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 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.

 

Dec 142016
 

One of the useful tools in describing how technology is accepted by the market and society is the Gartner Hype Cycle.

Developed by the consulting firm, it describes the typical pattern of a technology product where at first it is ignored, then hyped before falling into the ‘Trough of Disillusionment” before maturing to find a productive role in the marketplace.

The curve though isn’t perfect – many products crash without making the ‘plateau of productivity’ and every technology has its own unique timeframe. Gartner’s role as technology analysts as commercial considerations come into play as well.

Given those imperfections, it’s worthwhile tracking how some of the technologies did on the hype cycle and how Gartner’s predictions went and on Imgur, Anton Tarasenkno has posted all the the Gartner end of year hype cycles from 2000 onwards to give us that opportunity.

PDAs and Smartphones

The ‘Personal PDA’ illustrates how technologies evolve and the original concepts become a dead end.

In 2001, the Personal Digital Assistant – devices like the Palm Pilot, Sharp Zaurus and HP iPac – were the productivity must have for connected workers and Gartner flagged them to be on the ‘Plateau of Productivity in between three to five years.

They never made it. The entire category crashed due to to poor product releases, confusing software wars – the buggy mess that Microsoft Windows CE scared many consumers away – and the rise of smartphones.

PDA’s vanish from the Gartner cycle in 2003 and three years later Smartphones make an appearance grinding their way up to the ‘Plateau of Productivity’.

There is a fair argument that smartphones are an evolution of the PDA – although not one of the PDA vendors or operating systems actually made it onto successful smartphones – but it does seem a bit of a sleight of hand simply to substitute one for the other.

As it turns out though, the 2006 prediction for the smartphone was spot on given the iPhone was released the following year.

Cloud computing

The evolution of ‘cloud computing’ is an interesting tale in itself. At the time of the 2000 Gartner hype cycle is was being described as Application Service Providers (ASPs) although the concept and technology could claim to be the descendent of the much earlier time shared mainframe computing systems leased out primarily by IBM.

In the 2000 Hype Cycle Gartner has ASPs just past the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ and this was a fair call as ASPs were dragged down by the general ennui following the Tech Wreck a year later which saw the technology close to the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’.

ASPs then vanish for four years before reappearing as ‘Software as a Service/ASP’ in 2005 on the grind up to the ‘Plateau of Productivity.’

Portal mania

In the early days of the World Wide Web, portals were hot. On the public web, Yahoo! and MSN were expected to be the go-to destination for surfers while within large organisations, the intranet page was expected to be the centre of all corporate knowledge and the first place employees were expected to log into in the morning.

For the 2003 hype cycle, Gartner’s analysts certainly believed in portals with twelve different types of portals or related technology listed. The following year, the number had grown to fifteen.

Interestingly, the most advanced portal technology on the curve, ‘mobile access to portals’, was stuck climbing out the trough for both of those years. That probably indicates even Gartner’s enthusiasm for the term and the technology was enough to prevent the idea being overtaken by search and social media.

Looking to the future

While it’s entertaining with the benefit of hindsight to look at where Gartner’s predictions of more than a decade ago, it is worthwhile considering what the company’s analysts are predicting this year.

Virtual reality is the tech clawing its way up out of the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ while augmented reality is hurtling towards the depths. Both are flagged to be mainstream on a five to ten year horizon.

At the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ sits Machine Learning with the connected home and Blockchain approaching the top. Towards the start of the curve are technologies like Quantum Computing and human augmentation, both are flagged to be more than ten years away from gaining mainstream adoption.

Picking apart the Gartner Hype Cycle is a useful exercise in understanding the limits of the idea as well as reminding us of just how difficult it is to predict how technologies will mature and be accepted by society and industry.

 

Sep 222016
 

This week’s The Future is now – Trends in the Modern Workplace webinar was an opportunity to look at the trends affecting small and micro businesses.

What’s notable is almost all the topics affecting small business are being felt by their corporate cousins. It shouldn’t be surprising the technology and social trends affecting society are equally being felt

Now the webinar is over, I’ve posted the presentation to Slideshare with the commentary below, we cover established trends like the shift to mobile then ponder the future of business with artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

The presentation ties up with the post I published a few days ago that provides the commentary to the slides.

Sep 152016
 

What is changing the modern business? In Flying Solo’s upcoming free webinar, The Future is now – Trends in the Modern Workplace, I’ll be exploring some of the technology trends changing the way we work.

A few of these trends are already here, like the mobile workplace but others such as artificial intelligence, the internet of thing and augmented reality are on the five year horizon and we can expect those technologies to have a major impact on the business in the medium term.

One of the industries we’ll be looking at is the automobile industry that’s facing massive changes as electric vehicles, driverless cars and smartcities change the way we use cars and get goods delivered. This sector is looking at both the immediate effects and the longer term effects of the technological change on their industry.

In preparing the presentation it’s striking how similar todays discussions about AI and and AR are with how we talked about the World Wide Web twenty years ago. At the time we didn’t see how companies like Google and Amazon were going to change they way we work and the way our customers buy from us.

Equally ten years ago we didn’t see how the mobile internet or social media was going to change the ways we did business or how our customers would buy. Today they are important factors.

Mobile has changed business

The recent announcement of the iPhone 7 underscores just how the smartphone has become part of lives. No device has been adopted quicker by the marketplace and its effects on business have been profound and continue to be felt.

In the nine years since the iPhone was released, the mobile internet has boomed. Now almost all our customers are looking for our services through mobile devices – be they smartphones or table computers.

One of the things that ‘s worrying however is how few small operators have mobile friendly websites. This year’s Sensis e-business report found sixty percent of small businesses have websites but only forty percent of those were mobile friendly meaning less than a quarter were suitable for smartphones and tablets.

But it’s not just marketing – the mobile internet, smartphones and cloud computing is changing how workplaces operate. It’s becoming easier for employees to work remotely and for companies to be genuinely distributed and we’re seeing more businesses made up of workers scattered around the world, a good example being the company that created WordPress, Automattic, who are showing how a modern workplace can operate.

Automattic’s experience shows how companies can use the mobile and web based tools to manage a modern workforce. For solo businesses, being able to harness outside skills and participate in larger projects, is one of the great opportunities presented by the mobile world.

Everything is connected is connected

Key to business automation is how things are being networked. Increasingly things are being connected to the internet, whether it’s bees, kettles or tractors. If we can put a chip in something and connect it to the net, then we will.

Also, as anyone who deals with the supermarkets knows, large customers increasingly want suppliers to be connected into their data exchange platforms. That integration into supply chains is only going to increase.

This has a number of issues for organisations, first we need the technology to allow us to connect and the systems to efficiently exchange data with our business partners. We also need to know what is being collected by our devices.

Swimming in data

‘Data is the new oil’ is one of the mantras we hear, however that overlooks that dealing with oil is a complex, often dirty and frequently dangerous business.

While having lots of data is an opportunity to get more understanding of our businesses and the markets they operate in, all of this information also has a number of hazards. Not least in securing it and making sure company’s, its employees and its clients’ data is safe.

The big challenge for businesses, big or small, is managing the data that threatens to overwhelm everyone. Being able to get value from the information flowing into the organisation while protecting the underlying data is going to be one of the big issues facing businesses of all sizes.

Automation and robotics

Much of the work in managing all this data will be done by computers – artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation are all going to be standard features in business.

For service providers, increasingly ‘bread and butter’ tasks are going to be taken over by robots that deprive them of business and cash flow. Other businesses however will see this shift as an opportunity to reduce costs and improve productivity.

Accounting service Xero is a good example where founder and CEO Rod Drury sees these technologies as changing the way we work, “Automation and machine learning are improving traditional services by streamlining compliance processes and creating new business opportunities, many of which are either no-touch or limited-touch.”

Increasingly we’re going to see these technologies built into the software programs we use, not just in accounting packages but also in areas like CRM platforms, email and even word processing,

Visualising the data

One of the most exciting technologies of the moment are Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and, a combination of the both, Mixed Reality. While games like Pokemon Go! are leading the way it’s actually in industries like logistics, resources and public safety that are leading the applications of these technologies.

For smaller businesses technologies like AR and VR promise to help us visualise the data we have to deal with along with opening up a range of applications ranging from virtual meetings to prototyping. Coupled with technologies like 3D printing, VR and AR may open up a whole range of new industries.

Cultural change

This range of new industries means we’re going to need a whole new set of attitudes and business faces a cultural change as technology changes the workplace. Coupled with major skill shortages in most areas, corporations are going to need to find a new pool of diverse, qualified labour. This is great news for solo businesses.

Like everything there is also a catch, and small businesses are also going to have to embrace that diversity in looking for commercial partners, suppliers and customers. Increasingly, thinking outside the box to find people who can effectively use new technology is going to be important.

The good news is that mobile and cloud services coupled with most of the world becoming connected makes it easier for solo operators to find the skills they need. The real barrier lies in ourselves ditching old prejudices and assumptions

A new business environment

In conclusion, we’re about to enter the next phase of the computer revolution. We’ve been through the PC period, we’re now in the middle of the smartphone era and the artificial intelligence age is about to begin.

The ultimate trend though is that business is going to get faster and solo business proprietors are going to face the same challenges as managers and executives in large corporations as a wave of data floods over us all.

One of the advantages for small businesses is we’re not saddled with legacy systems in the way large organisations and with the tools of the new era being affordable, means solo entrepreneurs can grasp opportunities far quicker than their bigger competitors.

The opportunities are there for us to take, we just have to seize them when when they appear.

May 262016
 
cheap robots cleaning computers

Taiwan’s Foxcomm, the world’s biggest electronics manufacturer, has announced it will replace 60,000 Chinese workers with robots.

As the cost of robotics falls and the price of Chinese labour increases, the economics of automating low skilled work increasingly looks attractive.

While automating manual work is process that’s been familiar for three centuries, this automation is now heading into the management suite as artificial intelligence increasingly becomes a viable alternative for lower level supervisory roles.

The workplace of the future is going to look very different to today’s, all of us need to be asking if we have the skills that will be needed by it.

May 142016
 
Future proofing your business free webinar

One of the challenges we face in looking at the economy’s future is going lies in identifying what tomorrow’s industries will be.

I’ve spent the day at the 500Startups pitch day at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley listening to the startups on the program making their investment spiels and in many ways those businesses are a glimpse of the future economy.

While not all of these businesses will survive, and many will pivot over time, they do indicate directions the economy is taking.

The question though is what sectors will drive jobs growth over the next quarter century and whether those industries will pay enough for workers and their families to survive, let alone keep a consumerist economy ticking along.