Saturday, 2 June 2012

Double dip? It's ten years of change and pain ...

One thing I get depressed about whenever I read commentary on the world's financial crisis - and that's the lack of any historical perspective - either forward or backward.

The political debate seems to be stuck in an argument from which there is no way out: spend more and have more debt, versus more austerity and stifle growth.  And all looking for short-term fixes.

In the UK, overall it is the left that tends to depress me more.  Three reasons: 

First, their refusal to acknowledge their own pivotal role in mismanaging both the economy and public finances. 

Second, their unshakable view that more borrowing is the key to unlocking growth, with the state in some magical way doing better now than it has done before while using the same tools. 
And third, the endless batting of the government with the accusation of creating a 'double dip' recession, as if this is the worst of all scenarios. 

Sooner or later we have to face up to the probability that there is no quick fix.  After four years of pain, we should have some inkling that this is the case.  Depressions, or extended periods of economic readjustment, can take many, many years to work through.

Complex change leaves governments floundering

The so called 'Great Depression' or 'Long Depression' in the 19th century took fifteen to twenty years to work its way through the system (some countries recovered a bit faster than others).  Like our own one today, it began with financial crises and banking failures.  But it was also a time of rapid globalisation and technological and social change.  New industries were emerging, and there was massive adjustment in world agricultural markets with the opening up of North America.

The point is that governments then, as now, were mostly clueless as to what was the right response.  And that is because with the complex trajectories of change, there is no single way to deal with it.

And not all the direction of change is negative in any depression.  Some parts of the economy do better than others.  Some may be in inexorable decline, while new areas of activity emerge and grow, bringing new pockets of prosperity amid the gloom.  This is as true for the 1930s as for the period around 1873-1892.  And, I would hazard, it's true today too.

So, as the saying goes, we can't expect the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess to get us out of it.  We need to identify the new trends, the siesmic shifts that are going on in the economy, and try to back the winners.

Huge new markets are emerging in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with fast growing middle classes that have a huge appetite for new services and products, and populations that are demanding much improved infrastructure.  Much of the rhetoric to date has been about seeing these new economies as a threat to our industries rather than as the opportunities that they are.  How well geared up are we to seize these opportunties?  What are governments doing to support companies adapting to serve these markets?

New ways of working bring new opportunities

And, of course, the new world of work that is emerging has a key role to play.  On the one hand Smart Working helps companies to become more agile and competitive, with the ability to enter new markets without having the massive overheads of a traditional global company.

On the other hand, the nature of small business is changing.  We are all familiar with the idea of a Microsoft or HP or Ben & Jerry starting out in a home or garage.  But we are less familiar with the idea that running a business from home could in ten years' time be the new normal.  Perhaps, like getting over a painful illness, the recovery begins at home.  Growth is not about spawning a handful of giant companies to create jobs, but about creating a long tail of enterprising freelancers and micro-businesses, creating the spirit where people can stand on their own two feet economically rather than stand in queue for a job.

And the new kinds of technology-enabled working practices will interact positively with the new high tech sectors that are emerging: artifical intelligence, robotics, new media, and even sectors we may think of as having a need to be based in a lab or research facility such as biomed, biotechnology, nanotechnology and new forms of manufacturing.  While there's a good deal of physical resource involved, much of the work will be carried out by people working in distributed and virtual teams, and by small businesses and freelancers operating as contractors who may well be located anywhere.

In this context the big government-sponsored solutions of the past just will not work.  The days of the big inward investment that creates 5,000 jobs at a stroke are more or less gone.  Throwing money at society generally will be a good way of picking losers rather than winners in a fast-changing economy.

So what we need is to stand back a moment and think of what the world of work is likely to be in twenty years time.  This is the horizon to be looking at, not the next election.  Then what is needed is to support the development of the physical and skills infrastructure that is needed to deliver the maximum benefits for this new world.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The President endorses Telework - in Iran

2011 was an unusual year for me in all kinds of ways.  But one thing I could never have predicted was that I would share a platform with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, talking about telework.

I'm not sure the President knew I was there, however.  When I say 'share a platform', I have to say that my presence in the auditorium was virtual.  My presentation was remote via Microsoft Lync, so it was a 'walk the talk' kind of occasion for someone who advocates remote working and using technology to save the planet and so forth.

President Ahmadinejad's address was on the topic 'Telework - a Necessity not an Option'.  And I have to say that whatever your views about politics and sanctions and everything, it is actually really good to see the leadership of a nation get behind the need to modernise the way government works.  Expert after expert says that unless the top level of an organisation gets behind the programme, change will always be an uphill battle.

I was able to capture this image from a camera in the wings.  Here is the President of Iran exhorting senior civil servants to get moving on implementing telework, and outlining the benefits of doing so.

And for a country like Iran, there are many challenges too, not least the lack of a comprehensive broadband infrastructure.

I went on to run workshops over three days for managers, employees and for policymakers.  And while they couldn't be as interactive as if I had been there in person, these workshops were fascinating to do.  We had hours of Q&A from the delegates - and some very challenging questions too.  Like 'Hadn't telework failed in the UK if so few people in the government were doing it full time?'

What strikes me most is how similar were many of the concerns to people anywhere before remote working is introduced.  Issues like isolation, career progression, information security, people shirking, applicability to different sectors, etc.

There were some differences too in some of the concerns. Unlike most Western countries now that have seen extensive privatisation, the government sector is seen as a key direct provider of jobs in many sectors of the economy.  And there were undercurrents of concern and the occasional direct question about whether some of the efficiency benefits and having fewer properties would lead to the loss of lower skill jobs that many people depend on.

One significant difference in outlook that came up again and again, though, was an apparent expectation that Telework is or should be a kind of complete and regulated system that is introduced as a well-defined method of work.  Our approach over here has very much been one of uneven progress, and in government an ad hoc and multispeed approach.

I guess there are pros and cons to this approach.  Over here we could certainly have done with being a bit more coordinated and coherent, rther than every public sector body doing its own thing.  The Iranian Telework Regulations, to some extent like the Telework Enhancement Act in the USA, do provide a coherent framework for the development of telework/homeworking for public sector workers.  There is an outline of the benefits, and a duty set on each agency of government to define what they are trying to achieve, set targets, measure impacts, train managers and employees and monitor welfare.

All that is exemplary.  At the same time, I always get a little worried about viewing Telework (with a capital T) as a kind of special and separate system of working.  Basically, it's doing what you normally do, only having the capability of doing it somewhere else.  Somewhere that is more effective for the business and convenient for the employee.  The risk is in making it all too complicated, or having too many hoops to jump through so that it starts to seem like you have a mountain to climb.

And this is particularly so in developing countries with patchy infrastructure.  Back in the early 1990s, when Flexibility began, we started working from home with dial-up modems and with (so it would seem now) wind-up computers that would crash every hour or two, and a pile of floppy disks to keep our data on. The Internet was barely up and running then, and it was a case of the World Wide What?  And if you had a mobile phone, it was best if you had staff to carry it.  Portable computing devices? Even mobile phones were barely portable.  And many aspects of business and political culture were hostile to the whole notion of flexible working.

But we did it.  And these were useful, learning, developmental experiences.  And still worth doing at the time in terms of getting the work done.

The key question for Iranian civil servants perhaps is around the pace of change.  How far can they go in implementing telework if their infrastructure isn't up to it and, as some delegates indicated, many managers manage in quite traditional ways?

Well, I hope they don't wait for perfect systems to develop, and just move on fast in areas where it is possible to do so.  Lessons will be learnt, and the best implementations will be imitated. 

And the infrastructure will develop.  It is  a country with a very young and well educated population who are creating a demand for good quality infrastructure and services.  And when it comes they can skip out the intermediate stages we have been going through, perhaps.

Certainly a country to watch, and we have to wish them well with this aspect of modernising government.