We’re not ‘going back to normal’

Ever since COVID-19 hit, with its ensuing lock downs, shut downs and stand downs, people have been yearning for a time when we will ‘get back to normal‘.

Walking around the shops, restaurants and bars these past few weeks, and seeing the increased traffic on the roads, one might suspect, that in our little corner of the world, things are indeed returning to normal.

This type of thinking is dangerous.

Not only because it feeds an over confidence in that we have somehow conquered the virus (we haven’t), but it also implies that we were interrupted temporarily, and things will now sling back to where we were. We weren’t, and they won’t.

And that’s a good thing.

We (only) notice sudden change

Living in one of the most isolated cities in the world may have shielded us from the worst of the pandemic, but that was not a given. We could have imported it and it could have spread like wildfire. Other states and countries would then be isolating themselves from us, not the other way around.

Like all the best golfers understand when they spray their drive into the trees, we took our medicine, chipped out sideways and lived to fight another day. This was never going to be short term. The only way to treat this was with a long game.

Meanwhile, a few things happened quickly, and that made us all sit up and take notice.

More of us (most of us) were ordered to work remotely. That was a noticeable change. As the weeks and months drew on, we could see the advantages of this, as could organisations. It was not perfect, but in many cases we were happier, more flexible and more productive. Less of all that needless commuting. Less meaningless meetings where we would otherwise prefer to stab forks into ourselves than suffer another minute of some un-self aware colleagues bleating on about nothing.

We discovered the joys of video conferencing, shared Google drives and collaborative documents.

And then it all wore off a bit. We yearned to go to the pub again, even to the office again, at least for a change of scenery. To mix again, to meet again. For above all else, we are social animals.

Change is the only constant

Because it was all so sudden, sometime around mid-March, when we were told by politicians and bosses to stay home, we sat up and took notice. We scrambled to adapt. And we got there. Some better than others.

In fact, all these things had been possible before. A corporate mate of mine had been bemoaning for years (yes, for years) that they should do video conferencing in their business, for productivity and cost reasons. ‘Oh no’, came the reply, ‘That’s not very secure, and it’s much better to meet each other in person.’ Within days of the shutdown, video conferencing was suddenly the norm. So it has nothing to do with the technology, or security, or anything else really, except peoples’ collective will.

One imagines this way of meeting will be come part of the norm from now on.

Suddenly, consumers were not shopping as much, well, not in person anyway. They turned to the internet, and found they could get delivery of almost anything to their door. In many cases, this was much cheaper, and far more convenient.

Businesses turned to the web to see if they could pivot to online relationships with their customers. Member and events businesses learned how to do Zoom calls, with their break-out rooms, Q&A sections and chat.

Not feeling well? Need to check in with the doctor? Telehealth became the norm.

One feels, more and more of this will happen from now on.

What has happened, is that adoption of these technologies has been accelerated by necessity. Having been explored and in the hands of the general populace, a much higher adoption will remain than before.

We’ve had a step change in tech usage and adoption. We are not going back to how it was.

Welcome the new

What’s the lesson from all this?

Three main ones.

Firstly, the world has changed. Get used to it. Don’t try to wind back the clock, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

Second, we could have had all these benefits before. We could have worked more flexibly, sometimes from home, varying our hours, sometimes from an office. We could have used video conferencing, online shopping, zoom events, telehealth… all before. It was there.

Maybe now, more of us know it, appreciate it, and are easy with it.

The final lesson for business is to look around you, and experiment with what other technologies are right in front of your face, that you can use to your benefit right now.

For as Charles Darwin wisely discovered more than 150 years ago, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s those that adapt the best that will survive, and maybe even thrive.

These are the lessons of the pandemic. Heed them well.


If you want more on this topic, then do read the excellent post ‘Stop Saying ‘Back to Normal” by tech founder and writer Alistair Croll in CB Insights.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Jobs jobs jobs?

Panelists discussing the future of the job (left to right): myself as moderator, Colleen Yates, Nate Sturcke, Colin Barnett, Phebe Cho, Julian Coyne, Pia Turcinov.

Australia has notched up a world record – 26 years without a recession. That’s the longest time between recessions for any developed country, since records began.

During  that time Australia has withstood the Asian economic crisis of 1997, the tech crash of 2000, 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2008 and a mining construction slowdown post 2012.

The last time Australia had a recession, in mid 1991, Bill Hayden was Governor General, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Carmen Lawrence was Premier of WA, and we had the first Gulf War. Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do for you was number 1 forever, other hits of the year were I’m too Sexy, Things that make you go Hmmmm and Ice Ice Baby…. agh they don’t make ‘em like that these days do they?

Back in ‘the recession we had to have‘ (as then Federal Treasurer, soon to be PM, Paul Keating termed it) Federal opposition leader John Hewson affirmed the GST as a major policy platform (which later became electoral suicide). The Simpsons debuted on Network Ten, Hawthorn beat the Eagles in the grand final and Mitchell Marsh was born. The population of WA was 1.6m, 1 million less than today.

There’s no doubt the Australian economy has been resilient, and been fairly fortunate. A whole generation has grown up with almost full employment, low interest rates, more and more jobs, rising standards of living and lots of opportunity.

The current Aussie economy is dynamic, with over a million Aussies changing jobs annually, with businesses constantly entering and exiting various marketplaces.
While agricultural and manufacturing jobs have declined in total numbers, the expanding service sector has taken on more.

12 million people have jobs in Australia – 6.5M men and 5.6M women. Healthcare and social assistance is now the single largest industry, accounting for over 12% of the workforce. Unemployment has held steady around 5.5%.

And yet… there is an impending sense of unease out there.

When some people hear politicians and even a Prime Minister spruik ‘Innovation’ all they hear ‘redundancy’ and ‘unemployment’.

Change, although the only constant, is threatening and scary. It makes people look for the easy scape goat solution, be it Brexit or Trumpism.

The answers are not so straightforward.

A few months ago my teenage daughter bemoaned to me that she does not know what she wants to do when she is older. I told her not to worry.

“The jobs of 5 and 10 years’ time have not been invented yet, isn’t that amazing?!” I say.
“Well, that doesn’t help!” comes the reply. “Take it from a former CEO like me,” say I, “the employers of tomorrow will want your creativity, your leadership skills, that you can work in a team, or independently with initiative on your own, your problem solving, your empathy with customers… THAT’s what they’ll hire. Learn & demonstrate those skills and you’ll be fine.”

But what kind of jobs will be there for our kids and grandkids in the near future? What industries will fall, and what new ones will rise? Will we even have a thing call a “job” or a “career”? Does it even matter? Will more of us have more free time? Will robots be waiting on us hand and foot, or by robotic arm and robotic wheel?

This was the topic of an Innovation Summit I moderated recently, a 4-minute chat with the panellists from West TV can be viewed here.

Some of the discussion:

  • while a robot might replace 5 manual workers, every new tech job creates 5 more.
  • some jobs will disappear, others will be required.
  • many of us may will enjoy a ‘portfolio career’, where we take on several titles – we’ll be part social media consultant, part MC, part web developer, part teacher.
  • A (Cognizant) report declared recently that the following jobs will be created within the next five years: data detective; bring your own IT facilitator; ethical sourcing manager; AI business development manager; master of Edge Computing; walker/talker; fitness commitment counsellor; AI-assisted healthcare technician; cyber city analyst; genomic portfolio director; man-machine teaming manager; financial wellness coach; digital tailor; chief trust officer; and quantum machine learning analyst.
  • Within the next 10 years we’ll have: virtual store Sherpa; personal data broker; personal memory curator; augmented reality journey builder; highway controller; and genetic diversity officer.
  • It will be important to spread our risks as an economy – the mining industry is super wonderful when booming, and awful at other times (which is the majority)

The “death of the job” has been predicted before. Although the disruptive changes we are seeing seem to be changing more things more rapidly, there is time to adjust, and new opportunities will always be thrown up. The winners will probably be those (countries, states, organisations and people) that can adapt, and the losers will be those that are stuck in their ways.

Where WA’s future will stem from

The rise and fall of once dominant people, companies and economies is common place. These days, if you think of the most amazingly successful, be wondering how well placed they will be a decade from now.

10 years ago, the top website in the world was MySpace. It was the first social media darling, quickly to be overtaken by Facebook. Who uses it now?

For the first time ever last year, the top 5 companies in the world, by market value, were all tech companies: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. 2 of them were formed in the 1970s, 2 in the 1990s and one in the 2000s. They all stem from the US.

Four of these five companies dominate our landscape here in Western Australia – even though we are about as far away from their headquarters as you can be…

  • Apple devices are everywhere. We have 2 iPhones and 2 iPads in our household alone. (10 years ago, these devices did not exist.) We purchase nearly all of our music through iTunes.
  • Google is ever present. It’s how we search for anything, and 2 of the other smart devices in our household have Google-operated platforms.
  • Facebook is all pervasive for the parents in the household, while the children are on Snapchat, Instagram and Youtube. The last 2 of these are owned by Facebook and Google respectively.
  • We have 3 Microsoft  PCs in the house running Microsoft software and operating systems.
  • Only Amazon is not (yet) a dominant player. Amazon online retailing is coming to Australia this year, and it could also become a force to be reckoned with in our house. In the US, 50% of all online commerce goes through Amazon. I have a feeling they will make a huge impact here, maybe not immediately, but do check back in 3 to 5 years.

Which gets me to thinking about my teenage children, the environment they are growing up in and the world of work they will shortly enter. If the rise and fall of organisations teaches us anything, it’s that the businesses that cannot sustain relevance fade away, and the wildly successful dominant players better be re-imagining their future before the rug is taken out from under them. Reinvention is the key, keeping on top of the trend and perhaps getting in front (if possible) is crucial to survival.

Western Australia has an economy almost like no other. It has a massively successful resources industry, which grew to three times its size over the 2002-2012 period. It’s still growing, but is in another phase now (production, rather than building). So much income is earned from it, and from our State, almost half of the country’s entire export income comes from WA (even though we represent just over 10% of the population). The resources industry is not going away!

If I liken the WA economy to a major organisation, then during the very strong years (the decade from 2002), it was time to make hay while the sun shone (yes, we did that) while also looking out for the next success story before the end of the current one (err….).

It’s easy to look back in hindsight to the one trick pony mentality of the 2000s. Here in 2017, we are where we are. So what now?

One thing is clear: we need a diverse economy, in every sense of the word. Not only do we need to draw on the rich and full resource of all working people, at the managerial, C-suite and board level, we need to develop our other industries to take up the slack. Tourism, health, technology, agriculture, aquaculture, education … these are areas of great potential. The trouble with many of them is that every city or region in the world could claim to have some prowess here, or aim to be a world leader. In only agri/aqua-culture could we claim to have some innate natural advantage.

If we’re to lead in tourism, then we need to have a reason for the Asian and global tourist to visit our State, and to return. In health and technology and education, we need investment and smarts and hyper-intelligent people to be drawn to live, work and stay here (including our brightest).

There’s one thing we could do that would be a true investment for the local economy; one thing that could make a significant difference long term, and might save us as a State. It’s not a hopeful, wishful thing, it’s an absolute necessity if we are to continue to enjoy our great lifestyle.

The answer is a meaningful and rigorous devotion to world class STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education for our children – from primary school all the way through to university (and then beyond, through continuous education). We have to commit ourselves to extracting maximum value from the best resource of all – our brains, well, the brains of our children. As you and I are not the future of the economy, yet our school children are, then it’s to them (and their education) we must turn.

It’s a sad fact that the numbers of children taking STEM subjects in our schools has been dropping, and the quality of STEM teachers is also moving in the wrong direction.

The average number of science subjects taken by Year 12 WA students declined from 1.41 to 0.66 between 1986 and 2012. (Report: Optimising STEM Education in WA Schools, TEAC/ECU, 2012). The average number of maths subjects taken declined from 0.92 to 0.69 between 1992 and 2012. There is also a lack of STEM qualified teachers (too often teachers are teaching out of their training area just to get someone in front of a class), and we don’t even have a database of what qualifications STEM teachers currently have. If you don’t measure the problem, you can’t manage it.

Just think about this. The average year 12 student does not even take a maths or a science subject. In other countries, such as one of our closest neighbours Singapore, where I taught for 7 years back in the 1990s, students record among the best results in maths and science globally. There is serious investment in education by the government, and a drive (by students and parents) to get the best results. It’s embedded in the culture, and in many ways Singapore, with few natural resources to speak of,  has had to invest in its people to survive, and thrive.

It’s always been the case that economic growth derives from investments in education, science and technology. Which brings us back to where we came in. If the 5 richest firms are all US-based, and are deriving more and more income here, paying little tax, and employing few people relative to that income, where are the Aussie and West Aussie firms coming from, who will employ our children in 5, 10 or 15 years time? What jobs will be there waiting for the 20-somethings of the 2020s and 2030s? If the STEM skills are the ones future employers will require, are we going to get serious about STEM education?

We all have a role here, not just government. More of our bright young things should teach, at least during their 20s. More of them should take STEM subjects, not because they’re easy and may improve an ATAR score (they’ll likely not), but because they’re important. Especially girls. We need diversity all the way through our businesses, right to the top and across all industries.

Parents, colleagues, managers, employers – I’m talking to you.


More reading on STEM:

Transforming STEM teaching in primary schools, Prinsley & Johnson, Dec 2015

Optimising STEM education in WA, TIAC, ECU, 2013

Image Credit: Lorenzo G Alarcon Elementary

Never let reasoned debate be lost in the emotion

In this 2 minute video, shot in one quick take on Friday afternoon, I ask Mark Pownall about the shark cull controversy that is raging around WA at the moment. Mark grew up in a WA family which fished regularly. He understands the issues, and always researches something before committing to writing. He is a respected journalist, and always thinks in an original, measured way. I wanted to ask him why he wrote an article about sharks in a business publication, and what he thought of the reaction to it. Give it a view to hear his reasoning.

I’ve known Mark 15 years now. He wrote the first article on my start-up back in 1999, and followed our journey with interest. It’s fascinating to work alongside him now, and see how, together with editor Mark Beyer, he marshalls the content streaming in and out of the newsroom.

Away from the hyperbole, it’s important to be able to sit back and think about issues. Mark P’s main concern in this story was that the naysayers seemed to be drowning out any sensible debate. Interestingly, he’s had many emails this week, all in support of his line. On the web site, we took 17 comments, mostly positive. On twitter, we had some people decrying the article as “bad” and a mere “standard bearer for the Liberal party”. While some people get all confident and scream from behind a keyboard, I feel it’s more admirable to provide calm analysis and perspective to the situation. That way people tend to listen, and you may win them over. You get the feeling Mark does not worry too much about the argument one way or the other, or who wins it, just that it’s educated and informed. Long may it be so.