Steel yourself for more disruption

IT pioneer Fiona Balfour says even white-collar jobs are about to be affected by automation and robotics

BY CHRIS JOHNSTON

By the time she got to Monash University in 1976, Fiona Balfour already felt indebted to the place, and familiar with it. Her father was a triple graduate in arts and education.

“I grew up in a family where education was highly valued,” she says. Skip a couple of generations and Fiona’s niece is also a triple graduate.

Balfour herself graduated with a BA in English and history, with honours in history, specialising in the Italian Renaissance.

“I think back on Monash very fondly. My best mate in Sydney is someone I met at Monash in the ’70s; we played tennis for Monash, and we still play tennis together.”

Despite having a very liberal arts qualification, Balfour has worked almost all her storied career in IT and business – “go figure”, she says. She added two more qualifications, however, after leaving Monash: an information management graduate diploma at the University of NSW in 1981, then an MBA part-time from RMIT between 1985 and 1988.

After Monash – and while studying – Balfour worked for the Victorian government, then the Commonwealth government, in project management and project leadership, before she was headhunted by the company then known as Coopers & Lybrand in Sydney as a senior consultant in the burgeoning sector of IT strategy.

“The term ‘business analyst’ hadn’t been invented,” she says, “but there was a cadre who turned what the technical people were doing into English and wrote the paperwork to get the money so they could do what they wanted to do.” Balfour was made a Fellow of Monash in 2010 for her services to the IT industry.

She worked for Qantas at the “bleeding edge” of technological innovations such as electronic ticketing and frequent-flyer databases. She was chief information officer and a member of the company’s executive committee in the early 2000s, then moved to Telstra as chief information officer.

I wanted to still use my brain and contribute but I didn’t want to be woken five times a night when a network or systems fell over.

Now she serves as a nonexecutive member on numerous boards, is a member of Chief Executive Women, and a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

She sees a future of continued “disruption”, or acute change through innovation. “Automation and robotics is about to affect the white-collar workforce,” she says. “If you look at disruption in retail, Amazon is creating more jobs in their back office than people can possibly imagine, but they are emptying shopping malls. Shopping malls become showrooms. But new jobs always emerge.”

Balfour is fond of the Sir John Monash quote: “Equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community.” She thinks Monash students today should be gearing up for diverse career paths by being agile and adaptable.

She’s also very fond of a quote by one of the towering figures of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo, which is also the Monash motto – ‘Ancora Imparo’ – I am still learning.