May 082017
 

“It’s like we lived through five minutes of innovation sunshine,” says Federal shadow treasurer Chris Bowen about the Australian government’s innovation policy.

Bowen was appearing at the Future of Innovation panel at Sydney’s Stone and Chalk fintech hub with his colleague Ed Husic where laid out the Labor Party’s platform for the tech industry and the changing workforce.

Both Husic and Bowen represent Western Sydney electorates which, along with outer suburban Melbourne, are key election battlegrounds and the districts dealing with most of Australia’s surging population growth.

Uneven spoils

As Bowen indicated in his speech, those regions haven’t shared in the country’s economic growth over the past ten years.

Some parts of the Australian economy are doing well.  Other parts are doing it tough.

Half of all the jobs created in Australia in the last decade have been created right where we are: in a two kilometre radius of the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs.

The economy feels good from this vantage point.

 

Not understanding the mismatch between different parts of the economy was one of the failures of the government’s 2015 Innovation Statement. The multi million dollar advertising campaign was full of fine buzzwords but none of the rhetoric resonated with the broader electorate, something not helped by the Prime Minister retreating from his policies at the first opportunity.

Spreading the gains

Bowen and Husic made a good case for their policies being focused on the wider population as a changing workforce is going to affect all parts of the economy.

So I spend a lot of time travelling to and talking to people in regional economies.  It doesn’t feel as good there.

Regional central and North Queensland. Tasmania. South Australia.

Here, unemployment and youth unemployment are high and show no signs of budging.

So Bowen’s commitment for his party to work on innovation, education and industry policies that help suburban and regional Australia – not just the leafy bits of upper middle class Sydney and Melbourne – is welcome and essential for the nation.

Refreshingly Bowen also acknowledged many of the jobs that currently exist in suburban and regional Australia are very likely to be automated and that education, reskilling and investment are all critical factors in dealing with employment shifts.

A familiar tale

However we have heard this before, the Rudd Labor government came in with high hopes when it was elected in 2007 which it quickly dispelled and then compounded its errors with cancelling the COMET commercialisation program and making a mess of employee option schemes.

Given this history of poorly conceived thought bubbles posing as policy, this writer asked (or rather begged) Bowen to consult with industry and the community before announcing major policy changes – something both parties have become notorious for.

In answer to the comment about consulting with the electorate before substantive policy changes, Bowen suggested a Shorten ALP government will be requiring senior public servants to be more engaged with industry.

Suggesting that senior public servants should engage with the community and industry is a good idea. That the idea is seen as revolutionary illustrates the problem found by former Digital Transformation Office boss Paul Shetler when he arrived in Australia with the country’s top bureaucrats being isolated and aloof from the citizens they deign to rule. This isolation is in itself a challenge facing Australian governments.

Memories of earlier oppositions

 

The Sydney tech community’s lauding Husic and Bowen bought back some memories. Fifteen years ago Australian technologists  were doing the same thing with another Labor shadow spokesperson, Kate Lundy. We ended up with factional warriors Stephen Conroy and Kim Carr when Labor finally won. While both were no doubt wonderful at delivering the numbers to party faction warlords their understanding of the changing economy was marginal at best.

While the Rudd government at least paid lip service to the Twenty-First Century, unlike the Howard government which was firmly focused on taking Australia back to the 1950s – with some degree of success it should be said, the Labor Party did little apart from getting the National Broadband Network underway.

In opposition, the Liberal Party too made similar noises however communications spokesperson Paul Fletcher, like Lundy, has been marginalised since winning power and Paul Keating’s description of Malcolm Turnbull as ‘Fizza’ has never seemed more apt since Malcolm became Prime Minister.

For Australians hoping some of the Lucky Country’s luck would be applied to the nation’s tech sector, government policies from both parties have been a succession of broken dreams.

Husic and Bowen are promising this time it will be different. Many of us hope it will be, it may be the last chance for Australia to have a fair economy fit for the 21st Century.

Apr 272017
 
Can overinflated job titles affect a business

“In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time Magazine as the best CEO,” Alibaba founder Jack Ma said told a technology conference in Zengzhou, China, last weekend.

One of the things underestimated about this wave of automation is how AI will be applied to management, Knowledge Management expert Euan Semple makes an important point how being supervised by a bot could be a lot fairer and transparent than human managers.

In the normal course of work many people don’t see much of their manager. Too often the experience is frustrating and unhelpful. The predictability and transparency of automated systems could potentially be fairer and more effective than an incompetent, prejudiced, or bullying manager.

The news for those looking at climbing the greasy management pole through getting professional qualifications isn’t good either, reports the BBC.

For the last fifty years, getting an accounting or law degree, often supplemented by an MBA, was the best path for a management position but shifting work patterns and technology is devaluing those qualifications while it’s appearing there will be less management positions anyway.

Tomorrow’s workplace is going to look very different to that of the past half century. Those of us currently in the workforce, as well today’s kids, need to be looking closely at the skills they have for a very different world.

Apr 192017
 

This piece originally appeared in The Australian in July 2014. I’m republishing it here given the recent future of work related posts.

For the past four decades it’s been the working class that has suffered the brunt of the effects of globalisation and automation in the workforce. Now machines are taking middle class jobs, with serious implications for societies like Australia that have staked their future on white collar, knowledge-based service industries.

Yesterday, the Associated Press announced it was replacing business journalists with computer programs, following sports reporting where algorithms have delivering match reports for some years.

Some cynical media industry commentators would argue rewriting PR releases or other people’s stories — the model of many new media organisations — is something that should be done by machines. Associated Press’ management has come to the same view with business data feeds.

AP’s managing editor Lou Ferrara explained in a company blog post how the service will pull information out of company announcements and format them into standard news reports.

Ferrara wrote of the efficiencies this brings for AP: “Instead of providing 300 stories manually, we can provide up to 4,400 automatically for companies throughout the United States each quarter.”

The benefit for readers is that AP can cover more companies with fewer journalists, the question is how many people can afford to read financial journals if they no longer have jobs?

Making middle managers redundant

Many of those fields that cheered the loss of manufacturing are themselves affected by the same computer programs taking the jobs of journalists; any job, trade or profession that is based on regurgitating information already stored on a database can be processed the same way.

For lawyers, accountants, and armies of form processing public servants, computers are already threatening jobs — as with journalism, things are about to get much worse in those fields, as mining workers are finding with automated mine trucks taking high-paid jobs.

Most vulnerable of all could well be managers; when computers can automate financial reports, monitor the workplace and make many day-to-day decisions then there’s little reason for many middle management positions.

Removing information gatekeepers

To make matters worse for white collar middle managers, many of their positions are only needed in organisations built around paper based communication flows; in an age of collaborative tools there’s no need to gatekeepers to control the movement of information to the executive suite.

Irish economist David McWilliams — his television series on the rise of the Celtic Tiger, The Pope’s Children, and the causes of the Global Financial Crisis, Follow The Money, are highly recommended viewing – last week suggested that the forces that disrupted the working classes in the 1970s and 80s are now coming for middle classes.

“The industrial class was undermined by both technological change and globalisation, but rather than lament this, many people who were unaffected by this social catastrophe labelled what happened from 1980 to 2010 as the “inevitable consequences” of global competition.” Mc Williams writes.

Those ‘inevitable consequences’ are now coming for the middle classes, asserts McWilliams.

On the right side of progress

While this is sounds frightening it may not be bad for society as whole; the Twentieth Century saw two massive shifts in employment — the shift from manufacturing to services in the later years, and the shift from agriculture to city-based occupations earlier in the century.

A hundred years ago nearly a third of Australians worked in the agriculture sector; today it’s three per cent. Despite the cost to regional communities, the overall economy prospered from this shift.

Answers in the makers movement

The question today though is what jobs are going to replace those white collar jobs that did so well from the 1980s? The Maker Movement may have answers for governments and businesses wondering how to adapt to a new economy.

Two weeks ago President Barack Obama welcomed several dozen leaders of America’s new manufacturing movement to a Maker Faire at the White House, where he proclaimed “Today’s DIY Is Tomorrow’s ‘Made in America'”.

In Singapore, the government is putting its hopes on these new technologies boosting the country’s manufacturing industry in one of the world’s highest-cost centres.

“The future of manufacturing for us is about disruptive technologies, areas like 3D printing, automation and robotics,” Singapore’s Economic Development Board Managing Director Yeoh Keat Chuan told Reuters earlier this year.

Britain too is experimenting with modern technologies, as the BBC’s World of Business reports about how the country is reinventing its manufacturing industry.

Tim Chapman of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre describes how the economics of manufacturing changes in a high-cost economy with a simple advance in machining rotor disks for Rolls-Royce Trent jet engines.

“These quite complex shaped grooves were taking 54 minutes of machining to make each of these slots. Rolls-Royce came to us and said can ‘can you improve the efficiency of this? Can you cut these slots faster?'”

“We reduced the cutting time from 54 minutes to 90 seconds.”

“That’s the kind of process improvement that companies need to achieve to manufacture in the UK.”

While leaders in the US, UK and Singapore ponder the future of manufacturing, Australian governments continue to have faith in their 1980s models of white collar employment — little illustrates how far out of touch the nation’s political classes are with reality when they proclaim Sydney’s future as an Asian banking centre or Renminbi trading hub.

Old business ideas

In the apparatchiks’ fevered imaginations this involves rooms full of sweaty white men in red braces yelling ‘buy’ into telephones as shown in 1980s Wall Street movies. In truth, the computers took most of those jobs two decades ago.

As McWilliams points out, the dislocations to the manufacturing industries of the 1970s and 80s were welcomed by those in the professions as the inevitable cost of ‘progress’.

Now progress might be coming for them. Our challenge is to make sure we’re on the right side of that progress.

Apr 182017
 

While politicians clamour to ‘bring jobs home’, automation is increasingly taking those jobs away with the mining industry being the best example.

In 2015, McKinsey looked at the effects of automation in various US industries and found the production component of mining could lose over 80% of its jobs in coming years.

In a piece for Diginomica this week, I looked at a case study featuring Western Australia’s Fortescue Metal Group (FMG) from the recent AWS Summit in Sydney.

Slashing costs

When Fortescue planned their Solomon groups of iron ore mines in the Pilbara region of North-Western Australia in 2010, they estimated 75 manned trucks would be needed. As it turned out they only needed 49 robotic vehicles.

The savings, both in capital expenditure and operational costs was substantial and the entire operation saw its costs nearly halved.

It’s not just trucks becoming autonomous, functions like drilling and explosives laying are also being automated reducing costs and risks even further.

Dashed hopes

So mining communities like those in the United States hoping Donald Trump will bring back prosperity or Australians who believe a billion dollar subsidy to an Indian coal mining company will guarantee jobs are doomed to disappointment.

A modern mine is likely to employ more workers in an office thousands of miles away than on the site itself. Where once the surrounding region would get hundreds of jobs from a large mine, today it’s only going to be a handful.

It isn’t just the mine workers themselves though, McKinsey’s study also forecast the mining industry’s administrative workforce could see 90% of jobs going while senior management had the potential of being 99% automated.

Beyond blue collar roles

That this wave of automation will affect ‘white collar’ jobs as much as trades or unskilled workers isn’t new – this piece in 2015 for The Australian described how many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs will soon be done by robots or artificial intelligence.

Mining is a good indicator of where technology and employment is heading. We, and our political leaders, are going to have to think carefully where the future jobs are coming from as they aren’t going to be found in resurrecting old industries.

Apr 102017
 
business customer service is essential in the new economy

The call centre business is very much an example of an industry driven by technological change, having only coming into being over the last 50 years as telecommunications became ubiquitous and affordable before being one of the biggest offshored industries.

In an age of artificial intelligence, web based help pages and chatbots, it’s easy to think the call centre era may be coming to a close but Acticall Sitel Group’s Australian and New Zealand managers Steve Barker, the regional Chief Operating Officer, and Sally Holloway, Director of Business Operations, believe the industry has a long way to go yet.

Miami based Acticall Sitel Group operates call centres in 22 countries with 75,000 ‘associates’ providing services to over 200 major companies so their view on how the industry is evolving is worth hearing.

Technological shifts

Naturally technology is the driving force with the increasing availability of broadband meaning more ‘associates’ can work from home rather than in call centres while cloud services are reducing the cost and complexity of call centres.

The work from home aspect is proving popular with their clients as well as businesses see retaining skilled staff and the expense of real estate driving many organisations to extend their programs. An interesting observation given IBM’s and Yahoo!’s moves in restricting home office options in recent times.

Social media has also changed the type of interactions consumers are having with organisations while artificial intelligence and robots – chatbots – are automating many call centre functions.

A broader industry

Holloway though says she doesn’t see voice services going away, “some interactions still require the personal touch”, but technology is broadening the ways customers interact with businesses.

Interestingly, both Holloway and Barker believe that the commoditization of call centres is over as companies have realised the importance of good service in competitive markets although that varies between industries.

Added to that is the stripping out of costs in areas like customer service has largely run its course over the past few decades and in most organisations there is little fat left to cut from client facing functions.

Falling prices for technology, if not labour, does offer scope for smaller businesses to engage call centre providers that were once only available to larger corporates.

Like most industries, the relationship between workers and automation in call centres is playing out in complex ways as staff get to use more advanced skills and low value tasks are given to machines.

The evolution of the call centre may well be a pointer for other industries as we all grapple with the effects of automation.

Mar 092017
 
what are the rules when asking for something for free

Last week I was asked to help a British events manager to help with their research for an Internet of Things conference in Singapore.

This is the sort of thing I would happily do for free or a cup of coffee if it were a friend or a worthy cause but this was a stranger working for a large multinational corporation who’d found me through a LinkedIn or Google search.

Knowing that tickets for their European and North American events are around two thousand dollars, I politely asked for a consulting fee.

What happened next is predictable and I discussed some of the issues on the Australian marketing and media site, Mumbrella.

 

In a content and context driven world it’s interesting how the business models of the middlemen increasingly rely on exploiting those delivering the product – be it Uber, Facebook or a big conference organiser.

How sustainable those models are remains to be seen. It’s hard to see how entire industries can survive on underpaid or unpaid workforces.

Mar 012017
 
A small business closing due to rent increase

As part of the Meeting the The Future Head-on event in Sydney tonight I thought it may be worthwhile to list down the key points I’ll be making about future proofing businesses in these times of change.

Reading the Jobs for NSW report, it’s telling that 70% of the state’s jobs are in inward facing industries and for the main part they are losing competitiveness. That leaves them exposed to international competition and automation.

It’s easy think that many domestic services business – which make up the bulk of Australia’s small business sector – are immune from competition but the example of how Uber has upended the taxi industry is an example of how even the most protected sectors are still vulnerable.

Focus on the customer

Over the last twenty years Australia has sleep-walked into becoming a high cost economy and most Australians still seem in denial about just cripplingly expensive the country has become.

Four years ago this blog posted on how Sydney was only second to Zurich as the most costly place in the world to base a startup.

There’s nothing wrong about being as expensive as Switzerland or Germany or Japan, but to compete globally it means offering high value goods and services. The easiest way for a smaller or high growth business to do that is to focus on providing stellar customer service.

Being better than the bloke next door is not good enough, that service has to compare with the best in the world in your sector.

Keep the business lean

Yesterday’s post looked at how corporations are outsourcing, the same applies to smaller businesses. Anything that doesn’t directly involve customers should be outsourced or automated.

For smaller businesses, shifting to modern payment, banking and accounting systems is relatively straightforward and setting up automation within those applications is easy.

Similarly any employment should be virtual unless it is directly involved in serving, supporting or selling to customers.

Adapt quickly

Not only is it important to keep the business lean financially but also in mindset. In recent years the tech startup community has adopted the Lean methodology and adapted it to their much volatile world.

That startup thinking is useful for non-tech businesses as it encourages a company to be far more responsive to market or economic shifts along with identifying product lines or ideas that aren’t performing.

Invest in the business

One of the biggest weakness for Australian businesses of all sizes is they are undercapitalised – even the biggest businesses tend not to retain profits and give them back as dividends to shareholders.

From a small business perspective this is understandable as the high cost of living in Australia means proprietors have to pull out an income to pay their million dollar mortgages in Sydney and Melbourne.

However what this does mean is that businesses are chronically undercapitalised resulting in them not spending enough on equipment, technology or staff training.

If you’re making a profit, try to put as much back into the business as possible and if you need more find an investor who shares your vision for the venture.

Looking global

Probably the most depressing thing about Australia in 2017 is just how insular the nation’s economy has become in the last twenty years. In New South Wales export related jobs have fallen from 32% of the overall workforce to 29% and the slight growth in tradeable services is entirely due to the education sector.

Even if there’s no intention to export, understanding the global trends and benchmarking performance against international leaders is one of the best safeguards for a business wanting to survive over the next twenty years.