Flex-work, Answers and ESG

Appearing in In The Black magazine, August 2022

Going Remote: How the Flexible Work Economy Can Improve Our Lives and Our Cities
By Matthew Kahn
University of California Press, $45

One long-term consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, says urban economist Kahn, will be fundamental changes in the way work is done, with work-from-home becoming a standardised, permanent model. Kahn is interested in the larger social changes flowing from WFH, and he believes that the benefits can be maximised with some thoughtful planning. A major advantage is the reduction of commuting time, although long-term WFH might also mean some expenditure on home workspaces. The economies of the inner cities will take a hit as many of the smaller business that service metropolitan office populations will simply not have enough customers. Some corporates will entirely move out of the expensive city core.

Suburban areas and second-tier cities, however, will do well. Companies will have to invest in suitable communications technology and there might be a need for manager re-training to ensure that remote employees remain engaged and focused. Kahn is writing about the US environment but what he has to say is relevant to most developed economies. He concludes that, on balance, WFH can significantly improve the standard of living for many people by expanding personal freedom but there will be a significant period of adjustment, which will be dislocating for some.

Answer Intelligence
By Brian Glibkowski
Emerald Publishing, $61

Glibkowski is a management academic and consultant who specialises in communication strategies, and in this book he seeks to move beyond the usual sender-receiver method of conversation. Too often, he says, answers do not recognise the real purpose of a question, which can be frustrating for both sides. His primary research dealt with how experts in a field communicate, and from that basis he identifies six categories of answers: story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, and action.

His overarching belief is that each of these answers can be structured to incorporate the issues inherent in a question, thereby providing “answer intelligence”, or AQ. It can be developed with practice, he says, and he examines the concept in chapters dealing with sales, interviews, coaching, and related topics. He underlines the importance of knowing the discussion context, and illustrates his points with contributions from people in business who have used his methods. But it is not always clear how AQ could be broadly utilised, and the complexity of it would make it difficult for fast-moving conversational sessions. Nevertheless, Answer Intelligence offers an interesting framework and, with the companion self-assessment and training app, would be useful to those who wish to upgrade their communication abilities.

Transparency in ESG and the Circular Economy: Capturing Opportunities Through Data
By Cristina Dolan, Diana Barrero Zalles
Business Expert Press, $50

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are now central to corporate activities which range from capital raising to regulatory compliance to recruiting talented people. A fundamental problem, however, has been the difficulty in collecting information on company ESG performance and how it can be improved. Dolan and Zalles, who between them have skills encompassing technology issues, cybercrime, sustainability and international banking, believe that the past decade has brought a new set of tools into the area. The emergence of ESG-related reporting standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative have provided basic metrics but the real breakthrough has been with various corporations that have refined the standards into actionable data.

Dolan and Zalles examine a number of cases where companies have done this, noting that the response from the community and regulators has been generally positive. But they acknowledge that the use of data to measure ESG outcomes is still at an early stage. Emerging technologies like blockchain and IoT are likely to open the door to more reliable metrics. Dolan and Zalles tie this together into a series of lessons, providing a useful roadmap for companies that want to lift their ESG game but are unsure how to proceed.

Retirement plans, sustainability, and looking overseas

Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2022

The Rule Of 30
By Fred Vettese
ECW Press, $56

This book proposes a different method of looking at the issue of saving for retirement, using a fictional young couple and their neighbour, a retired actuary, as a hypothetical case study. After listening to the couple’s situation the neighbour develops “the rule of 30”, which essentially means that retirement saving should be wrapped into the other big costs of mortgage and childcare, to which 30 per cent of income should be allocated. But the mix should be kept flexible, as at certain stages of life the mortgage and childcare costs will be higher. When childcare costs go down more can be allocated to the mortgage or to retirement. About five years from retirement, when the mortgage is paid off or very low, the full 30 per cent can go into the nest egg.

The book provides a range of charts and graphs to demonstrate the various options. The idea is to leave people with more spending discretion rather them having to periodically pay a fixed amount into a retirement fund, which they might not be able to always afford.

Financial planners are likely to find the model set out here to be useful and interesting, and easy to explain to clients.

People, Planet, Profit
By Kit Oung
Business Expert Press

Oung, an environment, social, and governance consultant, believes that many companies want to move towards a sustainability model but do not know how to do it. In People, Planet, Profit he focuses on resource efficiency, emphasising the need for involvement from the senior levels of the company, including the board. There needs to be a plan that is circulated around the organisation with buy-in from every level. Oung looks at ways to reconsider product design, energy and water use, recycling, waste management, supply chains and process. Many of these improvements can be made without undue disruption, and there will be definite improvements in the financial results.

Why many companies fail, says Oung, is a lack of communication between executives and technical experts, so there needs to be a mechanism to ensure information flows. New metrics, based on resource effectiveness rather than output, will be needed. The ultimate aim is a strategy-to-implementation management system.

A key feature of the book is the detailed case studies showing how a variety of companies made the transition to a sustainability model. There is also a series of useful flow charts and templates that can guide a company that is ready to undertake the move.

Business Beyond Borders
By Cynthia Dearin
Dearin & Associates

The pandemic era has made many Australian companies wary of looking at overseas expansion although Dearin, a consultant with extensive diplomatic and management experience, believes that there are opportunities waiting for the bold, especially with the global middle class seeing unprecedented growth. In Business Beyond Borders she underlines the importance of research and preparation, on everything from choosing the right target to understanding the business environment to product pricing. Spend some time in the country, she says, especially if you are looking for partners. Regulations and IP rules are important, and business associations can offer assistance.

She discusses successful cases of international expansion, looking at how entrepreneurs assessed potential markets and timed their moves. There is also much to learn from attempts that went wrong: the initial failure of Starbucks to move into Australia underlines the necessity of knowing cultural mores. Be clear on your strategy, says Dearin, and focus on one country at a time. Ensure that you have sufficient cash on hand to sustain the set-up period, and put effort into developing suitable metrics. This is solid advice, provided in plain language, adding up to a useful package for anyone who is ready to look for new challenges.

Not so smart

America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger|
By Isaac Stone Fish
Scribe, $33, 288 pages

America Second is a book that shows how experts can make terrible misjudgments. Fish, a journalist and consultant with long experience of China, tracks through how people who should know better have thoroughly mis-read China over several decades.

He has a particular ire for Henry Kissinger, who has made a lot of money out of advising clients to ‘build trust’ with the Chinese leaders. He also has a position on the advisory board of the state-owned China Development Bank. There is a long list of high-profile diplomats and dignitaries, such as Madeleine Albright, who argue that the US should not treat China as a geopolitical competitor, regardless of its actions.

Some appear to genuinely believe that engagement will gradually guide China down a more liberal road. The larger the economic stake for China in the global economy, they say, the less likely it is to resort to force. It is an interesting theory, and it is a shame that it does not fit the facts of the past two decades.

There are other apologists, notably Disney chairman Bob Iger, who are simply interested in the money associated with China’s huge market. They argue that trying to isolate China is both impossible and will undercut the strength of the US economy. Personal interests coincide with national interest. Convenient.

This is enlightening and somewhat scary. Think of the book as further proof, if any was needed, that the best and brightest are never as smart as they think they are.

Trends, culture and making it count

Appearing in In The Black magazine, June 2022

The New Megatrends: Seeing Clearly in the Age of Disruption
By Marian Salzman
Crown, $45

Trying to determine the shape of the future is always a dangerous undertaking but Salzman, a senior figure in the consulting giant Philip Morris International, gives it a determined try in this book. Consciously following the model of John Naisbitt’s popular Megatrends series, she looks at existing trends and extrapolates from them, looking out to 2038. She acknowledges that there is no single answer but instead there will be continuing waves of economic and political disruption. The impact of COVID-19 will linger, entrenching the model of remote working and giving priority to health issues. Social media technology will continue to evolve, giving rise to “virtual tribes” with increasing segmentation and polarisation. Countering this, there will be a movement towards lives that are more natural, less urban, deliberately disconnected, and slower. E-commerce will replace traditional retail models to the point that shopping malls will become, says Salzman, “extinct”.

Interesting food for thought, but the problem is that it is often difficult to follow Salzman’s thinking (which she admits is based on “nonlinear leaps”). Nevertheless, there is validity in her point that the necessary talents to thrive in the future will be resilience, adaptability and a willingness to find opportunities in apparent chaos.

Let’s Talk Culture
By Shane Hatton
Major Street Publishing, $33

A positive, dynamic culture is the difference between a business that survives and one that thrives, according to leadership specialist Hatton. Based on a survey by McCrindle Research of 1002 Australian managers, he examines how good cultures are built and sustained. He emphasises that the leader should be clear in their own mind about what sort of culture they want and what direction the company should take. Once they have established this they must constantly work at developing a culture, which often means giving form and expression to the unspoken and near-invisible. He distils the research into a series of ‘conversations’, dealing with expectations, clarity of language, procedures for communication, priorities and focus, recognition of success, and feedback.

He readily acknowledges that this is not easy for leaders, especially those who expertise is not in people management. He breaks the process into a series of steps, finishing each section with suggestions for action. Along the way, he supplies some handy tools and illustrates his points with real-world cases. He is mainly aiming at mid-sized companies that are looking to grow, but much of what he says is applicable to firms of any size, or even team leaders within an organisation.

Making Numbers Count: The art and science of communicating numbers
By Chip Heath and Karla Starr
Penguin, $35

For finance professionals, communicating with people with little understanding of how numbers work can be a frustrating experience. Heath, a Stanford business academic, and Starr, a science journalist, are very familiar with this problem, and in Making Numbers Count they set out a variety of ways to get a numerical-based point across. Work out which statistics are the most important and focus on them, rather than flood the audience with data, they say. Use straightforward examples to support the message. For example, citing the amount of acreage destroyed in an Australian bushfire is not very meaningful. Saying that it is twice the area of Portugal gives a powerful frame of reference.

Likewise, financial projections can be couched in terms of past performances, and risk management (including the likelihood of adverse events) can be discussed in concrete, everyday language. Comparisons are more likely to stick in the mind if they have a witty and slightly bizarre element to them. Heath and Starr provide templates for all this, as well as tables, anecdotes, and highlight boxes. The book is a short, fast read but the tools and contextual frameworks it provides will be useful for addressing a wide range of communication problems.

Downloadable Resources

Metaverse

WhatIs.com is a site that provides information on a broad range of technology issues, and this feature goes a long way to explaining the metaverse. It walks through the basic principles, noting the origin of the metaverse in the gaming sector and the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality. The article looks at the companies that are already moving into metaverse tech, the role of Non-Fungible Tokens as the metaverse ‘currency’, and the development of supplementary equipment, such as AR glasses. The metaverse is not yet part of the business landscape but it is certainly looming on the horizon.

Read at:
https://whatis.techtarget.com/feature/The-metaverse-explained-Everything-you-need-to-know

Why so serious?

Many senior executives believe that their role demands stony-faced seriousness but in this TED Talk Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, behaviour specialists who dabble in consulting, argue that there is no need for it to be so. They offer advice on when humour is appropriate and provide a self-assessment test to establish “your humour style”. A sense of humour also provides accessibility and humility for leaders. Not only is a bit of laughter good for you, a quip or a joke can make a critical difference in a tricky negotiation (such as offering to throw in a pet frog to sweeten the deal).

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/jennifer_aaker_and_naomi_bagdonas_why_great_leaders_take_humor_seriously

Credit where due

Information about debt and creditworthiness is useful to companies entering into contracts with suppliers, partners and buyers, as well as being a good indicator general economic health. This site contains a great deal of information on this area. Some of it can only be accessed on a subscription basis but there is a wealth of material available without cost. A blog looks at specific issues, such as the impact of natural disasters on the construction sector, and there is also a podcast series that examines research papers and surveys, including a Business Risk Index that includes a sector-by-sector breakdown.

For further information, go to:
https://creditorwatch.com.au

Survey

Accounting giant PwC has been conducting an annual survey of Australian CEOs for 25 years, and it has proved to be a good guide to plans and concerns. The most recent poll finds a great deal of confidence in the business sector, with 88 per cent of respondents expecting economic growth in Australia and 98 per cent anticipating good revenue growth for their companies. Cybersecurity is flagged as the primary concern of CEOs, even greater than a resurgence of COVID-19. There is a renewed focus on investing in talented people to take advantage of a post-pandemic recovery in the medium term.

https://www.pwc.com.au/ceo-agenda/ceo-survey.html

Mental health

Executive stress has reached epidemic levels, and according to research from consulting heavyweight McKinsey much of it stems from a lack of sleep. This feature draws together a number of articles on the theme, looking at how a decent night’s rest is critical for mental health, the way in which sleep underpins recovery from burnout, technology-based solutions to sleeplessness, and how healthy sleep patterns can be created and maintained. Company leaders also have to be aware of the need to foster good mental health for their employees, with a clear company policy and a willingness to lead by example.

Read at:
https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/themes/how-to-harness-the-power-of-sleep

Shooting blanks

The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War
By Nicholas Mulder
Yale University Press, $52, 448 pages

The world looks set for a new round of conflicts, and economic sanctions seems to be the weapon of choice for Western countries. This book is a timely look at the subject, and although it was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine it is impossible to not make comparisons and find parallels. The Biden administration and its various supporters like to say that the sanctions it put in place were unprecedented and will ultimately be judged as successful. It is hard to accept either conclusion after reading what Mulder, a historian at Cornell University, has to say.

Sanctions have been around for as long as there has been international trade. They were used prominently in the lead-up to and during World War One. Far from being bloodless tools, sanctions were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths through starvation. Nevertheless, the idea was central to the operations of the League of Nations, the organisation created after the war, and was even written into the League’s constitution.

This extended to financial sanctions, a process which was helped by the dominance of the City of London, which acted as a clearing house for international trade. This role was eventually taken over by American banks, even though America was not a member of the League.

There was a theory that the threat of economic isolation could be enough to prevent aggressive actions or escalation, and there were some successes. But they were fairly small, such as resolution of the Yugoslav-Albanian crisis of 1921. On the other hand, there were spectacular failures. Attempts to punish and deter Japan after its invasion of China merely fed the country’s paranoia and sense of deprivation, a line that led directly to Pearl Harbor. A similar case can be made with the rise of Nazi Germany.

Sanctions can actually help a government, especially if it has control of the media, to rally the population behind it. Even more, a government that feels itself to be under attack may feel bound to undertake military action to secure needed resources. Pride is not an insignificant factor in the conduct of geopolitical affairs. The underlying assumption of sanctions, that countries and their leaders will act in their economic interests after doing rational cost-benefit analysis, may be fundamentally flawed to begin with.

With all this in mind, Mulder looks at the question of whether sanctions work. After much consideration he concludes that they nearly always fail to achieve their objectives. There may be some cases where they contribute but sorting out different factors is a difficult business, and specific conditions are required for even limited success.

Where does Russia and its autocratic leadership fit into this picture? It is difficult to see how the threat of sanctions, or their imposition, did anything to change Putin’s moves. Sanctions do not seem to have affected public support for Putin, although working out the attitudes of the Russian people is always a fraught exercise. Supporters of sanctions might argue that the effects will be felt in the long term but that is unlikely to be of much consolation to the Ukrainians. Is it possible to permanently cut a country the size of Russia out of the global map? It does not sound very likely.

Mulder does, however, have some suggestions for making sanctions more effective. A way forward might be to focus efforts on individuals, especially wealthy people with a reputation for corruption. These oligarchs, says Mulder, usually wield considerable clout with the leader, so if they believe that their own positions will be affected they will make their concerns known. A related avenue could be to direct sanctions towards the financial institutions that underpin economic activity. This strategy of hitting key people in their pocketbooks sounds more promising than broad-brush sanctions but it has been tried before and the results have been, at best, mixed. Does anyone really think that Putin cares if the super-boats of his mates are grabbed by Western authorities?

Why, then, are sanctions so popular with Western governments? The short answer seems to be that sanctions do not (or do not appear to) impose costs on them or their people. Essentially, politicians always like the idea of being seen to be doing something, even if it eventually turns out to be the wrong thing. And they will probably continue to do so, all evidence to the contrary.

Talent, AI and COVID

Appearing in May 2022 issue of In The Black magazine

Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World
By Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
St Martin’s Press

Recruiting and managing creative people is a different process than that used for people with technical skills, according to Cowen and Gross, who have been studying and consulting on the issue for many years. In this book they provide advice on how to understand an applicant’s thought processes and willingness to embrace new thinking. In the interview, they suggest examining what the person does in their after-hours time. Non-work activities are more likely to reveal personality than the dry lists of a CV. In fact, the interview should be more of a free-flowing discussion than a structured Q&A. There is an appendix of questions that might help to assess creativity and work attitudes.

Very creative people can sometimes be difficult to work with, so there might be a need to re-consider job design and supervision arrangements. Along the way, Cowen and Gross discuss how to effectively conduct online interviews, and how recruiting creative women differs from recruiting creative men. In terms of managing and retaining creative people, the key is keeping them stimulated and challenged, with rewards that are appropriate to the individual. All this takes effort and innovation from the employer but the returns can be well worth the investment.

Artificial Intelligence for Asset Management and Investment: A Strategic Perspective
By Al Naqvi
Wiley

Naqvi is the CEO of the American Institute of Artificial Intelligence so he is understandably enthusiastic about the whole subject of AI. In this book he argues that few companies operating in the investment space are properly using AI, and he has good points to make about the capacity of AI systems to scan huge amounts of information, finding anomalies and patterns. This can form the basis of investment strategy and risk management. He claims, for example, that the Institute’s AI system predicted the COVID-19 pandemic through scattered mentions of a viral outbreak in China.

At the same time, AI can generate vast improvements in asset use and customer relations. AI can, he says, turn virtually all aspects of business into a science. He offers a model for adopting AI across company operations, including execution aspects.

Naqvi acknowledges that many senior managers might be reluctant to turn over large sections of the business to a computer system. He is dismissive of such concerns, taking the view that those who do not accept AI will be left behind by those who do. This tone can be a bit grating, but nevertheless the book offers important insights into a critical emerging field.

Pacific Accounting Review: Accounting and finance lessons in the time of COVID: Views from the Pacific (volume 33, number 2)
Edited by David Ding, Julie Harrison, Martien Lubberink, and Chris van Staden
Emerald Publishing

This e-book special issue of Pacific Accounting Review brings together a collection of articles looking at how the finance profession in the region has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. It covers a wide range of topics, from accounting for support provided by governments to provisioning standards to insolvencies arising from the pandemic. Several articles deal with taxation issues and accounting regulations, and there are pieces dealing with auditing and the non-profit sector. On the investment side, research shows that the usual strategy of diversification was ineffective, as there were no ‘safe havens’ on the investment spectrum. In relation to subsidies provided to companies, there are issues for chief finance officers, especially in cases where the impact of the pandemic was relatively minor.

Several articles look ahead to the period in which the pandemic winds down, and consider paths for long-term reform. This is particularly relevant in the recognition of tax losses, while there are other questions relating to sustainability reporting.

There is a follow-up issue of Pacific Accounting Review (volume 33, number 5) which discusses the impact that the pandemic has had on global economies and assesses the role that the financial sector has played in managing the crisis.

Downloadable Resources

Banking on it

The annual examination of the banking sector by consulting giant McKinsey has found a mixed picture, with the leaders doing well despite the pandemic while the lower half failed to cover their cost of equity. Nevertheless, the general picture is better than was expected two years ago, with the dislocation being less than that flowing from the Global Financial Crisis.

But there have been many indirect effects. Digital banking accelerated, cash use fell, savings expanded, remote became a way of working, and sustainability has moved up the priorities list. These are the key challenges for the sector going forward.

Download the report from:
https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/financial-services/our-insights/global-banking-annual-review

Leadership talk

In this useful podcast series, leadership coach Dan Haesler interviews a range of eminent Australians, mostly from the business community but with a leavening of other specialists. For example, the interview with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett on how brain functioning affects decision-making is a fascinating one. The podcasts are unstructured, often sounding more like a friendly chat than a detailed discussion. But overall the approach is successful. Episodes that are well worth catching are the interview with journalist Stan Grant on leadership, a conversation on the difference between coaching and mentoring, and how leaders should respond to the easing of pandemic restrictions.

Listen at:
https://www.podcast.habitsofleadership.com

Analytics

The Melbourne Business School and management consulting firm Kearney have released the fourth edition of their annual Analytics Impact Index report. The annual survey looks at more than 300 global companies across 35 industries, with a focus on sustainability. The findings show that those companies that have implemented analytics to optimise processes have reduced waste or emissions by 39 per cent. However, most companies are still unclear about the link between environmental sustainability and analytics. There has been a small drop in the number of companies considered Leaders and Explorers, while the percentage of Followers and Laggards has increased.

Download from:
https://mbs.edu/news/How-companies-are-using-analytics-to-tackle-sustainability

Nice work

Recruitment firm Michael Page has released its regular report on the best-paying jobs and sectors in Australia. In the finance field, the best-paying jobs are: Chief Financial Officer, with an average salary of $280,000; Investment Director in a large-cap fund ($300,000); Head of Operations in a resources company ($325,000); and Chief Technology Officer ($330,000).

The report notes that despite the upheavals caused by the coronavirus pandemic, employment growth has remained surprisingly strong. However, growth in the gig economy and the adoption of hybrid and flexible arrangements are likely to be permanent features of the work picture.

For further information, go to:
https://www.michaelpage.com.au/advice/market-insights/industry-reports/top-10-highest-paying-jobs-australia-2022

Reducing carbon

This TED Talk is a mix of entertainment and information, with climate strategist Gabrielle Walker discussing ideas for reducing atmospheric carbon. Planting more trees is simple and effective, as is using wood as a building material instead of emissions-heavy concrete. Spreading ground-up basalt on fields is surprisingly useful, and geosequestration is a well-tested process. A new proposal called air capture shows promise, and breeding animals that promote tree growth by foraging is an idea that can be readily scaled. The best ideas, says Walker, marry technology and natural processes, and the result is likely to be a portfolio of options.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/gabrielle_walker_woolly_pigs_high_tech_and_other_ingenious_ways_to_take_carbon_out_of_the_air

Index funds, vaccines and shifting balances

Appearing in In The Black magazine, April 2022

Trillions: How a Band of Wall Street Renegades Invented the Index Fund and Changed Finance Forever
By Robin Wigglesworth
Penguin, $33, 352 pages

As the global finance correspondent for the Financial Times, Wigglesworth has had a front-row seat to a development that has remade financial markets: the rise of index funds. The revolution has been slow but it has been inexorable, to the point that they now dominate the investment landscape. Wigglesworth walks through the early academic work which hypothesised that a basket of passive investments would usually outperform active traders, taking account of the fees charged to investors. Turning theory into practice was tricky but Wigglesworth has a good time with a sprawling cast of characters, with a man called Jack Bogle, who created the first working fund, in a starring role.

Wigglesworth is generally supportive of index funds, emphasising that investors have saved billions in fees. But he acknowledges the downsides, noting that the number of active traders has dramatically reduced. This pattern amplifies market movements, makes entry for newcomers more difficult, and reduces the transparency of decisions. Yes, index funds have brought more people into the wealth-creation process but they have also concentrated power in a few hands. The long-term consequences of lopsided markets are not clear, but Trillions has a remarkable story to tell and Wigglesworth tells it well.

A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines
By Greg Zuckerman
Penguin, $35, 384 pages

The COVID-19 pandemic is the story of our time, and this book shows how the vaccines which have been critical in turning the tide were developed. Zuckerman, a science writer at the Wall Street Journal, points out that drug companies had long seen vaccines as a low priority but when the crisis hit they quickly pivoted to a new paradigm. There was a massive program of investment, research, and testing, with remarkable co-operation between governments, researchers and the private sector. It was done in record time, very different to the usual pace of drug development. In fact, there were several races moving in parallel although the research streams ultimately converged.

Zuckerman explains the underlying science and the technological advances required for large-scale production and distribution. He acknowledges that companies always had an eye on the bottom line but believes there was also an acceptance of the need to look beyond profitability. The virus has not yet been defeated, especially with new strains appearing, but Zuckerman predicts that it will become a seasonal disease rather than a global threat. The book adds up to a fascinating account of how the corporate sector, and the broader community, can rise to meet challenges.

Shifting the Balance: How Top Organizations Beat the Competition by Combining Intuition with Data
By Mark Schrutt
ECW Press, $50, 256 pages

Analytics, algorithms and Big Data have changed the fundamental nature of business and in this book Schrutt, a consultant specialising in disruption and digital transformation, examines their advantages and limitations. While they provide huge amounts of information they are usually focused on what has already happened, and the result is that they can be reactive. Emerging threats, changes and opportunities can be missed, and old biases can be inadvertently baked in.

Nevertheless, Schrutt makes clear that the old method of leaders making strategic decisions according to their ‘gut’ is unsuitable for the Digital Age. The answer is a hybrid system where company principals draw on all the available information but still retain the final decision on strategy, using their knowledge of the marketplace and their observations of what is coming down the road. Looking at the practices of companies that have developed combination models, Schrutt emphasises that leaders need to be able to understand the value of data. They also need to recruit data specialists who can provide information that is relevant to strategy. Data should not – and cannot – replace experience and wisdom, but leaders must be willing to utilise the new generation of tools at achieve the best outcomes.

Downloadable Resources

Podcast

The Built For Change podcast series from consulting giant Accenture provides some useful discussions, mainly around the theme of taking advantage of new technologies. A particularly interesting segment (Episode 10) deals with how brewing company Carlsberg utilised cloud tech and related algorithms to improve inventory control across its global operations, track consumer preferences and adjust the local product accordingly, and re-make its distribution infrastructure. The larger point is that data collection and storage is a means and not an end in itself, and the cloud offers the potential to dissect, manipulate and disseminate information across a widespread group.

Download from:
https://www.accenture.com/ca-en/insights/company/built-for-change-podcast

Workplace research

In this interesting TED Talk, Harvard academic Ashley Whillans examines how, especially in the COVID-19 era, work has increasingly crept into our private lives. This is a recipe for burnout, she says, but there are some ways to re-establish balance. Her research shows that time issues are best negotiated at the recruitment stage, to ensure that family commitments are acknowledged and accommodated. Another critical point is to ensure that private time is insulated from work communication, especially email and mobile phones. Co-workers should be informed when you are not available, so that ‘time away’ allows for genuine mental re-charging.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/ashley_whillans_3_rules_for_better_work_life_balance

Equity scorecard

A study from the College of Business and Economics at the Australian National University has placed Australia equal last on a gender pay gap scorecard comparing six developed countries, with a gap of over 14 per cent. There are disclosure requirements at the industry level but the underlying assumption that reporting would help to close the gap has not been borne out. The report authors believe that the focus of reporting should shift to individual companies, that there should be clear minimum standards for pay equity, and that the government should be willing to impose sanctions on non-compliant firms.

Read at:
https://cbe.anu.edu.au/news/2021/australia-has-ranked-last-international-gender-pay-gap-study-here-are-3-ways-do-better

Hotline

The Australian Cyber Security Centre has released a package of improvements to help businesses with their security. This includes enhancements to the Australian Cyber Security Hotline (1300 CYBER1), so it now operates 24/7. The Hotline can be used to obtain advice and report attacks. Data from the ACSC shows that the threats facing Australian small and medium-sized businesses are growing, as they are seen as easy targets. Cyberattacks, especially ransomware raids and business email compromise, are becoming more sophisticated and destructive.

The ACSC has also released new online learning resources offering simple-to-follow advice for businesses and individuals, available at cyber.gov.au/learn

For further information, go to:
https://www.cyber.gov.au/acsc/view-all-content/news/acsc-call-247

Disruption discussion

Gerald Kane, Rich Nanda, and Anh Nguyen Phillips are experts on business and technology strategy as well as co-authors of the important book The Transformation Myth. In this interview on the site of MIT Press, they explore avenues for dealing with disruption, using the pandemic as an object lesson. The discussion is an hour long so there are opportunities to drill into cases and solutions. The key points are that new technology has to be designed with customers in mind, leaders have to prioritise organisation resilience, and attempting to  merely ‘weather the storm’ means missing critical opportunities for positive change.

Watch at:
https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog/author-talk-transformation-myth-gerald-c-kane-rich-nanda-anh-nguyen-phillips-and-jonathan-r

CEOs, blockchain, and focus

Appearing in In The Black magazine, March 2022

Decoding CEO-Speak
By Russell Craig and Joel Amernic
University of Toronto Press

There is little dispute that the CEO of a corporate sets the tone for the company but the actual mechanism is not always clear. Craig and Amernic focus on the language used, with a close reading of CEO statements and speeches, and a series of demonstrative case studies. Language can be used to lead a company in a positive way but when unbalanced it can also have a negative impact. The metaphor of business as an ongoing war which must be won at all costs can encourage actions which are ethically dubious, especially in the tech and media sectors. An emphasis on cost-cutting can lead to reductions in safety and environmental standards.

Craig and Amernic provide lists of words, phrases and themes to watch for. Some CEO language is about self-aggrandisement, although this usually slips into blame-shifting when things go bad. A CEO who offers personal vignettes is usually going to ask employees for ‘sacrifices’, and one who uses technical accounting terms is likely to be hiding underperformance or other problems.

This is useful information for financial analysts, shareholders and regulators. The book does not offer any solutions but it provides a means to determine what is really being said.

Blockchain and Banking: How Technological Innovations Are Shaping the Banking Industry
By Pierluigi Martino
Palgrave

Blockchain technology is being slowly adopted across the business landscape but so far, according to academic Martino, the banking sector has been wary of it. In one way, blockchain represents an existential threat, as it has the potential to directly link lenders and borrowers. Disintermediation has long been a worry for banks, and the breadth and security of blockchain could turn it into a painful reality. But blockchain also raises the possibility of drawing more customers into an increased level of financial activity and expanding the range of services on offer. This would require the banks to establish and take responsibility for customised blockchain systems, and to communicate their new role to existing and potential customers. So far, says Martino, this has happened in only a few cases.

A key obstacle is the cryptocurrency connection, something which raises interoperability and regulatory issues. Martino proposes several ways to incorporate blockchain into traditional banking operations but he admits that it requires a new business model as well as a different mindset. But, he points out, blockchain and other fintech innovations will eventually come anyway, so the question is really whether the banking sector will ride the wave or be swamped by it.

Focus: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth
By Vikas Mittal and Shrihari Sridhar
Palgrave

Many business plans look wonderful on paper. The problem is that they fail in their first encounter with the real world. Mittal and Sridhar are interested in finding out why, and in this useful book they examine the issue from several perspectives. They begin with a questionnaire for CEOs about their strategy planning process as a means of identifying strengths and weaknesses, and then examine a number of pathways to improve the development and implementation of plans.

Too often, they say, planning is focused inwardly rather then being driven by customers, with a disjunction between operations and profitability. This usually requires a reconsideration of the metrics needed. Many CEOs complain that much of the information provided to them is not relevant to planning. Therefore, the process has to reach down into the middle and lower levels of the company for important data. Significantly, greater involvement across the company can improve execution, which is a major benefit.

While there is place for aspirational goals in plans there also needs to be quantifiable objectives and firm timelines. Mittal and Sridhar demonstrate their points with relevant case studies, and the result is a package that provides assistance in a difficult, but essential, area.

Downloadable Resources

Report

The changes seen in workplaces and management over the COVID-19 era will have profound long-term consequences, but according to the Future of Work report from PwC Australia many companies have not yet come to grips with the issues. The report includes a Future of Work Maturity Radar, a tool that allows leaders to assess the readiness of their company and develop solutions. The report is structured across four dimensions: work type, workforce composition and capabilities, workplace and the experience of work. There is also a link to a series of podcast discussions on how to optimise the transition under way.

Download from:
https://www.pwc.com.au/important-problems/future-of-work-design-for-the-future/future-of-work-maturity-radar.html

Digital currencies

Noel Quinn is Group Chief Executive of banking giant HSBC, so it his job to think about the future of finance. In this essay he discusses an emerging form of digital funds known as Central Bank Digital Currencies. These are legal tender backed by a government authority, avoiding many of the issues associated with cryptocurrencies. Quinn sees great potential but he accepts that there are risks that must be mitigated. He believes that a collaboration between government agencies and private banks would be the best way to go. Important views from someone who can speak with authority about the subject.

Read at:
https://www.hsbc.com/insight/topics/new-forms-of-digital-money-could-spur-growth

Leaders

As a consultant specialising in leadership and communication, Gabrielle Dolan brings a great deal of experience to bear. In this podcast series she interviews a range of leaders, mainly but not exclusively from business. Most of the interviews are about forty minutes, giving Dolan the opportunity to explore issues in depth, and she usually focuses on how the interviewee met particular challenges. In a recent interview, for example, she spoke to Anne Sullivan, national and regional head of retailer Georg Jensen. The discussion looked at how to lead an organisation in times of pandemic stress and plan for eventual recovery.

Follow at:
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/authentic-leadership-podcast/id1390442702

Wealth report             

An important study from consulting giant McKinsey, The Rise of the Global Balance Sheet, assesses the world economy since 2000. The good news is that net worth has tripled. The bad news is that it largely comes from asset revaluation, with real estate alone now accounting for about two-thirds of global net worth. That is, funds are not being effectively used to improve productivity, and debt is detracting from real growth. The report looks at areas where productivity gains are potentially available and posits that a new investment paradigm is emerging. A video summary by the author is also available.

Download from:
The rapid growth in global wealth | McKinsey

Meetings

Meetings can be useful but they can also be the root of wasted time, low productivity and executive exhaustion. In this short TED Talk, thought leader Cindy Solomon provides some helpful hints. Only invite people who are directly relevant to the task. Ensure that the invitation is framed with a purpose statement in active terms. Set a specific length and stick to it: 30-40 minutes is best. Be willing to decline invitations to a meeting if you cannot see a way to add value. Finally, consider whether a meeting is really necessary. Your time is valuable, so spend it wisely.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/cindy_solomon_5_tips_for_dealing_with_meeting_overload

Fancy Dress

Appearing in the Australian, 12 February 2022

How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 21st Century

By Lydia Edwards

Bloomsbury, 280 pp, $50

If clothing is a language then fashion is the vocabulary. We sometimes think of fashion as a relatively recent phenomenon but this remarkable, sumptuous book demonstrates that it has been around for a long time, and there are threads of continuity across centuries. Edwards, a historian at Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University, is a good guide for a time-travel journey, and the book has the advantage of a large number of colour plates, illustrations and photographs. Edwards dissects each image, explaining how a particular pleat was formed or why a certain decorative feature was used.

She starts at 1550, simply because there are few surviving examples before then. Her focus is on women’s fashion, specifically the single-piece dress, including various accessories and supporting pieces (anyone who wants to look at men’s clothes should try on Edwards’ 2020 book, How to Read a Suit, for size). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries France was the fashion leader, although England offered stiff competition. Even when at war there was an exchange of ideas between the two countries, such as the collar-like ruff. Along the way, Spain and Italy made important contributions.

The royal courts were the fashion epicentres: not surprising, considering the incredible cost of some of these dresses. There were huge expanses of silk and lace, with whalebone underpinning the whole show. The wearers of these dresses must have looked like magnificent galleons in full sail but it is difficult to see how they might sit down, climb stairs, or go to the toilet. The price of beauty, perhaps.

A constant feature over several centuries was the desire for a wasp-thin waist. For women who could not fit into the torturous corsets there was the alternative of dresses with wide shoulders and exaggerated hips, to give the impression of an hourglass figure. Elizabeth I, the trendsetter of her era, was an exemplar of this, adding necklaces, matching make-up and a halo-like structure to frame the face. But she also liked to show a bit of cleavage, common at the time.

Another angle on the hourglass theme, in the nineteenth century, was puffed-out sleeves and shelf-like bustles. Skirts were made conical by hoops and layers of petticoats.

In Australia, fashion in the 1890s managed to avoid the most extreme forms seen in other countries, according to examples from the large dress collection of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. In fact, there were influences from men’s clothing, especially around the necklines, trimmings and cuffs. Practical, yes, although there is also a pleasing and particular aesthetic underlying Australian dress design.

By the time the twentieth century arrived there was more interest in flowing lines rather than complicated overlays, as more women entered the paid workforce. By the 1920s America had emerged as the driving force of fashion, with sleeveless daywear dresses being the hot item. Chanel’s ‘little black dress’ line was revolutionary at the time, and her later suit-like designs started to question whether the dress had any future at all. As it turns out, it did, but as one choice amongst many.

As the fashion focus shifted to youthful energy rather than society matrons in the decades after 1950, there was diminishing interest in clothes based on savage body restrictions and staggering expense. Hemlines went up, and trousers for women started to be taken seriously by designers. Even formal clothes, such as wedding gowns, became less complex. The business of making clothes also underwent massive change, with much less manufacture by hand and more design for ready-to-wear retail. By the 1980s non-Western designers like Issy Miyake were making their presence felt, and Madonna’s cone-shaped bustier (designed by John Paul Gaultier) broke down the barrier between underwear and outerwear.

By the twenty-first century, fashion had become a wealth of cut-and-paste choices, cross-cultural references, sexual expression, and innovative use of non-traditional materials. A 2004 dress by Western Australian designer Donna Franklin was actually made of fungus.

Edwards explains all this in the sort of detail that comes not only with entirely knowing the subject but also loving it. By the nature of the book, there is more breadth than depth but a comprehensive bibliography points to more research opportunities, and there is a useful glossary of terms.

What next for clothing and fashion? Edwards believes that the move towards gender-neutral clothing will continue, and also points to increased interest in manufacturing methods which are environment-friendly and sensitive to cultural origins. There appears to be a resurgence of the ‘prairie’ style of the 1960s and 1970s, although done with a dose of irony. Or maybe the future will not be about ‘fashion’ at all, if the term means a commonality of style for many people, but one-off artisan pieces and eccentric mash-ups. Nevertheless, the single-piece dress is sure to remain, in some form or another. It’s a classic.

Amazon, fraud and disruption

Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2022

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire
Brad Stone
Simon & Schuster

Amazon has become so embedded in the global economy and our collective psyche that it is hard to remember the world before it. Stone, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, examined the evolution of the company from an online book seller to a dominant player in retail in his 2013 book The Everything Store, and in Amazon Unbound he continues the story to trace how the company became a trillion-dollar behemoth. In fact, the company has made plenty of missteps, from attempts to introduce its own phone to its mixed-results forays into China and India.

But there have been successes such as the introduction of AI, the move into Hollywood through digital streaming, and a series of important acquisitions. Amazon ruthlessly adheres to its principles of technological innovation, operational frugality, continually looking for scalability, and relentless focus on customer service. It also analyses its mistakes, and founder Bezos accepts that some experiments will inevitably fail.

Amazon has become so wealthy and powerful that it seems able to shrug off any setbacks, even with a growing number of critics and enemies. But Stone wonders if this can continue, especially with Bezos stepping out of the CEO role to become executive chairman.

When Numbers Don’t Add Up: Accounting Fraud and Financial Technology
Faisal Sheikh
Business Expert Press

Sheikh brings a great deal of academic and practitioner experience to bear in this book, as he examines the problem of accounting fraud from operational, technological and psychological perspectives. The incidence of accounting fraud, either for direct personal gain or to misrepresent the financial situation of a company, is growing, and the development of Big Data and cyber currencies is making the problem worse. Oversight practices have not kept up and auditors are in danger of being overwhelmed by the flood of granular, non-financial information.

Analysing recent cases, the book provides a number of important frameworks to detect fraud. Sheikh looks at the type of personality commonly associated with accounting fraud, and at the interaction of pressure, motivation and rationalisation. He also provides a list of  ‘red flags’, such as dubious valuations, the proliferation of unexplained bank accounts, and personal connections in the ranks of senior executives and board members.

As a remedy Sheikh proposes the adoption of an “Ethical Triangle” he has developed, and he notes that the training of auditors has to be revised and broadened. An appendix provides a compendium of the literature, making the book a useful resource for students as well as practising financial professionals.

Accounting Disrupted: How Digitalization Is Changing Finance
Alnoor Bhimani
Wiley

Digitalisation is an upheaval in business practice, and the finance profession will need to redesign itself if it is going to survive. Bhimani, a professor of accounting with the London School of Economics, argues that accounting information must begin to describe what will take place rather than what has occurred. This means gathering insights from diverse sources, with a focus on emerging opportunities and risks. At the same time, new technologies such as blockchain and AI point to a move away from traditional reporting as real-time transparency increases and improves.

Bhimani looks at examples where this has been successfully done, and is adept at drawing out the lessons. The key point is a change of thinking. Accountants must be able to put aside some old skills and take up new ones, and managers must reconsider their recruitment and retention strategies. Senior executives must develop some fresh ideas about how to utilise the company’s finance function, working out what questions they need to ask. Bhimani emphasises that this is not simply about adapting to a ‘new normal’ but about dealing with continuing disruption. For finance professionals, the critical task will be to see and explain what is coming down the road.