Outback Business Networks an international leader in business clustering methods

Desert Knowledge Australia Outback Business Networks (OBN) could set the standard for economic growth initiatives internationally, according to an international business consultant.

Brian Webber of SAICAN Consultants in Canada, which specialises in business clustering studies, said the work of the OBN over the past three years was both “bold” and “unique”.

Mr Webber’s comments are contained in a benchmarking study of clusters around the world commissioned by OBN late in 2011.

He said the unique characteristic of OBN was the concurrent development of linkages between businesses both within regions and across regions and the implementation of tools and processes to make these work across Outback regions.

These tools include the use of relevant communication technology to connect businesses from remote locations.

“No other identified network initiative has tackled these two concurrently. The virtual clusters and the dynamic linkages within OBN could set the standard for economic growth initiatives in sparsely populated and geographically challenged localities,” Mr Webber said.

He said OBN was not just another clustering initiative.

“It is a bold attempt to expand the base of business collaboration while focussing nationally on virtual collaboration between pockets of business activity across the Outback. This is unique.”

The Network also received international praise at The Competitiveness Institute’s (TCI) 14th annual conference in Auckland, NZ in late November.

OBN’s Network and Communications Manager, Mike Crowe, spoke about the Network at the conference and said delegates from Chile and the West Indies approached him after his presentation seeking advice and potential links with OBN.

OBN was established in 2009 following the success of DKA’s Linked Business Networks program. It connects business across nine regions through Outback Australia from Pilbara in the far west of WA to north-west and central western Queensland, to the far north of SA, to help build business capacity and resilience.

According to OBN Services Manager, Jeanette Wormald, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) across Outback regions of Australia have been challenged as never before over the past six months.

Compounding effects of the global economic crisis, rising Australian dollar, the aftermath of adverse weather in the previous summer and more localised issues such as the ban on live cattle exports have placed extreme pressure on regional and remote operators.

“The past six months have demonstrated the value of and continuing need for a network that connects businesses that would otherwise feel isolated when facing these challenges, “ Ms Wormald said.

She said examples such as the Station Stays cluster in far north SA, which now has the potential to link in with similar organisations in other states, demonstrates how facilitated clustering can build resilience in an increasingly challenged national tourism industry.

Station Stays is a cluster of pastoral operators offering bed and breakfast experiences on their stations. With support from OBN, the operators have joined together to pool resources and increase their marketing presence through a website and other shared marketing material. This is not only paying dividends with increased visitation across the board, it is also providing valuable economic diversity to their primary production businesses. The cluster also enables the operators to access valuable professional development support.

A similar outcome is being experienced by those involved in the Overlanders Way, a 1500km tourism route linking regions from Townsville to Tennant Creek.

The clustering of eight shires and nine Visitor Information Centres along the tourism route, which was expanded from a state based tourist attraction to a national route by incorporating Tennant Creek in the NT through the facilitation of OBN, has created increased market awareness and enabled members of the cluster to collectively access advertising discounts. They are anticipating an increase of 30 percent in traveller numbers over the next 12 months.

Access to communication technology provided through OBN has also been central to the success of the Virtual Trade Fair in July, which linked producers and consumers across Australia via Telstra product Webex, without the impost of travel expenses.

One of the major outcomes from the event was that one of the SA producers received an order from a large Alice Springs hotel. It is hoped that this will lead to an ongoing partnership and result in increased revenue for the businesses involved.

“These case studies demonstrate the value of a Network that works across regions to link like-minded businesses and find new ways of countering the challenges that are common to people doing business in Outback regions,” Ms Wormald said.

“Many of our businesses – such as OBN member John Joseland of TransAlign ISM & Fluid Power, NT – are big supporters of the clustering concept.”

Mr Joseland said: “I’m an inaugural member of the DKAOBN Mining Services Network. We’ve expanded our market out from here to just about every state in Australia.... I’d encourage all of you guys in private enterprise to get on board and be active in it – it will help your business, lifts your profile up and gets things moving outside your comfort zone. Get on board and go with it,” Mr Joseland said.

More than 1250 members have signed up to the Network across Australia.

The full SAICAN Consultants’ benchmarking report on international clusters will be released to OBN sponsors and key business members next month when they gather in Alice Springs for an Outback Business Champions Forum.

OBN is sponsored by the Australian Government through Enterprise Connect and the Aboriginals Benefit Account, BHP Billiton, Northern Territory Government, Telstra and Qantas.

Media contact: OBN Services Manager JEANETTE WORMALD Phone: 08 8959 6016 Mobile: 0418 810 785.

Photos and contact details of OBN Business Members in each region available on request.