Monday, November 29, 2010

A thought for Andrew Laming

Andrew Laming is the LNP member for Bowman in the Australian Parliament. Checking my stats, I found a visitor from Andrew's site. Checking, I found that Andrew had listed one of my posts, The Rudd Stimulus Package - Andrew Laming's view, under the In the Press segment on his web site.

I was very pleased. Let me explain why.

Back in February 2009, More economics 101 - the economics of Malcolm Turnbull looked at the differing economic approaches of the Rudd Government and the opposition. I said then that I was not especially interested in the differing rhetoric of the two sides, just trying to understand the variations in the economics.

This post drew a long and thoughtful comment from Andrew, so thoughtful that I actually turned it into a guest post without inserting my own views. This was the post listed above. Andrew then, rightfully, included it in his In the Press segment.

Now from my experience it is fairly unusual for a politician to treat a blog post sufficiently seriously to engage in discussion. As a blogger, I am obviously pleased. However, I also have a thought for Mr Laming.

He clearly has ideas. He is also prepared to support individual causes such as home birth. I wonder whether it might not be worth his while to do more writing.

I wonder whether Mr Laming is aware of the case of the NSW Parliamentarian Davis (Bill) Hughes. First as a back bencher and then as Leader of the NSW Country Party, he found it a little difficult to get publicity in the Sydney media. However, he did not respond with a multiplicity of press releases of that short form we love so well. Instead, he focused on more substantive material.

He did not get immediate publicity, indeed he wasn't seeking it. What he did do, was build a reputation with journalists as a thoughtful man who actually had something to say.

Later, when he wanted publicity he got it because he had built a reputation.

Just a thought.       

Friday, November 26, 2010

Australia capex stats September 2010

Yesterday the Australian Bureau of Statistics released Private New Capital Expenditure and Expected Expenditure, Australia, Sep 2010.

Capital expenditure This graph shows volume estimates. You can see how the numbers climbed and then dropped, only to recover.

On the surface, the expectations data also shows strength.

The release includes a range of other information that I am currently working through. However, to cut straight to the chase.

On the surface, the numbers are good. However, the growth appears to be driven pretty much just by WA.

More later.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

State of the Blogosphere 2010 a note

Just a short note so that I can delete the email and not lose the link.

Technorati has release its annual survey of the blogosphere, in this case State of the Blogosphere 2010. From a quick scan, the survey's results contains a range of interesting material.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paul Kelly's The Hawke Ascendancy

I use the term train reading to describe the reading I do travelling to and from work. This applies even where the travelling is by bus!

The thing about my train reading is that, quite consciously, I use it as an opportunity to read things that I might not otherwise look at. Inevitably, this translates into a series of posts under the train reading banner.

My present train reading is Paul Kelly's The Hawke Ascendancy: A definitive account of its origins and climax 1972-1983 (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, paper back edition, 2008). I originally bought this book as a present for my wife because I knew that she would be interested; she worked as one of the advisors to Minister John Button, a key player in the events of the time.

Originally published in 1984, the book itself is a  gripping account of the rise to power of Bob Hawke as leader of the Australian Labor Party and then, from March 1983, as Australian Prime Minister. It is also the story of the rivalry of three men: Hawke, Liberal leader and PM Malcolm Fraser and Bill Hayden, leader of the Labor Party before Mr Hawke. I found the book especially interesting because it is entwined with elements of my own life, providing a very personal perspective. 

I will write about some of the personal elements in due course in a post on my personal blog. Here I want to deal briefly with two professional elements: the way in which our differing positions affect  our perceptions, along with the rise of professional campaigning and what it means.

I have spoken before about the way our position in an organisation affects our views.

For the individual manager, I have emphasised the need to manage up and sideways as well as down. In so doing, I have also emphasised the need to understand the perception from the other side.

For the senior manager, I have emphasised the need to recognise that their perception of the world is almost certainly not shared, or shared only in part, by their staff. They actually need to know what their people think, not just assume.

How does this fit with Paul Kelly's book? Well, for part of the time I was a player in events.

In 1976, for example, I was an acting branch head in the Commonwealth Treasury when Malcolm Fraser decided to split the Department into two. In my acting role, I attended the last drinks put on by Secretary Sir Frederick Wheeler for senior staff of the combined department. I still remember Sir Frederick's distress and anger.

Later I was Assistant Secretary Economic Analysis in the Department of Industry and Commerce. Here my role was to act as a sort of Treasury in Exile for our Minister Sir Philip Lynch, a former treasurer who still wished to play an economic policy role. When Paul Kelly talks about the mining boom of 1980 and the way it affected policy, I was there as one of the official players.

By contrast, at other times I was a mere external observer, back at University undertaking post grad studies. Here I saw events from afar.  

Reading the book, I realised just how little I knew of certain developments, but was also struck by the way my varying positions affected my perceptions of the time. 

I have also written a fair bit on organisational change, most recently in Scoping the decline in organisational performance. As part of this, I have looked at the professionalisation of politics, and the way that this has adversely affected public policy. Many of these posts have been on my personal blog where I can be more opinionated, less objective.

As I write, NSW Parliamentarian Joe Tripodi has announced his intention to resign. Mr Tripodi is a NSW Labor numbers' man, part of the group that has effectively controlled the party and has led it to almost terminal decline. He is, in fact, the fifteenth NSW Labor Party Parliamentarian to announce retirement in recent months. Everybody knows that this Government will go in next March's elections, but the scale of retirements is still staggering.

In his book, Paul Kelly reports approvingly of the strength and professionalism of the NSW right. He also reveals clearly the way in which opinion polls plus qualitative research including focus groups affected policy and approaches. Mr Hawke became leader because polls showed that he had the best chance of winning.

Reading the book, I was struck not by the rise of professionalism in politics, but by the way each of the key protagonists had different views and values.

Each was an ambitious man, each wanted to win, but their views and values affected their approach. Professional political approaches including market research set a context, but the outcomes were determined by the interaction between individuals and the market research. This is very different from an environment where the market research itself comes to set, to control, the political and policy agenda.

I will finish here. I know that I will have more to say later.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Hilary Clinton and web 2.0

A short post to record something for later reference.

Over at Club Troppo, Nick Gruen has long been banging the drum for web 2.0 as a way of making more Government information available and in a more useable form. For reasons that I will discuss in a later post, I think that the work done by enthusiasts such as Nick is very important.

At this point, I simply want to note that that Danielle Cave's post on the Lowy Institute blog, Chasing Hillary Clinton,  provides an interesting example of the use of various web tools for political and public policy purposes.  

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Digital Intelligence

Last month Thomas, one of my blogging colleagues, discussed in The future the possibility of doing a PhD on digital intelligence. Thomas wrote:

Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory has always had me interested and somewhat of a believer. I certainly believe in the essence of the theory as he wrote it, but I feel that the theory has been abused and diluted and manipulated in wrong ways over the past few years (having read research about it for the past 6 years). But, yes, I do subscribe (as many probably do) with the notion of different intelligences.

What I would like to investigate is whether with this massive explosion in technology in people’s (see; children’s) lives, is there a new branch of the ‘intelligences’ that Gardner came upon emerging that we could term ‘digital intelligence’? That is to say, are people now developing new and distinct ways to comprehend technology, the new ways technology is creating and presenting information, and the way the digital world works?

For those who don't know Thomas, he is just completing an honours degree in education at the University of Sydney. I promised to provide a comment.

Much of the focus on the application of computing and communications technology in the classroom or in business has been on ways to better use the technology. I say computing and communications technology rather than just digital because the focus appeared well before the internet.

You can see this focus in the various Australian school curricula. There acquisition of various types of computing skills, the use of technology to do things, is built into every subject and every stage. You can also see it in teacher's blogs such as that of Maximos62 who is an enthusiast about the possibilities opened up by the digital technologies.

The actual impact of the technologies on the way that students, and people in general, think is less well understood.

We already know that technology shapes thought in often unseen ways. The rise of the motor vehicle is a classic example. It fundamentally reshaped the structure of life in country, town and city. It also changed the way in which we look at the world. It actually altered our mind settings, imbedding new perceptions of space and time.

We know that computing and communications technology is having similar effects. Indeed, we talk about it all the time. Yet the actual affects on the way we think are not well understood.

The initial stages of the computing and communications revolution focused on the storage, transmission and dissemination of data. Initial applications were business focused. The rise first of the PC and then the internet, added access and presentation to the original focus; the concept of interactivity emerged; the digital world became personal.

There are considerable tensions between the old and the new.

The use of the new computing and communications technologies in organisations, the desire to achieve uniformity and processing efficiency, led to the emergence of what I call command and control organisations. The bounds of individual authority were reduced, replaced by central decision rules and various types of performance measurement. My last post, Scoping the decline in organisational performance, is concerned in part with what I see as the adverse effects of these changes.

The internet and the associated new tools including social networking pose a fundamental challenge to the command and control paradigm because they transfer power from the organisation to the individual. To a degree, organisations including Governments that have used the technology to improve processing efficiency and to assert central control now struggle with changes that threaten that control. You can see this play out in, for example, the debate over internet filtering.

At individual level, people are still coming to grips with just what this new world means not just in terms of the use of the technology itself, but also in the impact of the technology on ways of thinking and acting. The debate over Facebook and privacy is an example.

Whether all this translates to a new type of intelligence, digital intelligence, is open to question. My problem here lies in the use of the word "intelligence". Quite clearly, new ways of thinking and acting are emerging. Quite clearly, people's ability to access and use the new technology varies enormously; the digital divide originally foreshadowed in this country by people like Barry Jones is here. However, does this constitute an "intelligence" in the way referred to by Gardner? It may, but it's also a question of definitions. 

To my mind, the more interesting question is the way the technology is actually affecting the way children think. If you look at the debate in this area at present, it seems to be generally problem focused. Cyber bullying is an example. There is, I think, much less focus on changes in structures of thought and of perceptions, on the way this affects learning and behaviour.

This is, of course, a huge topic. It may be that the use of Gardner's concept, a discussion of what constitutes digital intelligence and how we might measure it, is one way in. Whichever way Thomas goes, the topic is an important one. 

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Scoping the decline in organisational performance

Sunday Essay - why who signs what is important, a post on my personal blog,  discussed two examples of changing approaches to management that I thought had contributed to declines in organisational effectiveness over recent decades. This drew a comment from an old friend and colleague, Winton Bates.   

Winton was a senior official with the Industry Assistance Commission/Productivity Commission. There was, he suggested, some improvement in public service management in Australia during the 1980s and early 1990s when there was effective delegation of responsibility to a more appropriate level. Unfortunately, this had not been maintained.

For background purposes, I have repeated the post and the comment below in full. In this post I want to make a few general points and then ask for help.

One of the points about management theories and concepts is that their validity or otherwise finally depends on their practical application. Anybody who has worked for an organisation, or started a new business for that matter, knows this. It is the nuts and bolts, the systems and practices, that finally determine effectiveness.

My continuing discussion about what I perceive to be a decline in organisational effectiveness in the private as well as public sectors rests rests on this point.

So far as the public service is concerned, I think that Winton is right in suggesting that there was some improvement in public service management in Australia during the 1980s, although I would put both the start and end dates earlier than  he does. So we had improvement, and then decline.

I am not alone in talking about this perceived decline. Just at present, a considerable number of my older colleagues are are following similar lines, although the reasons given vary. One could argue that we are just getting old, but I think that it's more than that. There is a feeling of general unease, nor is this limited to the public sector, although it seems to be most pronounced there.

This brings me to the help I am seeking.

I would be interested in comments from fellow managers. Do they also perceive a decline? If so, when and why did they first form this view? Here I am especially interested in specifics, actual dated cases or examples, that might allow us to both test the argument and plot the process.

My original post follows:

"As a manager and adviser over a now considerable period, I have worked through a number of different sometimes overlapping management fashions. I think of them in my own mind as authoritarian, delegated, entrepreneurial, corporatised and now command and control.

I mention this because of a conversation last week over lunch during which those present returned to a common theme, a perceived decline in both the efficiency and effectiveness of modern organisations.

Organisation and management always takes place in a social context set by the society or societies within which the organisation works. That context plays an important role in the decline as we see it. However, put that aside. In this short essay, I want to look at just two features internal to organisations themselves.

I asked one of my colleagues, a former senior public servant, at what date he stopped being responsible for pieces of paper going to the Minister. He blinked, and said he always remained responsible. I rephrased the question: at what date when you were a branch head were you first required to get your Division Head's signature on it before you could send a piece of paper to the Minister? He then took the force of the question, and thought that it was around 1992.

A year or so back, I first had cause to do some work inside the NSW Public Service system. I found a multiple signature system on briefing notes, author, manager, branch head, division head, even CEO. 

So what do we have? In the period that I was a Commonwealth Public Service branch head or acting division head (1980-1987), I made the decision as to who signed the piece of paper to the Minister. My ability to sign myself was critical to getting things done. By around 1992, my colleague at the same level had lost that ability. By 2008 in NSW you had multiple signatures.

A small thing? Maybe, but let me ask you two questions.

First, on this type of paper, who has final responsibility? I think that the answer has to be the highest signature level appearing. As organisations have become more centralised, more command and control, final responsibility for many decisions has moved up the line. The practical effect is a reduction in flexibility, in the capacity of the organisation to respond quickly to the myriad of changes taking place in the world around.

Secondly, on this type of paper who now has ownership? Ownership is important because it is directly related to another question: who is going to make things happen? No sense of ownership, no drive. The problem with multiple signature systems is that no one in fact may take ownership. At one end of the chain, the nominal originating staff member may feel no ownership because he/she is just a drafter whose words and ideas may have been changed many times. At the other end of the chain, the final signatory is likely to be just too busy to take real ownership.

The second related feature that I want to look at is formal systems of delegation. Delegation systems are very important because they determine who has authority for what. They also provide part of the basis for financial control.

One of the things that I did in the two years I was CEO of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists was to introduce new budget systems along with financial delegations that gave the CEO power to approve things within budget, subject to monthly management reporting. This replaced the previous system where individual expenditure items no matter how small required Finance Committee approval. The net result was a considerable improvement in College efficiency.

I make this point because I am in fact a strong supporter of properly structured systems of delegation. They can really aid efficiency as well as accountability. 

One of the things I have noticed over recent years, and this parallels the process I was talking about in regard to who signs what, is an apparent rise in the detail and complexity of formal delegation systems. This gives rise to several problems.

One is simply the time and complexity added to decision and reporting processes. A second is a growing disconnect in some cases between formal statements as to who can approve what and the realities of authority and responsibility in centralised organisations. No matter what the formal delegations say,  managers will not approve something where they feel that decisions might conflict with the realities of decision making power within the organisation. They will try to shift it upstairs.

More difficult still are cases are where managers are expected or directed to approve something in their power when the actual and specific decision has been made above them. Most sensible managers will simply protect their backs by documenting the decision/direction, "I approve this because", but it remains an issue and a risk.

One of the practical realities of management is that concepts and theories are always tempered by what actually happens on the ground. My purpose in this essay is to document two practical examples that show why modern organisations may, as I and my colleagues argue, have become less effective."

Winton's comment was:

An excellent post, Jim.

The only point I would like to make is that I think there was some improvement in public service management in Australia during the 1980s and early 1990s. For a period I think we had effective delegation of responsibility to a more appropriate level.

It is unfortunate if that hasn't been maintained.

Perhaps it is in the nature of public sector activities that responsibility tends to drift upwards. The success of the program manager is judged on the basis of vague criteria, including protecting the Minister from criticism. It is a lot easier to hold a manager responsible for decisions when she is responsible for a profit centre within the firm.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Blog Performance October 2010

With only 27 posts this year and no post since 15 August, this blog has been a real Cinderella. This is reflected in the stats.stats October 10 2

The attached graphic shows visitors (yellow) and page views ) yellow plus red) for the year to the end of October.

The slump in numbers is easy to see. Current traffic is all search engine from previous posts.

Over the last month, the most popular posts were: