The Ongoing Productivity Debate

In my previous blog, I mentioned that productivity in Australia remains sluggish. There are various ideas as to why, and what we could do to improve performance. There are suggestions that traditional productivity analysis may track the wrong thing(s) – for example, output should not simply be measured against input hours, especially in light of technology advances such as cloud computing, AI, machine learning and AR/VR. There are even suggestions that rather than working a 5-day week (or longer), a four-day working week may actually result in better productivity outcomes – a situation we may be forced to embrace with increased automation.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a number of years since I worked for a large organisation, but I get the sense that employees are still largely monitored by the number of hours they are “present” – i.e., on site, in the office, or logged in to the network. But I think we worked out some time ago that merely “turning up” is not a reliable measure of individual contribution, output or efficiency.

No doubt, the rhythm of the working day has changed – the “clock on/clock off” pattern is not what it was even when I first joined the workforce, where we still had strict core minimum hours (albeit with flexi-time and overtime).  So although many employees may feel like they are working longer hours (especially in the “always on” environment of e-mail, smart phones and remote working), I’m not sure how many of them would say they are working at optimum capacity or maximum efficiency.

For example, the amount of time employees spend on social media (the new smoko?) should not be ignored as a contributory factor in the lack of productivity gains. Yes, I know there are arguments for saying that giving employees access to Facebook et al can be beneficial in terms of research, training and development, networking, connecting with prospective customers and suppliers, and informally advocating for the companies they work for; plus, personal time spent on social media and the internet (e.g., booking a holiday) while at work may mean taking less actual time out of the office.

But let’s try to put this into perspective. With the amount of workplace technology employees have access to (plus the lowering costs of that technology), why are we still not experiencing corresponding productivity gains?

The first problem is poor deployment of that technology. How many times have you spoken to a call centre, only to be told “the system is slow today”, or worse, “the system won’t let me do that”? The second problem is poor training on the technology – if employees don’t have enough of a core understanding of the software and applications they are expected to use (I don’t even mean we all need to be coders or programmers – although they are core skills everyone will need to have in future), how will they be able to make best use of that technology? The third problem is poor alignment of technology – whether caused by legacy systems, so-called tech debt, or simply systems that do not talk to one another. I recently spent over 2 hours at my local bank trying to open a new term deposit – even though I have been a customer of the bank for more than 15 years, and have multiple products and accounts with this bank, I was told this particular product still runs on a standalone DOS platform, and the back-end is not integrated into the other customer information and account management platforms.

Finally, don’t get me started about the NBN, possibly one of the main hurdles to increased productivity for SMEs, freelancers and remote workers. In my inner-city area of Melbourne, I’ve now been told that I won’t be able to access NBN for at least another 15-18 months – much, much, much later than the original announcements. Meanwhile, since NBN launched, my neighbourhood has experienced higher density dwellings, more people working from home, more streaming and on-demand services, and more tech companies moving into the area. So legacy ADSL is being choked, and there is no improvement to existing infrastructure pending the NBN. It feels like I am in a Catch 22, and that the NBN has been over-sold, based on the feedback I read on social media and elsewhere. I’ve just come back from 2 weeks’ holiday in the South Island of New Zealand, and despite staying in some fairly remote areas, I generally enjoyed much faster internet than I get at home in Melbourne.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night






Modern travel is not quite rubbish, but….

OK, this might be a first world problem – but where has the glamour gone in modern travel? I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel for work – however, so much of the pleasure has gone out of the experience.

“They promised us cocktail bars…” (image sourced from Australian Business Traveller)

Of course, safety is paramount, and increased surveillance, screening and security checks are to be expected, if not actually welcomed. So we are all accustomed to allowing extra pre-boarding time to clear each stage of the process. It also makes sense, I suppose, that each airport has slightly different requirements – but the need for variety should not be an excuse for inefficient systems, poor directions from airport staff and a lack of clarity on what is expected of passengers.

There’s also the issue of how much actual time to leave to clear pre-boarding – up to two hours or more for some international flights. Then there’s the challenge of being in transit – in recent months, I have found myself on more than one occasion having to run from one terminal to another, even though the airline has assured me there was plenty of time between connecting flights. The implication being, passengers will have to endure even longer stopovers…

It also seems that about 40-45% of flights I have taken over the past couple of years have not departed on time. Sure, things like weather conditions can cause schedules to be impacted, but how many times have you heard the mealy-mouthed announcement: “we apologise for the delayed departure of this flight – this was due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft.” And the reason the incoming flight was late? Never a mention.

Often, the pilot is able to make up for lost time – which makes you wonder how much “fat” is built into airline schedules? And then so many times the arrival gate is not available, or the air-bridge is not in place, or the passenger steps are not ready…

And as for waiting to collect your luggage off the belt, the usual delay is just another factor contributing to customer frustration. No wonder passengers try to take as much cabin baggage with them as possible – which only adds to the boarding and disembarkation time.

I could look at some of the positives, in things like catering and on-board entertainment. Overall, airline food has become rather more acceptable than my experiences of charter flights in the 70s and 80s; and passenger preferences and dietary requirements are accommodated – that is, where food is available and included in the price of a standard ticket. But at times I’m reminded of the story that the only reason airlines offer meals is to keep passengers in their seats during the flight.

Which is probably why in-flight movies were introduced….  an area where airlines have managed to lift their game, in terms of the variety of content, quality of devices, and personalised, on-demand service.

But have you noticed the trend for travelogues masquerading as in-flight safety videos? Or the comedy routines? Or the big-name stars? No doubt an attempt to gain passenger attention, and get them off their mobile devices for a few minutes. How realistic are these safety films? Rarely are they made to show the exact cabin layout or filmed from the actual passenger perspective. (The films reveal far more generous leg room than most passengers experience.) If you don’t think these pre-take-off instructions are that important (or if you believe that most passengers must already know what to do), consider this: during a recent fatal air accident, mobile phone footage showed so many passengers wearing their oxygen masks incorrectly – despite the number of times they must have sat through the safety screening.

I’ve often thought that before long, with all the safety and other factors, the only way we will be able to travel by air is either naked, or comatose.

Next week: All that jazz!

What should we expect from our banks?

As I have written elsewhere, bank bashing is a favourite Australian pastime. In recent months, this has struck a new crescendo. There have been various allegations, legal cases and regulatory investigations surrounding such misconduct as mis-selling of products, rate fixing, over-charging and money laundering, all culminating in a hastily announced Financial Services Royal Commission.

Cartoon by David Rowe, sourced from the AFR, published November 30, 2017

The banks had tried to get on the front foot, by abolishing ATM fees, reigning in some of their lending practices, and appointing a former Labor politician to help them navigate the growing calls for a Royal Commission (largely coming from her former colleagues in the Labor party). But the (Coalition) government clearly decided enough was a enough, and sprung their own inquiry into the industry.

For the benefit of overseas readers, Australia has a highly concentrated banking sector, which is also highly regulated, highly profitable, and in some ways, a highly protected market oligopoly. There are only four major banks (also know as the four pillars, as they cannot acquire one another, nor can they be acquired by foreign banks), and a few regional banks. There is a smattering of non-bank financial institutions, but by their very nature, they don’t offer the full range of banking products and services. As an example of this market concentration, the big four banks traditionally account for something like 80% or more of all home loans.

Aside from the Royal Commission, there are a number of policy developments in play which will inevitably change the banking landscape, and the dynamic between market participants. In addition to the growth of FinTech startups aiming to disrupt through digital innovation, there are four key areas of policy that will impact traditional banking:

  1. Open Banking – giving customers greater access to and control over their own banking data
  2. Comprehensive Credit Reportingmandating the hitherto voluntary regime among the big four banks
  3. The New Payments Platform – designed to allow real-time payment and settlement between customers, even without using bank account details
  4. Restricted ADI Regime – to encourage more competition in the banking sector

The major banks have tried to laugh off, rebuff or diminish the threat of FinTech disruption. They believe they have deeper pockets than startups and just as good, if not better, technology processes. Moreover, customers are traditionally so sticky that there is an inherent inertia to switch providers.

But with banks having to set aside more risk-weighted capital to cover their loans, they may be vulnerable to startups focusing on very specific products, rather than trying to be a full service provider. Banks no longer have the technology edge, partly because of the legacy core banking systems they have to maintain, partly because they lack the know-how or incentive to innovate. And changing demographics will influence the way new customers interact with their banks: “mobile first”, “end-to-end digital”, and “banking for the gig economy” are just some of the challenges/opportunities facing the sector.

So what should we expect from our banks? I would say that at a minimum, a bank should provide: trust (but with Blockchain, DLT and trustless, zero-knowledge proof solutions, banks are no longer the sole arbiter of trust); security (linked to trust, but again, with biometrics, digital ID solutions and layered encryption, banks do not have a monopoly on these solutions); capital protection (although no bank can fully guarantee your deposits); reasonable fees (still a way to go on account keeping fees and some point of sale transaction fees – while disruptive technology will continue to challenge legacy costs); and an expectation that it will not bet against the direct interests of their customers (like, shorting the housing market, for example). The latter is particularly tricky, when banks are mainly designed to deliver shareholder value – although of course, most Australian bank customers also own shares in the banks, either directly, or indirectly through their superannuation.

In recent months, and based on personal experience, I think a bank should also know its customers. Not just KYC (for regulatory purposes), but really understand a customer as more than just a collection of separate products, which is how most banking CRM systems seem to work. Given how much banks spend on consumer research and behavioral data, and how much they talk about using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate customer needs, it’s a constant frustration that my bank does not really know me – whenever I contact them, for any reason, I always feel like it’s a process of “product first, customer second”.

Moreover, I can’t think of a single new product that my bank has launched in the past 15 years of being a customer. Sure, they have rolled out mobile apps and online banking, and they may have even launched some new accounts and credit cards – but these are simply the same products (accounts, loans, cards) with different prices and a few new features. Even the so-called “special offers” I get for being a “loyal” customer bear no relation to my interests, or even my spending patterns (despite all the data they claim to have about me). And because banks are product or transaction-driven, rather than relationship-driven, their internal processes fuel silo behaviors, to the extent that the left hand very often does not know what the right hand is doing.

Finally, with more and more of the working population becoming self-directed (self-employed, freelance, portfolio career, contracting, gig-economy, etc.) banks will have to innovate to meet the financial services needs of this new workforce. Bring on the disruption, I say.

Next week: Box Set Culture 





Australia Post and navigating the last mile

Over the years, Australia Post has featured in this blog. And here. And over here too.

You would think I had no more to say on the topic. (Believe me, I’d prefer to have something else to write about – but it’s the summer, it was a long weekend, the weather is frying my brain, etc.)

But Auspost just loves to keep delivering poor service (see what I did there?).

From direct personal experience, four times in about as many weeks Auspost have failed to meet their own service levels for parcel delivery. In short, on each occasion their drivers claimed to have attempted delivery, but did not leave any notification. As a result, the parcels were delayed, and it was only when I received the “Final Reminders” from my local post office that I had any idea these items were awaiting collection.

Each time, I have lodged a formal complaint. In fact, I was encouraged to do so by the counter staff, who indicated that my experiences were not unique, and that they were as exasperated as I was. They also suggested that the front line staff are not being listened to by management.

With each complaint, I have been advised that “the relevant people will be spoken to”, and I have been assured “it will never happen again”. But it keeps happening, and nobody at Auspost can adequately explain why.

OK, so once could be a genuine error. Twice sounds like poor performance. Three times, and it starts to seem like a regular occurrence. But four times, and it points to a systemic problem, a failure which Auspost seems unable or unwilling to address.

So pervasive is Auspost’s reluctance to engage in genuine, honest and open dialogue with their customers (remember the National Conversation?), that at one point, a supervisor I spoke with refused to confirm the address of my local parcel delivery office. During another call, when I asked for some basic information as to whether other people in my area had made similar complaints, I was advised to submit a Freedom of Information request to obtain that sort of data.

After the second occasion, and sensing that Auspost was not getting the message, I also submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. However, the latter said that “twice was insufficient” for their office to take any action. Ironically, the exact same time as I took the call from the Ombudsman, the postie was delivering yet another “Final Reminder” card, in respect to a third parcel for which there had been no evidence of a previous “Attempted Delivery”. I’m still waiting for the Ombudsman to get back to me….

More importantly, I’m still waiting for Auspost to notify me of what specific steps they have taken to resolve this pattern of poor service.

Meanwhile, Auspost keeps boasting about all the parcels they are delivering, thanks to the boom in online shopping. It’s just a pity that (from my experience), they are doing a really poor job of it.

Next week: What should we expect from our banks?