Date posted: 1/12/2016 4 min read

Turning data into knowledge

Nicole Ferguson CA heads a business helping innovators turn data and research into the sought-after “knowledge economy”

In brief

  • Part of that is encouraging creativity in your team, allowing a free flow of ideas and big blue sky thinking so your organisation has ideas to feed off
  • Sometimes you have to put your left brain on ice for an hour or so to make sure you let the creative side go forward – because you will have a CFO who can do that piece for you and dampen enthusiasm when it is required. Right?
  • Qualified as a lawyer and chartered accountant, Ferguson originally wanted to start her own accounting business

Nicole Ferguson’s internet connection is fast — up to a thousand times faster than your home broadband.

Ferguson is the chief executive of Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand, more commonly referred to as REANNZ, a provider of cutting-edge internet service to Kiwi researchers.

It links universities, polytechnics, Crown Research Institutes and other innovative companies with like-minded organisations overseas.

It’s all about the basic building block of a knowledge economy — data.

“We are in a time when modern economies are changing. Goods and manufacturing and finance used to be the hallmarks of the economy. Now you would argue that data is driving our economy,” Ferguson says.

“The government recently announced a key pillar of its budget was $700m for an innovative NZ. A large proportion of that was for science and innovation. The global flow of information — and turning that information into knowledge — is key for New Zealand’s economy.

“We support the work of the science and innovation sector in turning data into knowledge to drive the knowledge economy.”

REANNZ is part of a global system of networks that provide data services unavailable from commercial providers.

“Together, we provide seamless global connectivity. So if you are a scientist in New Zealand working on earthquake engineering, or astronomy, you can collaborate, share data and access other people’s data from anywhere in the world.”

Driving innovation through connections

Projects facilitated by the REANNZ network range from research into the generation of energy from the tides to designing a computer system that can handle up to 30 times the current global internet traffic.

Kiwi researchers are collaborating with Germany in astronomy and Japan on earthquakes.

“More recently we have seen collaborations between Chinese organisations and universities in the areas of climate or environmental sciences,” Ferguson says.

“Our job is to make sure that research, education and discovery can take place in New Zealand.

“We are the underlying infrastructure that makes it happen”.

The organisation itself is also innovative, although not in the same sense as its members, she says.

“For us, innovation exists in the way we operate. We are a small, nimble organisation that is very, very member focused.

“Quite often we design unique and customised solutions for the needs of a particular researcher or scientist. We also innovate in a technology sense — experimenting with the latest networking technology.”

From the finance team to the C-suite

Ferguson first came into contact with REANNZ while working in KPMG’s business advisory team.

REANNZ was a client and when the opportunity came up in 2010 to run its corporate and finance team, she took it, eventually becoming CFO.

More recently she has shifted from finance to corporate leadership as the organisation’s chief executive, a role she has held for the past six months.

It’s quite a different challenge, she admits.

“When you step into this role [CEO], it is about getting the balance between all the things that make you good as a CFO — strong commercial acumen, analytics, ability to have reasoned decision making and manage risk — and your ability to inspire people around the purpose of your organisation and what you are trying to achieve,” Ferguson says.

Part of that is encouraging creativity in your team, allowing a free flow of ideas and big blue sky thinking so your organisation has ideas to feed off, she says.

“Sometimes you have to put your left brain on ice for an hour or so to make sure you let the creative side go forward — because you will have a CFO who can do that piece for you and dampen enthusiasm when it is required. Right?”

For Ferguson, the practical reality of being CEO is ensuring she is up and about the office and having conversations with people all the time.

“So not only do they see me but they can hear where my thinking is at and we can discuss some of the challenges they are having and the ideas they have so they are all getting on the table.

“I am really enjoying it. The amazing thing about this opportunity is the continual self development. I don’t think anyone in this position ever stops learning.”

Qualified as a lawyer and chartered accountant, Ferguson originally wanted to start her own accounting business.

“When I was growing up, I could see that it was actually finance that made the world go around.

“It didn’t matter what industry you were in, everyone needed to think about financial implications and managing their business well — that’s what drew me in [to accounting].

“When I was going through university I pictured myself running my own private practice.”

But her current goal is to help bright sparks and Kiwi innovators access the data they need to drive their projects — and the local economy — forward.

“New Zealand is slowly starting to realise its ambition in this space [data, innovation and the knowledge economy]. We are seeing really aggressive use of our network now, which is what we want.”

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.