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

 

 

 

Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools

The fate of the over 50s….

In recent months, a number of my friends and former colleagues in their 40s and 50s have found themselves being retrenched. Nothing surprising in that, you might say – it’s a common fate of many middle and senior managers to be “delayered” by their organisations. And of course, redundancy is now something that everyone in the workforce must expect to face at least 3-4 times in their career.

What is surprising is that in most cases, these friends and associates have been taking deliberate steps to remain relevant, by retraining and upskilling, by keeping up to date on business trends, or by engaging with new opportunities via meetups and networking events. Nevertheless, their employers have found reason to cut their positions – and despite a bar on age discrimination, the likelihood of some of these older workers finding comparable roles is greatly reduced.

This scenario is not helped by the challenges younger workers are experiencing in finding their ideal job, at least during the first few years of their careers. I would probably dispute this assertion, for the simple fact that many younger workers do not really know what career they intend to pursue, or are not aware of what options are open to them. Plus, apart from areas like medicine, science and engineering, secondary and tertiary education should be less about getting formal qualifications and more about learning how to learn, how to engage with new ideas, how to explore different concepts, how to acquire different experiences, and above all about being prepared for life….. (In my own case, I probably didn’t find my “true” career path until about 5 years after joining the workforce – a process helped by undertaking some further training when the time and circumstances were right for me. But this “delay” did not prevent me from gaining valuable experience in a series of jobs – especially as employers did not expect younger new hires to stay more than 2 years in the same role.)

Some of the corporate job-cutting is no doubt driven by economic and financial necessity, in the face of automation – and this is a trend which probably puts older workers at a disadvantage, if they are deemed less able to learn or adapt to the new technology. But as I have argued before, being older should not mean being obsolete.

One friend noted that in transitioning to a new role, there was a higher expectation that they would adapt and learn the ropes more quickly than a younger new hire. Again, this puts older workers at a disadvantage as they will be cut less slack than a rookie in a similar role.

So it seems that older workers are seen as less able (or less willing?) to learn new technology; but at the same time, they are expected to deal with change and disruption more easily then some new entrants to the workforce. There is also a growing expectation that the older you are, or the longer you have been in your previous role, the longer and harder it will be to find a suitable new position. (Again, in my own case, after I left my last corporate gig, I spent 5 years doing a range of consulting projects and contract roles, before finding myself working in a totally new industry – one that is at the cutting edge of disruptive technology, and didn’t really exist at the time I left the corporate world.)

Finally, I was struck by the comment of a former colleague who is being tempted back into the workplace, having made a conscious decision to take earlier retirement:

“I like being retired. I also know that one day you’re the hero and the next day you’re considered part of the problem.”

Next week: Beyond Blocks, Tokyo