Personal Reflections

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The importance of a Town like Alice

Nevil Shute Norway was a fascinating man whose writing reflected his deep involvement in engineering and aviation. His vivid depictions of the early days of aviation were vivid in part because he was there.

In writing, Schute chose to drop the Norway to avoid conflict with his engineering career. He was Norway as an engineer, Schute as a writer.

I loved nearly all of Schute’s books as a child, I still do, but of them all A Town Like Alice was my favourite. It is also a book that has had a significant influence on my life.

A Town like Alice breaks into two parts. The first part is set in Malaya and tells the story of a group of women and children captured by the Japanese. The second part centres on Willstown, a small town in the Queensland outback. Linking the two is the love story of Jean Paget, a young English women who is part of the group of captured women, and Sergeant Joe Harman, an Australian POW.   

The book was immensely popular. In 1956, it provided the source for a very popular feature film, A Town like Alice, with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in the leading roles. Now, through the miracles of YouTube, you can watch it at your leisure.

I first watched the film in the school assembly hall during the Saturday screenings put on for the boarders. I was a dayboy, but it was a good night out, so I would walk across from home to join the other boys.

The film focuses on the first part of the story, the Malayan experience. It ends with Joe and Jean meeting at the Alice Springs Airport. However, it was the second part of the story that really influenced me.

In 1981, Bryan Brown and Helen Morse starred in an Australian mini-series based on the book. This time, it included the second part of the story. Here is the first part of the miniseries. You can see the next two parts by following the YouTube links shown with the first part.

What can a girl to do? You follow a man halfway round the world to find that he lives in a fly-struck hole.  Well, you change the town, As Jean says to the local bank manager, get of your bum and stop scratching.

To turn Willstown into a Town like Alice, she starts with a basic fact. There are 50 young blokes in the district, but only two eligible women. The women leave because there are no jobs. No women, and the young blokes leave. So Jean uses some of her inheritance to start a shoe factory based on crocodile skin. Then she starts adding other businesses especially addressing women’s needs. The girls in the factory pick up men, babies are born, and so it goes on. By the end of the book, the shoe factory is no longer economic, but it doesn’t matter. It has done its job.

Yes, I know that there are al sorts of ideologically unsound things in the books and films. In Malaya, Jean is Mrs Boong. In the mini-series, there are references to Abos, although it shows working Aborigines in a positive light, with Aborigines invited to the wedding. And the idea of effectively creating a baby factory? Heaven forbid!

Still, in the middle of all these ideologically unsound things, it was the idea of community development that grabbed me. How might one grow a  Town like Alice? That is what has stayed with me all these years. And yes, I still cry at aspects of the book, film and TV series. Sooky, aren’t I?    

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Morning Forum – Australia’s apparent rediscovery of Canada

Back in 2009, I rediscovered Canada. It had been growing on me for a little while, starting with an interest in the war of 1812. Then I went there on a visit.

I am not sure when I lost Canada. Growing up, I had Canadian relatives on both sides of my family. The place was quite real. At university I had Canadian friends who created a desire in me to go and work for Frontier College. I actually went to the Canadian High Commission to inquire about emigration to Canada or at least a long term working stay. By then, the rules that had facilitated movement among the UK and dominions had begun the break down. I found the immigration and work rules very complicated and put the matter aside.

Then during the Australian nationalist phase of the 1970s when the old links were effectively written out, Canada dropped off the Australian horizon. Recently, it’s been coming back. My own rediscovery is an example. Mr Abbott’s conversion a more recent one.

Canada is far more complex than Australia because of its longer and more complicated history, yet Australians are often struck by the continued similarities. I thought therefore that for this Monday forum might focus on Canada.

Obviously I have my own views, but I want to leave the forum as open as possible.  So just a few questions:

  • What are your perceptions of Canada? What images (if any) come to mind when the word Canada is mentioned?
  • What do you see as the similarities/differences between the two countries? 
  • Canada is often seen as left of Australia on the political spectrum. How, then, do you explain the apparent love affair between Australian PM Abbott and Canadian PM Harper?  Do both countries suffer from inferiority complexes?

I am not sure that these are the best questions. I leave it to you as to how you should respond.

Update One

Playing his usual role, kvd has pointed me to a number of links:

And for a quick scan, here is one of my traditional Canadian favourites, Christopher Moore's History News along with Randy’s A Bit more Detail.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Essay – NSW GPS rugby: when excellence destroys


The NSW GPS (Greater Public Schools) rugby competition is on again, so I spent much of yesterday watching my old school, TAS  (The Armidale School) play St Joseph's College. TAS is in the blue and white.

It’s a big logistics exercise for the school. Every second week during the rugby season, some 150 boys board buses on the Friday afternoon for the seven hour drive to Sydney. They spend Friday night camped in school facilities such as gyms, Saturday play their games and then re-board the buses for the drive back to Armidale.

On the other weekend, a Sydney school repeats the exercise by coming to Armidale. While in Amidale, the 150 or so Sydney visitors are housed and fed at TAS, again a big logistics task. There are eight Sydney schools in the competition, so they only have to do the trek once every two years, but TAS is involved every weekend. 

Why bother, one might ask? Surely the resources so involved could be put to better use?

It’s partly a matter of tradition and sentiment. TAS is a traditional rugby school, although other sports including soccer are strong and growing. The boys want it, while the parents and old boys support it. TAS is also quite important to the Australian Rugby Union.

The school competitions that act as feeders to the game at national level have become quite unbalanced. Unlike New Zealand where the sheer dominance of rugby means that every school participates so you have a wide spread of top schools, a huge gap has opened in Australia between the smaller schools and the bigger ones with their large student bases and capacity to afford professional coaching. The number of boys playing rugby has dropped as a consequence.

The NSW GPS competition can be taken as an example. There were eight teams in the Sydney competition, with TAS participating on an irregular basis, limited by distance and the unwillingness of some Sydney schools to travel. Faced with cricket score results as well as dangers to the boys from the increasing speed and physicality of the modern school boy game, first Sydney Boys High School and then Sydney Grammar school, both once big rugby schools, pulled out of the first grade competition. Even among the remaining six, differences in standards made for a potentially unbalanced competition.

I mentioned the increasing speed and physicality of the modern school boy game. While I was writing, this video came up of Saturday’s Scots (yellow) vs Shore game. Scots won 64-7. Scots is playing some very good running rugby, but look at the size and speed of the Scots’ boys. 

   Returning to my main theme, the NSW GPS had a problem. Would rugby survive as a core GPS sport or would it become a sport played among just six of the nine GPS schools? All this created an opportunity for TAS. First it joined with Sydney Grammar who wanted to stay in top grade, playing some TAS teams in place of Grammar in lower grades. Then when Grammar pulled out of the top two grades in the face of continuing losses, TAS supported moves to create a new official NSW GPS competition level, the thirds. This allowed the TAS, Grammar and High First Fifteens to participate by playing against the Third Fifteens of the other six schools, thus continuing the involvement of all nine schools in rugby.

I said that TAS was quite important to the Australian Rugby Union. This is true over and beyond any  involvement in the NSW GPS. The school’s numbers make it difficult for it to consistently field teams that can match the Sydney big six. the total number of boys playing Rugby at the bigger schools is larger than the total number of TAS boys, far larger than the number of TAS boys who play Rugby. However, it is a high quality rugby school with facilities and coaching staff that match those in Sydney.  Further, as a traditional boarding school its facilities allow it to host major competitions.

The TAS Rugby Carnival is, I think, the largest junior rugby carnival in the country for 11-12 year olds open to both schools and clubs. In 2013, the Carnival hosted 48 different schools and clubs with over 1,000 kids plus management staff. The school hosts visiting school teams such as the Fijian schoolboys side; it acts as a feeder for country and indigenous representative sides; its coaching staff coach a number of representative sides; while it provides facilities and personnel to support ARU development activities in Northern NSW. All this is important in keeping rugby union alive as a participation sport.

Beyond sentiment and TAS’s contribution to rugby as a sport, rugby is important to the school for economic reasons. While TAS now attracts a large number of day students from its immediate region, boarding is still very important because, among other things, it supports the physical infrastructure that allows the school to offer a wider range of facilities and services.

The boarding marketplace has become incredibly competitive. The number of schools offering boarding facilities has increased; the number of of schools offering options such as week day boarding as increased, something of a problem for TAS located away from the metro centres; the absolute number of boarders has declined. Rugby is one, not the only, edge TAS has to offer in a highly c1962-2nd-XV-Rugbycompetitive marketplace.

Rugby has been in decline as a school game. As someone who loves rugby, who played in the school seconds against those Sydney schools for no less than three years, I want to see the game grow. Oh, I am sitting middle row, second on the left, in this photo.

One of the things that worries me about the constant emphasis on performance is what do you do when the good starts crowding out the not so good to the point that it starts destroying the very thing that the competition is all about in the first place?

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. Meantime, I will enjoy watching my old school play.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – the complexities of recent European history with more than a dash of Poland including Once My Mother

Australian PM and Foreign Affairs Minister Bishop have a highly developed sense of moral outrage. It comes, I think, from the desire to play to a domestic audience in circumstances where the external impact of their remarks beyond the nation’s borders has been relatively low. This attitude is not unique to them. It infected previous PM’s and the Australian media as well.

I make this point now because of MH17. Here I did  as I often do, spending some time to check press reporting in other countries. Noticeably, the official responses in other countries outside the US has been far more tempered. This includes the Dutch who, after all, have suffered the greatest loss of life and also the Malaysians whose PM lost a relative on the plane. .

I don’t know that I am very comfortable with a situation where Australia appears to be leading the global sense of international outrage. It’s not a universal sense of outrage, other stories such as Gaza are more important in some areas, but is certainly so among many countries who have been affected or where people travel. We can be as outraged as we like, but in the end it takes cool heads not domestic posturing to get results.

Mind you, my use of the words “domestic posturing” may be unfair. If my own emotional reactions are any guide, I am sure that that the PM feels very strongly. And yet, neither he nor Ms Bishop can actually afford to let emotions within a 24 hours news cycle set the Australian response. OMM_1Sht_poster_v2

Frankly, I find the Russian response to the whole thing unbelievable. But cold, forensic analysis is required now if we are to have any chance of getting to the truth. 

Last year I watched Remembrance, a film partly set in Poland. The film is based on the true story of      Jerzy Bielecki  and Cyla Cybulska. Jerzy was a Polish political prisoner sent to Auschwitz, Cyla a Polish Jew at the same camp. They met, fell in love, escaped, but were later separated.  Told that the other had died, they went their separate ways only to meet many years later.

The film changes key elements of the story, but provides a gripping picture of a part of Polish history. I mention this now in part because events in Ukraine reflect the historic past of that part of Europe, more because of the imminent release  of  Sophia Turkiewicz’s new documentary film, Once My Mother, another film with Polish connections.

The term New Australians has been largely forgotten now, almost discredited. It was, in fact, a public relations coup. How do you persuade an insular society still reeling from the Second World War, worried about its future and cautious of change, that  it must admit millions of new residents including refugees from countries that had recently been enemies? You make them one of us.

Assimilation is another now discredited term. However, it was also part of the necessary dialectic. These New Australians will assimilate and become one with us.

Many modern Australians have, I think, lost sight of the tragedy and complexity of European history over the first half of the twentieth century. I make this as a general comment, for at the same time many of the children and grandchildren of that first post war immigration wave are now (like Andrew Denton) seeking details of that past connection to illuminate their own life. In Andrew’s case, the story took him in part to Poland and the holocaust.  

The story of Sophia and her mother Helen is a little different, but also part of the chaos of the time.

Sophia Turkiewicz is best known in Australia for her 1984 film Silver City focused on the story a shipload of Polish refugees coming to Australia. I haven’t seen the film. I must do so now.

Sophia’s relationship with her mother was complicated, in part because Helen placed her in an orphanage for two years. Sophia never properly understood why. She decided to do her mother’s story as a student film project, collected some material and undertook some filming, but the put the matter aside. Now, with her mother sliding into dementia,she took the project up again bef2.-Once-My-Mother-Young-Helen-silhouette-copyore it was too late. In doing so, she found a little of her mother’s remarkable story, including the reasons why Helen had put her aside for a period.

The story is complex, but its start can be summarised in this way.

Following the German-Russian pact and the subsequent invasion and partition of Poland, up to 1.5 million Poles were deported from Soviet occupied Poland to Siberia. Conditions were very poor; tens of thousands died. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the exiled Polish Government and Stalin reached a peace agreement. As part of this, an “amnesty” was granted to many Polish detainees who were to be allowed to join a new Polish army to be formed under the command of General Władysław Anders. The new army was to be under the control of the exiled Polish Government.

Tens of thousands of Poles including many civilians were released from the Gulags but without food or transport to find their way to the new force. Again, thousands died trekking to the new headquarters. Sophia’s mother was one of those who had been exiled and then found their way to the Polish Army headquarters.

There were inevitable tensions between the Soviet authorities and what was, in effect, a foreign army on Soviet soil. Anders therefore decided to move his his newly formed force and the civilians who had joined them to Persia where they would come under British control. AOnce-My-Mother-Helen-with-newborn-Sophia-in-Lusaka-refugee-campgain, there was limited transport so that people had to trek to to the Persian border. Again, thousands died.

  Helen accompanied the movement to Persia. Then when the troops went on, she was relocated to a refugee camp in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia where she was to sty for the next six years.

For the first time in her life, Helen had now found now found security and peace.  She also found love in the person of an Italian POW held in an adjoining POW  camp. Sophia was born.

With the end of the war, the Italian POWs are repatriated, leaving Helen alone again. Finally, as a single mother, she arrives by boat in Australia with her baby daughter. She speaks no English, has had no formal education and knows nobody. She puts Sophia in an orphanage. This is where the story begins. I gave the link to the film above, but just repeating it. It includes the trailer and background material.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Musings on Flight MH17

The downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine has transfixed Australia, making a distant conflict very real. It’s not just the Australians killed, the count here has risen to 28, but also the loss of delegates coming to the international AIDS conference.

One interesting feature of the coverage was its sheer speed, combining traditional and new media. The information provided effectively framed discussion. It also made almost impossible the task of the Russian ambassador to Australia in arguing that the incident was the responsibility of the Ukrainian Government.

It will take time for all this to work through. We need to give it that time. Meantime, it has changed the political dynamics in ways that none of us can see.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Understanding the resistance to change

Tonight’s post provides  a few observations on current economic news. I am not giving links where the source article is behind the firewall.

At the moment there is a lot in the Australian financial press about the need for and resistance to economic reform among Australians. If my own reactions are any measure, I fail to see why there should be surprise at people’s resistant to economic change. Now don’t get me wrong, I happen to agree that Australia does need to improve productivity for example, but the reform debate is almost totally contextual, and that is where it fails.

To begin with a semantic point, “reform” simply means to reshape or change. It does not mean change in a positive direction, although the way the word is used and abused often carries that loading. Most if not all change brings winners and losers. When, as in my case, change seems to have damage the things that I care most about, then I become change resistant. Who will benefit from this change, I ask? Who will lose? When the majority of the population comes to feel that they belong in the loser class, necessary change becomes almost impossible.

In a piece in today’s Australian Financial Review, Rachel Nickless reported on the results of a  survey of Australian graduates carried out by Universum. Now Universum classifies itself as “the employee branding firm”. Chaps, you have something to learn. As often happens, I tried to check the story against source. This is the Universum web site summary. It gives damn all information, although no doubt the company thinks it pretty! Back to Rachel.

According to Rachel, Universum found that among 8,516 final year students, people and culture contributed most to employer attractiveness. When asked about their career gaols, work like balance came first (61 per cent) followed by job security (50 per cent) and then a feeling that I am serving a greater good ( 43 per cent). At the same time, students still had inflated salary expectations.

These result are broadly consistent with my own experiences. They are part of the problem faced by those mounting a case for economic change on the grounds that this will make the country wealthier or, at least, more economically self-sustaining. This doesn’t garb as an objective, while students are well ware of job insecurity.

In another short piece in the same paper, Andrew Podger looked at the McClure report into the Australian welfare system.  Beyond noting that data buried in Appendix G  showed that the proportion of working age Australians receiving income support had declined from 25 per cent in 1996 to 18 per cent today. He also commented that Australia had the most targeted welfare system in the world.

I don’t know about that. I do know that our increasingly less generous and more targeted welfare system has actually become a cause of welfare dependence. In more generous days, you could move through the system from dependence to independence. That’s what many did. Today, tight targeting has created a situation where the transition financial costs of improving oneself have become very great. The obvious answer is to further increase restrictions and penalties. You could do a lot more with some relaxation in rules at a not especially great net cost.

I am running out of time tonight, so I want to return to my main theme. I said that the reform debate was almost totally contextual. By that I mean simply that it it is dominated by particular thought constructs and broader ideological arguments on the part of right and left. These do not address the causes of resistance to change. They are simply obiter dicta, things said in passing that appear to provide justification.                 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ten blogs that may interest you

I have been carrying out an experiment on my public Facebook page. All these things take time to maintain, and I had serious doubts about value. So decided to pay $77 to FB to promote the page (FB for advertise) for a week. So far, I have added 17 likes for 987 people reached.

I still don’t know if the page is worthwhile, but it is interesting in0000100058 regard to FB metrics!

Most of my regular readers know my favourite blogs, so I do try to mix things around. Given that I have some new people on FB and will be cross-posting there, I thought that I would re-focus on some of my favourites in this post.

But before going on, discussion on Monday Morning Forum – what do you like, dislike about Australian architecture? is just getting underway. This is what kvd reckoned was a real Queenslander as compared to what I put up. What do you think? What do you most like/hate about modern architecture?

AC’s blog remains one of my favourites. She has just been in Florence. This is one of her stories from that trip: They have time. I have to say that her descriptions of Florentine men make me feel quite inadequate!

Ramana is an Indian blogger from Pune. His usually gentle tales make for good reading. You will find his blog here.

The Lowy Institute blog is, I think, Australia’s best foreign policy blog. Its not a complicated blog. I read it all the time because it keeps me in touch with international issues and especially those in Australia’s immediate environment. 

Australian Policy On-line is a very good site for keeping in touch with the latest research and analysis bearing on the development of public policy in Australia. This is one place to go if you wish to break yourself from the the one-line sound bites so loved by the Australian political leadership on all sides.

The History Blog is an eclectic blog featuring in popular form some of the latest historical research from around the world. Would you drink this? -  200-year-old seltzer water bottle found on shipwreck. Staying with history, Christopher Moore’s History News provides a constant short introduction to Canadian history, my own blog New England’s History provides an introduction to Australia’s New England region, while Legal History is as the name says if with a very US focus.  

Turning to Australian politics, Club Troppo is the grand-daddy of left centre blogs, although posting has become more irregular over recent months. By contrast, the right-Libertarian blog Catallaxy Files has maintained its regularity, although the posts are also very short. The best reporting on the latest Australian opinion polls continues to come from The Poll Bludger, a Crikey blog.

Well, that’s ten blogs excluding my own, I think, therefore, that I might leave this post there.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday Morning Forum – what do you like, dislike about Australian architecture?

I guess that this forum has an Australian focus. But if you are outside Australia, feel free to join in re the architecture of your own country.

What do you especially hate/like about current architecture, what architecture from the past especially appeals to you?  Now to make my own position clear, I love verandahs. They are a very Australian thing. I also love internal court yards/gardens that you found in some Roman houses.

To my mind, the house should flow into the garden. This is an example of what is known as a Queenslander.   Actually, it too ornate for my taste. I love the lower verandahs that flow out into the garden. You can sit there in the still warm air of evening and look at through the trees, across tye beds.

For some reason, a lit of modern styles in industrial parks seem to go with an off-centre rectangle at the entrance. To my mind, that’s blood ugly!

What do you think? 


In comments, kvd was not impressed by the above photo.

Well, someone has to say it: that picture is quite possibly the ugliest,least representative, example of "a Queenslander" that I've ever seen. And if there was an architect involved (and I suspect there was, because it lacks taste), all I can suggest is that he should have been put down at birth.

"McMansion" is the now-old term of contempt in NSW; that pic must qualify as the Queensland version.

So please - anyone reading from out-of-Australia - we are not actually as crass as that. (Mostly, sometimes)

Instead, he put forward this picture. Further comments follow the photo.


The Queenslander was designed for a hot climate when wood was the main building material. The downstairs area was open to the winds and mainly used for storage. Still, I do think that the top is an example of the more ornate style.

Postscript 2

I hadn’t heard of architect Christopher Wolfgang Alexander until Evan mentioned him in a comment. You will find his Wikipedia entry here. This link will give you access to photos of some of his buildings, While this piece gives access to more set in a context. There is some really nice stuff there. He strikes me as my kind of architect!   

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Making social media relevant to project management

A comment exchange with kvd on Prince2, PMBOK and all that project management stuff reminded me of an element from the course that go me musing,

We were talking about virtual teams. The question was which communications tools would you use to support the teams. It won’t come as a surprise that I mentioned social media. The reaction from the group was quite negative.

I need to give you a little background here. The small agency that I am supporting at present is part of a much bigger agency. The bigger agency has suddenly gone into social media, including installing yammer, a Facebook style system designed for enterprise use. It’s very underutilised at our place because people haven’t worked out how to use it to achieve their own ends.

My suggestion was that we might create a closed yammer group where each member of the team could access material as required, check threads as required. We might also post photos and other team material.  People just didn’t get it. They went for emails, a section on the intranet, video-conferencing. Video conferencing has the advantage of interactivity, but most of the other suggestions did not.

Thinking about the discussion. one of the threads coming through was a very negative reaction to Facebook. This actually had nothing to do with my suggestion since this was a controlled use to achieve defined ends, but it did affect responses.

That decided me to try an experiment. From Monday, I am going to use the Departmental yammer system in exactly the same way that I use Facebook and other forms of social media, if with a specific work focus.

This is actually a very rebellious thought. As a contractor, the worst that can happen to me is that they refuse to extend my contact. I never expected that my current contract would roll on to the point that I have become part of the folk memory of the place. Ask Jim, people say!

So, and because this is a structured experiment, I will report on progress. Can I change a mega-agency from the bottom? We will see. At the very least, I will make yammer relevant.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Prince2, PMBOK and all that project management stuff

I have been on a two day advanced project management training course delivered by Patricia Healy from Marana Consulting. Some of my colleagues were surprised I went. They know that I started studying project management in the 1980s, that I have managed hundreds of projects and indeed delivered project management training. I went because I wanted a refresher. In this regard, I have to say that it was a very good course.

One of the difficulties for someone with my experience is that our knowledge is gained partly by doing. Some of the big things now were simply not invented when I started. The early days of Prince2 date to 1989, although it would be many years before the current version emerged. PMBOK started in 1996. All this creates a number of difficulties.

First, there are subtle shifts in jargon. While the concepts actually remain the same, their naming shifts. Take a simple example. When I started learning project management, we used the term parametric pricing to describe comparisons based on historical data and comparisons with other similar projects. Parametric because these comparisons set estimating parameters. However, the terms top down or analogous estimating appears to be the current use to describe the same process. Now the problem is that if you use the wrong jargon, people don’t know what you mean.

A second difficult is that we now live in a credentialed world. If you don’t have formal qualifications in project management and the capacity to talk learnedly about, say, Prince2, then your experience counts for little. Unless you can drill through and get people talking about specific things such as estimating problems, your knowledge will count for little.

To add to the problems, the actual project management capabilities in many areas of Government are limited. There are very particular reasons for this. A key one is the focus on form rather than function or purpose. You do this and that, create this and that, but it really doesn’t matter. You have an implementation plan, a communications plan, a risk management plan because you must have these things. The plan as an action device is neither here nor there. You just have to have the plan.

This may sound jaundiced and indeed it is. This was the area where Patricia was remarkably good. She showed us, and we were all project managers at different levels, how we might use the project management process to achieve our objectives. It became a tool for our use, not one imposed from on high. None of us were blind to the practical application issues, but we all saw how we might improve performance.

And then from a purely Jim perspective, she gave me some tools and techniques that I actually didn’t know, despite all my experience. One was the way to crash a project, the term used when you must shorten the time frame and provide advice on the costs of so doing. I thought that this technique was bloody brilliant.

Anybody involved with projects will have experienced either a project over-run or a demand to shorten time horizons. We all have techniques for managing in these circumstances. The technique that Patricia demonstrated centred on critical path analysis. It’s advantage from my perspective is ease of application in smaller projects; you don’t need a computer application, but can use a simple working sheet.

We all use project management techniques. It’s called planning. Project planning takes that a step further by creating a degree of rigour. When my daughters were at primary school, the curriculum included project management. In my naive way, I was surprised but thought that was good, that the techniques learned would carry through.

It didn’t quite work like that because the real world isn’t like that. Both girls are good planners when required, but I doubt that they use many of the techniques taught then. De Bono’s hats, a problem solving technique, would be an example. Part of the reason for non-use is that the the techniques were not integrated into the later curriculum. They lacked relevance as a consequence.

A second and more important reason lies in the very nature of project management. Project management takes time. It is a set of processes and tools whose relevance varies depending on what you need to do, If you blindly apply the whole process, use every tool, then planning comes to dominate doing. This is what often happens in government where the tick box approach becomes all. This doesn't work.

If you think of project management as a process and tool kit that you apply to the degree that it’s relevant when it’s relevant, then it becomes very powerful. That is the reason why Patricia’s course was perceived as good; it was personally useful.

Do I feel another Belshaw reform program coming on? Perhaps at a very micro level. 

A number of my colleagues have done or are doing either the certificate IV or diploma courses in project management. They find, will find, that much of what they learn simply sits on the shelf because its just too difficult and time consuming to apply. Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible to create an environment that will encourage selective use.

This environment will not come from on-high. The higher up the food chain people go, the more disconnected they become from working realities. They simply forget or acquire different priorities. Meantime, the worker bees have to get on with their jobs. Change might come if enough of the worker bees adopt the techniques on a selective basis as a way of both managing their own work and managing up. 


This post was picked up by Greg Sealby’s Project Management News. Through that, I picked up this post by Ben Horsman, PRINCE2, Waterfall, Agile, and PMBOK. It’s not a bad summary.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Charmaine Webster, the Minimbah Project and the importance of a birth certificate

A week back, students from the University of New England spent a week in Canberra lobbying Federal Ministers to help give a forgotten generation of Australians an official identity.

I had been following the Minimbah Project for a little while. The project is named after Minimbah, a largely Aboriginal independent pre-school primary school located in Armidale. My old school, TAS, has established a close relationship with Minimbah to the benefit of both.  

Driven by UNE students, the Minimbah Project began several years ago to assistCharmaine Webster Aboriginal students to acquire birth certificates. Such a simple thing, a birth certificate.  Many people didn’t have one either because the birth went unregistered or because a certificate was not obtained. Now, the consequences can be dire because of the increasing rigidity of Government rules mandating a birth certificate as a key piece of evidence for just about everything.

This is Charmaine Webster. She does not exist. This is her story. According to UNE student and Minimbah Project leader Reece Tickey, an estimated 300,000 Australians are unregistered and uncertified.

There are two parts to the problem. First, you have to register the birth. This is technically compulsory and, I think, free. But then, you have to pay for the birth certificate. In NSW, I understand that this costs $50. So a proportion of births go either unregistered or without that critical piece of paper. This is specially true for disadvantaged groups.  

Starting at Minimbah, the UNE student project team have been holding free birth registration sessions at community centres and sports events in regional NSW and southern QLD, for several years. These sessions have been supported by fund raising activities. While the work continues, the project team concluded that retrospectively issuing certificates was unsustainable due to the sheer numbers and geographical dispersion of the people affected.

As a solution, the team saw a need to streamline, integrate and automate the system for registering births and issuing birth certificates. They also thought that this could fit with a number of technology initiatives already underway. Apart from being socially important, simplification and integration could actually save Government money. Hence the Canberra trip.

In all this, I suspect that a critical piece of system architecture lies in making the issue of the initial certificate free. I assume that the price was imposed as a cost recovery measure. However, and as with all prices, the effect of a price is to stop some people buying. That has later costs.

I spent an idle moment trying to work out how much Charmaine Webster’s attempts to gain a birth certificate had cost. Not the cost to her, that’s large, but the cost to governments in terms of time and salaries. It’s clearly in the thousands, probably tens of thousand, of dollars. That pays for a lot of certificates.      

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Train reading – Geoff Blomfield’s “Baal Belbora: the end of the dancing”

Dance-at-the-conclusion-of-the-Cawarra-(initiation) ceremonies, by Clement Hodgkinson, 1845.

This sketch is from Clement Hodgkinson. It shows a dance (1842) in the Macleay Valley at the end of an initiation ceremony.  

Hodgkinson’s book Australia from  Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay is a great travel read. Click on the link above and have some fun.

Just at the moment, my train reading is Geoffrey Blomfield’s Baal Belbora: The end of the dancing (Apcol Chippendale 1981).  This is a book written by a local grazier with a passion that has come to occupy a special niche in Australian historiography.

The copy I am reading is my father’s. It has an inscription from Geoff. I have a second copy, my own, also with an inscription from Geoff. Geoff and wife Carmen were lovely people. In 1981, my parents and I went to drinks at their place in Armidale to celebrate the launch.

The book tells the story of European-Aboriginal relations, and especially the massacres in what is called the Falls Country. Located in Southern New England, this is where the watersheds of three rivers join. The name relates to the sharply falling terrain rather than water falls, although those do exist. Dance of Defiance Hodgkinson  This is another drawing by Hodgkinson from the Macleay Valley called dance of defiance.

Rereading, Geoff’s book is a funny mixed up book. Part history, part polemic, part literature, it was severely criticised when it came out. I know that there were later editions. I do not know to what extent Geoff modified them to meet the criticisms.

Re-reading it now, I tune out some elements. I think that the book is simply wrong in parts.

As an example, I don’t accept Geoff’s analysis of the absolutely peaceful nature of Aboriginal society. An absolutely peaceful society does not invent the fiendish barbed death spear whose sole objective was to kill. I also don’t accept the way that Geoff’s view has become entwined in current idealised Aboriginal narrative.

I do accept, however, that Aboriginal society was, by the standards of this day, relatively peaceful, lacking in total war. Here I challenge that common nostrum that hunter-gather societies were somehow red of claw; civilisation came with farming. That’s stupid, to my mind. Farming was an essential pre-condition to the militarised state or empire.  

If I exclude the tuned out elements in the book, it provides a sensible framework for the analysis of frontier wars in one place at one time. That’s it’s strength.The Fall Country is important, for that’s where the remnants of three or four language groups were forced too and that is where they stood and fought. They lost, but it’s important to understand what they did and why.

As an historian and story teller, it is not necessary for me to take sides. I am interested in what was, what happened and why. Here Geoff helps me, adding to my knowledge of facts but also, more importantly, the dynamics of the situation.       

Geoff’s book is also very important for another immediate reason. It forms a core base for the second chapter of my New England Travels. I am basing the book around road trips. My second chapter starts with a picnic at Raymond Terrace and then follows the road up through the Falls Country.