell us about how you’ve ended up here and what you’re trying to create in terms of the internals of this space where you work.
Lailani Burra: Sure. So, we’re on Easey Street in Collingwood. And originally, Collingwood was part of the rag trade, all these old industrial buildings and warehouses and things were little factories. And so, this was an old shoe factory. It’s quite a big space, and we’ve got the upstairs and the downstairs of this old shoe factory, so it’s like a big warehouse space.
We’re in Collingwood because the founder of .ID, Ivan Motley, lived in Fitzroy when he founded .ID. And actually, when he first started .ID, he didn’t want to work near where he lived, because he started off working in his spare room and he’s like, “I got to get out of home.” So, they actually went down to St Kilda originally and then kind of went, “This is nuts. We’re driving all the way across town to go to work.” Came back to Fitzroy, and we’ve sort of been in the Fitzroy/Collingwood area ever since.
So, we’ve kind of moved as we’ve grown, but we’ve been in this building for nearly 10 years, and we purposefully kind of moved into an oversized building. It’s a bit Dickensian, cause we’ve had to kind of knock through into the warehouse next door and we’ve got kind of two landlords and these weird spaces. But it’s a really enjoyable place to work. One of the things we try to do is create an environment that doesn’t feel very corporate. And one of the lovely things about working in Collingwood is you’re surrounded by creative people. So, there’s this wonderful man called Guy Matthews who used to have a second-hand furniture place across the road.
So, he literally has keys to the place. We tell him the kinds of things we’re working on, and he just comes in and transforms it on the weekends. We’ll come in, and something new’s happened. So, at the moment, he’s working on our deck area outside. So, apparently tomorrow a whole lot of trees are about to arrive. We’re going to have this new shade area.
Adam Murray: Amazing.
Lailani Burra: Yes. So, every Monday you walk in, you go, “I wonder what’s happened over the weekend?”
Adam Murray: Include arranging the desks?
Lailani Burra: So, he started with downstairs. So, when you come in downstairs … and the idea was to kind of create a sense of a lobby. So instead of kind of coming into a workplace, it’s more like you’re coming into a casual hotel lobby. He’s really into recycling, reusing, so he reuses found objects and all that kind of stuff.
And then yes, slowly he’s been infiltrating upstairs. So, where the teams operate, and just as he’s kind of … he observes them working and then he starts talking to them about how would your team space work well? So, we’re starting to see things appear in team spaces like tables that people can actually stand around and kind of collaborate around and those kinds of things.
Adam Murray: There’s a very really calm feel walking into this space, right?
Lailani Burra: Yeah, right?
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Lailani Burra: Yeah.
Adam Murray: There’s something really nice about it. And it’s a calm energy. Do you notice that?
Lailani Burra: I suppose I’ve been amongst it for so long, but it used to be … things evolve, so .ID’s been running for 22 years. We started in 1996, so last millennium. It was before any words like start-up, digital, podcast – none of those were part of the vernacular at that time. But .ID definitely would have had the feel of what you would consider to be a modern start-up. And there was lots of music, but as you get bigger, you still have to adapt. And so, one of the things that went was music, so there is a kind of quietness about the place.
Adam Murray: I think there are three broad areas that I want to delve into. One is around the impact that .ID is having. One is around the internals of some of the more of those cultural elements that go on. Probably the third one is your own journey as well. So, maybe we can start talking a bit about the internals and the culture. So, maybe we can talk a bit about that. One of the phrases I’ve heard you use is around being a corporate refugee; what do you mean by that and what have you tried to create in here to embrace whatever that is?
Lailani Burra: Yeah, that’s a big question. And it’s evolved over time, I would say. But .ID was founded by Ivan Motley, and Ivan is a geographer, and he had kind of had an interest in public policy. And so, he’d worked in the public sector in the Department of Planning, looking at planning for communities. So, how do you make sure the right infrastructure is in place? How do you make sure that communities get access to services? And that’s really something that he wanted to contribute his professional knowledge to.
Working in the public service, you meet other people that have similar interests, but I think they eventually found that the bureaucracy of that environment just didn’t suit them, and they felt they couldn’t contribute in the way they wanted to. So, that was really the start of .ID. It’s like, how can we make a contribution ourselves without being caught up in the whole bureaucratic process?
In a sense, it’s like becoming, in their case, a bureaucratic refugee, but a refugee from the system and able to be more effective. There were things about … we wanted to create a place where we could have a contribution but also a really good place to work, so a place where people enjoy going to work, where they didn’t experience the kinds of frustrations that many of us have experienced in the workplace. It’s interesting, 20 years later, I now subscribe to a blog called the Corporate Rebels.
Adam Murray: Yeah, I know that one.
Lailani Burra: Same thing, frustrated with the kind of typical workplace. How can you make work better? And so, we’d had that: how can we work in a better way? It was very much about working smart, but with great respect for ourselves and then also for our clients and working in a very collaborative way.
And we’ve actually just gone through a process 20 years later of trying to recapture what those ideas were, because as you grow, other people weren’t privy to all of that thinking. And so, we’ve kind of come up with a diagram which expresses that, which is we want to be a place … our values really are a place where we’re able to contribute to society in a compassionate way. For us, that means providing society with good information and an evidence base to make good decisions, hence our name. So, we use our knowledge.
So, when you go to university and you get your skills, well, in our case we want to contribute those skills and that knowledge to society and make it a better place. And in order to do that, how do you do that well? And we feel that they’re kind of two words that really encompass that and you need to be bold and you need to be humble.
So, we think about when we first started out, we were pretty bold in terms of hearing without listening. So, that’s kind of the humble part. What do our clients need? But then being quite bold in what we would offer them as a solution. So, our first solution offering to clients was to work with local government because they’re on the ground making decisions that impact the community, very close to the community. But in order to make good decisions about how to use their resources in an effective way, they need to understand who their community is.
So, we take demographic information and we provide that to the council to help them make an informed decision. And we grew very quickly, so by 2002, we were delivering that information in online web applications. And I think back on that, and I actually just in preparation, so thinking about this talk, I went and I googled, “when was Google born?” Google was born in 1998, so two years after us, and we were building web apps and delivering online quite complex content in interactive web applications by 2002.
That’s kind of … so that was bold in terms of the way we operated. I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, but we wanted to create a place where our ideas could really flourish. I’d come from a corporate background in IBM or SPSS, which is a smaller software company, and I was based in London. The bureaucracy is just extraordinary, and that environment didn’t really suit me. So, SPSS was a small company; it went public while I was with it and then became part of IBM. And to observe that change and what happens to the autonomy of an organisation when it goes public was really fascinating, and we wanted to create something different here.
Adam Murray: You talked about being bold and being humble. You’ve talked about that from, I guess, probably more of an external focus. How does that translate internally as well to the way people interact and go about their work?
Lailani Burra: I think, when you’re small, so originally, we kind of happened almost fairly naturally. Ivan’s a very charismatic person. He brought a lot of those ideas to the workplace, but he actually no longer works in the office. He works up and he’s based up in Byron Bay. And so, it’s interesting looking back.
So, when you first start a small company, you literally only have one person in each function. We had a computer programmer who was self-taught, we had a database guy who made his first server out of a bunch of leftovers, we had demographers, we had client management, which was my role, and office management. So, you have one person in each function, so you’re working as a little autonomous team. And then as we grew, we didn’t have a … we grew quite organically. And so, you might need another person in a function, and so, that person would join and they would naturally sit next to the person that did the same thing as them.
And so, by accident, we kind of became a functional organisation and we started to have functional silos, if you like. And we were very strong about why we existed and what we did. But we were a bit naive about the how. How do you create an environment where people’s ideas can flourish, where you work really effectively, but without creating hierarchy? So, our initial response to that was to talk a lot about our values, about respect, collaboration, and expect those from our people. But we didn’t have a lot of structure to help that to actually occur. And what I’ve learned over the years is you can have a flat structure, which means you have to have a lot of structure. So, you don’t have to have hierarchy, but you do have to have structure.
So, it evolved into an organisation of about 45 people over those 20 years. And there kind of became a point where we’d grown, we’d been very successful and then we stopped being able to get our ideas out into the market, so we started to get backed up. We had lots of ideas. They weren’t getting through the system. It was at that point that we started kind of going, “There’s something not right about the way we’re organised.” We had to make some pretty important choices about how we were going to resolve that.
That goes hand in hand with … we also started to notice that in a flat structure that doesn’t have a lot of structure, things get done, lots of stuff got done, but it got done through personal relationships and personal favours, and how things got done was not very transparent. So, for some people, that’s fantastic. If you are someone with a lot of personal influence through whatever means, then you can get a lot of stuff done. But if you’re someone … you might be someone who’s on the receiving end of all that, and you’re just getting hammered with stuff to do. So, it became quite unbalanced. And so, we’ve been through in the last three years a very big transformational process to keep our flat structure but have a lot of structure to hold it together.
Adam Murray: Really interested in that. That’s a great observation about the structure needing to be there if it is flatter. The Corporate Rebels talk about a bunch of principles, some that you’ve touched on there around transparency and maybe about self-management; they talk a little bit about. I’m sort of bringing in a few different, not just the Corporate Rebels, they kind of delve into reinventing organisations and some of the ideas around that bringing one’s whole self to work and everyone contributing and buying into the purpose. Over those three years, what are some of the principles that guided you? What’s emerged from that?
Lailani Burra: I think the breakthrough was when one of our teams, the tech, what was then our technical functional team, was quite frustrated with just not being able to get through their workflow in a way that felt good. And so, they started to explore Scrum. They had an attempt at implementing it themselves and it kind of had some effect, but then they said, “We need some coaching. Who’s going to figure out how to do this? We need coaching.”
So, we looked for an Agile coach. And naively, in some ways we’d unhooked ourselves from business books, business learning, cause we’d gone with corp, we’re working this out ourselves, we’re making it our own way. And I think actually, at the same time, things like Agile and the Agile Manifesto were being developed. They didn’t exist when we first started, but they’d come into play and we’d sort of missed them because we were doing our own thing.
And so, this thing called Agile, we sort of thought, well, we’ll bring a coach in and we’ll coach this team. So, we brought in an Agile coach, Ben Schiffer, and he did a couple of training courses. I attended those training courses and I just went, “Oh, this isn’t just some sort of set of tools for workflow. This is a whole philosophy about how to work in a really productive but human-centred way.” It’s a very human centred approach to work. So, from that moment on, we went through a huge journey where we brought some of those principles into .ID.
The first one was really how to become autonomous. So, we had these silos. We have consultants and we have demographers; they would be out with our clients. They would have fantastic ideas for creating a tool or potentially a tool that could be the next big tool for our company that would take us into the new phase of growth. But our technical team, it’s literally on another floor of the building, they couldn’t get the idea really happening because the technical team’s got ten other projects that they got in the queue.
And so, things are just getting stuck. So, the first thing was to create autonomous teams, and then it’d been a very long journey. So, it’s hard to talk about this succinctly, and it’s been quite organic. But the very first thing was to do an experiment. So, we introduced the idea of experimentation to try to split into two autonomous teams. That took six weeks to even decide how we could do it. There was so much resistance. We like working with our own tribe, our own tribe of coders. We like being with the demographers. And this idea of having teams made up of different functions was quite hard for people to even conceive of how that would work.
So, that’s been a big journey. So, in an organic process, we’ve ended up with six things that form what we call the ‘how’. One of those is we have to have a clear direction; we all need to know where we’re going. We’ve always been pretty strong in our direction. So that’s our vision for a good society and how .ID is able to contribute to that. Then we have, in order to do that well, we need a business model that works really well.
So, our business model sort of disrupts the traditional consulting business model and we have a business model where we look at converting our consulting into online tools that we can then have more impact with because we can get them to more people. So, we need a good business model.
To make that business model work really well, we have to shorten all the feedback loops between the tools and the consulting. So, that requires the second thing, which is autonomous teams. So we then built autonomous teams. That’s a complete restructure of the organisation. And we literally got there last month; we finally had all our teams in place. Because we didn’t do a ‘bang – we’re restructuring’; we allowed teams to form in an organic way. But we had a very clear vision about where we wanted to get to. So, it’s been an organic process of getting there. So, if you have autonomous teams, they need to all know where they’re going, then you need alignment across the functions.
So, number three was, we need to have alignment. So, if you’ve got teams with different functions in it, how do the functions align? And so, then we had to make decisions about, well, what rules? Who makes decisions? Is it the team or is it the function? So, we had to have those discussions.
So, in order for the teams to make good decisions, we want them to be able to make their own decisions, so we need to have decentralised decision making. So, we have a whole lot of tools around how do you make decisions in a team and teaching people about how to do that.
In order to do that, you need the next pillar, which is open books. So, we have an open book system, and open books doesn’t mean just people can see the numbers, it means they’re structured in a way that’s meaningful to teams, that enables teams to make decisions and a system of actually using those numbers in a constructive way. So, we have a whole monthly meeting around that.
So, then the next question was, okay, so you’ve got these autonomous teams, they’re aligned, they’re making decisions, they’ve got good information. What’s the leadership structure? We thought, what are we going to do here? Most teams have a team lead. We have no hierarchy in our organisation at all. How do we introduce that concept? Do we introduce that concept? We danced with it, and then we started writing up what that might look like, and we just went, it doesn’t sit well with us at that time.
And so, we’ve come up with this concept of shared leadership. And if I’d known what that would mean to implement, I’m not sure if I would have come up with that concept again. But it essentially means there is no leader in a team and you lead from your own place of strength. So, we have a technical person in a team, you have a consultant in a team, we have client facing people, but they’ve all got the same goal and different people lead in different parts of that.
So, we’ve had to have very clear roles so that people understand what the different roles are. But we have no single point of leadership. And part of that’s a real belief in humans and humans at work, and that we all have leadership qualities. It’s just really a question of bringing them out in people, and enabling, and giving people the confidence to use that and to learn the skills. But interestingly, we’ve got quite a lot of pushback on it. So, some people just went, “I’m a forecaster, I didn’t ask for all this other responsibility and to make all these kinds of decisions.”
So, we quickly realised that we needed to do a lot of training. So, we put a bigger leadership training program in place, and we’ve actually just been through a whole year of workshops and small group coaching. So, everybody in the company has gone through quite an extensive leadership training program. We just had the review of that, and everybody spoke for three minutes about their personal journey, and it’s mind blowing. It was mind blowing.
They’re like, people are talking about, “We’d never had to do anything mandatory at .ID. I didn’t know if I even wanted to do this thing, and coming out of it going, I’ve got so much out of it for myself, personally. It’s having an impact on my relationships both inside and outside work – because it’s all about emotional intelligence skills and being able to give and receive feedback.” People didn’t even really know what the word meant. None of us did really. And as we’ve gone on this journey, we’ve gone, “What does it mean for .ID? What does leadership mean for us?” It is very much about this concept of being bold, being humble and collaborating.
Adam Murray: Wow, that’s exciting.
Lailani Burra: That was pretty huge. That gets up to number five, shared leadership. Then number six is that in all of that picture that I think I’ve painted, there needs to be someone where the buck stops, and that’s me. So, I’m the CEO, but we actually have a diagram of what the CEO at .ID is, like that function, and it’s drawn as the CEO is the backstop.
So, I’m actually at the bottom of the company, literally with a pair of hands catching any balls that fall through the net. And it’s my job to create the net. So, the net is what we call the organisation design, so those six pillars. And then my job is basically to make sure the net is strong and functioning well, so no balls fall through, so I don’t have to do anything. That’s the idea.
Adam Murray: Wow. I love that picture, and I love those six principles. Let me see if I can remember them. So, there was direction, autonomy, alignment. There’s one that I’m missing there, self-leadership. There’s the CEO function, and I’m missing one.
Lailani Burra: You’ve got two, but they’re related.
Adam Murray: I’ve missed two?
Lailani Burra: Yeah. So, it’s for the teams to know that they have permission to make decentralised decisions. And to do that, they have to have open books.
Adam Murray: Open books. Yeah.
Lailani Burra: So open book management. The interesting part about that is it was an organic process that made sense for us. So, it’s not like we went and got something off the shelf. And when I say we had coaching in Agile, yes, Agile is a set of principles, but we’ve all kind of evolved to pull things that work for us and then shape them to suit our organisation and what we want to do.
Adam Murray: It sounds like you probably went to multiple sources for that as well, or was it…
Lailani Burra: Yeah, I suppose yes, but in some ways through a single source. So, in a way, our Agile coach, his knowledge of different frameworks that all sort of sit under the Agile umbrella, if you like, in terms of the principles, but many different frameworks and ways of achieving that.
So, he’ll put something on the table and we’ll look at it and go … so we’ll come with a problem, he’ll suggest something and we’ll kind of go, yeah, but maybe, and then we’ll adapt it. So, it’s kind of been that process. And then reading, and it kind of expands from there. I’m currently reading at Jim Collins’ books, Good to Great. He wrote those long time ago, actually, but a lot of the principles also fit really well with what we’re doing.
Adam Murray: It sounds like also the way you describe it as well, it’s quite an investment and you did it in an incremental, slow, intentional way as well. I don’t know. I’m interested in that, I guess, because it’s really taking a long-term view of the organisation. You know, we don’t need to fix this tomorrow because we need to meet our quarterly targets; like this is about setting a foundation for having an impact over a long period of time.
Lailani Burra: Yeah, and .ID has always taken a mid to long-term view. So, whenever a company … because it comes from a real desire to have an impact on society. So, when we talk about having an impact on society, we talk about something we call the good society. And in our minds, that’s a place where everybody has access to important things in life. So, that might be a job, good education, good health, outcomes, community services for the aged.
Ivan talks about Gough Whitlam being a big influence on him and that concept of where you live shouldn’t influence your opportunities in life. Well, we’re geographers, so we think spatially. So, we look at a city and go, “Well, this area is really disadvantaged, and what are the things that are contributing to that and how can we help the community to address some of those things?” The best way we can help is to provide good evidence-based information so that the planners, the politicians can hopefully make informed decisions. So, it’s about cutting through political and interest-based decision-making and putting the evidence on the table. And if you have that as your vision and your motivation, then you just keep coming up with ways in which you can do that.
And so, you want an organisation that can deliver on that. I kind of see it as like you drop a pebble in the pool and you want that pebble to ripple out. And some of the decisions we made very early on about … So, we’re very generous with our information, so our clients are largely local government. But we provide their information, web applications, and those applications, we consciously made public, so they’re not locked down because we know that the council will want to use the information, but so will a local community group want to use that information or meals on wheels who need to understand how many elderly people are in the community and how’s that going to change over time. A retailer might want to use it. So, they have very broad use beyond the council. And that gives us a big impact, much bigger than it would be if we just held it in the council’s offices.
I think that’s why we take … Yeah, we’re driven by a bigger motivation. One of the things that was my personal kind of desire to make these changes was that we weren’t getting out. We’d built four big information products. We had ideas for more that we thought will address health-based issues, for example, and we just weren’t getting them built.
So, I was like, okay, something’s wrong here. We used to be able to get this stuff up. We’re not getting it done anymore. What’s going on? The ultimate test of whether these new ways of working are working is whether we get things out into the market. So, since we’ve been doing that, we’ve been in this transition phase for probably just under three years, but we now have one new product actually out: built and being used, and growing and then two others that are halfway through what we call our flywheel. So, we’re starting to see that the momentum’s coming back into the organisation for new things. Yeah, that’s exciting.
Adam Murray: You’ve talked a little bit about the impact that you do have. Can you talk about that a little bit more specifically or the areas that you’re most proud of perhaps, or, yeah, the changes that you’ve seen, the data you’ve provided, the fact that it does have, and where it’s having an impact as well?
Lailani Burra: Yeah, sure. So, if we think about trying to provide an evidence base for decision making, we made a very conscious decision that we would work with local government. So clearly, all levels of government provide services to the community, but local government is the closest to the community. So, you literally have the community out the door of the council offices.
Local governments are very complex organisations; they do everything. Some local governments operate airports. I mean, the CEO of council or the portfolio of stuff, they’re dealing with youth services, aged care services, airport services, dog walking service. I don’t know, like it’s just extraordinary: water, waste, roads. And they’re really squeezed by state government, often. They’re not allowed to put their rates up, so they have to do ever increasing amounts of work, often with not increasing amounts of budget.
So, I think where we really feel we have an influence is helping them decide how to spend their money most effectively and where the greatest need is. There’s lots of stories, but it might be something like … councils often had kind of anecdotal understanding of their communities and often squeaky wheels might be the thing that they’re hearing. But when you look at the data, you go, “Actually, that’s not really a big problem. Actually, the thing you need to be focusing on is over here.”
So, an example might be … housing development’s a classic one. So, communities generally object to any densification of housing. And yet we know as planners that we can’t continue to sprawl, and that the experience for people living on the outskirts of cities with no public transport is not a good experience. So, we need to densify our cities.
So, one of the things that we do has a very conscious way of telling a narrative about housing in a council. I remember a situation where we were working with Monash City Council, and think about the housing stock there was built in the 50s and 60s, when it was kind of the next suburb. And so, people have grown up in those houses and they’ve aged in place. So, what you end up with is lots of elderly people living in three and four-bedroom houses.
There wasn’t very much alternative dwelling stock there, so not very many apartments. This is some years ago now. So, they can’t move out. There’s no alternative accommodation for them, which means a young family can’t move in to that house. And what happens to a community then is this kind of a bit of a death spiral. So, you start losing your childcare facilities, you lose the primary school. Jeff Kennett closed all these schools in Melbourne during an era where the kids are kind of left and new ones hadn’t moved in yet.
And so, I remember we did a forecast for Monash City Council, which was literally a population forecast, which said, “If your housing policy continues the way it is with no densification, then you’re going to end up having to close your childcare centre.” And, in fact, they did. They had to close their childcare centre.
They then said to us, “Well, .ID, it’s your data. You tell the community.” And so, Ivan had to go down to a pretty interesting community meeting where they’re saying we don’t want our childcare centre to the close. And he just laid out the demographic story like, well, if these two things are mutually exclusive, if you don’t densify then this is what will happen to your community. You need some good, well-designed densification so that the elderly people who want to could choose to move into those places. Young people can move in and you get a vibrant, sustainable community. So those are the kinds of things we get excited about and being able to have an influence on that.
Adam Murray: Yeah, that is exciting. There are some councils in Melbourne that are really embracing that particular story.
Lailani Burra: Yeah, absolutely.
Adam Murray: I know as well, I guess, around Malvern City Council and Nightingale and some of those projects that are doing that densification but in a really well-designed way.
Lailani Burra: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, densification is necessary, but it needs to be done well for the community to embrace it.
Adam Murray: This might sound a little bit dumb, obvious question, but I’ll ask it anyway …
Lailani Burra: Sounds interesting.
Adam Murray: … just in case anybody else’s wondering, but what is the work of a demographer?
Lailani Burra: So, really good question. It’s not a dumb question, because when we were looking at SEO, like creating SEO for our websites, “What is a demographer or what does a demographer do?” was the most asked question about demography. What the hell do they do? In fact, we get asked that question a lot, like, “So, what do you guys do?” So, a demographer really studies people in place, I guess, is how I would put it. So, understanding the characteristics of people living in a particular place and then how those characteristics … what drives the changes in those characteristics?
So, it’s understanding things like social change, like change in birth rates, change in death rates, migration patterns, migration into places, out of places. And essentially, it’s looking at the individual choices that people make and then rolling them up into trends and understanding the trends that they form.
And a good example, so we all think we make very personal decisions about where we move to and where we live. And when you talk to a demographer, the first question they ever ask you is where do you live. “Now, guys, where do you live? And then where were you born?” And then from that they’ll probably tell you your housing journey, because we do follow fairly predictable patterns.
Adam Murray: You know where they are, what are they?
Lailani Burra: We did a study for Richmond football club. So, we do work with other organisations outside of local government who are particularly trying to make location-based decisions. So, Richmond football club were trying to make a decision about where to locate the training ground outside of their home ground, and they’ve made a decision to locate it up in Craigieburn in the North of Melbourne.
The demographers, Johnny just looked at it and went, “That just makes no sense.” It’s because Richmond’s heartland of supporters is around Richmond. And the children of those people, when they move, they don’t cross the Yarra, they don’t go north, they go south and southeast. So, the low hanging fruit in terms of Richmond’s future supporters are the children of previous supporters, and they’re all out in Cardinia, Casey and in the southeast. And so, we’ve mapped that for Richmond, and it was just extraordinary, like the map that shows the migration patterns of people across Melbourne and where the river is. And it’s just diametrically across from the river.
So, you basically, because you generally can’t afford to live where your parents were, if it’s an inner-city place, generally, people do what we call in demographic terms ‘outward central migration’. So, we move out in kind of central corridors. And they’re quite fairly predictable. And in fact, that’s a great story because Richmond did move; they made them change their relationship, moved out into the Casey area, and they doubled their membership in two years, and that was before they’d won a flag.
So demographic information, you have a big impact. If you understand how cities work, then you can understand the demand.
Adam Murray: It seems like there’s a big part around storytelling role as well and taking all this data from a variety of sources, I imagine. And then understanding it, taking it all in, absorbing it, analysing it, and then creating a narrative out of that that’s going to be digestible by people that you’re trying to inform.
Lailani Burra: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s very perceptive. We talk about, so to inform a decision, data’s not much use. And, in fact, sometimes our clients will ask us, “Can you give me this data?” Always our response’s, “Can you tell us what question you’re trying to answer?” That way we can find the data, then we analyse in a very particular way that enables us to tell a narrative. It’s often sort of saying, “What did this place look like? How does it compare to another place, and how’s it changing over time?”
And just those two seemingly simple ideas enable you to tell a story. And then that story enables people to visualise and then they can make a decision. So, we talk about converting data into information, into knowledge, and then a kind of felt understanding. And that’s when you feel confident to make a decision.
Adam Murray: Wow. That’s cool. Is it purely in Australia that you do your work? Is it Australian-based work?
Lailani Burra: Australia and New Zealand.
Adam Murray: Australia and New Zealand. What’s the emerging story about cities in Australia at the moment? Or maybe you can just focus on Melbourne if that’s too broad, but what’s the emerging story there?
Lailani Burra: The way we look at that story is … That’s a big question. So, Melbourne is the fastest growing city in Australia, which is pretty extraordinary because in the 90s, during the recession we had to have, Melbourne was kind of considered the failure, the rust belt city. It just wasn’t really performing. So, Melbourne’s had an extraordinary transformation and acquired a consistent way now for many years. So, it’s growing faster than Sydney.
But part of that story comes from understanding migration. And Australia’s increased its migration intake quite substantially over the last ten years. So, where those migrants go is often determined by the economic opportunities. So, during the mining boom, then more migrants would go to Western Australia and Queensland, for example. Still many were coming to Melbourne and Sydney, all cities were experiencing a migration boom, but with the decline of the mining boom, people have to come back and they go somewhere else for work. And so, Melbourne’s really taken a lot of that.
So, our, what we call interstate migration has really gone up. So, Melbourne traditionally lost people. So, we lost people to other states for other opportunities, and now we’re a net importer of people. That’s been happening at the same time as Australia experienced this little mini baby boom, which was very unexpected. It wasn’t predicted by the demography profession. And because mostly in Western countries, the birth rate goes down and continues to go down. And in about 2006, our birth rate turned around and started to come back up. And some people attribute that to Peter Costello because he said one for yourself and one for the country or something. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that – various sorts of social changes.
But we also had a lot of migrants coming in. Migrants are usually young, so they’re of childbearing age, so they have children as well. And so, essentially, we’ve been quite dramatically addressing the ageing population problem by migrating young people into the country and then they have children, which is really healthy. It’s a really healthy population dynamic. So, instead of just having this ageing population, which places like Japan experience because they have a closed migration policy, we’ve been able to address that through migration.
And so, but our big cities are feeling that. It also coincided with the kind of move back from the suburbs back into the inner city, and that’s really driven by a different type of work. So, knowledge work, and we’ll talk about … you need … knowledge workers need to be around other knowledge workers. It’s kind of like about ideas per square inch; they spark off each other, it creates knowledge hubs. And so, the economy’s changed. We’ve gone from being a manufacturing industry-based economy where it makes sense to be in the suburbs, to a knowledge-based economy, and that’s brought people back in. So those are some of the things.
Adam Murray: And then from an .ID point of view, what new products do you think you’ll need to start providing in order to equip cities to make good decisions about where things might be going, given that story as well?
Lailani Burra: Yes. So, we currently provide very comprehensive information about the characteristics of neighbourhoods and then we forecast their future as well. So, what’s the future? So, in Collingwood, for example, it plays a particular role and function in housing, a particular kind of group of people and how’s that changing over time and then how’s it going to change into the future? So that’s really fundamental, and being able to understand the future of a place provides all sorts of organisations with a big head start in planning.
But we delivered that information incrementally by having a relationship with each local council, and we see opportunity now to be able to provide more holistic information for the whole of the state or the whole of the country to organisations that operate outside council boundaries. We love to work with education providers because that’s right now our sweet spot of being able to make sure that education is well catered for.
And that means with a baby boom and a migration boom, schools are full. Where do we put them? Schools are expensive to build, you want to make sure that you’re building it in the right place, it’s going to have a long longevity. So, providing that kind of information is really where we’re playing. And we have a way of forecasting the future of cities and understanding where the dynamics are going to be at play. And that was the project that you helped us reinvigorate earlier this year.
Adam Murray: I’ve got a couple more questions for you, and one’s a little bit of a change in tack, just reflecting on your own personal journey of starting here, I think you said around client management, you said was area that you came into and now you’re kind of the CEO of the organisation. For me, that sounds awesome and kind of rare as well for someone to kind of come in in one role and then you end up leading the organisation. But what’s that been like for you to grow and experience those different roles?
Lailani Burra: Amazing privilege, like amazing. So, I’d come from a work history of … I’d worked for three years, for SPSS, which was a software company in the UK. Then I’d kind of gone, “I need to do something more meaningful.” And that was really excellent software that’s used for very powerful and useful things. But I felt like I was sort of shifting boxes. I wanted to do something more meaningful. So, I actually went and did a master’s in development studies intending to go into third world development, work for the UN or world bank or something like that.
But by the time I finished my master’s, I was A, broke and B, kind of worried about the fact that when you study that you see that every different way we’ve approached it, it’s kind of caused more other problems and I kind of got a bit of paralysis around, ‘I don’t want to be part of creating further problems’.
So anyway, so I went and worked for IBM for a while to kind of just rethink. Then in the process of doing that, decided I wanted to see what it was like to work in a big corporate. So, what’s that like? And I just went, “Okay, I know what that’s like now, and I’ll leave that to other people.” And then I came back. I was in London for two years, came back to Australia. My parents actually had moved from New Zealand to, strangely enough, Uluru.
Adam Murray: Oh, really?
Lailani Burra: Yeah. So, I just went from London and IBM to Uluru, and I thought, what can I do usefully here? I started working in some Indigenous enterprises, and that’s kind of where you go, “I can use my business skills in a constructive way.” But after a couple of years of doing that, I came out of the desert and kind of went, “The desert is not my place.”
Came to Melbourne, I won’t go into the detail, but kind of through an excellent sort of set of circumstances ended up meeting Ivan and .ID. I went, “This company’s trying to do something really helpful, and I’ve got the right set of skills to help with that from my kind of IBM background.” At IBM, you get incredible training, and they were just at the point where the products were there. All the ideas were there, they just needed to really get out into the market. And so, Ivan and I worked on that.
From that, if you’re … there were six of us, so then it’s like, “Okay, what’s the next thing I can do to contribute? And then what’s the next thing I can do to contribute?” And I kind of think of it in terms of projects, and because we have no hierarchy, it’s not like you then are going to the next managerial position or the next, it’s just I see a need to get this project off the ground or this project off the ground. And it’s really been that process. And the last project that I saw and went, “We need to do this as a project,” was the transformation of the company into a different way of working. So, that became a big project, and in a sense, naturally evolved into a role as the CEO. We didn’t have one before, so it’s a new role. It was like, “Well, if we’re going to have this structure, someone needs to be there to kind of catch the balls and be named as such, so that it’s very clear what the role is and what the roles are.” So, I guess that’s how it happened.
And we made a conscious decision too at that point, which was if we’re going to bring a CEO role into the organisation, is it someone from inside or is it you bring someone externally who can bring some fresh thinking? We felt that we weren’t changing direction. It wasn’t about a change of direction. It was actually about doubling down on where we were already going. So, we felt that an internal was a better solution.
But for me, it took … if I hadn’t had the coaching that I’ve had, I don’t think I would have had the confidence … I needed to know there was a way to do it. And the coaching and the principles of Agile and the frameworks that I learned helped me realise there’s a way to do this. Once I understood that, I felt more confident to step into that role. Makes sense?
Adam Murray: Yeah, makes a lot of sense.
Lailani Burra: I mean, 15 years ago, when Ivan moved up to Byron, he said, “Do you want to take on that role?” And I said no at that time because I wasn’t experienced enough. I didn’t have enough knowledge. But having worked in pretty much every aspect of the business, I know it inside and out. And then to be given a kind of a way, I could see a way, I could just see a way forward. I went, okay, I can see what I’m doing with this project now. So therefore, I feel confident enough to have a crack at it.
But coaching, I have a lot of support, and I think sometimes people at .ID have said to me, “Why do you have a coach? You’ve been here for 15 years; you know how it works.” And I’m, “Because I don’t have all the answers, because there are many other ways of looking at things, because you need personal support, because you have to learn.” There’re so many reasons, I think, to be coached.
Adam Murray: Well, another question there, and this is probably my last question, is around that transition from the role that Ivan did play, and continues to play, business as the founder and now you’re stepping into that CEO role. Can you just tell us a little bit about that, him not being in the office all the time and being remote? What sort of role is he playing now?
Lailani Burra: That’s a really good question. I mean, I’m incredibly grateful to Ivan for creating, founding .ID and for that passion and the idea behind .ID. I learned an enormous amount from him about being in business in a values-based way, like with a real purpose and making me believe that was possible. And in fact, it’s a really good way of operating a business, actually, very successful way to operate a business. So, I’m eternally grateful to Ivan for giving me that experience. And then we’ve, I guess, gone on a journey together as well.
Ivan’s been away from the business for quite a long time, but comes back regularly, and is very much, the way we describe it now, and we had to be very clear about our roles, was Ivan is the ‘why’, and then there’s the ‘what’, and then there’s the ‘how’.
So, Ivan’s the why and the what and I’m the what and the how. So, we intersect at the what, but Ivan definitely, it was his vision, it was his passion for society that I decided to hook my wagon to, if you like. We’re actually going through a process now of trying to share that to try to … it is, was originally his vision, but how do we, everybody else, interpret that vision to make it their own, and we’re kind of going through that process at the moment, but that probably answers that question.
Adam Murray: I think that’s a great way to finish. Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing the next evolution of .ID.
Lailani Burra: Thanks very much, Adam. Thanks.
Adam Murray: Thank you very much for listening. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with what Cogent is up to, including when new episodes of this podcast come out, you can do that by subscribing to our blog updates at cogent.co/blog. And, of course, to help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by rating and reviewing this podcast through your favourite podcast platform.
And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving or you know of another digital business that is thriving that you think we should hear about, the best way to do that is through emailing us at email@example.com. I’m Adam Murray, and I do look forward to hearing about how your business is thriving.