Apr 152014

Today has been a big day for Australian navel-gazing with a range of reports released on the country’s prospects on in the Twenty-First Century.

One of the reports was the Joined Up Innovation survey commissioned by Microsoft and written by PwC, I wrote a story for Business Spectator on the results.

While the Microsoft report focused on the small business sector, Startup Aus released their Crossroads report that warns Australia is falling behind the rest of the world. Smart Company’s Rose Powell has a more detailed summary of the report.

Alan Noble, head of Google’s Australian Engineering operations warns, “we still lag behind many other nations, with one of the lowest rates of startup formation in the world, and one of the lowest rates of venture capital investment.”

“If we fail to address this, we risk forfeiting over $100 billion in economic benefits from emerging tech companies, and an irreversible decline in Australia’s competitiveness.”

Looking in from the outside

Particularly notable from the two surveys is that the discussion about Australia’s tech competitiveness is the debate is being led by two local employees of US Multinationals.

For a local perspective, the Macrobusiness blog joins the day’s chorus with a long examination of the risks to Australia’s living standards by being too far down the global value chain.

In the Business Spectator piece, I compared some of PwC’s recommendations with the efforts of the UK and Singapore to rebuild their manufacturing industries.

Australia’s collective decision

For Australia, it’s probably way too late to worry about most of the manufacturing industry as in the 1980s the country made a collective – and almost unanimous – decision to shift the economy to being resources and high value added services.

The high value added services haven’t eventuated; mainly because the internet has shifted the global dynamics towards lower cost centres and partly because Australian business leaders decided it was easier to exploit their domestic market power rather than compete globally.

Mining proved to be a better bet, more by the accident of China’s turn of the century boom rather than any deliberate policy, however the industry employs less than ten percent of the workforce and the vast majority of Australians living in the South East corner of the country have little contact with the resources industry.

A consumerist utopia

For most Australians, employment and prosperity relies upon a growing population driving city GDP growth with domestic wealth supported by buoyant property prices. Australia truly is the consumerist utopia.

As a result of a booming, seemingly unstoppable, housing market and an expending resources sector, Australia’s exchange rate has soared while the nation’s productivity has slumped.

Making matters worse is that outside of mining and a few agricultural markets most of Australia’s industry is grossly expensive by global standards and suffering from chronic under-investment.

An unsustainable economic model

That model is not sustainable, it will take one shock to Australia’s housing market to see the good burghers of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne impoverished so the nation’s continued prosperity requires something to drive the economy beyond low interest rates and Chinese commodity purchases.

Whether Australia’s business and political leadership are capable of hearing and reacting to these reports remains to be seen, but they will have no excuse to say they weren’t warned.

Mar 302014

The latest Decoding the New Economy video is an interview with wine photographer Charles O’Rear.

Charles was on tour with Microsoft to promote the end of Windows XP, it was his photo of a Napa Valley hillside that became the background feature the system’s default ‘Bliss’ theme.

The interview is a long ranging discussion on how photojournalism has changed over the last four decades along with the evolution of both the art and science of photography itself.

Mar 012014
now hiring happy workers

Last October, ahead of the company’s Orlando Symposium, Gartner Research Director Kenneth Brant released a paper looking at the effects of technology on the workplace.

“Most business and thought leaders underestimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades,” Brant wrote. “Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.”

Brant’s view about middle class jobs is a sobering thought, many of the corporate ‘knowledge worker’ positions can be easily replaced by computers to make the decisions now being made by armies of mid level managers, bean counters and clerks.

Indeed the whole concept of ‘knowledge worker’ that was fashionable in the 1980s and early 90s in describing the post-industrial workforce of nations like the US, Britain and Australia is undermined by the rise of powerful computers and well crafted algorithms to do the jobs unemployed steel workers and seamstresses were going to do.

Twenty years later and the ‘knowledge workers’ had morphed into the ‘creative class’ and it appears the computers are coming for them, too.

Personally, I subscribe to the view in the medium to long term new jobs in new industries will evolve – a view shared by economists like GE’s chief economist, Marco Annunziata.

Over the next decade however there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing great disruption to established industries and the hostility to Google buses in San Francisco may be just an early taste of a greater antagonism to the technology community in general.

For managers, the problems are more complex; while their own departments, corporate power bases and even their own jobs are at risk, they are going to have to find ways to incorporate these changes into their own business. Gartner warns CIOs in its briefing paper;

The impact will be such that firms that have not begun to develop programs and policies for a “digital workforce” by 2015 will not perform in the top quartile for productivity and operating profit margin improvement in their industry by 2020. As a direct result, the careers of CIOs who do not begin to champion digital workforce initiatives with their peers in the C-suite by 2015 will be cut short by 2023.

Few industries are going to be untouched by the disruptions of the next decade and the resultant job losses are going to present challenges for all of us.

Feb 152014

“How do we move to an exponential approach to innovation” asks John Hagel, Director of Delioitte’s Centre for the Edge in the latest Decoding the New Economy video.

The Centre For The Edge is Deloitte’s Silicon Valley based think tank that identifies and explores emerging opportunities related to big shifts that are not yet on the senior management agenda.

John tells us how the cycles of change and innovation have varied over the last thirty years in the industry; “the biggest thing for me is that nothing is stabilising. I often go back into history and look at things like electricity, the steam engine and the telephone – all hugely disruptive to business practices.”

“But the interesting pattern is they all had a burst of innovation and then a levelling off,” says John . “You could stabilise and figure out how to use all this technology.”

“With digital technology there is no stabilisation.”

That lack of stabilisation leads to what John has termed ‘exponential innovation‘ where he sees business and education being rapidly transformed as technology upends established practices and methods.

Healthcare, financial services and “any industry that has a high degree of information content ” are the sectors currently facing the greatest challenges in John’s view.

John sees the solution for businesses and managers in looking at the current era not as a time of technology innovation but of institutional innovation. That institutions, like companies, have to reinvent how they are organised.

Reinventing well established companies or centuries old bureaucracies is a massive challenge, but if John Hagel’s view is right then that radical change to institutions is what is going to be needed to face a rapidly changing society.

Bank image by Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography of Boise, ID through sxc.hu

Nov 172013
walking the shop floor is important to business management

“I think my job title is a little bit misleading,” says Nicola Millard of her role as BT’s Customer Service Futurologist.

“Most people would imagine futurologists have a crystal ball that works and maybe talking about twenty to twenty five years out about a future where intelligent robots have taken over the world.”

“My horizon tends to be a bit shorter,” Nicola explains. “My time tends to start in about three weeks time and tends to extend to five years, so I’m more of an industrial futurologist and CEOs tend not think beyond the next three weeks.”

“I guess more of a ‘soonologist’ than a futurologist.”

Nicola was talking to the Decoding The New Economy YouTube channel at BT’s London Demonstration centre where the time frame is somewhat more than the next three weeks as the company shows off the technology and product lines it believes are going to change the communication industry.

For BT and Nicola, much of the near future is focused in how consumer and workplace behaviour is being changed by IT and communications technology.

Nicola sees an interesting relationship between technology and people – technology can radically change peoples’ behaviour but it also can amplify existing behaviours.

“It can certainly influence the way we work, rest and play, in the ways we approach the office and how we consume,” says Nicola. “Behaviour changes are really fascinating when we give people people access to technologies that give them more choice and more information than ever before. It untethers us.”

“All of these thing present opportunities to change that way we do stuff.”

The untethered office

Technology has also untethered the office, says Nicola. “In the old days we had to go to the office at nine o’clock in the morning and leave at five in the afternoon. We didn’t have any other options – we had a desk, we had big technology and we had masses of paper.”

“That’s all changed.”

Workplaces have always struggled with collaboration and Nicola sees the open plan office as being a 1970s attempt to get workers to talk and work with each other rather than hiding behind closed doors.

“By forcing people into open plan we hoped that by breathing the same air they would start to collaborate.”

“Now we collaborate with people that aren’t necessarily in the same place as us. The office itself has become a collaboration tool,” Nicola says. “We’re seeing the evolution of the office.”

Today’s technology tools and remote working have changed the role of the workplace with the office becoming a place for workers to collaborate and work together, however that nature of work has changed.

Working beyond the office

With improved connectivity the home office and mobile workers have come into their own with BT having around ten percent of their workforce operating from their residences and the company finds they achieve around a twenty percent improvement in productivity from those staff, however it isn’t for everyone.

“I’m a terrible home worker,” Nicola says. “I tend to go mad so if I want to collaborate I go to the office but I want to work quietly I go to the coffice’, which is generally a third place outside the office or home.”

“There’s only four things I need to work; good coffee, good cake – these first two are non-negotiable –  good connectivity and then I need company. Not necessary office type company but just a buzz.“

The change to retailing

Today’s buzz extends to shopping, the shops are fuller on a Saturday afternoon than they have ever been before.

The showrooming phenomenon – where customers use their smartphones to check prices and proudcts while in the shop – allows retailers to enhance their sales strategy as the same available to shoppers can also be used by sales assistants.

“Shopping is sometimes a contact sport,” Nicola observes. “the fact we are comparing and contrasting, the fact we are challenging the physical shop. Waving our mobile phone on the shopfloor.”

“Retailers for a long time resisted showrooming, they split their online and physical spaces. We’re now seeing those physical lines blurring.”

Emerging trends

Nicola sees the biggest challenge facing business in the near future being agility – as cloud services expand, it’s easier for companies to scale which places pressure on many incumbent businesses.

Big Data also presents opportunities, “there’s always been big data, we’ve always had too much data, the analytics tools have changed.”

For great challenge though for business is change and this is what will focus executive attention in the near future.

“Businesses tend to be built to last rather than for change.”


Oct 032013

“eBay is a shark in ocean, Alibaba is a crocodile in the Yangtze” film maker Porter Erisman quotes the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, in comparing the two online trading sites.

In promoting his film Crocodile in the Yangtze, Porter spoke to Decoding the New Economy about the rise of the global Chinese internet giant.

A key part in Alibaba’s success is taking on eBay on it’s own turf, “if you’re David fighting Goliath you can’t play by the big guy’s rules,” Porter says.

This is exactly what the Chinese company did when eBay entered their market and today Alibaba and it’s subsidiary Taobao have sales exceeding eBay’s and Amazon’s.

“Back in about 2003 Jack Ma came to me and told me about a secret project to overtake eBay,” Porter says. “When we looked at them they looked like a Goliath, they’d never really been beaten in a market they’d entered first and they had a huge war chest with a $150 million committed to the China market.”

It turned out that eBay weren’t as powerful as they appeared, something other entrepreneurs have discovered when giants like Google have entered their markets.

The Chinese Leapfrog

Like many rapidly developing countries, China is leapfrogging various stages of development that Western economies went through with the retail industry and e-commerce being two examples.

“Some people say cellphones will leapfrog landlines, actually the same is due with entire systems,” says Porter. “In China coming from so many years of a command economy there wasn’t a very developed retail culture or even a consumer culture.”

“Taobao came along at a time when all of that was still in the early phases of development and the company basically leapfrogged that whole phase of building out shopfronts and building logistics.”

“E-commerce in China is revolutionary while in the US, or Australia, it is evolutionary.” Porter says.

Porter quotes Jack Ma as saying “e-commerce in the US would be a dessert, in China it is the main course.”

China’s Global Challenge

As companies like Lenovo computers, Hauwei telecommunications or Haier whitegoods have discovered, Chinese businesses face challenges when expanding overseas. Porter sees this as a matter of time and scale.

“Like Japan in the 1970s and 80s there’s a whole wave of companies that have started going global. China’s such a big market that there’s a lot of companies that get big and develop scale before going international.”

“I’d say the biggest challenge in the beginning is cultural,” states Porter. “China’s at a disadvantage because information and the media are so controlled that’s sometimes a rude awaking when a company goes global like a Hauwei and then faces a bunch of political issues it doesn’t understand.”

“One of the reasons I made the film,” Porter says. “I wanted entrepreneurs in China to see it and understand these are the issues Alibaba faced when they went global and hopefully you can learn from some of those successes and mistakes.”

Going to China

Porter’s advice to westerners going into China is to shut up, listen and learn, “don’t assume that just because things are done a certain way in the US or Australia that it’s superior.” The country’s culture and ways of doing business are different to those of North America, Europe or Australia.

“If you look at the way traffic moves in Shanghai it looks crazy. If you drove like that in Sydney it would be a disaster but there’s just different ways of through traffic, getting point A to B.”

“It’s better not to judge, but just step back.”

Regardless of our judgements, China’s move up the value chain means we will see more PRC founded companies going global.

Over the next decade we’re going to see the globalised economy start to take on some recognisably Chinese characteristics.

Sep 212013

US manufacturing is undergoing a resurgence, just without the jobs reports the New York Times in its story on the textile mills of South Carolina.

The decline and recovery of US manufacturing is a story of our times – the industrialisation of Asia, trade treaties such as NAFTA and China’s joining the World Trade Organisation all saw Western producers move their operations overseas.

A weakness with that business model are the extended global supply chains as goods spend months on ships following long manufacturing and design lead times, the exact opposite of what modern consumers are looking for.

Coupled with domestic manufacturers’ increased investment in automated systems which makes labour costs a smaller factor and the sums start adding up for making things in the United States.

Unfortunately for the workforce, those automated plants don’t require anywhere near the staff older factories employed and the skills required in today’s mills are substantially different from those needed in those of earlier times.

Most industries are encountering the same change and new technologies make the modern factory very different to that of a few decades ago.

The jobs aren’t going to come back in the numbers that were once employed, as the New York Times story illustrates with the decline in the working population.


Despite the recovery in US manufacturing, today’s industry is very different to what it was last century, something that’s missed by those advocating a return 1950s style government policies to protect jobs in sectors like car manufacturing.

Even if they are successful in rejuvenating local car factories, cotton mills or coal mines, the days of these plants employing tens of thousands of grateful cloth capped workers are over.

Those politicians whose ideology is based on the old model, or businesspeople who want to work in the old ways, are going to find the modern economy very difficult and challenging.

Image of cotton threads on a weaving machine through jbeeby on sxc.hu