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Lumen Summer 2017 Issue
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Pushing the boundaries of creativity

Fiona Kerr

Fiona Kerr with Cirque du Soleil performers

University of Adelaide alumna and industry professor Dr Fiona Kerr refers to her own career path as strange – and who could argue??

The part-time academic and leadership consultant is a creative whirlwind who defies the usual professional pigeon-hole.

At the University she flits between faculties and has the title of ‘neural and systems complexity specialist’ – a title her executive dean made up because no-one else really does what she does.
She’s fascinated by the science of how humans interact with each other and technology, what makes creative leaders, and the transformative power of the human brain.

Her unique insights on ways to drive innovation and ideation are embraced by governments and major corporations globally, including one of the world’s most creative organisations, Cirque du Soleil.

But to better understand Fiona’s career and diverse interests, it’s best to start at the beginning.
Born in Scotland, she attended 14 schools as an “air force brat” before settling in Adelaide where her father became manager of the University’s mechanical engineering department.

“At 16 I started studying genetics, but was side-tracked into anthropology through a subject in witchcraft which was fascinating,” says Fiona.

“After some field work, my father was urging me to gain management experience so I did a trainee management course at ETSA (Electricity Trust of South Australia) where I spent three years in overalls because they didn’t really know what to do with me, as I was neither male nor an engineer.

“It was great experience. I worked as a trades assistant, drove a truck, changed transformers and got into industrial relations and strategy.”

While still in her 20s, Fiona played a key mediation role in shutting down a power station and finished a psychology degree at Adelaide “because I thought I might as well get paid for doing this”.

In the late 80s Fiona was head hunted by Holden and appointed industrial relations manager, moving into strategy. Eventually she launched her own business, Kerr Consulting, which is still in operation today, with interesting roles in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and defence.

“I got used to managing challenging circumstances in male-dominated, highly unionised organisations,” she says.

Throughout this time Fiona was gaining new skills and soaking up her experiences. Her work brought her into contact with excellent CEOs and she became fascinated by the power of good leadership and the dynamics of flourishing organisations.

“It struck me that leaders who could build adaptive organisations had high levels of trust and respect and definite traits that they imbued into their people,” she says.

“The more I looked at it the more I thought I was experiencing something significant, and that’s what brought me into the social neuroscience of leadership.

“I wanted to explore the difference in the brain of a charismatic leader – how complex systems, decision-making and strategising works – and test the concept that leaders can change the brains of those they lead.”

It was an interest that led Fiona back to the University of Adelaide after a 30-year break to pursue a PhD in creating and leading adaptive organisations, including the concept of emergent logic leadership.

Crossing into academia was initially a challenge for both Fiona and the University.

“They told me that my ‘industry expert’ status was equivalent to other entrance requirements including academic publications,” she says. “But once in the system that didn’t work, and with my wide-ranging topic I didn’t really fit anywhere. That meant the first year was challenging.”

The multidisciplinary nature of Fiona’s study eventually led her to Dr Sam Wells in the Adelaide Business School who was also researching complex systems.

“Within five minutes he said ‘you have to do this and work with me’. Sam was brilliant.”

Today Fiona works across the faculties of Professions, Engineering and Health Sciences.
She’s just finishing a research study on the neurophysiological effect of touch and eye gaze on healing, after joining a think tank on ageing with Dean of Nursing Professor Alison Kitson about the importance of doctors, nurses and carers having that human touch.

In September she gave the plenary lecture at an engineering conference where she spoke on artificial intelligence, focusing on the technical, neurophysiological and social issues and the need to proactively shape our technological future.

Outside the University Fiona has co-founded a small company called human-e with biomedical engineer roboticist, Dr Jordan Nguyen. Together they are researching and advising on the neurophysiological effects of human interaction with different technologies, and Fiona says they complement each other well, coming from different angles but driven by the same purpose.

“I’m very fond of technology and its advancement is amazing, but it has to be human centric. We need to be clever about when and how we use technology as a substitute for human interaction, especially in sectors like health and ageing.”

Fiona’s innovative ideas and engaging delivery have put her in strong demand at conferences in Australia and overseas, and has led to consulting work with some leading companies. She is a regular guest on ABC radio as well as appearing on ABC television’s Catalyst science show, Insight on SBS, and Ockhams Razor with Robyn Williams.

Story by Ian Williams


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