Warren Jansen is the Executive Director of Industry Capability Network Limited (ICNL). He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Tell us firstly about the Industry Capability Network Limited and its activities.

Warren Jansen: The Industry Capability Network Limited (ICNL) is a national entity that co-ordinates activities for the Industry Capability Network (ICN) offices across the country. There is a presence of ICN offices in most states, and ICNL acts as the national office and primarily develops and manages our IT platform, ICN Gateway, which bring suppliers and buyers together on-line. We bring businesses together.

We’ve got local suppliers who look for work, and there are buyers – we call them proponents – who handle large-scale projects. The projects might be based in the mining sector, the oil & gas industry, infrastructure, construction, defence and so on. And we act as an intermediary to bring those buyers and suppliers together. We ensure that supply chains function adequately to service these projects. There’s a whole raft of different industries that we cater to, and our platform services all these buyers and suppliers, and helps drive Australian industry through this matchmaking process.

In recent times however, we have progressed beyond this and provide our clients with market analysis by using the large database that sits behind our IT platform. We operate the only database in the country that has over 80,000 companies registered with it. The broader network has been operating for more than 30 years, but this is the 25th year for ICNL as a national entity

The state offices act independently and are governed by independent boards, or the like, with their own funding streams. We’re all connected as a network, but we’re also independent with our own corporate structures. It can sometimes be construed as a complex network, but I guess any federated alliance would have some elements of complexity. And I think the results speak for how successfully our network functions, despite each entity being quite independent. As an example, the contribution in terms of the value of contract wins delivered in states over the last 25 years is in excess of $30bn. The value of project opportunities is over $300bn.

AMT: Recently, the ICNL has been deeply involved in co-ordinating industry’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Can you explain what that has involved?

WJ: On 23 March we launched a national portal in response to a significant need for medical items such as personal protective equipment (PPE). There were a lot of calls to identify suppliers who could upscale or even retool to meet these demands. We saw a big role both at ICNL and across ICN nationwide, with ICNL coordinating all the tools required for the network to take an agile and proactive role in helping locally and nationally find companies who could help. We took the stance that we needed to do something nationally, so we launched a national portal on our system.

What we did was essentially develop a portal where people could list specific works packages. For example, if there’s a need in Victoria for hand sanitiser, that could be specified as a works package that would sit on the portal and our suppliers could look at that works package and say “Yep, I have capacity to supply that”. And then they can submit an expression of interest (EoI) against that works package.

Within the first four-week period, we had more than 600 EoIs submitted against works packages. As a network that was quite an effective way of capturing supplier data. It also ensured that if there was the need in a particular state for hand sanitiser or face masks or whatever else, our consultants on the ground could connect those suppliers up with the right people. This meant there would be adequate supplies to meet that need.

From a national perspective the portal has been very well received. We had almost 1,000 new companies joining us in less than a month. I guess that’s testament to the fact that we’ve been an established brand for a while, and the network brings value because all of the states have very experienced consultants on the ground who work very closely with the buyers and the suppliers to ensure the right linkages.

We also did something a little different this time. We introduced more streamlined reporting, because the situation around COVID-19 is so dynamic and fast-moving. A lot of State Governments and even the Federal Government wanted quick information, quick stats and insights. We incorporated Power BI, which is a Microsoft tool, onto our portal. That spat out real-time data, and we were able to keep people informed more quickly about how things were going – the number of suppliers, number of EoIs, and so on. So at a glance you could actually look at those stats and make informed decisions, at state and federal level.

The other thing we did was launch an app, the ICN COVID-19 Response App to ensure the wellbeing of the workforce in companies. We did it in partnership with the Queensland ICN office, which has a tech partner by the name of IONYX. We realised that an app like this was really lacking in the marketplace. A lot of companies wanted an app for their staff to go through a very quick checklist to ensure that if they were returning to work, they they had no symptoms of the virus and it was safe for them to return. Again, within a two-to-three-week period, we had over 25 companies that signed up for the app, and that’s still being promoted widely through the network.

AMT: There’s been a lot of comment in the media about how this pandemic has highlighted the need for a strong local manufacturing base. What’s your view on that?

WJ: This is kind of an ideal situation – like a perfect storm – for those conversations to restart, whether it’s our over-dependency on one particular market, or whether it’s time for us to go back to the drawing board in terms of increasing capacity to manufacture locally. Do we have sufficient raw material to meet the needs that have emerged especially around PPE and a whole host of other necessities that have arisen? I think all of those questions are very valid at this point of time. I think the danger in all of this is if we revert back to the status quo, which could happen. But because the situation is so fast-evolving, it’s really difficult to pinpoint how this will affect future manufacturing in the country.

I guess there are some fundamental things that will need to be to reassessed. Things like energy costs, or the impact on labour and resources. We’ve seen what effect this virus has had on the labour force in general. And I think all of these questions would be asked in a post-COVID-19 scenario. But it’s difficult to really ascertain how long it might take to come up with the right answers.

I guess from our perspective, the tough thing would be to imagine that we’re going back to a status quo scenario and not really looking at reinstating some of the industries where we could potentially manufacture within the country. We’ve seen a lot of suppliers retooling or realigning their business models to cater to the current need. We’ve seen the agile approach that they’ve taken, which has been remarkable because they’ve been able to meet the needs of certain states quite quickly. So in terms of having evidence that certain manufacturers can reconfigure quite quickly and pivot from being in one industry to something different, the evidence is there. I guess it’s how best governments would essentially use some of those examples and really put in the necassary resources to strengthen those areas that have potential to increase our manufacturing base.

AMT: And as we get through the crisis and start to think about recovery, what sort of measures would you like to see government extending to support the manufacturing sector?

WJ: I haven’t really seen any firm statements in response to that question from anyone in Government, and to some extent, that’s understandable because it’s a fluid situation at present. However, it will be interesting to see what recommendations come out of the Government-appointed taskforce on the impact of Covid-19. I guess a lot of us in the industry are pretty much waiting to see where the current conversations are going. A lot of us are wondering what this crisis actually means for the manufacturing sector. How much is actually going to change through this entire process? And if at all, is there going to be any change? And as I said, the risk is for us to go back to the status quo and not recognise the capacity that we currently have within local suppliers, and how quickly that they’re able to ramp up capacity, retool and pivot within their own industries and other industries.

I think it’s perhaps a broader conversation around the Government’s appetite to really assist the suppliers to be able to upscale quickly. And what would that mean? Is it funding? Is it extra training? Is it concessions around personnel and resources, or concessions around energy costs and so on. These are the broader conversations that I would like to see actually happening across the board, because it’s the same questions people are asking.

But this is such an unprecedented situation that there is no templated response that the Government really has. Its more watch this space and see how things progress before committing to anything. Because the other factor in all of this is that the virus hasn’t just affected the Australian economy. It has obviously had broader ramifications across the globe.

In terms of what we think the Government should be looking at, it is certainly about having those broad conversations with manufacturers and local suppliers and reflecting on how a lot of the local suppliers were able to very quickly address some of the needs that emerged. That’s something that should be recognised. And we should use those examples to ensure we’re never again in a situation where local supply chains come to a halt, but instead have capacity to help them move forward. That’s something that would be quite beneficial, because this is an unprecedented virus and an unprecedented situation for the world, but I think it is also a great opportunity for us to reflect on some of the processes that we didn’t have to cater to an emergency like this.


AMT: You’ve been with ICNL since August 2019. Tell us about your professional background up to this role.

WJ: I have a background in law, and I started my career in journalism in Sri Lanka. Prior to migrating to Australia, I worked in senior management in the media industry that was at the forefront of a 30-year-long war. After migrating here, I’ve been in the not-for-profit sector, which is an area that’s close to my heart. I am passionate about helping organisations establish a sound, sustainable business model. I’ve done that within the refugee resettlement sector, and just before this role, I was with an organisation that had to transition into the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

When this opportunity came about I thought it was a great segue, because as an entity ICNL had just launched a new strategic plan. The business had long reflected about what was working and what was not working, and how we work collaboratively with the entire network to ensure that ICNL’s value of bringing suppliers and buyers together was maintained and enhanced. So I was quite interested to see how the business model would evolve into being sustainable through the work that is being done. And my role as Executive Director has been to ensure that this strategy is successful and we can continue along this path.

We are blessed in a sense – and I take all of these things as opportunities – in that the COVID-19 situation really highlighted ICNL’s role. In terms of a national network, we were in the best place possible to help businesses in this environment react to the crisis quite proactively, highlighting their strengths and what they could do to meet some of the needs in the market at the moment. And the number of companies that registerd on ICN Gateway within that very short period of time is testament to the fact that people trust the brand. They know that once they’re on the ICN platform, they are in a position where they will be recognised for what they can do and how they can assist Australian industry to meet certain gaps in the marketplace.

So my role is essentially ensuring that we are relevant and current. The currency of the tools we use to bring businesses together is extremely important, and that’s why we’re moving to becoming a one-stop shop platform for industry with a whole raft of products and services that people can pick and choose from. Technological advancements are moving forward at a rapid pace, changing every single day, and we need to be up to speed with what’s happening and be agile enough to respond to all of those changes. Our strategy is very much built around that, so we can be that pre-eminent, one-stop-shop platform that you would go to if you are a business that wants to promote what you’re doing and link up with all the projects across the country.


AMT: And what’s the most satisfying aspect of the job?

WJ: Seeing SMEs thrive, increasing local jobs; watching the smaller mom-&-dad companies that are doing it tough in this environment come through this and be able to link up with opportunities. I think that’s the most satisfying thing about this. We’re here to facilitate a process where SMEs have an opportunity to participate in the economy. We want to be able to play that role.

And if there is a supplier out there who would be able to win a contract, to be part of a bigger project, because we were able to facilitate that, that’s the most satisfying part of the job. Making the process of linkage and creating that bridge is very satisfying for me personally, and I know that the entire network feels that way. That’s why we exist.

For more information about the COVID-19 Response Portal, visit: www.gateway.icn.org.au/project/4531/covid-19-response 

For more about ICN’s COVID-19 Response Application, visit: www.icn.spresponse.com.au