Jan 192014

This week’s edition of The Economist asks about the Future of Employment and where the jobs are in a society where work is increasingly done by machines.

For the Economist the conclusion is that the future of employment is ‘complex’ and observes economists and politicians haven’t given enough thought to the effects of the changing workplace and the dislocation of many workers.

Much of the Economist’s story is based around the ideas of professors at MIT Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their upcoming book “The Second Machine Age”.

The race with the machines

Professor Brynjolfsson gives his view at TED 2013 in the key to growth? Race with the machines, a presentation countered by Robert Gordon in the ‘death of innovation, the end of growth’ and followed by an excellent debate between the two.

Brynjolfsson cites the dilemma of bookkeepers being displaced by software applications such as Intuit Turbotax as an example of where service sector staff are being displaced.

“How can a skilled worker compete with a $39 piece of software?” Brynjolfsson asks.

“She can’t. Today millions of Americans do have cheaper, faster, more accurate tax preparations and the founders of Intuit have done very well for themselves. But 17% of tax preparers no longer have jobs.

“That is a microcosm of what’s happening not just in software and services, but in media and music, in finance, manufacturing, in retailing and trade. In short, in every industry.”

The great decoupling

Brynjolfsson’s key point is that workers’ wages have been decoupled from productivity and that the workforce isn’t sharing the rewards of improved practices and increased wealth.

That is certainly true over the last forty years, however that may not be a technological effect, but the business consequences of liberalising the financial sector which has seen massive pay increases to the banking industry and managerial classes that has been way out of kilter with the rest of the workforce.

It may well be the current golden era of high executive salaries is a transition effect of an evolving economy, albeit one where our grandchildren will puzzle over an era where a failed executive can receive a $100 million payout on being fired.

As The Economist points out technological change itself tends to create new jobs that make up for those displaced in old industries, this is a view supported by GE’s Chief Economist Marco Annunziata.

The main problem that Brynjolfsson identifies is the medium term issue of dislocated workers finding themselves out of work with superseded skills and, as The Economist point out, it’s clear the developed world’s political leaders haven’t though through the consequences of that transition.

In almost every sense, the current crisis of confidence about employment prospects is more a political and social problem rather than technological.

Helping displaced workers is going to be the greatest challenge for today’s generation of business and political leaders, the real question is are they up to that task?

Oct 152013

The assertion that internet connectivity drives economic growth is largely taken for granted although getting the maximum benefit from a broadband network investment may require more than stringing fibre cables or building wireless base stations.

A key document that supports the link between economic growth and broadband penetration is the International Telecommunication Union’s 2012 Impact of Broadband on the Economy report.

While the reports authors aren’t wholly convinced of the direct links between economic growth and broadband penetration, they do see a clear correlation between the two factors.

ITU Impact of broadband on the economy report 2012

ITU Impact of broadband on the economy report 2012

One of the areas that disturbed the ITU report editors were the business, government and cultural attitudes towards innovation.

The economic impact of broadband is higher when promotion of the technology is combined with stimulus of innovative businesses that are tied to new applications. In other words, the impact of broadband is neither automatic nor homogeneous across the economic system.

For South Korea, internet innovation is a problem as the New York Times reports. Restrictions on mapping technologies, curfews on school age children and the requirement for all South Koreans to use their real names on the net are all cited as factors in stifling local innovation.

In reading the New York Times article, it’s hard not to suspect the South Korean government is engaging in some digital protectionism, which is ironic seeing the benefits the country has reaped from globalised manufacturing over the last thirty years.

The problem for South Korea is that rolling out high speed broadband networks are of little use if local laws, culture or business practices impede adoption of the services. It’s as if the US or Germany built their high speed roads but insisted that cars have a flag waver walking in front of them.

Indeed it may well be that South Korea’s broadband networks are as useful to economic growth as Pyongyang’s broad boulevards just over the border.

Similar problems face other countries with Google’s high speed broadband network in the US so far not attracting the expected business take up and innovation, although it is early days yet and there are some encouraging signs among the Kansas City startup community.

In Australia, the troubled National Broadband Network has struggled to articulate the business uses for the service beyond 1990s mantras about remote workplaces and telehealth – much of the reason for that has been the failure of Australian businesses to think about how broadband can change their industries.

Like Japan’s bridges to nowhere, big infrastructure projects look good but the poorly planned ones – particularly those no-one knows how to use – are a spectacular waste of money.

Hopefully the fibre networks being rolled out won’t be a waste of money, but unless industries start using the web properly then much of the investment will be wasted.

Aug 182013
a grey, modern house in sydney australia

If an era’s architecture tells us about the times, what do today’s houses tell us about modern society and values?

On Sydney’s North Shore lies a collection of old army bases, from the 1980s onwards the military started moving out and some of the land was handed over as national parks, other parts were converted into office parks or cafes while the disused married quarters were sold off to private home builders.

The old stores and administrative buildings have been adapted into artists’ studios and elegant, if expensive, offices. Overall, that’s been a success which has created quite a thriving businesses and creative community.

old army store converted into an art gallery

old army store converted into an art gallery

Many of the colonial officers’ and NCO’s quarters, impressive sandstone and wood structures, have become offices, restaurants or function centres. Although some are still looking for a purpose.

Old Colonial Military residence

Old Colonial Military residence

What happened to the functional three bedroom 1960s and 70s brick veneer homes that housed a generation of army brats is less encouraging and tells us much about the times in which we live.

A few of the old post World War II homes remain for Navy families in the still operating, and expanding, HMAS Penguin and these show us the houses that once lined Middle Head Road in Mosman.


1960s Mosman military home


Another old Mosman military family home

These are perfect examples of the functional family homes that covered Australian suburbia during the 1960s and 70s. While nothing exciting or particularly pretty, they were adequate for their task as baby boomers built their families in the post war prosperity.

When they were sold by the Federal government most those modest family homes on Middle Head were bulldozed to make way for the grey behemoths of the 21st Century.


New grey mosman mansion

Like the Mc Mansions that crowd today’s suburbia, these feature four, five or even six bedrooms with on-suites, multicar garages and games rooms. Just as every child today has to win a prize, every room has to have a plasma TV.

These monuments to the modern consumerist economy triumphantly march along a road that once featured modest homes with gardens, trees and lawns.

Line of grey mosman mansions

Line of grey mosman mansions

In many ways these modern buildings represent the ethos of our time – grey, non-descript, poorly built, overcapitalised and dependent on cheap, never ending debt.

A striking aspect about them is their hostility to the pleasant surroundings and the 1930s mansions that make up most of the street. With their battleship grey, security features and blocky air raid shelter lines they look much more like some sinister military installations than the red brick army homes they replaced.

What’s also notable about these new buildings is many are empty. Some of them are being refurbished, only a few years after being built, and many are undergoing substantial repairs – a testament to  how Australian building standards have declined in the past two decades.

Strolling along Mosman’s Middle Head Road its hard not to imagine that if Dorothea Mackellar were writing her iconic My Country poem today, she would have included the lines;

I love a sunburnt country
a land of capital gains

The tragedy for Australia is those old three bedroom houses could have been used by a visionary government to help low income families in Sydney’s increasingly unaffordable suburbs.

However we don’t live in visionary times and government assets today exist to be sold off as quickly as possible to Australia’s rapidly growing rentier classes.

There was little chance those modest housing blocks would become anything more than expensive, over capitalised gin palaces for bankers and the city’s well connected business elite who are never slow to see a coal mine or old military property going cheap.

Architecture tells us a lot about our times and the abandoned Middle Harbour army base is a good commentary on the phases of Australian development through the twentieth Century and the beginning of this century.

The houses also tell how Australians see speculating on overcapitalised property as a safer investment than building the technologies and businesses necessary to prosper in this century. How that will turn out remains to be seen.

What will be interesting is how our great-grandchildren see us and our legacy when they look upon the grey, hostile buildings we built to celebrate our good fortune in the early 21st Century.

Aug 172013

One of the great challenges in today’s workplace is how organisations will manage Generation Y entering the boardroom.

Lazy, unfocused and high maintenance are some of the descriptions used by boomers when talking about younger workers, but how much truth is there really in that and how do organisations plan for this generation to take leadership positions?

As part of the recent Sydney EMC Forum, I had a chance to discuss the challenges of managing Gen Ys with social researcher Micheal McQueen and EMC Australia Managing Director Alister Dias.

Like many tech companies, EMC has a younger workforce with around 25% of staff being GenY and Diaz sees global thinking and a fresh, bright approach as some of the advantages younger people bring to the workplace.

“We want to see this grow,” says Diaz. “There’s two reasons for this; one is that energy level, quick learning and adaption to the new world but the other is the shortage of general talent in the market.”

That shortage is an early part of the global race for talent, with Diaz seeing the priority for EMC and other tech companies to develop home grown skills rather than importing skilled workers.

Offering a career

For Diaz’s, one of the great challenges in this race for talent is retaining skilled and motivated Gen Y and Gen X through offering more diverse career options.

Career progression is one of the big problems facing both GenY and X workers as, in McQueen’s view, the baby boomers have no intention of going anywhere as many define themselves by their work so they don’t plan to retire.

“For Baby Boomers their work ethic is their identity,” says McQueen. “Stepping back from a leadership position, or any position in general is a big deal.”

Not working huge hours which is a key difference between baby boomers and their GenY kids and grandkids who don’t wear long hours as a badge of honour.

Language barriers

An area that concerns McQueen is a lack of vocabulary as text and social media messaging has eroded the teenagers vocabulary with average 14 year old today only knowing 10,000 words as opposed to 25,000 in 1950.

“It started off as text speak and it’s gone beyond that now,” says McQueen. “If you have a Gen Y person operating with older workers there’s often a disconnect there.”

The effects of electronic gaming and communications also has created a climate where today’s teenagers have less empathy than those of twenty years ago — McQueen cites a University of Michigan study — this has consequences in fields as disparate as sales, technical support and nursing.

Organisations are going to have to learn to deal with these differences.  “In our own organisation we talk about the need to adapt to Gen Y,” says EMC’s Diaz. “Personally I think we have to meet them half-way.”

“We’ve found it difficult to get talent. You really have to do your homework on it.”

Part of EMC’s problem in finding skilled Gen Y workers has been the collapse in university IT course enrolments along with the broader turning away from STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathmetics — related degrees.

Diaz is quite positive on this and sees the pendulum swinging back towards more technical degrees and diplomas with more younger people taking on STEM subjects. At present though enrolment statistics aren’t bearing this out.

Finding those skilled workers is going to be one of the great challenges for business in planning for the rise of GenY workers, one of the greater tasks though might be getting the baby boomers out of the corner office.

Image of a younger worker courtesy of ZoofyTheJi through sxc.hu

Aug 142013

An innocuous, short 1917 message between Admiral Jackie Fisher and Windows Churchill, then British Minister of Munitions, tells us much about how language and communications evolve around the technology of the day.

The focus on the page linked is the World War I use of OMG – Oh My God – which became common with SMS text messaging, and it illustrates how our language evolves around the limitations of the era’s technologies.

Fisher’s message short, sharp and succinct message is good example of this – a legacy of spending a career communicating between ships by flag. By necessity, messages had to be brief, accurate and work within the limitations of the medium.

At the time Fisher wrote that note, ships’ officers were adapting from flags to the radio telegraph where morse code created a whole new argot to take advantage of the medium and its limitations.

Which brings us to today, where similar economies of communications have evolved around the SMS text message, Twitter post or social media update where OMG, LOL, BRB are part of the common dialect.

Jackie Fisher’s message to Winston Churchill is a good reminder of how we’re all creatures of our time.

Image of nautical flags courtesy of c_makow on sxc.hu

Aug 052013
Walmart is the one of the world's leading retail businesses

One of the features of the late Twentieth Century economy was how consumer spending came to dominate the economy – as manufacturing moved offshore, mines closed down and agriculture became largely automated, many developed nations’ growth came from retail spending.

Today’s release of retail spending figures by the Australian Bureau of statistics shows how that economic model too has come to an end. A post on the Macrobusiness blog illustrates the steady, structural decline of retail spending in Australia.

ScreenHunter_10 Aug. 05 11.36

Since 2000, the rate of growth has been declining, only low interest rate policies over the last two years has kept retail sales at a steady level.

Those businesses whose business models are built on the assumption of high growth rates have a big problem – its no coincidence it’s the department and clothing stores are among the loudest complainers about taxes, labour costs and rents as they see their sales and profits shrinking.

Basically the Twentieth Century era of consumption has come to an end as households have maxed out their credit cards. Now that many of those households are now older, they simply don’t need to spend as much anyway.

With the demographic, economic and cultural changes now happening in society it’s a bad time to be planning on massive expansions in household spending and debt as we say in most western countries from the 1960s onward.

It’s time to think different, and be a lot smarter about getting consumers to buy your products. The era of the 72-month interest free deal is over.

Aug 022013

Cisco gave a media and analyst briefing earlier today on the Internet of everything looking at how various technologies can help with tasks ranging from reducing traffic accidents to improving productivity which I’ll write up later.

One of the analyst’s questions though is worth pondering – “what happens when the power goes out?”

For most of the industrial processes discussed by Cisco and the panellists, this would be a hassle but most of the systems would, or should, be designed to fall back to a default position should the power fail.

On a much bigger scale though this is something we don’t really think through.

In modern Western societyour affluent lifestyle is based upon complex supply chains that get the food to our supermarkets, fuel to our petrol pumps, water to our taps and electricity to our homes.

Those chains are far more fragile than we think and few of us give any thought to how we’d survive if the power was off for more than a few hours or if the shop didn’t have any milk and bread for days.

It’s one of the fascinating thing with the end of the world movies. When the meteorite hits or aliens take over then our power and food supplies probably have only 72 hours before they dry up.

After that, you’ve probably got more to worry about your neighbours trying to steal your hoard than being ripped to pieces by zombies.

Most of us probably wouldn’t cope without the safe, comfortable certainties which we’ve become used to.

One thing is for sure — if the power does fail, then most of us will have more to worry about than whether our smartphones are working or whether our geolocating, internet connected fridge is tweeting our wine consumption.