Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - civilisation, progress & the importance of empathy

Once or twice on this blog I have written on the concept of progress. I was reminded of this by Legal Eagle's post The Hunger Games.

Back in July 2007 in New Barbarians? I said in part:

In all this, when I look at the history of European civilisation, I can see just that, the progressive development of a civilisation. I say European civilisation because I do not know enough of other streams to exactly follow the same process there, although I am sure that it exists.

The civilising process was never uniform nor exact. There were major retreats from time to time, but the progress was there.

Alfred North Whitehead's Adventure of Ideas traced this process through in a European context showing how different threads came together to create European civilisation. Whitehead published this book in 1933 and did not see the uniquely European barbarism that was to come with Hitler and the Nazis.

But even here, when we look at the outcomes, the Second World War introduced the concept of war crimes. Further, the German people were not punished, as Rome punished Carthage, through extermination down to ploughing the fields with salt. Instead, Germany was rebuilt, while Europe itself moved to put put previous civil wars behind it by creating the EU.

Whitehead had an enormous influence on my thinking because he seemed to me show a process of change, of the way in which combination of ideas could, with time, create what I thought of as civilisation. Later, I did ethics as part of my Philosophy I course.

I actually found the ethics component depressing because it challenged my idea that there was a "right", showing that different ethical systems all depended on different forms of rationalisation. However, it gave me greater tolerance for different views, while also reinforcing my belief in the importance of civilisation and the concept of progress as a process. Some of the alternatives were just so sterile. Empty of hope or even choice, they offered nothing but despair.

In May 2009 in Saturday Morning Musings - the concept of progress, I worried about the loss of our belief in progress. "Some might argue that progress is an illusion, that its pursuit has done damage", I suggested. I went on:

I do not share this view. To my mind, progress is a liberating concept because it implies that change for the better is possible. If you don't believe that progress is possible, then what's the point in trying?

To my mind, the emergence of post-modernism with its very denial of the concept of progress was in some ways a sign of the ennui that began to envelop life in many western countries.

I seem to have chewed away at this many times.

Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West (August 2007) looked at the impact of terrorism. There my concern was, in part, the impact on liberty and life of Government's desire to control and protect:

While all Governments have authoritarian tendencies, the last three decades have seen to my mind a remarkable rise in state authoritarianism in Australia. Governments do less for their people, but attempt to control more. This control permeates every activity and every level of society.

As I saw it, the rise of state authoritarianism was a denial of some of the central tenets in my own view of civilisation.

I am not a libertarian. However I do believe, as Thomas Jefferson may or may not have said, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. 

In November 2008 in Why I remain an optimist - and why I still believe in progress I restated my belief in progress. There I wrote in part: "if you look at the evolution of human society and thought, you will see that the need to control our human weaknesses, the desire to find a better way, is a constant thread."

This is only a smattering of the things that I have written, but it gives a taste of my personal views.

I am no longer a Christian in the way I once was. I do not miss the anguish created by conflicts between stated views of moral right as prescribed or defined, the very real fear of rotting in hell, and my natural inclinations. I do miss the certainty that that my beliefs also created.

The King James bible is one of the most wonderful books in the English language. The grandeur of its language permeates much of English writing and indeed conversation at so many levels over so many years.

In the midst of the decline in my own religious views came a focus on certain things expressed with simplicity and clarity and indeed a certain grandeur in that book. These were things that I heard in church, chapel or Sunday school.

It is hard to believe now that during term time I went to school chapel five days a week, was part of a school bible study group, went to the Methodist Church on Sunday and was a member first of the Junior Order of Knights and then the Methodist Youth Fellowship. This broad pattern continued into university.

As the broad superstructure of my beliefs dropped way, I came to focus on a small number of key things.

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" was the first. Such a simple idea, but so powerful, for it can be applied in all aspects of human life. 

"Go the extra mile" is more complicated because the concept that has now become enshrined was originally a little different as expressed in the bible: "and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."

This is an example of the long historical reach of some of our concepts. At the time these words were recorded, the law allowed a Roman soldier to make a person carry his back pack for a Roman mile, or a thousand paces. In making his reported statement, Jesus was saying that if you are required to carry that pack for one mile, do it also for the second. Now the "extra mile" is deeply enshrined in our thinking.

The combination of do unto others with the extra mile is not a bad base for a moral philosophy. But then there is 1 Corinthians 13, my old school lesson. This begins:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Charity or love is a pretty important concept. The idea that without this our lives become little more than a sounding brass or tinkling symbol provides a useful corrective. The section finishes:

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I have quoted these words from Paul before. I heard them once a term for for six years. they became very familiar.

Overall, they are important ideas. But listening in the school chapel, it was the words "For now we see through a glass, darkly" that grabbed.

Then it was just the sounds of the words. Now it has become so much more.

As what we now call a teenager with very strong sex drives and teenage confusion, I heard the words in terms of the comparison with my childhood. Now when the dark clouds sometimes gather, when things seem confused and difficult, when clarity or certainty seems distant, they become something that I can focus on.

This is not meant to be a sermon, simply a Saturday Morning Muse. So to finish, let me return to Legal Eagle's post.

In that post, she quotes Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I haven't read the book, but Pinker outlines the ‘inner demons’ which cause us to be violent and the ‘better angels’ which cause us to refrain from being violent. The four better angels listed are:

  • Empathy – particularly the sense of sympathetic concern leads us to feel the pain of others and align our interests with theirs;
  • Self-control – this allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to moderate them;
  • Moral sense – a set of norms and taboos which may decrease violence (although sometimes they increase it too);
  • Reason – this allows us to extricate ourselves from parochial vantage points and to deduce ways in which we could be better off.

Of these four, I think that Legal Eagle believes (as I do) that empathy is central. If you cannot feel others pain and joy then you are, at the end, a limited human being.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Modern mobile life

I couldn't resist this one.

Just back from a workshop in Moruya. Three colleagues, three mobile exchanges! Modern life.

I, the recalcitrant, taking the photo.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ewes and Rams

Only in Australia would you see this, and now much less frequently since Australia fell off the sheep's back. Now most Australians, I suspect, wouldn't know what a ewe or ram was.

Many years ago I remember going to the Edgeroi Urge,  an all-night recovery dance held after the Bachelors and Spinsters Ball. The thunder from the men's tin urinal between dances was almost deafening! P1000126 3

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Currencies, China & the mineral tax

There has been a lot of interesting economic and company news around over the last week or so.

Back in July 2011, Saturday Morning Musings - fall of the US dollar looked at the disparity between weightings in global trade and traded currencies. There I said in part:

I do not pretend to be a currency expert, but on the surface there are advantages in denominating transactions in the currency of one or other of the trading partners. If Australia is trading with China, then (other things being equal) denomination of the transaction in either aussie dollars or yuan limits exchange risk.

I am aware of all the counter arguments. All I am saying is that I feel that, in the longer term, traded currencies are likely to better reflect real patterns of economic activity.

At the time, Fortescue Metals had just announced that it was going to denominate certain contracts in yuan. As another sign of continuing change, last week the Australian Reserve Bank announced a $30b currency swap arrangement with the Chinese central bank. This followed China's decision to allow convertibility between Australian dollars and yuan on the interbank market in China.

These type of change processes are often slow, but you can see the emerging pattern.

On a related topic, there has also been continuing debate in the Australian papers about the amount of revenue that might be raised by the Mineral Resource Rent Tax. This one is quite important in political terms. If the tax raises less than expected, there will be flow on budget and political effects.

Part of the argument about the likely revenue from the tax relates to the structure of the tax itself. However, projected revenue is also being affected by the weakening of the mining boom.

There are two very different mining booms. One is an investment boom, the second the high prices Australia has been receiving for mining exports. The size of investment pipeline means that the first will continue. However, the second is clearly off the boil.

Latest data out of China suggests continued softening in the Chinese economy. This will flow on to prices received for our mineral exports.

It's interesting actually. The estimates I have see suggest that around 40% of mining investment will flow direct to imports. That could push the Australian current account into substantial deficit.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Indonesian views on Australia

In Sunday Essay - the importance of the individual, I referred to a comment I had made on Sam Roggeveen's post, 'Is there an Australian blogosphere?', on the Lowy Institute blog. They have kindly run the comment as a post in their reader riposte series. 

Staying with the Lowy Institute bog in this morning's brief post, in Lowy Institute round-up, Stephanie Dunstan reported on the results of a Lowy Institute poll of Indonesians suggesting that popular opinion towards Australia had warmed markedly since 2006. I have written quite often on the future importance of Indonesia to Australia, so the result was obviously pleasing.

The full poll report is worth reading. You can access it through a link in Stephanie's post. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Our changing personalities

Earlier in March, Winton Bates had a short piece How much does personality change over time? looking at some evidence suggesting that individual personalities may change more than is often realised.

This topic has always interested me. One of the difficulties lies in the distinction between personality and the way that personality manifests itself. Our personalities lead us to react in particular ways that can then feed back into apparent personality changes. But has our personality actually changed?

Just from observation, I think that the answer here has to be yes. This links to some of the discussion here from time to time on things like the impact of stress and the linked topic of resilience in both individuals and organisations.

A stressed organism may react to stress to the point that those behaviours become inbuilt even where the source of stress has been removed. For all practical purposes, personality has changed.   

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Essay - the importance of the individual

Going into Saturday's Queensland elections, the opinion polls suggested that the ALP Government faced electoral disaster. Even so, the scale of the disaster still came as a surprise.

As I write, the latest electoral figures are:

  • Liberal National Party 49.7% with a predicted 78 seats
  • ALP 26.6% with a predicted 7 seats
  • Katter's Australian Party 11.6% with a predicted 2 seats
  • The Greens 7.6% with no predicted seats.

A defeat on this scale creates obvious difficulties for Labor in both being an effective opposition and in rebuilding. It also increases pressure on the ALP Federal Government.

Over on the Lowy Institute blog, Sam Roggeveen's Is there an Australian blogosphere? is, as the title says, a short muse on the existence or otherwise of an Australian blogosphere. The post begins: 

'Europeans can't blog', reads the headline from a newly created blog by the Brussel-based think tank Bruegel. One phrase in particular stuck out at me from this lament about the poor state of European blogging: 'Europe has bloggers, but no blogosphere'.

It seems to me this might be true of Australia also, at least in the political sphere in which this site operates. The distinction between blogs and the blogosphere is that, on its own, a blog is a platform to push out ideas, information and links to other sources. That's a powerful thing in and of itself, but it's when many blogs form a blogosphere that you get, in Bruegel's words, 'a living ecosystem to exchange and debate'.

We have some outstanding political blogs in this country, but from my observation, the 'ecosystem' is a bit barren.

For their own reasons, the Lowy Institute has a somewhat clunky comment system. You have to email your comment and then wait for it to be moderated. While I understand the reasons for this, it does work against interactivity. For that reason, I thought that I should reproduce my comment here: 

Hi Sam. I think it true to say that the Australian blogosphere is fragmented. It’s also true to say that Australian bloggers don’t cross-link as much as they might or indeed should. But it’s not quite as clear-cut as this.

Back in 2010, Dr Alex Bruns released some initial mapping results on the Australian blogosphere. I dealt with it in a post at the time -

If we look at political blogs, you find a clustering effect around main nodes. You also find outriders – the independents – who also link. The patterns change with time, but they are there.

One of the difficulties in the clustering is that, not unexpectedly, the major nodes attract people of common views. A second problem is that there is sometimes very little cross-linking on the major nodes. Yet that said, there are underlying currents that are not always apparent.

The very partisan blogs including those attached to some media outlets tend to attract only the like minded. However, there is a broader and different stream that, while sometimes still partisan, actually focuses on issues. Most of the bloggers in this group either know or know of each other. I call this the village. There are links and interlinks that are not always apparent on the surface.

I was trying to think of the best way of illustrating this. Perhaps one way is to say that I have some ten bloggers who are Facebook friends, another overlapping but different group who follow me on twitter. Then there are those who email me or come through in comments.

I am not an A list blogger, although I have reasonable traffic on my main blogs. My point is that there are a whole series of interactions that have a cumulative impact over time.

There are particular issues that attract major bogging attention. However, a lot of the real work is simply the on-going discussion.

Most mainstream bloggers don’t just blog. They reach out through a variety of channels. We do influence each other, but we also influence the broader debate. The effects here cannot be easily measured, but they seem to be significant over time.

I guess that’s my real point in this comment. Don’t focus on the headline, the grand impact on public discourse. Focus instead on the cumulative effect.  

Regular readers will know that the type of issue raised by Sam have been of interest to me for a long time. I blog a fair bit, so its only natural that I should be interested.

I do think that the Australian blogosphere has declined measured by interactivity and cross-fertilisation. I have suggested that this is in part due to Twitter. Twitter is an aid to interactivity, but it also distracts.

There is only so much time. Some of my fellow bloggers put so much time into tweeting that they greatly reduce the time available for other writing or, indeed, responding. Twitterdom has become a community or series of communities in its own right, but it is a very different community.

Turning to other matters, at his place Neil Whitfield's Trundling into the 21st century talks about a new ABC documentary series Country Town Rescue. The series is described in this way: 

Produced by Zapruder’s other films, Country Town Rescue is the compelling story of how ordinary Australians come together to save a small rural town whose falling population threatens its very existence.

Filmed over twelve months, this series follows five families who ‘up sticks’ with their kids and move to Trundle, a small town in central western NSW. They are welcomed by a passionate group of locals determined to see the small town not only P1000131survive but prosper.

Now in what will seem like an unrelated segue, this photo shows the old mining settlement of Silverton outside Broken Hill.

Once much bigger than Broken Hill, Silverton now is a scattering of picturesque buildings in the middle of the desert.

At school, I was fascinated by Nevil Shute's book A Town Like Alice. This tells the story of Jean Paget,  spanning her experiences as young Englishwoman and prisoner of war in Malaya during World War II, then in London and finally in outback Australia. There she sets out to turn a small outback community into a town like Alice.

It wasn't so much the first part of the book that interested me, but the last part, the re-birth of the community. It created an interest in community regeneration that has stayed with me until today.

A Town Like Alice was very popular, generating a film and a TV mini-series. The second was part filmed in Silverton, hence the photo. A Town like Alice

The interest created in my mind by the book has really had a profound impact on my life.

Decentralisation and community development was one of the planks I ran on when seeking Country Party pre-selection. It influenced my approach as a policy adviser. It was a factor in the creation of Aymever as a national business headquartered in regional Australia. It influences me today in my writing and in some of my professional work.

I guess that one of my continuing personal frustrations lies in my inability to make some of my ideas stick in a practical sense. I have put my heart, my time and indeed my personal cash into community redevelopment at local and regional level and beyond. There have been successes, but there have been far more failures.

One of the things that I have tried to do in my writing is to get across the importance of the individual. When I look at my own work or the results of my historical research, what comes through time and time again is the importance of individual effort.

If you look at national level, individuals start to blur in the face of broad trends, of the need to summarise and to consolidate. As you drill down, localise, individuals start to stand out. Broad based history, indeed everything that happens, actually comes back to the combination of generally unseen individual effort.

In Queensland, the ALP won't be rebuilt by Party wide election studies, by national or state efforts, although these are necessary. Rebirth will come from the electoral workers who hold the faith and provide the base required to mount future efforts. Individually, each has miniscule impact. Collectively, they are the future. Lose them, and the Party is lost.

I spent a fairly large slab of my life campaigning against the ALP. Yet I never lost sight of the value, indeed the necessity, of those ALP people that I saw on the booths. Often, I had more in common with them than I had with my own party machine. You see, we disagreed but we also cared. As we shared tea and cake and talked, we talked about things that jointly mattered.       

In blogging, I talk about the village. It's the same thing.

Sam Roggeveen is concerned with what we might call macro failure, the big picture stuff. My perspective makes me focus on the small, the cumulative. Real change, the best change, generally happens there. It happens because people strive, hold the faith, even though things sometimes seem hopeless.

I went to Parkes (Musings on a visit to inland NSW) for a workshop. There I talked to an Aboriginal woman who had spent much of the last seven years working to improve housing for her community. She was tired as indeed I am tired, yet she kept on going.

As I listened to her, I thought how marvelous she was. Her impact is not easily measurable on the grand scale, nor in our obsession with macro performance indicators. However, to the families that have better housing as a result of her efforts she is far more important than all the big picture stuff. I think that's kind of important.     

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Morning Meander - films, fugitives and customers lost

File:The-best-exotic-marigold-hotel.jpg One of the difficulties of the travel that I am doing at the moment is simply time to write. I take notes, but struggle to find the time to write them up! So this morning a simple meander. 

Last night three of us went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and then to a nearby Indian restaurant to maintain the Indian theme. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although perhaps one shouldn't dig too deeply into the plot!

Like the film on Maggie Thatcher, The Iron Lady, it attracted an older audience. It's not a film that our daughter would rush to see. Their preference lies more with The Hunger Games. They did see The Iron Lady as part of a family group, but some parts of it escaped them.

The aging of the Australian population is increasingly reflected in parts of Australian popular culture. The cult of the young is still there, but increasingly magazines and films have older themes.

Growing up, I would have regarded an older theme as a film about someone in their thirties! Now the thirties are the new young.

One of the advantages that the British film industry has over, say, the Australian industry lies in the presence of so many character actors who have become such familiar figures in their own right that we feel that we know them. Relative to the size of the Australian population, this country arguably has more, but they just don't get the same type of unified exposure.

I said that I was struggling to find the time to write because of the travel.

Earlier in March it was Parkes (Musings on a visit to inland NSW), last week Broken Hill (A writer's desk), next week is Moruya.

I still need to properly write up my Broken Hill notes, but will try to do so over the weekend. In the meantime, another shot.

This one is of the Broken Hill Living Desert Sculpture Garden. I really enjoyed my visit there. 

  I covered the story of fugitive Malcolm Naden in Malcolm Naden & New England's fugitive country. Well, he has been captured! In the end, he was beaten by technology, the installation of movement sensors in some of the bush houses that he used as a refuge.

A number of recent posts have been concerned in one way or another technology, management and the problems created by the mindless application of the concept of efficiency expressed through cost cutting. There was a fascinating example during the week in the new strategy announced by Australian department store David Jones.

Founded in 1838, David Jones claims to be the world's oldest continuously operating department store still trading under its original name. The rise and to a degree fall of the department store is a fascinating story, for these stores became social palaces to the rising middle and upper middle classes created as a consequence of the agrarian and industrial revolutions.

DJ's recent problems are due in part to the combination of technology and social change. That said, the company has also been a victim of the cost cutting mania that swept the world from the 1980s.

DJ's reputation rested on service. Everything ultimately came back to that. It takes a long time to build a brand, not so long to destroy it. You see, in service businesses reputation depends upon the last customer experience. Talking to a group at dinner the other night, all once loyal DJ's customers, they said that DJ's had got to the point that to buy something there you had to find and then persuade a sales assistant to help you!

One of the elements in the new DJ's strategy is an attempt to recapture the old service mystique, including the recruitment of new staff. I miss the old DJ's and wish them luck now, but am not convinced.

One word that I have come to dislike, a word that is an integral element of current measurement mania, is metrics. I noticed in the DJ coverage that that word was still mentioned. They were going to do all these things, but they had to fit within certain metrics. Given that the application of metrics helped create the damage in the first place, the continued use of the word raised warning bells.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A writer's desk

Just back from Broken Hill. This photo shows the first floor verandah where we were staying. Comments follow the photo. P1000157

I have called it the writer's desk because I sat on this verandah to prepare my trip notes. Just a pad, a pen and my mobile.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Going off-line

I am travelling to Broken Hill tonight for a couple of days and won't have proper access to the internet, so there will be no posting until my return.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Essay - resilience and the need for slack in an overstressed world


Such a little thing, really. Youngest pranged her car. She was okay, no one else was injured, but it really threw me.

The photo shows the car outside our old house just after it was purchased. She was so proud of it.

The episode got me musing on the importance pf resilience, the capacity to bounce back, to recover quickly from illness, change or misfortune.

I don't know about you, but I find that when I'm under pressure or stress I can cope and cope and cope. Then, suddenly, I fall in a heap, unable to recover or respond. In the most extreme cases, I can lose the ability to make even simple decisions.

Clare's car was a case in point. I had been dealing with something else, then I suddenly had to drop things to go to pick her up. Suddenly, I was struggling to cope.

Quite a bit of the personal and professional writing I do is concerned in one way or another with resilience.

My suggestion that the Australian PM was struggling to establish that small island of calm that she needed to properly manage events is a case in point. Without it, she had no choice but to just keep reacting and reacting and reacting. My recent writing on management and competition is another example. Stressed organisations lose their capacity to respond in the best way to events around them.

Our personalities vary. In my case I have come to place stress on resilience because I have a somewhat driven personality that draws strength from enthusiasm.

I can sometimes do remarkable things as a consequence. Yet it's also true that that enthusiasm can become a weakness, leading me to over-extend. Worse, if enthusiasm or joy goes, then I can operate effectively for periods, but only for periods. Suddenly I collapse.

Some years ago I was working on a cabinet submission setting out proposals that my then minister, John Button (and here), was to take to cabinet on the development of the Australian communications equipment industry. It was an important submission because it aimed to set the industry on an international growth trajectory. It was also one of a suite of policy measures that we had been pushing with considerable success, measures that tested the bounds of conventional thinking.

That afternoon I was sitting in my office finalising the document for circulation to other departments for coordination comments. I was working under a very tight deadline because the submission needed to be lodged with the Cabinet Office later that week.

Our Deputy Secretary came into my office to tell me that unknown to me one of my senior colleagues had persuaded the Departmental chief that we needed to go a different route. I was instructed to redraft accordingly. I just looked at Alan and burst into tears.

Tired, under pressure, unexpectedly defeated, I could no longer cope. I knew that the revised approach was not going to deliver the expected results, I knew that I should try to find a way to fight back, but I just couldn't do it. We did a scissors and paste job and got the submission out, but the joy had gone.

We live in a world today marked by increased tension and pressure. We also live in a world of unreal expectations.

At an organisational level, we set objectives that in total across industries cannot be delivered, yet we mandate that delivery through performance agreements and reporting requirements. We cut corners to get the immediate outcomes, knowing that longer term problems must result. But then, we probably won't be there in the longer term!

At personal level, we are exposed to constant expectations about what we should eat, how we should look, how we should perform, what we should achieve, what we should possess. Failure is inevitable, as is tension and distress. The simple idea of cutting people some slack, of accepting what is, is lost in the haze of what should be.

We were talking at work the other day about the rise of depression. This has become a national problem in this country, especially in the professions. It is also a problem that I understand to some degree because depression is the opposite side of the mirror to enthusiasm.

The rise in depression is a simple reflection of the loss of resilience in our society, our organisations and at personal level. We are losing the ability to cope, to bounce back.

I have no solution to this problem.

At a professional level, I can do something in a practical sense by tailoring my advice and also the way I manage to try to compensate. This was not something I had to cope with when I first became a manager. Then my aim was to get the best results from my people. Now my aim has to be to take stress away, to support and help so that people can actually do their jobs.

At a personal level, I find it hard to avoid becoming caught. It's not just the lists I do, nor the desire to achieve or to improve. It's far worse than that.

We live in a judgemental world.

Last October my hair turned completely white almost overnight. Suddenly, and for the first time, I found myself worrying about my age, about the way that people were perceiving my physical appearance. I found myself sensitive about photographs, about the way I looked. It was suggested to me that I should shave my head, get my eye brows tinted, to ease the impression of age. I actually did the first on convenience grounds, but not the second.  

As we grow older, our abilities change.

I can no longer play tennis in quite the same way, although I still enjoy the game. I get far more aches and pains than I used to. I cannot maintain quite the same sustained working pace. And yet, I can do things that I could not do even ten years ago. People I work with are constantly surprised at just how fast I can do things. It's just a matter of applied experience, of skills.

I know this, I know that I should not worry about my age, but it's hard to break free. We are all conditioned whether we like it or not. The practical effect is reduced resilience; it becomes harder to cope.

As I said, I don't have a solution to the problem. But more and more I feel that the simple idea of building in some slack - slack in organisations, slack in society, slack in personal relations -  is the thing that has to be got across.

Just as I in managing people or activities must now aim to take stress away, to give people some peace and freedom so that they can do their jobs, so society has a whole has to find a way to do the same thing. Without this, the systemic problems now built into Australian life will simply get worse.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday Morning Disaster

I spent three hours this morning on a review post. And then the bloody cat jumped on the key board and managed to delete the lot! I feel too dispirited to do any more.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Innovation, efficiency & the processes of industrial change

I had not intended to follow  Sunday Essay - language, social change & productivity improvement with a third post linked in some way to management, innovation and productivity, but Winton Bates drew me as he so often does. He wrote in part:

I think you are on the right track when you say that the kind of productivity change we should be seeking should be about choice. There is not much point in trying to get orchestras to play faster.

However, I think some of the problems you allude to are specific to the public sector. When you don't have market disciplines how are you going to promote efficiency without resort to things like efficiency dividends?

Winton's comment drew me because of his focus on efficiency and the linking of market disciplines to that concept. After all, I have consistently argued that current management approaches are, to use the jargon, neither efficient nor effective. Further, I have explicitly attacked the very concept of an "efficiency dividend."  These posts will give you a feel for my arguments on this second point: The Rudd Approach - Efficiency Dividends, Axe Wielding and Razor Gangs; and The effects of efficiency dividends.

As an aside before going on, my thanks to Michael Jeremy (@MikeDJeremy) for alerting me to this piece by John Quiggin, Enough of these zombie ideas: let’s be bold, in the Australian Financial Review. John and I often write from different perspectives, but I have a fair bit of sympathy for John's arguments here.

The crux of my own present argument is a simple one, summarised this wa7 in an earlier post: To my mind, Australia cannot achieve the desired productivity improvements because cost cutting is the only mechanism left in our arsenal. In writing this, I was in fact zeroing in on the prevailing focus on the concept of efficiency.

Who could challenge the idea of efficiency?  If we look at one definition of efficient we find: performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort; having and using requisite knowledge, skill, and industry; competent; capable. This leads to a definition of efficiency as: accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.

As I said, who could argue with that?

The problem I have is that efficiency itself is only one dimension of performance, and not necessarily the most important. When we focus on efficiency to the exclusion of other dimensions, we tend to lose sight of those dimensions.

The problem is partly one of measurement. We can often measure the efficiency of a particular activity or process, but we tend to do so in isolation of consequential effects.

Back in the 1990s when insurance company GIO replaced its branch structures with centralised systems intended to reduce costs, it did reduce costs. At that level, the change was efficient. Unfortunately for GIO, the company also lost market share as a consequence of the changes. Profits went down. 

As another example, the corporatisation  of electricity distribution in NSW during the 1990s combined with the imposition of performance targets certainly reduced costs. Statistically, productivity improved. By the early 2000s, the distributors were struggling to rebuild key staff that had been over-cut. The apparent gains proved illusory.

A more important problem to my mind lies in the way that an efficiency focus can blind us to the new. By its nature, efficiency centres on what we do now. How do we do this more efficiently? By contrast, innovation centres on the new.

I accept that the distinction between the two can be a slippery one.

The invention of the assembly line was a major innovation, but it was also one that centred on efficiency, that allowed goods to be produced more cheaply. It was also an innovation that directly reflected competition and market forces.

If we take the Ford case, Henry Ford wanted to sell more cars. Lower production costs opened a mass consumer market. Nor was Ford alone in doing this. Others followed in a variety of industries. Fortunes were made. So we have competition, innovation and efficiency all linked together in a major change process.

But what happened then? Once the paradigm shift, the big innovation, had occurred, the focus shifted towards improvements in the efficiency of a now established process. Innovation was replaced by improvement.

There is nothing wrong with this. It's perfectly normal and sensible. Yet the difficulty is that after a certain point the narrow focus on efficiency, on cost reduction, started to create its own problems. More and more was invested in maintaining existing systems, investments that could, at best, deliver minor incremental improvements.  The end result was another process shift that saw the assembly line replaced in part by new production techniques. However, that change was quite slow because of the sheer size of the accumulated investment in the older production techniques.

One of the remarkable changes that took place over the last decades of the twentieth century was what we can call the industrialisation of the services sector.

As had happened decades earlier in manufacturing, the previous batch production techniques common in services of all types were replaced by something akin to assembly line processes. Take the call centre as an example. Here a service activity previously carried out in a decentralised way has been replaced by a single point of contact with defined processes supported by investment in technology and in facilities. The disciplines required to make a call centre work are just the same as those holding in any manufacturing process.

One side effect of the industrialisation of services has been the opening up of previously protected service activities to market competition. We have seen this in telecommunications, in education, in law and now in retailing. The effects have been quite profound and continue.

I may seem to have come a long way from my starting point, but there is a link, at least in my mind!

As happened earlier with the assembly line, the focus in services and service delivery has shifted from innovation to process improvement. Increasingly, investment centres on the delivery of a defined range of services and activities faster and at lower cost.      

I am out of time. I will try to finish this post tonight.

Now my real point in the previous paragraph is simply this, and it is a point I have made before: the combination of technology with an overwhelming focus on cost reduction and efficiency has automated systems that don't always make sense or are not in fact the best. The consequent cost reduction has allowed them to survive when they should have been replaced. Worse, the sheer size of the investment in new systems has created real barriers to change.

What rational firm or manager would argue that the huge IT investment should actually be written off?

I now want to introduce the idea of competition and industrial efficiency.

As a general statement, I happen to agree that competition and market forces do improve economic performance. However, I have also come to wonder whether the blind adherence to market models might not have become an impediment not just to change, but to the actual working of marketplaces themselves.

Back in 2006 I ran a series of posts looking at changes in public administration over the second half of the twentieth century. Changes in Public Administration - the New Zealand Model looked at the new approaches developed in New Zealand. This was and remains the fullest application of market based approaches to the public sector. It has also had an enormous impact on Australian thinking.

As part of the New Zealand model, all Government ministries and agencies were broken into three groups depending on their customers and market positions.

  1. Contestable markets: Agencies supplying good or services to external markets for a market determined price were turned into state owned enterprises and ultimately sold.
  2. External service provision, no market: Agencies supplying services, regulation of aviation for example, remained in Government ownership but became stand-alone entities and charged for their service so as to recover costs plus a return on capital. This was meant to be fully transparent to those being charged. In practice some element of subsidisation might still be required because of externalities. In this event, the subsidy in fact represented a Government purchase from the agency.
  3. Government as customer. Where the Government was the sole purchaser, then the ministry or agency became a service provider with a single customer. In theory, this separation allowed Government to consider alternative purchases, introducing a degree of potential competition. For example, New Zealand might choose to outsource defence in whole or part to Australia, paying Australia for the service. Or buy economic advice from sources other than the New Zealand Treasury.

I was a supporter of what we might call the "pure" New Zealand model. To my mind, it provided a clear analytical structure that held out the possibility of of developing new policy approaches, including service provision. 

This view was challenged by Winton Bates in comments on this evolving post. The arguments here extend beyond the scope of this post. For that reason, I will deal with them in a later post. However, what we can say, I think, is that the bastardised version adopted in Australia was nether pure nor especially effective. There were several reasons for this.

One central problem is that the nexus between competition and improved organisational performance is actually quite hard to define. This creates difficulties for all arguments asserting any form of universal link between markets, competition and industrial efficiency.  

As a general statement, we can say that market based systems do work better then centrally planned command and control systems. We only have to look at the USSR to see this. However, this says nothing about relative performance, one market system compared to another, nor does the general statement translate easily into specific organisational aspects.

I was trying to think how to explain this in a way that would make sense, since my own thinking is still muddy.

Our views are formed by our experiences. I suppose that one of the things that caused me to challenge some current views about the role of competition in encouraging efficiency lay in my inability to establish a clear relationship at organisational level between competition and efficiency, let alone competition and innovation.

As an economist and historian, it seemed to me that both markets and competition were central to wealth creation. As a policy adviser in Government, it seemed quite clear to me that Australia's crazy tariff system had reduced both innovation and economic efficiency through the creation of an inward looking industrial structure shielded from global competitive forces. And yet, when it came to looking at performance at an organisational level, the private sector was not necessarily more efficient than the public sector; firms in sectors marked by high market competition were not necessarily more efficient or innovative than those facing less competition; while some of the most successful and innovative firms focused on cooperation with customers, suppliers and even competitors.

I suppose that we could say that we had what might be called an epidemiological problem. At a macro level, competitive market based systems delivered benefits. However, this did not mean at firm or even industry level that there was a nexus between innovation or even efficiency and the degree of competition. 

I said that the bastardised version of the New Zealand model adopted in Australia was nether pure nor especially effective.

Adoption began in NSW and then spread progressively to other jurisdictions. In all cases, the market rhetoric was the same. However, the actual form of adoption varied greatly between jurisdictions and indeed policy areas.

The "purest" and arguably most successful was the Kennett reforms in Victoria, the least effective the NSW application. In all cases, there were difficulties (to continue the epidemiological analogy) in translating broad concepts based on total populations into effective action at individual patient level.

Today, the ideas involved have been institutionalised in structures and language.

Efficiency dividends, private-public partnerships, the idea that competition is an end in itself rather than a means to an end, concepts of choice and the language of managerialism abound. The result is an inefficient mess that is quite difficult to challenge because of its institutionalisation.         

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tim Harford on sex - and other things

I had a part completed post, a follow up post to Sunday Essay - language, social change & productivity improvement, but then put it aside because I was roaring with laughter. The cause was Tim Harford's book Dear Under Cover Economist.  The following is an excerpt from one entry.

Dear Undercover Economist

I am seventy-four, vigorous, wealthy and boringly married. My girlfriend of eight years, who is thirty-seven, has found a man of her own age of moderate means. She has assets of £300,000 and a salary of about £50,000. I had intended to give her £250,000 and would still do so if she continued a discrete relationship with me. What do you think?

The response read in part:

Dear Mr Smith

Your plan must overcome two obstacles. First Milton Friedman's 'permanent income' hypothesis invites us to consider any temporary windfall in terms of the income it could generate in perpetuity. In 2004 your payment of £250,000 ... would have generated a permanent income of roughly £5,000 at prevailing real interest rates. This is only a modest sum compared with your girlfriend's salary....

There is a second concern - you cannot write an enforceable contract setting out what you expect for your considerable outlay.

I have left bits out, but this will give you a feel. It's really very funny. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Essay - language, social change & productivity improvement

In a comment on yesterday's post, Achieving management excellence in a constipated world, Evan wrote:

I think the reason we are stuck is that no one is articulating a vision of a way forward. The current debates have reverted to the old tired battle lines and no one is offering an alternative.

I am not so sure about vision, although I have argued that way myself. Thinking about it, the biggest problem in so much national debate in this country at least lies in our failure to articulate the why. Why should we improve productivity? Why should we raise education standards as defined by a narrow set of test results? To quote an old phrase, what's it all for?

If you look at the national policy discourse, you will see that it's generally set within very narrow frames. The idea of competition, of improving or at least maintaining positions relative to others, dominates. We need to improve educational standards as defined because we are falling behind certain countries. We need to improve productivity to increase or at least maintain living standards in the face of global competition. Industries suffering from the high Australian dollar need to innovate to survive.

To many Australians, these arguments seem sterile.

To the growing number of Australians living in insecurity, the language actually seems threatening. Will I be a victim of the next round of cuts?  Am I going to have to work harder just to survive? Is my enjoyment in work going to be further eroded? Then, too, a growing number of Australians have actually rejected the very premises on which the language is based.

Over on Regional Living Australia, my now sadly neglected life style blog, I traced many of the social and cultural changes that had been taking place. Movements such as slow food, localism, sea and tree change, life style downsizing to take just a few examples, have been working their slow way below the surface.

In some of my professional writing on Managing the Professional Services Firm, I looked at the impact of social and cultural change on firm operations. Why were young lawyers rejecting the concept of partnership? How did firms manage the increasing feminisation of the professions?  Why was chronic depression so pronounced among the professions?

These thing are all part of an overall pattern of change that has created a growing gap between the language of policy and politics and the changing realities of Australian life. Concepts such as efficiency and effectiveness don't cut the mustard any more.

In all the discussion on Australian universities, on competition and choice, the language of managerialism cannot disguise the fact that a growing number of staff and alumni really mourn the increasing loss of those things that they loved about academic life and indeed the institutions themselves. What's the point of all the changes if you have to lose the very things that you valued?

I happen to believe that improved productivity is critical to Australia's future, although it will be clear from yesterday's post that I reject the narrow definition of productivity improvement based on cost cutting. Why do I believe in productivity improvement? It all comes back to the ability to make choices.

We would all agree, I think, that there are many thing about Australia and Australian life that could be improved. We would also all agree that Australians should be able to make life style choices, that the freedom to choose is integral to the Australia we would like to see.

Improved productivity is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. It allows us to do new things, to make choices and, most importantly, it provides a degree of security in an insecure world.

The narrow debate on productivity improvement with its focus on competition and the maintenance of relativities conceals those facts. Worse, the narrow definition of productivity improvement in terms of the impact on a limited range of measurable statistical indicators twists the debate. Productivity as measured may improve, yet many if not most Australians may feel worse off.

Taking these points into account, I would argue that we have to do two things in considering productivity improvement.

The first is a broader discussion on just what we mean by productivity improvement. What is it? How do we measure it? How does it actually work itself out on the ground?

The second is a dialogue on the reasons why productivity improvement is important. What are the ends to be served?

All this may seem very abstract, so let me finish with an example.

Say you are working in an area providing a basic service to a certain group. As is so often the case, resource constraints mean that you cannot deliver all the things that you would like or that are needed. You have to get the best results you can from the limited resources you have. innovation and consequent productivity improvement are central to this.

At national level, productivity improvement is made up of the combination of all the individual actions at micro level. These may be difficult to measure properly. To continue the example I am using, the innovation may allow a service to be delivered a little faster with the same resources. Alternatively, you may get a little more of the service for the same resources, or some combination of the two. Productivity has clearly improved, although it may not appear in the aggregate statistics.

Now impose a budget cut delivered through an efficiency dividend, a staff freeze or simply action designed to slow the rate of spend. At macro level, the argument is that this will improve overall productivity by forcing increases in efficiency or by freeing up resources for use elsewhere in the economy. At micro level, the effect may be a simple reduction in the standard of service delivered, a reduction in innovation and in productivity. One is easily measurable, the other is not.

If you look at the example I have given, you can see why arguments about productivity fail.

At macro level, they are expressed in terms of generalities. Of course we all want the NSW Government to be more efficient, to improve productivity. But what does this actually mean? How will we be better off?

At micro level, the practical impact may be counter productive. We may or may not get broader gains, but we have no way of properly assessing and aggregating the losses in productivity that may occur at program level.

I accept that some of these arguments are difficult to articulate. However, I would argue that we need a different type of discussion if we are to turn the need for productivity improvement into a real discourse.    

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Achieving management excellence in a constipated world

Such a silly thing, really. I came home quite late from work Thursday and borrowed youngest's car to do some grocery shopping. On return, I managed to lose the car keys somewhere between the driveway and kitchen. So far, we have not been able to find them. Clare is understandably cranky.

I don't know about you, but I find that when I'm stressed and under pressure little things start going wrong that I then struggle to handle.

In past posts I have referred to Alvin Toffler's  1970 book Future Shock; Activity, Change and a Sense of Weariness is an example from May 2007. There I said in part:

Toffler's key point was a simple one. Each real decision imposed strain. Human beings could only make so many decisions before the capacity to decide started shutting down. So, and this is 1970, the pace of change was outrunning people's capacity to adjust.

Today in Australia, the official discourse is full of discussion on the need for productivity improvement. Australia must improve productivity to gain full advantage from and indeed compensate for the mining boom. I agree. And yet, I feel that as a country we have just lost our car keys.

Our organisations are stressed, as are the people within them. We struggle to cope. We have lost resilience. I see this on the trains and busses. I see it in my family and in my own life. I see it at work.

In some of my writing on the problems that Ms Gillard has faced as Australian PM, I have suggested that she has struggled to create that island of calm she needs within the constant political and media flux. This condemned her to constant reaction. She has become, to pick up the theme in this post, a Tofflerian victim.

Any good manager knows that that if you are to get good responses from your people you have to support them, to create an environment that allows them to do their jobs. Mind you, some of our organisations are now so thinned down that the very idea of a "manager" has become attenuated to the point of meaningless. The word still exists in the title, but the real role has gone.

To my mind, Australia cannot achieve the desired productivity improvements because cost cutting is the only mechanism left in our arsenal.

In traditional terms, the role of the manager centred on managing the resources available to achieve the best results. Today, and to the degree that it still exists, the role of the manager is to do more with less. The idea of optimising results based on existing resources has been lost. That loss lies at the heart of Australia's productivity problems.

In my professional writing, I have pointed to the way that management fashions are linked in mirror fashion to on-ground problems; the now vanished emphasis on the importance of HR and people management coincided with process re-engineering and the rise of job instability; the emphasis on the importance of the brand coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in modern economic history; and so it goes on!

The real buzz word today is innovation: we must all be innovators; our organisations need to innovate; innovation is central to productivity improvement. And yet, all the evidence is that real innovation is in decline. How could it be otherwise? To innovate, you need time and access to resources, and both are in short supply.

As an experienced manager who has also worked as a change agent, I know that it is possible to get improvement in just about any management circumstance. Most often, this comes from small changes that accumulate: fix this problem now; change that working procedure; find the resources required to get a longer term payback here; cut those costs there because the work is no longer vital. In all cases, the focus lies in getting a better return from people.

This is innovation in a real sense. It won't give you Facebook or Twitter or any other grand change. It will give you constant improvement in the use of the resources you have.

In all the discussion on innovation, we have lost sight of the fact that innovation requires graft. The word graft has changed meaning with time. I am using it in the sense of hard and often unrewarding work. The idea of joining new growth to old is equally applicable. It also requires imagination and, most importantly of all, time.

That centre of calm that I suggested Julia Gillard required is equally applicable to managers. You cannot innovate in a world of constant instability.

Looking at my experience in recent years whether as a manager, a consultant or contractor, instability is a constant theme. Managers work in an environment where they actually know that nothing that they do has longer term meaning, for there is no longer such a thing as the longer term. It's still there in the various strategies, the visions, even some of the KPIs, but these things are disconnected from the realities of daily working life.

To me, the remarkable thing is that people still try. Even more remarkable, they sometimes succeed.

I have very specific examples in mind, but I cannot give them properly at this point for confidentiality reasons.

I was thinking the other day of my own system of management awards. Central to these would be awards for managers, indeed for people at all levels, who have the personal capacity to actually achieve things despite all the barriers we have created.

I struggle to explain this properly. although many will know what I mean.

I have come back into my current working environment after a gap of two years. The real heroes or heroines are not the varying senior managers in this or other linked organisations, nor the politicians who set the framework. They are the people who have actually kept things going.

I saw a classic example of this yesterday.

A colleague and I were talking to the auditor currently reviewing certain aspects of the organisation's performance. Like all auditors, he had zeroed in on what he (it was a he in this case) saw as key weaknesses and risks. Like all auditors, he was using chat among staff at all levels to gather information. I was actually very impressed, although that's not the point of this story.

As the conversation proceeded, I realised that the work done by my colleague was a defining point, the difference, between a positive and negative audit report on certain aspects of the organisation's performance.

My colleague is not a senior person, but she is stubborn and persistent. She cares. She is also innovative. As she showed the auditor the reports that she had prepared on her own initiative, the things that she had done, the systems that she had created, I became more and more impressed.

I don't know how you reward someone like her. I do know that people like her are the reason why our systems still work. So, J, I award you the first Belshaw award for management excellence!

In later posts, I will give you other examples drawn from my own experience.        

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Mark's Repentance Creek

Australia has some weird and wonderful place names. This photo from Mark's Clarence Valley Today photo blog shows one rather nice combination.

I have often referred to this blog. If you haven't visited, it really is worth a browse.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Musings on a visit to inland NSW

Monday morning flew to Dubbo on the early morning flight. Really quite uncivilised, the flight not Dubbo!, for it meant getting ready at a very uncivilised hour of the morning. At Dubbo, picked up a car and drove the 117k or so to Parkes for a workshop.File:Thedish poster.jpg

I hadn't been to either Dubbo or Parkes before. Somehow I'd always bypassed them in my trips through inland New South Wales.  Parkes is a pretty place.

Driving back to Dubbo from Parkes, we stopped at the radio telescope that featured in the 2000 film, The Dish. It was a fun movie and also a fun visit to the telescope.

I mention the trip in part because the countryside was so green after all the rain. After the wet drear of Sydney, the bright sun and warmth was a pleasant change.

It really has been very wet. Yesterday, some 8-9,000 people were evacuated from the large inland city of Wagga Wagga further south as the floods rolled down the Murrumbidgee River.

One person at the workshop was from Goodooga far to the north in New England's north west. They hope to be able to return to their flooded homes this Friday. Another person was from Forbes to the south, but had to leave because the flood peak was expected to reach Forbes at lunchtime.

I have mentioned before that the rivers that flow west from the ranges that run along Australia's east coast are very slow moving. This means that the floodwaters spread out and take long periods to clear.

Our visions of the world around us are formed in part by the transport routes we use. I was reminded of this yesterday by the road signs. Brisbane over 900k away, Adelaide over 1400k.

The modern coastal hugging aeroplane using population sees a thin slice. Inland, there is an entire network of highways running along the western slopes and plains that in fact follow the old stock routes. The sheep and cattle required to feed the Victorian gold fields went south along these routes. Now the trucks still follow them in an intricate web. Those driving between Adelaide or Melbourne to Brisbane and back know these roads. Sydney is distant, remote, over the ranges.

I knew these roads well when I worked in Canberra and drove often to Armidale. The now somewhat decayed remains of once prosperous villages and little are spread along them, reduced by the great twentieth decline in the rural population. It's hard to believe today that Sydney once had less than a third of the NSW population.

And yet the slow workings of economic and demographic change continue. While rural depopulation continues in some areas, the inland population is increasing again almost unseen. As part of this, the progressive break-up of NSW as a geographic and economic entity continues. Increasingly, Sydney lives in a world of attenuating links with its traditional hinterland.

This is not a political comment. Rather, I am interested in the patterns.

Each population centre exerts its own sphere of influence. The progressive centralisation of government services has speeded the decline of small centres. In some parts of NSW, there is no longer any real form of government service delivery presence at local level. Everything is delivered remotely or via not for profits.

The tyranny of distance is ever present. Just organising meetings of those involved in specific service activities is difficult because of driving times. And yet there is also a growing web of interlinked activities that continues below the horizon.

Mining is one key, as it has been over the many years since the gold rushes started.

The motel I stayed at in Parkes, the Station Motel, depends upon mining for its core business. The bloke I chatted to in a local Parkes cafe - he was wearing a Glen Innes top - has worked as a driller across NSW and into Queensland and is planning to return to his trade because of the money involved.

There are some stories here that I should write about, because the patterns fascinate me. However, that will have to wait.   

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Sunday Snippets - cloud problems, intelligence with a dash of Greece

From time to time I have written about problems associated with our growing dependence on certain types of technology. In Problems with cloud computing - and paperless offices, one of those presently rare posts on my professional blog, I looked at issues associated with working in a cloud environment.

As an aside, I have to do something to restart my professional writing. It's not that I don't have things to write about. I have an in-tray overflowing with story ideas. It's just an issue of time and motivation. Next week I have a post coming up on a US site, a little later in the month my next ABS column. At the moment, any traffic attracted to my professional blog by those pieces would be sadly disappointed.

Anyway, Friday evening I was working away on some planning material. I was being a good little pumpkin and saving steadily to a flash drive because I wanted to take the material home with me.

About four the whole cloud system froze. It was worst on my machine because I had so many documents and programs open, but affected others as well. In the end, I had to shut down and restart. I then found that the three documents I had open that I was saving to the flash drive had been completely wiped on the flash drive itself. Grrrr! Three hours work down the drain.

  The release of the Stratfor emails by Wikileaks brought memories back.

Before going on, have a read of Mark Corcoran's Confessions of a Stratfor subscriber on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's the Drum. Then have a read of the first two parts of Aymever Days. You see, on Aymever's information Services side we did just what Stratfor did, although hopefully the standard of our research and strategic analysis was a damn sight better!

Stratfor seems to have relied upon gossip, something that we rarely reported except sometimes to entertain! Central to our work was a rather marvelous piece of technology called the telephone. Remember the telephone? And no, I don't mean mobiles.

One of the deskilling elements that has taken place over the last twenty years has been the loss of knowledge about the best way to use the phone. We were masters at using the phone. One of our mantras was that all the public record information in the world and much of the rest too was just three phone calls away.

When we set Aymever up, we installed software that allowed us to track calls and record costs to activities. We deleted this because we found that it was stopping people making calls. Indeed, we went further.

Staff were told that they could use the phones on personal business, that there were no limits on nor records kept of personal use. We relied on their judgement as to what was fair. We also explained why: the phone was a key weapon in our arsenal. We wanted all staff to know how to use the phone! Our phone bills were huge, but the results superb.

It's almost a month since my second Aymever post. I hope to continue next week.

Our Greek trip is another stopped series, one that stopped abruptly on 18 October 2011 leaving us stranded on Rhodes. There were very particular reasons for that stop, but I do want to complete the series if only to complete my historical review.

I have watched events in Greece with great sadness, although I haven't commented on them. In my last official Express column, Belshaw's World - the ever-changing face of Sydney, I mentioned the old Greek lady that I met in the street near our current house and her sadness about events.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the policies applied to Greece by its Eurozone partners.

Say one of the Australian states got into economic trouble as happened in both Victoria and South Australia. Then it may make sense to apply nasty economic medicine to that state because the impact will be cushioned to some degree by economic activity in other states. But apply nasty medicine to multiple states at the same time and you remove the cushioning, creating a vicious cycle. Then your policies can't work.

The house is stirring. I need to move to the next thing on my agenda.  

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - the Carr affair

The out-again, in-again appointment of formed NSW Premier Bob Carr as Australian Foreign Minister came as a bit of surprise. Media interpretation in this country presents the appointment as the PM asserting her authority.

  I have only met Mr Carr once, at a family function. I found him a charming, clever and articulate man. He is also a fellow blogger. All that said, I don't share some of the positive interpretations about Mr Carr.

The Wikipedia entry on Mr Carr presents his period as Premier of NSW as a very considerable success. I have a very different view, for it was during Mr Carr's rule that what is now called the NSW disease took deep root. By the end of his period, the signs of infection were clear.

To fully justify this assertion, I would need to undertake a forensic analysis of the Carr period. I have neither the time nor energy to do this just at present. Instead, I want to make a few, brief, assertions.

As Premier, Mr Carr failed to articulate any form of clear direction for NSW. I have argued that this is quite hard, for NSW is now in some ways ungovernable as an entity because it lacks any form of geographic coherence. Nevertheless, as Premier you at least have to try.

Lacking any form of unifying world view that might provide coherence, Mr Carr drifted into an approach that centred on what we might call "popular" issues. This was the period that spin, the grab for an immediate response on an issue that seemed popular, became entrenched.

Mr Carr is very much a member of what we might call the Sydney soft left intellectual elite. I do not mean this in pejorative terms,  although it will be clear from my own writing that I do not share those views. I am simply making a classification based upon expressed views independent of formal ALP factional considerations.

The causes that he espoused, the responses that he made, seemed to combine popular soft left causes with a populist streak that continued the NSW preoccupation with issues such as law and order: create a new national park here, build a police station there, ban this activity on environmental grounds, promote this social cause. By the end of his period, Mr Carr seemed clearly bored with the trivia and detail that inevitably goes with being a state premier.

None of this stops Mr Carr from being a very good foreign minister, although I have some reservations in that he will need to discipline his ideas and interests to do the job properly.

They are not strong reservations because of the way that the portfolio seems to impose its own disciplines upon incumbents. Along with the Treasury portfolio where a similar process happens, our Foreign Ministers seem to grow into the job. It is many years since Australia has had a "bad" foreign minister.

My real concern with Mr Carr lies in a different direction. If the opinion polls continue badly for the Government, Ms Gillard has brought into the leadership team someone who might be, in popular terms, a credible alternative to her. Now that would worry me.

I am not suggesting that Mr Carr has this possibility in mind himself. From the little I know of the man, his interest in foreign policy is long standing, his interest in becoming PM low. The leadership baton that is meant to reside in each politician's backpack has been left at home, gathering dust behind the bedroom door. And yet, political events have their own dynamics.

So there it is. Carr as foreign minister, okay. Carr as PM, shudder!


It's been interesting watching the reactions to Mr Carr's appointment. This piece by Shaun Carney makes some of the points I made re Mr Carr's NSW role.

I don't know about the "strong" Gillard point. At the very least, Mr Carr's media links and position within the ALP make for a useful corrective to the media coverage previously attracted by Mr Rudd. In a way, the media coverage has somewhat submerged, perhaps substituted is a better word, the previous coverage.  

Friday, March 02, 2012

Personal Reflections blog performance February 2012


Note to readers: I managed to muck up the links in this post, but have now corrected them. My apologies.

End month stocktake again. stats Feb 12 2

The attached graphic from sitemeter shows visits (yellow) and page views (yellow plus red) on this blog over the last twelve months.

There is a growing discrepancy between the sitemeter and google stats. More on that anon.

In some end month round-ups I have given the most popular posts over the last month. This time, I though that I would give you the seven most popular posts out of the last two hundred. This covers the period from 2 August 2011. They were:

Do have a quick flick through them. A couple are quite good.

I said that there was  a growing discrepancy between the google and sitemeter stats. This graphic shows page views according to google.

The upward trend is far more pronounced, the number of page views higher. 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Soggy Sydney


"Summer" ended here in Sydney as it had begun, wet and soggy.

This graphic from the Sydney Morning Herald shows the  water levels in Sydney's main dam. You can see the impact of the long drought. Now water is about to wash over the dam spill way for the first time in a very long while.

The March outlook for central and southern NSW can be described in one word - soggy. It's actually quite remarkable how one set of conditions can be replaced by another.

You can see from the graphic that the Sydney desalination plant was announced right at the end of the long drought, coming on-line right in the middle of a wet period. Such is life!