‘People with Purpose’ is a series where we speak to people who lead businesses and organisations driven by a clear purpose. We’re fascinated and encouraged by businesses that put people and purpose above profit; and think there’s plenty to be learned from these examples.

For our first edition, we’re talking to Glenn Cockerton and Graeme Martin from Melbourne’s Spatial Vision.

Spatial Vision was founded in 1999 to solve spatial, social and environmental challenges for businesses and government departments using geographic information systems (GIS).

You might have seen the company’s work if you’re a budding citizen scientist – apps like Frog Census and the Algae Scum Identification App help users identify and report sightings in their local environments, while more broadly, Spatial Vision helps all kinds of organisations unlock the power of their data to solve business challenges and serve their customers better.

Spatial Vision’s core values underpin everything it does. The team believes those values are fundamental to its long-term success.

The company has a clearly-defined commitment to a sustainable future, including a statement on climate change, and recognises that – within the limits of its influence as a company – Spatial Vision can contribute to building a better world.

We caught up with Glenn Cockerton, Managing Director and Graeme Martin, General Manager Operations to find out more about where Spatial Vision’s values came from and how they’re executed day-to-day.

What are your backgrounds and how did they lead to Spatial Vision?

Glenn: I’m a geographer by training, with a background in economic and market-based geography and quantitative analysis. I used GIS to do feasibility studies years ago for various forms of commercial and social activity. I then got into professional services management and joined Spatial Vision.

Graeme: I have a background in environmental sciences and computer programming and worked for state government for around 10 years in those areas, combining spatial land management and computer programming.

Spatial Vision is basically a continuation of the same. A lot of our work for clients and our state government is around environmental management and land management, and GIS is just an essential form of computing.

Do you think that the beginnings of the business – an academic and government background – has an effect on the way Spatial Vision does business now?

Graeme: Absolutely. Sometimes to our detriment, but absolutely.

What was the transition like from being purely focused around research and knowledge to a more commercial business?

Glenn: I was always part of a commercial environment, apart from a very short period. So for me, the need to grapple with the ability to deliver meaningful services and do so in an economic manner was always there. I’ve always had a commercial underpinning to the activities that I’ve been involved in.

Beyond that, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to pursue projects in areas that I’m particularly interested in and motivated about. So it might be an exciting project, but it might also be a project that helps drive a particular societal or environmental outcome – and those are the ones that give the greatest buzz. It’s a Spatial Vision axiom now – you’re making a difference.

What are the projects that you find most personally satisfying to solve?

Glenn: It’s probably easier to talk about the ones that we don’t find attractive.

There’s been a lot of take-up of GIS special technologies in the defence sector, and we’ve stayed well away from that because we’re really not interested in defence projects. It just doesn’t do anything for us.

Similarly, some of the more aggressive primary industries like mining. During the mining boom, there was a big movement of our industry towards satisfying mining needs. We’ve stayed very much on the regulatory side for managing mining activity rather than getting involved in the more operational components.

They’re examples where underneath our value set there’s a set of factors impinging on the type of project we enjoy and the type of project we want to be involved in.

We’ve done a lot of work with government around improving productivity and trying to achieve their outcomes in a more effective way. Those sorts of organisational gains are core – but then there’s a lot of work where we’re looking at achieving better environmental outcomes, better outcomes for people and giving them access to information they might need – social justice type angles – as well as economic and more general societal wellbeing.

Those values have long underpinned the nature of our operations and the way we have run the company and inform the choices we’ve made along the way.

How do you communicate your values across teams? Do you try and involve your employees in the greater purpose of the business?

Glenn: We’ve done a lot to make that a tangible thing in recent times, but for much of our history we’ve taken the view that actions speak louder than words and we’ll just let our actions stand for what we feel. It’s been embodied in the decisions we’ve made about projects; it’s been embodied in the decisions we’ve made about staff.

We’ve tried to find people similarly motivated without getting hugely specific about those values.

But more recently, over the last five years or so, we’ve come to view that we actually want to make those values more explicit and so have started down a path of doing that in a range of ways with formal statements of company values, a much more formal statement about our objectives and not only what we want to do but how we want to do things.

That as a result has become both clear to our staff, but also clear to our customers and stakeholders.

You mentioned that you don’t take work that doesn’t align with your values. Is it a case of not pursuing those jobs or actually saying no to people?

Glenn: For the vast majority of projects, we make the decision as to whether to actively encourage them or make ourselves available for them – so the majority of projects we don’t want to work with, we dismiss very early on in the process in a sort of semi-informal way, and so dodge and weave and they pass us by.

There are very few projects where we’ve got into a situation where we’ve had to say, “No, we don’t want to do this project because it doesn’t fit with our ethos.” Most of them we avoid, so this is where the concept of us having a choice really comes into it, I think.

Graeme: We, until recently, haven’t been that proactive about informing our staff around where priorities are, as well as saying to the marketplace in terms of where our priorities and values lie – but we have done that recently and I think it’s an area – particularly as you look around what’s sort of happened basically in the community and also commercially – I think we should wear our heart on our sleeves a lot more prominently going forward. We need to find an opportunity to do that.

It’s important externally and very important internally, especially if you consider the younger generations working for us. They put a lot of value on that as well.

Do you think your purpose is helpful in terms of hiring people – especially young people and creatives/tech talent?

Glenn: We’ve got good support from our staff, and so I don’t think it’s a case of, “Hey, this is what the bosses are saying so we’ll all agree with it.”

I think we’ve been able to attract people who have seen those sorts of declarations and statements and said, “That’s consistent with the sort of values I’d like my employer to have, and that makes me feel comfortable working in that environment.”

What kind of problems do you think that Spatial Vision can help to solve in the next 10 years?

Glenn: Oh, you don’t have enough time for us to cover that!

The scope for that is huge and continues to get bigger. I mean, that’s really what we’re about as a company is making a difference in all those areas. The scope is only limited by our imagination, because the technology’s moving forward so fast.

It’ll come down to our ability to be innovative and imaginative and entrepreneurial enough to be able to take advantage of those opportunities, but from a commercial point of view, there is no limit. There’s huge scope. That said, it will be a competitive space, so it’s not kind of a lay down misere.

There is going to be a lot of opportunity for those that are able to move forward with alacrity.

Graeme: The technology changes, yes, and also individual awareness and public perceptions change.

If you go back 10 years ago to the election of Kevin Rudd, climate change was a very strong issue at the time and for whatever reasons it fell off the agenda. Now, it’s back on the agenda. A lot of what we do is tied to politics, because it’s tied to where governments are going to invest their funds, and they are very fickle.

However, as a company, we’re saying, “This is our set of values, and we stick to them.” We’re not subject to the whims of the electorate, we are subject to the whims of what we’re able to do because there’s a customer for it.

The opportunities are partly around our imagination, but very often they’re driven by customer awareness or public expectations, or opportunities and events that unfold – and we’re in a good position to respond to them because we’ve already set our values, we’ve got our investment and our knowledge and we’re sure about what we do.

Graeme, outside of work you’re running a community renewable energy initiative?

Graeme: Yeah. I’ve led a number of community things over the years, and so a couple of years ago decided that I wanted to help the community to be able to do something practical about climate change, but also related to energy consumption and production.

So I’ve set up a small group and we’ve been working with power distributors, local government and a whole lot of industry players to set up a business case to build a shared community battery and have a business process for members of the public to share their power.

We’ve consulted, we’ve got a concept and we’ve actually got a business case out in the marketplace to be undertaken, so partly it’s about sort of raising awareness, getting on board sort of key players, and the next stage for us is to get this business case through and make sure it pans up before we go to the next level. That’s taken me some two years to get to this stage.

For more information about Spatial Vision, and to see some of the fascinating projects they’ve undertaken, check them out at www.spatialvision.com.au

‘People with Purpose’ is a series where we speak to people who lead businesses and organisations driven by a clear purpose.

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