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.

Feb 282017
 

What does the future of work really look like? Management consultant Rob Gaunt has some bad new for those looking forward to a future of leisure.

In his book Eliminate, Automate, Offshore; Gaunt looks at how the modern workplace is changing and the priorities of managements and boards in a competitive, globalised world.

Gaunt, who describes himself as a ‘corporate axe man’ warns the reader “you may not approve or like what I do, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.”

To start the book, Gaunt gives a potted history of automation in the workforce and how processes can be improved by better management and new technology. He cites his local council garbage collection service which not so long ago would have required eight or nine workers per truck now only needing two.

This trend is coming to the rest of the workforce, Gaunt warns, adding that many of those jobs that can’t be automated can be outsourced.

“When I walk into an open plan office, I look and listen to the activity; if the overwhelming noise is of keyboard strokes rather than human voices, it’s a good clue that much of the functions being performed aren’t location dependent.”

Gaunt goes on to describe how effective outsourcing works with an emphasis on the client having to document their processes before shifting functions or departments to outside contractors as well as the importance of properly scoping and understanding an agreement.

Towards the end of the book, Gaunt examines what roles are likely to survive in higher cost economies along with the skills today’s children are going to need if they are going to avoid being ‘digital roadkill’ in an automated society.

Overall the book is a good read to understand the direction of today’s workforce and the factors driving it. It isn’t a pretty tale.

If anything; Eliminate, Automate, Offshore may be somewhat optimistic about the effects on the skilled trades, professional and managerial sectors as Gaunt probably underestimates how robotics and artificial intelligence are advancing.

Should you read the book, you may want to give your kids – and their teachers – a good talking too. The axe man is ruthless and he’s coming for many of our jobs.

Feb 212017
 

What can businesses do to prepare for an exciting but challenging future?

As part of the New South Wales Government’s Back to Business Week, I’ll be on the Meet the Future Head-On panel looking at the future of business and work.

Facilitated by Jo Kelly, Director of People, Place and Partnership, the seminar will look at local and global business changes and what they mean for small to medium companies.

The keynote speakers are Terry Rawnsley – Principal & Partner of SGS Economics and Planning – who’ll discuss his company’s analysis of the economy in the year 2026, and Karen Borg – the Chief Executive Officer of Jobs for NSW – with an overview of the state’s Jobs for the Future report.

Joining me on the panel will be Paul Fairhead, the Managing Director of Huddle; Jost Stollmann, the Executive Director of Tyro Payments and Marianne McGee, the owner of Allis Technology.

Tickets for the 6pm event on March 1 at the Sydney International Convention Centre are free and can be booked through Eventbrite.

Come along and have your say. Look forward to seeing you there.

Feb 192017
 

 

The statistics continue to come about the challenging future of work with the Harvard Business Review looking at how artificial intelligence is changing the role of knowledge workers and the World Economic Forum reports how Japan is already well down the track of automating many ‘white collar’ roles.

A couple of decades or so back, the assumption was ‘knowledge work’ represented the future of employment and the thought of management being replaced by computers or robots was unthinkable.

That hasn’t proved to be so as the low end jobs, which we thought would be taken up by displaced industrial workers were offshored, subject to a ‘race to the bottom’ in pay rates and, now, are increasingly becoming automated.

While the robots first came for call centre workers, it’s quite likely the next wave of will affect white colour workers reports Dan Tynan in The Guardian who has an overview of some of the likely fates of various occupations.

A good example of the shift, are lawyers with Tynan citing the company DoNotPay which uses AI to help customers fight traffic infringements as an example of the legal profession being automated out.

Bad for young lawyers

This though isn’t new in the legal profession. Over the past twenty years many roles in fields such as property conveyancing and contract drafting have been offshored, so much so that junior lawyer’s payrates and job prospects have collapsed as entry level jobs have dried up.

How the legal profession has used automation and offshoring is a good indicator of how these tradition industries are evolving, now a senior lawyer can handle more work and the need for juniors and paralegals is reduced. The work stays with the older worker while younger workers need to look elsewhere.

While Tynan discounts the effects of automation on the construction and health industries, those sectors are similarly being changed. Robot bricklayers, for example, allow older workers to stay in the industry longer and increase productivity.

The internet of things and artificial intelligence are similarly taking the load of nurses and doctors while making diagnostics faster and easier with major ramifications of these industries.

Dirty data

There are weaknesses in a data driven world and this gives us clues to where the future jobs may lie, the Harvard Business Review optimistically notes many roles can “composed of work that can be codified into standard steps and of decisions based on cleanly formatted data,” however obtaining ‘cleanly formatted data’ is a challenge for many organisations and managing exceptions, or ‘dirty data’ feeds, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Unexpected consequences exist as well, the media industry being a good example. While the demand for content has exploded, the rise of user generated content on social media and the collapse of advertising models has upended publishing, writing and journalism. While artificial intelligence and animation can replace actors and reporters, it hasn’t done so in a major way yet.

How industry sectors will be affected by automation is something the US Bureau of Labor Statistics looked at in 2010.

The roles which the US BLS estimates may be less affected by automation may be more affected than we think – how the retail and media industries changed in the twentieth century is instructive where the models at the beginning of the century were upended but by the end of the millennium employment in those sectors was higher than ever.

The future of work isn’t obvious and the effects of automation bring a range of unforeseen consequence and opportunities – this is why we can’t rest on our laurels and assume our jobs, trades and professions will be untouched by change.

Feb 082017
 

“Neo liberalism is dead” was Paul Mason’s opening for his talk ‘Will Robots Kill Capitalism?’ At Sydney university on Monday night.

Mason, who was promoting his book ‘Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future’ was exploring how we create an alternative to the failing neo-liberal world while avoiding the failings of the past.

Describing the current ennui towards establishment politics as being “the biggest change since the fall of the wall in 1989,” Mason believes that the neo-Liberal, pro-markets, view of the world is now failing because the general population increasingly can’t afford the credit which powers the current system.

Increasing voter hostility

With increased insecurity the general population’s hostility towards the global elites is only going to increase, Mason says, as a low work future is traps people into low income ‘bullshit jobs’.

Mason describes a bullshit job as being something like the hand car washes that have popped up around UK (and Australia) where workers are paid the absolute minimum to provide a service cheaper than any machine.

With bullshit jobs, it’s hard not to consider the white collar equivalent – just yesterday The Guardian, which Mason writes for – described a report by UK think tank Reform which suggested 90% of British public service jobs could be replaced by chatbots and artificial intelligence.

It’s easy to see those same technologies being employed in the private sector as well with middle management and occupations like Human Resources and internal communications being easily automated out by much flatter organisations.

A low work future

The result of that, which we’re already seeing, is increasingly profitable corporations that barely employ anyone.

However for companies like Google, Facebook and Apple those business models also present risks as they are valued by the market far beyond any reasonable expectation of return – even if they do manage to eat each other.

Another risk to today’s tech behemoths is the commoditization of many of their industries. “Not all of the high tech economy will be a high value economy.” Mason point out, going on to observe that Google may have recognised this in carrying out their Alphabet restructure.

The neoliberal Anglos

Not all countries though have followed the Anglo Saxon neo-liberal model over the past forty years though. In what Mason describes as “The yin and yang of globalIzation,” he point out China, Germany, Japan and South Korea Have focused on production and raising living standards while the English speaking nations enforced austerity on their populations with large groups being left behind both socially and economically.

Which leads to Mason’s key question, “will the low work future see neoliberalism replaced by ‘neo-feudalism’ or something more enlightened?”

To support the latter, Mason suggests a transition path into the ‘low work future with the following features;

  • automation
  • basic income
  • state provided cheap, basic goods
  • externalising the public good
  • attacking rent seeking
  • promoting the circular economy
  • investing in renewable energy

That list seems problematic, and at best hopelessly idealistic, in today’s economies – particularly in the neoliberal Anglosphere.

A need for new mechanisms

Mason’s points though are important to consider if we are facing a ‘low work’ society as there has to be some mechanisms to allow citizens a decent standard of living even if the bulk of the population is unemployed.

Even if we aren’t facing a low work future, the transition effects we’re currently experiencing where many of today’s jobs are going to be automated away threaten serious political and economic dislocation in the short to medium term.

What Mason reminds us is that the political and economic status quos can’t be maintained in the face of dramatic technological change. We have to consider how we’re going to manage today’s transformations so we don’t end up in a neo-feudal society with the discontent that will entail.

 

Jan 182017
 
social media is about connecting with friends

As the UK government ties itself in knots over what Brexit means, the French administration has announced a new set of skilled and tech visas, reports Tech Crunch.

While the French tech sector is nowhere near the size or diversity of the British ecosystem, it has been growing rapidly and various European centres are jostling to take London’s position as the continent’s leading IT city as Britain seems determined to squander its position.

Like many of these national initiatives the question will the French government have a long term commitment to this program? There is a strong possibility that the next administration in Paris may be as hostile as the British towards foreigners or, once the elections are out of the way, the momentum is lost.

It would be a shame if the French commitment turns out to be fleeting. With France’s economy stagnant, like most of the EU, new industries and talent are essential to triggering growth.

Over the next few years the forces of protectionism and xenophobia are going to cripple many of the world’s economies and societies. Where these visas are in a year’s time will tell us whether France will be one of those nations that’s turned its back on the 21st Century.