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

 

 

 

 

 

Why don’t we feel well off?

The past month has seen a number of reports on the current state of the Australian economy and global financial systems, 10 years after the GFC. The main thesis appears to be: if another crash is coming, can local markets cope, as an extended period of cheap credit and low inflation inevitably comes to an end. Combined with US-Sino trade wars, a softening housing market, and a sense of economic inertia, there is a feeling that Australians see themselves as worse off, despite some very strong economic data in recent weeks.

Picture Source: Max Pixel

First, the positive news:

The unemployment rate continues to remain comparatively low, and overall job participation is high. This is reflected in higher tax receipts from both corporate profits and personal income. The RBA has kept interest rates low, and inflation remains relatively benign.

Recent data from Roy Morgan Research suggests that personal assets are growing faster than personal debt. Significantly, “average per capita net wealth, adjusted for inflation, is 30.5% higher than it was before the onset of the global financial crisis”.

So, if more people are in work, credit is still cheap, our assets have grown, and prices are stable, we should feel well off compared to the GFC, when interest rates and unemployment rates initially both went up.

Even higher energy bills (a major bone of contention with consumers) need to be assessed against lower costs of clothing, communications and many grocery items.

Second, the less positive news:

A combination of higher US interest rates, more expensive wholesale credit, and more stringent lending rules means that Australian borrowers are already being squeezed by higher mortgage rates and tougher loan to value thresholds. This could only get worse if there is a full-scale credit crunch.

Wage growth has stagnated, despite lower unemployment and higher participation rates. There is also a sense that we are working longer hours, although this is not as clear cut as there is also evidence we are also working fewer hours.

Regardless, Australian productivity output is considered to be sluggish, adding to the overall downward pressure on wages. (More on the productivity debate next week.)

More significantly, Roy Morgan Research has identified a growing wealth disparity based on asset distribution – but this may be a combination of changing earning, saving, investing and spending patterns. For example, if younger, would-be first-time home buyers feel priced out of the housing market, they may choose to invest in other assets, which may take longer to appreciate in value, but may not require as much upfront borrowing.

Third, preparing for a fall….

If a new market crash or a credit crunch comes along, how resilient is the economy, and how will people cope? Worryingly, fewer people are able to cope with unexpected expenses due to lower saving rates and maxed out credit cards. Over-leveraged companies and individuals will be hard pressed to meet their repayments or refinance their loans if interest rates rise steeply or lending standards tighten further.

Then there is the ageing population transitioning into retirement – baby-boomers who are “asset rich, but cash poor”. If they expected the equity in their homes and/or the balance in their superannuation accounts to fund their old age, they may be in for a shock if the housing bubble bursts and stock markets decline, especially if they are expected to live longer.

Finally, the RBA may have few options left in terms of interest rate settings, and a future government may be less wiling to spend its way out of a crisis (more Pink Batts and LCD TVs, anyone?). And while Australian companies may have strengthened their balance sheets since the GFC, overall levels of debt (here and overseas) could trigger increased rates of default.

Next week: The Ongoing Productivity Debate

 

 

 

Culture Washing

Banks, Parliament, Cricket Australia, Political Parties, religious bodies, the ABC – the list of national institutions that have come under fire for failed governance and even worse behaviour continues to grow. Commentators are blaming a lack of “culture” within these organisations.

Some Boards end up washing their dirty laundry in public….. Image Source: Max Pixel

Already we are seeing a “culture” movement, which will inevitably lead to “culture washing”, akin to “green washing”, and other examples of lip service being paid to stakeholder issues.

Just this past week, the interim report of the Banking Royal Commission prompted the Federal Treasurer to say that banks need a “culture of enforcement and a culture of compliance”. I can already imagine the “culture checklists” and the “culture assessment” surveys and feedback forms….

There are consulting firms building “culture risk” assessment tools. There may even be some empirical evidence to suggest that companies with better employee engagement and “culture” can generate better share price performance. Even the AICD is getting in on the act with its upcoming directors’ update on how boards can gain “insights on culture”, and how to set the “tone from the top”.

(Actually, all any director needs to do to monitor the “culture” of their organisations is to track social media and sites such as Glassdoor, Whirlpool, Product Review, etc..)

But corporate and organisational “culture” is organic, and cannot be built by design. It is a combination of strong leadership and core values that everyone in the organisation is willing to commit to and adhere to. It also means ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them, and the consequences of failing to meet those standards are clear.

As for employee engagement surveys, one of my colleagues likes to say, “The only question to ask is: ‘Would you recommend this organisation as a place to work, and if not, why not?’” Another colleague regularly says to his own teams, “If this is no longer a fun place to work, then let me know”.

Next week: Why don’t we feel well off?

 

Banks under the spotlight (again)

About 6 months ago, I posted a blog on the current state of banking and financial services. It was published before the proceedings at the Royal Commission got underway, and since then we have heard a litany of complaints of malpractice and other inappropriate behaviour by some of our major financial institutions. We have also seen the publication of the Prudential Report into the CBA, commissioned by APRA. But despite the horror stories, is anyone really surprised by either of these findings?

Image: Jacob Edward; Source: Flickr; Some Rights Reserved

Some have suggested that our banking culture is largely to blame – but to me, that is somewhat simplistic, since I don’t think that the culture within our banks is so very different to that of other large companies or statutory corporations. (But I will explore this topic in a future blog.)

We have a love-hate relationship with our financial institutions, especially the 4-pillar banks. The latter have continued to be regarded as some of the most stable, profitable and prudent banks in the world – they are probably among the top 30 banks globally based on their credit ratings. Moreover, during the GFC, it was largely agreed that, despite their participation in complex financial products such as mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, the big 4 banks helped to prevent a total meltdown in the local capital markets because they had reasonably strong balance sheets, and they worked closely with the RBA to avert the full effects of the GFC.

In fact, so enamoured are we of our banks that, despite the Royal Commission, the banks will not face significant regulatory reforms. One economist at a major fund manager I spoke to suggested that even an in-coming Labor Government would have to confine itself to some sort of bank tax. Anything that would undermine the 4-pillar policy (such as increased competition, rationalisation or foreign ownership) would likely be seen as unacceptable in the current political environment. In addition, since the financial sector makes up such a significant part of the market capitalization of the Australian stock market, most voters hold shares in the banks, either as direct or discretionary investments, or through their superannuation fund. Impacting the financial performance of the banks will have a knock-on effect for customers and shareholders alike.

Despite the relative strength of Australia’s financial services regulatory regime, it’s clear that part of the blame for the current malaise lies with the regulators themselves. None of the transgressions complained of at the Royal Commission or uncovered by APRA’s report on CBA suggest that new regulation is needed (unless we are talking about structural reforms…) In the wake of the GFC, and in line with global banking standards, banks have had to adjust the levels of risk-weighted capital they hold, and meet more onerous compliance costs – as well as rein in riskier lending practices. Yet, it feels like the regulators have not been as vigilant or as pro-active as they might have been – or there is such a “checklist” mentality towards compliance and risk management that banks and their regulators have lost sight of the substance of the law, not just the form.

Having read the APRA report on the CBA, there are a number of issues which need to be addressed, as I suspect that they are replicated (in whole or in part) among the other major banks:

  • All of the incidents covered by the APRA report occurred since the GFC – so, maybe increased compliance obligations are not the answer to these problems, but better supervision and enforcement?
  • Technology is only mentioned about a dozen times in the report – and technology was placed very low in the organizational framework for CBA’s Better Risk Outcomes Program (BROP) – yet banks are increasingly becoming technology businesses
  • Decision-making was seen as being too slow and too reactive, in part due to a collegiate and collaborative environment (surely, the signs of a positive culture?)
  • I would suggest there was a lack of external or independent input at the executive and even board level, and an over-reliance on in-house technical experts – especially in the areas of IT and risk
  • Further, the typical silo structures within large, complex organisations like banks, are the result of an over-emphasis on products and processes, rather than on customers and outcomes. To quote the APRA Report:

“…too many handoffs between silos and layers, with accountability often not clear enough and agreements hard to reach…”

  • Equally, a lack of delegation (especially to front line and customer facing staff) only compounds the lack of empowerment, accountability and transparent decision-making

Despite the strength of the 4-pillar banks and the market share they command, they face disruption and disintermediation from digital platforms, Blockchain technology, decentralized applications, P2P solutions and challenger brands. In fact, banks will increasingly become the digital custodians of our financial data – we will end up paying them to manage our data (rather than simply charging us transaction fees). Banks will also need to restructure their products and services around our personal financial needs and obligations according to our stage of life and other circumstances (rather than simply selling us products), along the lines of:

  • Essential – housing, living, education, health, retirement
  • Mandatory – superannuation, taxes
  • Discretionary – investments, holidays, luxuries

That way, banks will also have a much better “whole of client” view of their customers, rather than the current product bias.

Next week: Culture Washing