Dec 182014
 
How can we save costs using cloud computing and online tools

One forecast about 2015 that’s very easy to make is businesses with high costs are in for a tough time.

As competition steps up, global forces puts pressure on prices and technological change allows new competitors into marketplaces, the companies that aren’t flexible and keeping an eye on where they are spending money are going to find 2015 will not be a happy year.

For the tech industry the predictions for next year are easy – there will be more security beaches, governments will want more powers to access our data while proving they can’t be trusted with what they already have, a new hot social media network will appear, well known brands will collapse, the net will get faster, more devices will be connected to Internet of Things and prices will continue to fall.

It’s the falling prices that will be what defines business in 2015 as we enter deflationary times; not the economists’ nightmare of prices falling in the face of collapsed demand – although that’s not out of the question – but in the more positive sense of business inputs being cheaper.

Things are going to get cheaper

A few weeks ago I wrote of futurist and academic Andrew McAfee speaking about the accelerated rate of change in business at the Gartner Gold Coast Conference. One of the immediate effects of that changing world McAfee describes is that a lot of thing are going to get cheaper.

Part of this is driven by newer cheaper sources of energy and labour, other driving factors are increased automation in fields where wages have historically been the biggest cost and  manufacturing processes are putting pressure on prices for most goods. The commodities prices collapse may also be a key factor in 2015.

For some industries, such as the IT industry, falling prices aren’t a new concept. Any computer superstore or local PC repairer who holds inventory gets a nasty reminder of the sector’s economics every time they do a stocktake. However many businesses operate on the assumption prices will always rise overtime, a not unfair assumption given the inflation we’ve seen over the last fifty years.

Getting costs down

With falling prices, it means businesses have to be more aggressive in cutting costs; whether it’s telephone or power bills through to professional services or banking fees, the onus is now on managers to squeeze as much value for the dollar as they can.

In the technology field the targets are obvious; are your old computer preventing you from using new software? Do cloud services offer a better deal than your old server based systems? Are your service providers charging too much?

For the wider business looking at how newer technologies affect your workflow could well prove rewarding, it may well there’s whole range of areas your company can become more efficient through adopting new systems.

A good candidate for slashing costs and improving flexibility is transport where too many companies are still paying Cabcharge’s overpriced fees when apps like Ingogo or Uber are cheaper and better. Why have company vehicles when car sharing services like GoGet can offer more value. Do you still need an expensive Yellow Pages listing when a free Google My Business entry will get you in front of more potential customers, particularly on the all important mobile platforms?

Then there’s the whole outsourcing question where it’s becoming easier to hire knowledge workers on an as needed basis through the various online platforms like O-Desk and Freelancer.

Over the break, it’s worthwhile reviewing your operations and seeing where you can use technology to cut costs and become more flexible in face of a rapidly changing marketplace. One prediction is certain; those with bloated costs and inflexible management are in for a tough 2015.

Dec 112014
 
Cell phones in use

What will the next generation of smartphones look like? Earlier this week the GSM Association released their roadmap for the future 5G network standard, the next generation of mobile communications that will start appearing towards the end of this decade.

The GSMA is the peak global telco industry body which includes amongst its membership most of the world’s telephone companies and the vendors who manufacture the network equipment, so the organisation’s view is a good representation of the industry’s long term vision.

Much of the future standard is actually an amalgam of existing technology and concepts such as heterogeneous networks where phones and mobile internet of things devices can switch from the phone network to private WiFi systems without users noticing the handover.

The GSMA sees eight main areas for the 5G standards;

  • data rates of 1Gbps down
  • latency of less than one millisecond
  • network densification in determining base station locations
  • improving coverage
  • making networks more availabile
  • reducing operating costs
  • increasing the field life of devices.

That latter point is particularly pertinent as battery life remains a major concern for smartphone users and getting power to internet of things devices is one of the greatest barriers to adoption.

With the 5G standard not expected before the end of the decade, it’s hard to imagine how much technology may have changed in that time, something the GSMA acknowledges; “Because 5G is at an early stage there may be many use cases that will emerge over the coming years that we cannot anticipate today.”

The report though does try to anticipate some of the applications we may see the 5G standard driving such as autonomous vehicles, cloud based offices and augmented reality technologies. All of these though are advancing rapidly under the existing fixed line, 3G and 4G telco networks.

For the moment rolling out the 4G standard remains the industry’s main game with the existing technology only making up five percent of the world’s mobile connections at present. This is the area the GSMA sees as being the big opportunity over the rest of the decade.

In another report the GSMA claims the 4G rollout in Europe, currently at less than 10% of connections but expected to be over half by 2020, will drive economic growth on the continent.

The mobile industry is playing a central role in supporting economic activity and recovery in the region, contributing 3.1 per cent to Europe’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, equivalent to EUR433 billion4, including EUR105 billion generated directly by mobile operators. By 2020, it is estimated that the industry will generate a total economic value of EUR492 billion.

There’s no doubt telecommunications networks are to the 21st Century what the highways were to the Twentieth and the railways to the nineteenth. As with the construction of previous century’s networks one of the big challenges will be raising the capital to build the systems and making wise investment choices.

For the developing world raising the capital required for those networks might be the hardest task of all, however for those countries and regions not making the investments may leave them further behind the western nations than they are today.

Ultimately what eventually is included in the 5G standard will reflect many of the political and economic realities of the next five years; no international standard is free from political or commercial influences during its drafting. The job for the standards bodies is not to get left too far behind market or technological advances.

In describing a vision for the sector’s future the GSMA 5G report lays out many of the opportunities and challenges facing the telecommunications industry over the rest of the decade. With these technologies becoming the centre of our working and home lives, what happens won’t just determine what smartphone we own in 2020 but the shape of our societies.

 

Dec 072014
 
commonwealth-bank-in-lockart-nsw

On Sunday the Murray Report into the Australian Financial System was handed down with a range of recommendations on ensuring the stability and future of the nation’s banking and finance institutions.

Choosing David Murray, the former CEO of the nation’s biggest bank, was controversial but it turns out he and his team have delivered a sensible overview of the opportunities, risks and challenges facing Australia’s financial sector and economy. Many of the recommendations though require a change in both the culture of banks and that of the country’s population towards investment and savings.

A key part of the review is identifying the lessons learned from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 in an attempt to reduce the country’s vulnerability to external economic shocks and limit the taxpayers’ exposure to any consequential bank failures.

In proposing ways of strengthening the nation’s banks against similar future shocks The report identifies a cultural problem in the finance industry.

Culture of financial firms

Since the GFC, a persistent theme of international political and regulatory discourse has been the breakdown in financial firms’ behaviour in failing to balance risk and reward appropriately and in treating their customers unfairly. Without a culture supporting appropriate risk-taking and the fair treatment of consumers, financial firms will continue to fall short of community expectations. This may lead to ongoing political pressure for additional financial system regulation and the undermining of confidence and trust in the financial system.

Interestingly, exactly this sentiment is echoed by last week’s World Of Business on BBC Four where host Peter Day reported from the recent Drucker Forum spoke to various economists, bankers and market commentators.

Breaking the debt culture

A key point raised in Day’s story was best expressed by Gary Hamel, Management expert and professor at The London Business School who said; “I think what the global financial crisis revealed — in addition to a lot of mendacious bankers who had lost touch with their social role — was the fact we’d been sustaining living standards through debt. I think that overhang is still there.”

The Global Financial Crisis was a warning the late Twentieth century model of using debt to sustain living standards was coming to an end, of all the western countries Australians had been one of the most enthusiastic nations about using debt to underpin consumption and that debt obsession had allowed the nation to skirt the worst of the GFCs effects.

With personal debt still at astronomically high levels it’s unlikely Australia will be able to avoid the next global financial shock and part of Murray’s recommendations are aimed at making both the economy and the banking sector more resilient to those shocks.

A fall in income

For the bankers this means lending less money and stricter financial controls; it almost certainly will mean their incomes will fall and it will be harder for millions of Australians to borrow money for easy speculation in the property market.

Creating a more resilient economy will take a culture shift in more than just highly paid bank staff, it will require a change in the way all of us think.

Dec 062014
 
old farm equipment

One of the speakers at the recent Economist World in 2015 event in Sydney was National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson who described the challenges facing the world’s agriculture industry.

Much of Richardson’s presentation was taken from his series of photographs featuring farmers with their soil and National Geographic’s Feeding Nine Billion People feature.

A striking comment Richardson made in his presentation was how a poor rice farmer in South Asia is actually able to feed from people from their small landholding than a US broadacre farmer. This speaks volumes about how we’ve organised our food supply chains and raises questions on how sustainable our practices are.

In Agriculture, as in many other fields of our life today, we’re looking at major changes to the way we organise production and distribute goods. Richardson’s presentations are well worth considering in how the western world maintains it’s own standards of living while the rest of the planet looks at how it improves their’s.

Despite being essential to our very lives, the quality and availability of arable soil is one of the most neglected aspects of our global development. Jim Richardson’s photos remind us of its importance.

Dec 032014
 
abandoned-car

As we talk of the dramatic changes facing business and society today it’s worthwhile noting a  much greater displacement happened in the Twentieth Century as electricity, the motor car and communications drove the greatest increase in standards of living that humans have ever seen.

Our great-great grandparents lived through a period of change far greater than that we will see as their lives and communities were radically transformed.

Many common jobs in the early 1900s had ceased to exist by the middle of the century as cars replaced horses, mains electricity replaced town gas and refrigeration changed shopping habits. In the second half of the century affordable motor vehicles and television saw our cities reshaped around suburban life, a process now being reversed.

The structural change to economies saw a shift in population and jobs; a hundred years ago thirty percent of the US labor force was employed in agriculture, today it’s around two percent. Despite the shift, jobs were eventually found for those displaced from farms.

Shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial society didn’t come without costs however,  the price paid by the affected communities and individuals was huge as documented by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange’s photos.

While it’s unlikely we’ll see the deprivation of The Great Depression repeated in a modern welfare state, it’s important to recognise the real human costs of technological change. For politicians and community leaders it could define how history judges them.

Nov 282014
 
Digital bus stop

Last Thursday in Sydney a group of industry groups, telcos and local councils launched their 2030 Communications Visions initiative; a project “to shape a digital vision and set of goals for Australia to achieve global digital age leadership”.

The project is a worthy one, particularly given the failure of Australia’s National Broadband Network, which I’m writing about early next week in Technology Spectator however one thing that bugs me is what exactly is ‘digital age leadership’.

If we look at the rollout of technologies like the motor car, electricity or telephone through the Twentieth Century it was a mix of private companies, community groups and governments that championed the development of roads, mains power and phone systems. People either demanded their towns became connected or raised the capital to do it themselves.

So on one level, the champions need to be us. We have to lead our communities and industries by using the technologies and showing what can be done, that also makes our businesses more likely to succeed in the future.

On another level, we need to consider the genuine leaders of the ‘electrical age’ or ‘motor car age'; people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford built businesses that led the world and still exist today.

For countries, it’s no coincidence that the United States is the richest nation on the planet after having most of the leading business in their industries over the last hundred years.

That latter point is really what the Digital Visions project is about; do Australians want to remain a wealthy nation in the Twenty First Century?

Governments have a role in this, as the UK is showing, and political leaders need to be encouraged to take the digital economy however governments can only do so much and successes like Silicon Valley are more a fortunate by product of spending rather than the consequence of strategic policy.

Ultimately, leadership starts with us — we can’t afford to wait for governments, big business or someone else to take the reigns.

Nov 272014
 
economist world in 2015

One of the annual features in The Economist is it’s World In… edition where the magazine makes predictions on the year ahead.

For 2015 the magazine has its usual wide range predictions; some safe, some risky and some out of left field, like Papua New Guinea topping the world growth lists for next year on the back on a new LNG plant comping online.

Economy: The fastest-growing economy in the world in 2015 will be Papua New Guinea, where GDP will expand by nearly 15%. China will drop its growth target to 7% (from 7.5%). Overall, global growth will be higher in 2015 (3.8%) than in 2014 (3.2%).

Business: Singapore tops the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global business environment rankings for 2015. Watch out for Xiaomi, a Chinese mobile-phone maker, as it continues its meteoric rise and goes global. And expect a welcome return, at least in some places, to the nine-to-five culture in the

Interest rates: In the United States and Britain, where growth is relatively robust and unemployment is coming down, interests rates will start to rise in 2015, ending a long period of ultra-low rates. In the euro zone and Japan, by contrast, central banks will continue to ease monetary policy, to battle against deflation. The diverging paths of the main central banks will lead to more volatility in equity,

Statistical landmarks: It will be a year of striking “crossovers”, as America overtakes Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer, China overtakes America to become the world’s biggest economy (measured at purchasing-power parity) and Facebook overtakes China in terms of its

Elections: Britain will have another hung parliament after its general election in May, with David
Cameron probably remaining prime minister. But Canada’s leadership is likely to change hands in an October election, with the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau taking the helm.

The environment: A deal of sorts will emerge from the Paris summit in December 2015. Hydrogen- powered cars will hit the road, as Toyota and Honda launch the first mass-market fuel-cell models. And Australia will be in the global spotlight as the UN decides whether the Great Barrier Reef should be put on the endangered list.

Technology: “Wearable” technology will be all the rage, thanks to the launch of the Apple Watch and other devices. Virtual-reality firms will overcome the cost and technology problems that have prevented their products from becoming mass-market hits. And mobile phones will become mind-readers, thanks to “anticipatory computing”, which enables them to trawl their users’ data to predict events

Sport: Australia will win the cricket World Cup, New Zealand will win the rugby World Cup and the United States will win the women’s football World Cup.

Space: America’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto, after a journey of nearly nine years – maybe igniting a campaign to reinstate Pluto as a fully-fledged planet from its current “dwarf” status.

Some of the predictions are obvious while others may be a bit longer term than 2015. Overall it’s an interesting range of predictions and in the next few days I’ll post an interview with two of The Economist’s editors, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran and Daniel Franklin, justifying their forecasts for the year ahead.