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Interview with Dr Sean Gallagher, Swinburne University of Technology

Posted 3 years ago

Interview with Dr Sean Gallagher Swinburne University

This month we spoke to Dr Sean Gallagher, inaugural Director of Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce, a research centre focused on talent development and workforce transformation in the digital economy. A recognised thought leader on the impact of technology and globalisation on higher education, and the future of work, Sean and his team are currently developing a new approach to repurpose the role of the office in hybrid working, which he calls alt_shift_office.

Sean spoke to us about how he has always been attracted to questions that push boundaries, what innovation really needs in order to flourish, and how his favourite science fiction novel gives him perspective.

Can you tell us a little about your current role, and what you do?

At Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce we focus on the impact of disruptive change on work, and how it is transforming the workforce. More than skills, we focus on human capability. In times of uncertainty, what companies really need from people is their creativity. Not only do people solve problems, but we find valuable problems and frame them in a way that can drive an organisation’s competitive advantage. Right now, we are developing a new approach to re-purpose the role of the office in hybrid working, which we call alt_shift_office.

What’s your background, and how has innovation featured throughout your career?

From a PhD in fullerene chemistry (back in the nascent days of fullerene research) to research on the business models of American universities establishing campuses in Asia, to the future of work, I have always been attracted to questions that push boundaries and in finding pathways into the unknown.


“I have always been attracted to questions that push boundaries

and in finding pathways into the unknown.”


Do you have a regular morning routine?

A normal day starts at 4 am for me, but sometimes earlier if I have writing deadlines. There is no better time in the day to be focused and creative. I love this time of day; it’s like having the world to myself. And at 6.30 am each day, my husband and I take our 8-year-old daughter and dog on our family walk.

What is your approach when a creative project gets stuck or delayed? How do you get back on track?

There are constant hurdles and seeming dead ends. But there is always a way through. For me, I go back to first principles, stress test them and then ensure I’m as objective as possible in looking at what the data are telling me. It is important to know the direction I’m heading in, but also be prepared for the final destination to change.

What does innovation need to flourish in a corporate workplace?

Innovation requires more than curiosity; it is essential to be comfortable being in the unknown, and to explore. It’s the ability to see patterns often through connecting disparate ideas. Ultimately it requires trusting your subconscious – those tacit insights – to make those connections. Leaders need to allow themselves and their people time to dwell in uncertainty, rather than feeling the need to be decisive all the time.


“Innovation requires more than curiosity; it is essential to be

comfortable being in the unknown, and to explore.”


What program or software would you be lost without at work?

There is nothing high tech about what I do. My iPad, which is my digital whiteboard, allows me to quickly sketch out patterns that I think I see. And the biggest revelation for me in the last few years is that it is so much better to write in PowerPoint. I can’t see the forest for the trees in Word and get lost.

What are you reading?

I love sci-fi. A book that I keep going back to is Neverness by David Zindell. It’s an adventure story in a future world, where mathematicians have become a religious order, and through maths have the power to unlock the mysteries of the Milky Way. It beautifully describes the intimate moments of the quotidian life of a multitude of different human-like beings on alien worlds throughout the galaxy. And it makes me realise how amazing the alien world is that we have created here on Earth.

Tell us about a project you were involved in that ‘failed’. What did you learn?

I helped establish a centre of excellence that aimed to capitalise on Australia’s unique expertise in sport for international markets. It did not achieve its goals in part because the three founding institutions each sought to use the opportunity for their respective benefit, at the expense of coming together for the benefit of the initiative. It was early on in my career and a valuable lesson in ensuring incentives are aligned at the outset.

What research or new technology are you excited about right now?

Workers are far more than their jobs, but most aren’t valued beyond the skills they have and the output they deliver. I’m excited about the transformation of work, and the opportunity it presents to unlock human potential. Think work as a pathway to innovation, which I discuss in detail in a recent report Peak Human Workplace: Innovation in the unprecedented era.


“I’m excited about the transformation of work, and the opportunity it presents

to unlock human potential.”


What is your biggest challenge currently?

Not having enough time!

What behaviour or habit has most improved your life?

It sounds trite but to be confident in self-belief. That the way I see things is the value I bring, even though it is often at odds with the consensus view. We are pattern-seeking, story-telling animals, and we each have a unique perspective and narrative.

How do you stay up to date on industry trends and news?

There is so much going on and it seems to keep growing exponentially. The only way to keep up to date is by having networks of diverse people who themselves are well networked. This can either be through platforms like LinkedIn as well as my professional and personal networks.

What three things do you hope to accomplish over the next twelve months?

1. Take a new product alt_shift_office to market, to help organisations reimagine and repurpose the role of the office in hybrid work
2. Identify the next emerging opportunity in the transformation of work – stay tuned!
3. Go to Burning Man.


You can find Sean on LinkedIn and read more about Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce on their website.