Melbourne based, Williams boasts the magnificent moniker ‘chief edge officer’ at Deloitte’s recently established Centre for the Edge.
“We look at the edges of society and business - often driven by hyperconnectivity and the changing digital world - and make sense of that for senior executives. What do we see at the edges and what that might mean – the speed of change gets faster and faster and faster and we are seeing the topple rate increase where industry incumbents are falling over at faster and faster rates, particularly in tech and telecom – ten years ago if you had said that Nokia and Blackberry would be almost in the last throes, then you would say you can’t see that happening,” he says.
While individuals behave like sponges, soaking up new technology as fast as it is dished out, enterprises are more like bricks, that can’t move fast enough, according to Williams.
But he warns; “If you don’t understand it and embrace it then you could be in trouble.”
After that he founded what would become Deloitte Digital, which has now become a global franchise. Williams and his team worked both on Deloitte itself to ensure that it embraced important technologies, and with clients. He and Deloitte CEO Giam Swiegers also hatched the Deloitte Innovation Programme which encouraged staff to innovate. “When we started 50 per cent (of the ideas) were digital – that’s now up around 85-90 per cent. With any innovation programme you get three or four years of suggestion box ideas – now the quality of ideas is spectacular.”
So why did he let his baby, Deloitte Digital go? “My game’s not running big global things – I’m more about concepts - thought leadership communicating and delivering the art of the possible.”
Williams says the Commonwealth Bank with its smartphone apps and new payments platforms such as Kaching and Pi is an example of what can happen in traditional businesses when they look at what might be possible, rather than simply reworking the status quo.
So how does Williams keep his eye on the edge, which necessarily has no fixed abode? “I have a tweetstream that is my newsfeed – and I apply the rule of three. If three people that I respect – say, Gavin Heaton, Mark Pesce and Ross Dawson - said ‘look at this’, I’ll look at it. Otherwise you could spend your life watching the TEDx stream.
“I hang out in co working spaces and in Melbourne I work out of The Hub there. I read a lot and immerse myself in stuff.”
To understand the power of gaming and technology immersion Williams joined the Angry Birds Nest community (having decided he didn’t have to time to immerse himself in World of Warcraft) to see whether he could become an elite player. He ended up with a ranking of 150.
“I’m interested in way people collaborate and work together, how knowledge transfers in games and the notion of why, if you are an elite player you would score how you got top scores.” Williams is also a popular public speaker and has what he calls as an ability to spot trigger points and; “To connect what don’t look like dots.”
The first reports from the Centre for the Edge in Australia were one on financial markets and the rise of complementary currencies; the second an edge perspective on healthcare.
Interviewing Williams in a corporate eyrie high above Sydney is a far trek from his early years in and around Melbourne’s Flemington. His father worked at Robert Bosch spare parts, and mother became a teacher librarian.
“The area I grew up in – most of the kids I grew up with playing footy are now dead. You ever watched Underbelly? That was them. Twenty storey housing commission flats; kids from pretty hard backgrounds; pretty tribal gang mentality. To some extent it’s been useful because I don’t have a problem mixing with anybody.”
After a brief spell on the dole he found himself a role as a cadet accountant in steel foundry after he and the CFO discovered a shared passion for horse racing.
He later studied at RMIT for a Bachelor of Business Accounting.
The foundry which had hired him eventually collapsed, largely due to long term tariff protection which according to Williams shielded it from having to innovate. While the company had boasted of being the longest operating arc furnace in Australia, to Williams it wasn’t a badge of honour but a reflection of a chronic lack of investment in technology.
Moving to a firm of accountants which was eventually rolled into Deloitte, Williams joined the insolvency group which he describes as being like an adrenalin buzz as the team tried to put a business back together. In the early 90s he was seconded to the UK where; “I started reading about information superhighway and the internet - kept hearing more and more and thought ‘shit this will change everything’.”
He immersed himself and became a self-confessed internet junkie. By 1996 Williams, his wife and three young children returned to Australia where he was drafted in to help build Deloitte’s first website, and was then allowed to set up the e-business consulting business which was intended to: “Help start-ups or old business leverage and use the technology and web.”
By 1999 the boy from Flemington was made partner.
Now 49 Williams has become a stalwart of the Australian innovation landscape, but he also takes time out – turning off the phone at weekends to do other things – such as supporting Essendon (although he was unsure about revealing this, lest it dent his credibility).
Over the last couple of years he has also been closely involved in a programme of reconstruction following Victoria’s devastating Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, during which both his parents in law and sister in law lost houses.
So if communities in crisis can benefit from technology, what about enterprises? What are the big drivers for the future?
“There’s never been anything move as fast as the uptake of mobile. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ve moved from ‘the internet needs a chair’ to everything in my pocket being context based.
“The next thing is crowds – crowdfunding has been around a few years – but see things like Pebble, the power of crowds and the way you incentivise them to do things you as an organisation could not do. When a bank adopts a crowd for its payment system then you’re not in Kansas anymore Dorothy,” says Williams.
Gamification and 3D printers are also major opportunities for disruption of the status quo. “The notion of someone setting up manufacturing in their lounge room – that’s fascinating.”
So, it seems, is being given free rein to explore the ever expanding edge.