Victim/Victor

The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

By Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

Palgrave, $65, 278 pages, ISBN 9783319703282

How did it come to this? When did it become, on the campuses of many upscale US universities, almost impossible to say anything without someone taking offence and initiating legal action through an office set up for the purpose? How is it that professors can be applauded for saying that they want to see a “white genocide”? When did hate-crime hoaxes become acceptable, even desirable?

Campbell (Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University) and Manning (Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University) have collected a vast body of research on the subject – at considerable professional cost, it should be said – and have come up with some answers. They track the spread of the new culture of victimhood through universities and into broader society, and believe it began about ten years ago, when a new generation entered university life.

These teenagers had been continually told by their affluent, left-wing parents that they were “special snowflakes”: unique, beautiful and fragile. Years of helicopter-style parenting had given them the impression that they had the right to never be offended or challenged, and that their country was characterised by an evil history and a fearful present. To be subjected to an idea that you didn’t like was an insult, and that made you a victim. If you were, or saw yourself, as a member of a minority, then your victim status automatically became much higher.

And thus the idea of the micro-aggression was born. The key to it was that the content of any comment from someone outside one’s own circle was less important than the interpretation placed on it, and the interpretation was usually that the comment was racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive. Campbell and Manning note that even the phrase “on the other hand” was condemned (‘ableist’, apparently).

University administrations responded by setting up administrative bodies to hear complaints and pronounce sentences. These tribunals quickly extended their reach, equating what might have been a minor slight or a simple misunderstanding with actual violence. Hard evidence was not required: Campbell and Manning cite several cases where tribunals found a student ‘guilty’ of rape on campus even though police had established the accusations to be untrue.

From a sociological perspective, the culture of victimhood might be compared with the earlier culture of dignity, which was marked by self-restraint, forbearance, and quiet courage – and, when it came to issues such as racial equality, a sense of reciprocity and fairness. But all that was seen as hopelessly, dangerously outdated. The new mentality was about a war between the enlightened few – the ‘woke’ – and the rest. No quarter, no respite. Haters got to hate.

The key enemy of the victimhood movement was, inevitably, the older white male, always depicted as privileged, racist, misogynist and stupid. An army of media commentators agreed. But Campbell and Manning provide a poignant, anonymous quote from one of the snowflakes’ targets:
I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and I do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.

And this is why over 62 million people voted for Donald Trump. Cause, meet effect.

One of the most telling chapters of the book deals with the rise of hate crime hoaxes. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election there was a dramatic rise in the number of people saying they had been attacked by Trump supporters. However, many of the claims turned out to be simply fabricated. Campbell and Manning examine about a dozen cases, and a journalist called Andy Ngo has compiled a list running into the hundreds.

Presumably, being the target of an attack gives a person in the victimhood culture more status, and fits into a larger anti-Trump narrative. The problem with this is that there simply aren’t enough white racists to go around – if there were, there would be no need to invent them. (In fact, the statistics suggest that the number of real hate crimes is falling. The only growth area is attacks on Jews by members of the ultra-militant Nation Of Islam – something which is largely ignored, as it does not fit into the paradigm of black people as helpless victims of white racism.)

It says much that the celebrity of Jussie Smollett, the mid-level actor who recently staged an attack on himself by Trump supporters, has grown since his claims were revealed to be falsehoods. In victimhood culture, a hate-crime hoax is not a dishonest trick but a sign of true commitment to the cause. Well, fakers got to fake.

Campbell and Manning are not optimistic about the situation getting any better, although they discuss the possibility of victimhood culture burning out – there are already signs of it consuming itself in a “purity spiral”. On the other hand, they see the more likely outcome being that it will continue to grow and mutate, causing an even greater backlash. The result will be a more polarised, antagonistic society.

It takes no great effort to see the patterns described in this book in Australian society, as victimhood culture spreads from universities into the media. At present, Australia seems to be running a few years behind the US trend, but this book is a signpost of what might be coming. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Rise of Victimhood Culture

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Fast growth, CFOs, and a graceful exit

Appearing in In The Black, May 2019

 

Blitzscaling: the Lightning-fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies

By Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh

HarperCollins, $35, 288 pages

BlitzscalingHoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn as well as the former COO of PayPal, and Yeh has written extensively about start-ups, so between them they bring a great deal of experience to bear on the issue of rapid growth. They see four essential components for exponential transformation: building networks that allow for easy entry of new customers; finding a niche which will allow for an eventual transition into the  mainstream marketplace; picking distribution channels which have an in-built capacity for scaling; and looking for high gross margins to provide funds for re-investment.

Hoffman and Yeh do not pretend that speedy growth is easy, and they provide plenty of examples of failure. They also note that many of the companies that achieved massive size changed their strategy several times, as the marketplace and the company evolved. At the same time, speed is crucial, even if it means sacrificing efficiency. Be willing to experiment, they say, and be equally willing to admit it when you make a mistake and a new course if needed.

All this is presented in a clear, balanced way, thankfully free of tech-hype. Whether you have big plans or are interested in how giants grew, there is fascinating material here.

 

The Traits of Today’s CFO: a Handbook for Excelling in an Evolving Role (2nd edition)

By AICPA and Ron Rael

Wiley, $79, 160 pages

The CFO job has always been a challenging one, straddling strategic management and financial functions. Rael, a leadership consultant who has studied the role from many different angles, believes that in the future it is only going to get harder, with the CFO needing to add technological expertise and coaching acumen to the toolkit. This book lays out how the various new skills can be integrated with the traditional demands, explaining how the role is changing. Rael covers a great deal of ground, punctuating the book with self-diagnostic tests as well as good illustrative examples. He believes there are ten critical skills for the CFO and the book systematically unpacks each one. Most chapters include a ‘best practice’ section which links theory with everyday problem-solving.9781119548232 cover.pdf

If anything, the CFO role is becoming less about finance (although a high level of number-crunching ability is still mandatory) and more about collaboration, communication and soft-skills leadership. One telling suggestion: the CFO should spend at least a quarter of their time out of the office, talking with investors, suppliers, peers and people in non-financial roles.

It adds up to a useful package, as well as an insightful commentary on the evolution of financial management.

 

Business Exit Strategies: Family-owned and Other Businesses

By Frederick Lipman

World Scientific, $90, 164 pages

Knowing how to make a graceful departure is difficult in any circumstances, and particularly tough when a business is involved. Lipman, an adviser and author, has provided an interesting guide to make the process easier, covering circumstances ranging from a small enterprise to a large corporation.

There are many pitfalls – in fact, Lipman devotes the first two chapters to common mistakes – but most can be overcome with careful planning and an eye to market conditions. If the business is being sold then there must be comprehensive, audited financial accounts available, and any outstanding legal disputes should be settled. If the business is to be passed on to family members then the procedures should be clear, and the role of the founder, if any, codified and agreed.

Lipman devotes a long section to the tricky issue of valuation, noting that the right time to sell a business is when it is on a growth path, not when decline has set in. Another exit option is to take the business public, which can work well but is a much larger project than a direct sale.

The book also looks at letters of sale and non-disclosure agreements. Useful advice, when it comes time to leave the stage.

Business Exit Strategies

 

Downloadable research

 

Value add

Even those companies that have already embraced business analytics often have difficulty understanding how they are adding value to the company’s activities. In a collaborative project, the Melbourne Business School and A.T.Kearney have published the ‘Analytics Impact Index: Understanding the value of analytics and how you can improve performance’ to provide benchmarking and guidance. Building on comprehensive survey data, it includes the Value Index, a tool for assessing the contribution of analytics to total profit; and the Maturity Index, which offers a framework for the comprehensive assessment of a company’s analytics practices and processes to help achieve value.

Download from:

https://analyticsimpactindex.mbs.edu/

 

Disruption

‘Navigating a World of Disruption’ is a briefing note prepared by McKinsey for the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, focusing on both the value-creating opportunities and the intense competitive challenges of the digital era. It provides data showing that those organisations that have been quick to utilise AI and analytics technology are doing well, while the performance gap between these organisations and others is growing quickly.

At the global level, China and India continue to dominate growth figures but a number of new players, mainly in the Central Asian and South-east Asian regions, are poised for breakthrough levels of growth.

Download from:

https://www.mckinsey.com/Featured-Insights/Innovation-and-Growth/Navigating-a-world-of-disruption

 

Banking on it

Singapore-based research firm J.D. Power has released a summary of its Australia Retail Banking Satisfaction Study, providing a ranking of financial institutions and pointing towards areas which need to improve. It revealed that 42 per cent of Australian customers of major banks, and 24 per cent of customers with other financial institutions, do not trust their bank.

The study was based on responses from 4,730 customers. Westpac ranked highest among the major banks, performing well in the account information and account activities factors. In the non-major banks category, ING performed best.

The study also identified strong growth in mobile app usage for personal banking.

Download the summary at:

https://www.jdpower.com/business/press-releases/2018-australia-retail-banking-satisfaction-study

 

Visual aids

The Reserve Bank provides a wealth of information, and material from its monthly pack of charts is particularly useful for inclusion in reports and presentations, as well as for general at-a-glance background. The charts include information on the global economy, growth in Australia, housing credit growth and credit growth by sector, interest rates, trends in the business sector, consumer sentiment, the outlook for inflation, and key banking indicators.

The pack is updated monthly and is released on the first business day of each month. Supplementary information can be obtained from other parts of the RBA site.

Download from:

https://www.rba.gov.au/chart-pack/

 

Looking ahead

In a thought-provoking TED Talk Gunjan Bhardwaj, described here as a “complexity specialist”, examines how artificial intelligence and blockchain have been used in the German health system to gather and analyse unprecedented amounts of data. The information ranges from drug test results to patent applications to patient treatment records, with AI being used to integrate disparate information into useful material. Blockchain technology has been utilised to capture the results of lab tests and in-progress research while allowing for the protection of intellectual property. Even for those not in the health sector, the address underlines the variety of applications that these technologies are finding.
Watch at:

https://www.ted.com/talks/gunjan_bhardwaj_how_blockchain_and_ai_can_help_us_decipher_medicine_s_big_data/

 

 

 

 

Good questions, boss management

Appearing in In The Black magazine, April 2019

 

Questions Are the Answer

By Hal Gregersen

Harper Business, $27, 336 pages

Questions are the AnswerAs Director of the MIT Leadership Center, Gregersen has a special interest in why some business leaders are exceptionally successful. After conducting over 200 interviews he reached the conclusion that they ask the right questions. They do not ask many but they are good ones, capable of dissolving barriers to creative thinking and guiding the pursuit of new solutions. Drawing on this research, he explains how questions  can be structured to get to the core of an issue while pointing the way to clear action. A good question is a paradox: completely surprising yet entirely obvious.

While the research dealt with senior people Gregersen emphasises that active questioning is effective at any level of leadership. He examines the idea of the “question burst”, a team meeting centred around asking questions about an emerging challenge. The process usually leads to some innovative thinking and at least a few ideas worth further development.

The best questioners make an effort to find information and views outside their comfort zone. Breaking out of the bubble requires an effort but is needed for a fresh perspective. Good questions also require humility. Finding the right question, after all, is about accepting that you don’t know what you don’t know.

 

Cybersecurity Program Development for Businesses

By Chris Moschovitis

Wiley, $71, 225 pages

This book is written for business owners and executives whose education did not include cybersecurity, and as a result they do not know how to communicate with the company specialists. Moschovitis clearly knows a great deal about the field but he also knows how to explain the issues without undue techno-babble. He emphasises that there is no silver-bullet cybersecurity defence; the point is how to make good business decisions about what can be done to minimise risks and mitigate damage. He guides the reader through basic concepts without talking down to them, steadily progressing to risk evaluation and asset protection. He also explains what should be in an incident response plan and offers advice on cybersecurity training for employees and managers. Cybersecurity Program Development

The later chapters deal with cyber threats affecting machine learning, cloud computing and blockchain. There is also an important section on trends in regulation, essential from both governance and decision-making perspectives.

If read from cover to cover the book provides a comprehensive overview. However, it is structured so that readers can choose what is most relevant to them (although the first third is for everyone). It allows executives to not only know what questions to ask but to understand the answers as well.

 

Manage Your Boss

By Jonathan Vehar

Centre For Creative Leadership, $31 (e-book), 55 pages

This e-book is a short read but a pithy one, explaining how to manage upwards to minimise misunderstandings and friction. Vehar specialises in the design of business education programs and he believes that it is up to the person in the subordinate position to actively manage the relationship. This means finding out the preferred communication methods of the boss, how closely they want to oversee their reports, their methods for resource allocation, and how much information they wish to share. In each case it is up to the subordinate to adjust their working methods accordingly, although Vehar suggests ways to communicate to the boss when more direction or assistance is needed. It is generally more effective to approach the boss with a clear list of suggestions rather than vague open-ended questions.

Manage Your BossThere are numerous checklists that can help define, guide and develop the relationship, as well as interesting anecdotes. Along the way Vehar notes that your boss is usually obliged to look upwards to their own boss. The concluding chapter provides a four-step framework for discussions: pluses, opportunities, issues and new thinking. It is a straightforward, practical system, and a good way to build the trust that the relationship requires.

 

 

 

Downloadable research

A guide from Deloitte, Forecasting in a Digital World, underlines the extent to which advanced maths and machine learning have changed forecasting. The guide explains the basics of algorithmic forecasting and examines cases where the new tools have provided predictions that have been more accurate and timelier than traditional methods of data compilation and spreadsheet analysis.

forecastingThe key figure is the CFO, who is responsible for assembling and leading a team of people who understand both the business environment and the technology. The CFO also has the task of integrating the forecasts with the company’s strategic processes, including at the board level.

Download from:

https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/finance-transformation/articles/crunch-time-6-forecasting-in-digital-world.html

 

 

In a TED Talk that mixes insight with humour, entrepreneur Chieh Huang explains how micromanagement leads to exhausted, dissatisfied employees and kills innovation. In fact, most senior managers are aware, when questioned, that micromanagement is counter-productive. Their attempts to do it usually stem from a desire to re-engage with ‘real’ work rather than managing managers.

He explains how managers have to understand their role, and step away from their instinct to micromanage. This entails an acceptance that employees might occasionally fail. Any short-term costs, however, are certain to be outweighed by increases in productivity and innovation.

View at:

https://www.ted.com/talks/chieh_huang_confessions_of_a_recovering_micromanager

micromanaging

 

A new report by McKinsey, Megadeals: How Data and Analytics Can Dramatically Boost Success, discusses how business analytics can be used in large, complex deals. There is often a reluctance to apply data-based methods to big deals but the report authors believe that by drawing on multiple data sources – customer-relationship management, enterprise resource planning, sales reporting, and external data – it is possible to create rich datasets that can provide important insights.

Analytics can also provide early warning of possible problems and enhance risk management. Although the report focuses on large deals the authors believe that the processes can be used on deals of any type and scale.

Download from:

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/megadeals-how-data-and-analytics-can-dramatically-boost-success

 

 

Hays Specialist Recruitment has released its Jobs Report for the period to June 2019, looking at the trends of skills in demand within the areas of commerce, professional practice and the public sector. While there is considerable diversity across the areas a common theme is an increasing demand for an understanding of analytics and cloud computing.

Graduate job applicants with these skills should provide details of their qualifications, and people who are seeking promotion or to change jobs should emphasise any upskilling they have done in these areas. This is to show that that they are both competent with the new fields and are willing to undertake continuous improvement.

Download from:

https://www.hays.com.au/report/accountancy-finance—commerce-industry-695

https://www.hays.com.au/report/accountancy-finance—professional-practice-931

https://www.hays.com.au/report/accountancy-finance—public-sector-375

 

 

The Australian Cyber Security Centre has released the Australian Government cybersecurityInformation Security Manual to help organisations protect their information, networks and systems from cyber threats. The guidelines within the ISM are based on the experiences of the Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate.

The ISM is aimed at Chief Information Security Officers, Chief Information Officers, cyber security professionals and IT managers. The guidelines discuss both governance and technical concepts, with chapters on equipment management, database management, system hardening, outsourcing and data transfers. The entire document can be downloaded or individual chapters can be selected. A useful Security Assessment Aid is also available.

Download from:

https://acsc.gov.au/infosec/ism/index.htm

Transformation, cyber-threats, and better selling

Appearing in March 2019 issue of In The Black magazine

 

Leading Transformation
By Nathan Furr, Kyle Nel, and Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
Harvard Business Review Press, $50, 256 pages, ISBN 9781633696549

Leading TransformationHuman beings, say the authors of this book, are inherently resistant to change. Especially in a corporate setting, getting employees to understand the necessity of change, and then leading them through it, is a massive but essential undertaking. Furr, Nel, and Ramsøy – respectively: an executive who has guided numerous transformation programs, a neuroscientist interested in how thinking develops, and an academic specialising in change theory – have developed a program that has been successful in cases as diverse as Google and Pepsi, and they explain their points through these examples.

The program involves three steps: envisioning the possible, breaking down resistance, and prototyping the future. The same old same-old is not going to work but there has been success through bringing in science-fiction writers and rap artists to help conceptualise new thinking. The aim is to develop a forward-looking strategic narrative: not just thinking outside the box but building a different structure entirely.

Because the cases vary the process is not always easy to follow, but the authors provide many insights along the way. There are also three interesting appendices, about transformation in one’s own life, building an origin story, and – radical but surprisingly enlightening – the key messages of the book presented as a graphic novel.

 

Digital Resilience: Is Your Company Ready for the Next Cyber Threat?
By Ray Rothrock
HarperCollins, $18.50, 256 pages, ISBN 9780814439241

The bad news, according to cyber-security expert Rothrock, is that every company is going to be attacked through its computer systems at some time – if it hasn’t been hit already, whether it knows it or not. He believes that it is impossible to protect against every threat, although he offers good advice on ways to minimise the chances of a successful attack, with software packages and better employee training. The real key is to develop resilience, which means being able to effectively respond to attacks and quickly return to business.Digital Resilience

A digitally resilient company has prevention and detection systems in place, distributes information across networks, trains and tests employees, runs frequent system tests, and has a team dedicated to the task of building resilience. There might even be a ‘resilience scorcecard’ to provide guidance to managers. None of this is cheap but, given some of the scary cases that Rothrock looks at, worth the expenditure. He also includes a useful chapter on how senior executives can get up to speed on digital resilience, getting past the idea that security investment is a cost to be begrudged.

The book focuses on the US environment but that is not a problem. In the world of cyber-threats, there are no borders.

 

How Clients Buy:  A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services
By Tom McMakin and Doug Fletcher
Wiley, $42, 272 pages, ISBN 9781119434702

Many accountants, business advisers and financial planners are very good at helping others develop their companies but less effective when it comes to building their own. The problem, says McMakin and Fletcher, consultants who specialise in this field, is often that they are trained to do their job rather than sell it. They offer a wide range of advice, especially in the areas of effective self-promotion and relevant advertising. But they strongly counsel against the hard sell. Sustainable and profitable relationships are built on a foundation of trust and mutual respect.

McMakin and Fletcher see seven elements in a client’s decision to purchase professional services, and they unpack each element in detail. There are tools and tactics to help you through each step, and the book is organised with an admirable clarity.

How Clients BuyA critical issue is to understand exactly what a client is looking for and how it should be delivered. Do not over-promise, say McMakin and Fletcher; it is a sure way to lose a client’s trust. They also provide tips on how to retain existing clients and even expand the services provided to them, and examine the important question of costing. It adds up to a useful, very readable package.

 

Alibaba, NFPs and Better Performance

Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2019

 

Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy
By Ming Zeng
Harvard Business School Press, $55, 272 pages, ISBN 9781633693296 

Smart BusinessZeng is the Chief Strategy Officer of Alibaba Group, a company that has leveraged technology into an incredibly successful position. That success, says Zeng, is based on understanding how technology can put direct interaction with customers at the centre of the enterprise. He calls this the customer-to-business (C2B) model, using feedback loops to drive machine learning, with customer demands and responses incorporated into the system in real time.

Making a C2B model work requires four elements: a smart network that can dynamically adjust the supply and quality of service offerings, an Internet interface where customers can easily articulate their needs and responses, a modular business structure that can grow from an initial beachhead, and three platforms – social media marketing, e-commerce portals, and a network of flexible manufacturers – than can provide agility and innovation.

Zeng acknowledges that re-tooling an existing large company to a C2B model is difficult (it is actually easier if you build it from scratch). Nevertheless, the technology is available and many companies are already moving in this direction. And, once established, the model can provide competitive advantages and growth at low cost. Overall, the book offers a new way of looking at strategy, and a different perspective on business.

 

Financial Management for Non-profit Organizations: Policies and Practices (3rd edition)
By John Zietlow, Jo Ann Hankin, Alan G. Seidner, and Tim O’Brien
Wiley, $144, 768 pages, ISBN  9781119382560

Managing non-profit organisations presents different challenges to a profit-making company, with one of the most difficult being that the leaders often have limited expertise in financial issues. The authors have a wealth of practical and research experience, and in this comprehensive book they offer practical guidance on financial management for these officers. They systematically work through the basics of proper recording, reporting, and cash flow, and then move on to investment, planning and risk management. There are important sections on fundraising, internal controls and policy-making, where non-profits have particular characteristics. Non-profits

There is also valuable guidance for financial professionals working in non-profits. They have to bear in mind that many of the people in the organisation are likely to see financial management as something of a necessary evil compared to the core mission of the agency. In fact, the authors emphasise that financial metrics are only one part of the picture for non-profits, supporting and not supplanting non-financial goals. In connection with this, the final chapter includes a series of diagnostic tests and evaluation tools, and there are links to a website for further information.

 

The Execution Factor: The One Skill That Drives Success
By Kim Perell
McGraw-Hill, $40, 288 pages, ISBN 9781260128529

Perell is a serial entrepreneur whose first few ventures failed before she got it right. She draws on this experience to argue that it is not having ideas or making plans but executing them that makes the difference. The initial step is to set down a clear goal and establish the priorities needed to achieve it. With this done, the next (brave) step of execution has to be taken, whether it is approaching the first customer or creating the prototype product.

Execution FactorA danger is paralysis through analysis. The critical third step is to be willing to move ahead even if you do not have all the information. Collect and digest about 70 per cent of the data, suggests Perell, and then go with your gut.

Linked to the idea of constantly moving forward is realising when we are avoiding a difficult task. In fact, the tough questions are often the most necessary ones, and they have to be asked and answered. Her final piece of advice is to create a ‘to-do’ list, to support the prioritisation process and keep implementation at the forefront of thinking.

None of this is revolutionary but Perell sets out her points in a clear and energetic way. For entrepreneurs wondering how to start, this book will be useful.

  

Performance-Based Strategy: Tools and Techniques for Successful Decisions
By Steve Fairbanks and Aaron Buchko
Emerald Publishing, $137, 328 pages, ISBN 9781787437968

Many corporate leaders find their time so taken up by the tactical demands of running an organisation that they cannot undertake strategic planning, even while they acknowledge the importance of it. Simply finding the right model for the company is a daunting task. Fairbanks and Buchko have provided strategic advice to companies large and small, and their aim here is to make the process of strategic planning manageable. They examine 22 frameworks, ranging from basic models of market segmentation and product volume margin charts through to project management, brand perception and communication matrices. Each chapter contains an explanation of how it might be used, an estimate of the time taken to develop it, where relevant information can be found, and – a critical point – how the framework can be implemented in practical, measurable terms. There are useful checklists and graphics to further explain the development process.

Fairbanks and Buchko note that strategy-making often helps leaders see their business and the wider environment in new ways. They emphasise that strategy cannot be done in a rush or on the cheap: it requires a dedicated effort. Not easy, but it must be done if a company is to thrive in the long term.

Performance based strategy

 

Hits and misses in books of 2018

Appearing in Australian Spectator, December 2018 (Christmas issue)

 

There is the feeling that after ten years of political failures and assorted cultural nonsense the community is yearning for simpler times with answerable questions. This might explain why a number of books – many of them pretty good – on historical themes
appeared in 2018.
One of the most interesting was Australia’s First Spies by John Fahey (published by Allen & Unwin). He burrowed through the archives to find intriguing tales of agents and Australia's First Spiesoperatives, going back to the Federation era. Fahey takes the view that covert activities demonstrate the real thinking of political leaders, and if that is true then the early leaders of Australia were an independently-minded lot. In fact, the first real intelligence operation was against the British, trying to manipulate them into opposing French expansion in the South Pacific. There was a series of other operations, often run on an informal but nevertheless effective basis, over the next few decades, and all of it makes remarkable reading.
Another book to re-invigorate a near-forgotten chapter of history is Claire Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World (Text Publishing). The story is loosely wrapped around a famous banner painted by Dora Meeson Coates, carried in some of the major suffragette marches (it is now on display in Parliament House after being lost for many years). By the time the Parliament voted in 1902 to extend the franchise to women the campaigners had won broad support You Daughters of Freedomfor the idea (especially because the New Zealanders had already done it, and the vote had been given to women in South Australia without the sky falling in). The road was much harder in Britain, where many of the Australian women became involved with the bruising battle. Wright believes that the Australian experience was a crucial element in winning the right to vote in Britain and elsewhere, and it is hard to disagree.
A different take on social history is A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia by Michael Atherton (La Trobe University Press). The first piano arrived in 1788 and for a century after that having one in the house indicated class and respectability. Pianos were also the focus of family gatherings and community sing-alongs, providing a sense of social cohesion. The arrival of recorded music saw the beginning of the piano’s decline but Atherton concludes this fascinating book with a look at the new generation of piano-makers, perhaps heralding a renaissance.
A much less happy story is One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies by Drew Rooke (Scribe). Rooke traces how we arrived at the point of having nearly 200,000 poker machines in pubs, clubs and casinos, buttressing his research with interviews with opponents, advocates, addicts, manufacturers and politicians. He concludes that, as gambling goes, pokies are a mug’s game, and they are expressly designed to extract money from the people least able to afford it. Scary stuff, but no solution is in sight.
Shadows on the Pitch (Wilkinson Publishing) is a compilation of the columns of cricket journalist Gideon Haigh, who is now attaining the status of national institution. Covering the last season, he looks at the critical games in Australia and overseas, bringing his vast experience and trademark wit to bear, whether he is talking about the play or the Shadows on the Pitchplayers. The nadir of the season was the ball-tampering scandal, and Haigh devotes several columns to analysing it. He concludes that it was due, at least in part, to the win-at-all-costs culture of the Australian team (and the administrators and money-men behind the players) and the intense competition between the different forms of the game. He believes that Australian cricket will recover from the disaster but it will take a while and will require some deep reflection.
The winner of the 2018 Stella Prize was Alexis Wright’s Tracker (Giramondo), about Aboriginal leader, activist and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth. Wright collected a huge number of anecdotes and opinions on the man, fitting the oral tradition of indigenous story-telling. Sometimes this works well but in other places in becomes a muddle of conflicting opinions, and one wishes there was an authorial voice to provide clarity. Nevertheless, the no-nonsense views of Tilmouth come through, especially his views on taking personal responsibility and his rejection of the museum mentality. At 640 pages the book is not an easy read but Wright deserves commendation for the bravery of her mosaic approach and her willingness to tackle the story of a complex, controversial individual.
The winner of Australia’s other major literary prize, the Miles Franklin award, was Michelle de Kretser for her novel The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin). It is a complex Life to Comenarrative skipping across a number of locations, held together by wannabe novelist Pippa (her name used to be Narelle but she changed it for marketing reasons). Most of the characters have more pretensions than talents, as well as a pettiness that straddles cultural differences and generations. They see fame as an entitlement, not realising that success requires work. De Kretser walks a fine line between satirising them and indulging them, leavening the intensity of her writing with an undercurrent of humour and, in the end, affection. This reviewer does not always agree with the people who give out awards for writing but here it is deserved.
The good progress of the Australian novel is matched by the quality of the short stories being produced, judging from the pieces in Best Summer Stories (Black Inc), edited by the authoritative Aviva Tuffield. They span the spectrum from the disturbing to the laugh-out-loud, from the personal to the painful. Of particular note is Elizabeth Tan’s Shirt Dresses That Look a Little Too Much Like Shirts, a droll examination of life in the modern corporate office. Marlee Jane Ward’s The Walking Thing is haunting but the darkness is held at bay by the vigour of the young narrator. In One Hundred and Fifty Seconds, Katy Warner shows how Best Summer Storiesmuch can be crammed into the short-story space. Corrango, by Jennifer Mills, stays with the reader precisely because so little is explained.
In politics, the past year has been one in which no-one seemed to really know what they were doing. Laura Tingle, in her Quarterly Essay Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman (Black Inc), tries to make sense of events in Australia and the wider world. But La Tingle sometimes seems confused about what she wants, on the one hand calling for strong leaders who will stride forward to unify their polity and at other times applauding leaders who seek to build a broad consensus before moving on anything controversial. The mention of  Donald Trump makes her splutter, presumably because he refuses to fit any traditional paradigm of leadership (and could not care less). Equally, there is something hypocritical about a senior Press Gallery journalist complaining that there is too much focus on the leader. Pot, meet kettle.
The increasing strangeness of politics in underlined by Derryn Hinch’s memoir, Hinch vs Canberra: Behind the Human Headline (Melbourne University Press). He is not the oddest person to win a spot on the red benches due to the peculiarities of the electoral system but he is probably in the top ten. His personal trajectory has been wild: he ran Hinch vs Canberracompletely out of money at one point, has struggled with booze, and was jailed for contempt after naming accused paedophiles. His war on paedophiles is a constant theme running through his career although on other subjects he is all over the place. But he works hard to understand the issues and he takes the responsibility of the job seriously. So the taxpayer is probably getting their money’s worth, which is more than can be said for many other senators. Hinch pens interesting portraits of those he has encountered although his nasty streak occasionally grates. His disdain for Pauline Hanson is exceeded only by his dislike for Gillian Triggs, with whom he traded barbs in committee hearings.
Triggs undoubtedly has similar feelings for Hinch, as well as many other people. Her own book, Speaking Up (Melbourne University Press), has a rather haughty tone, as she recounts her early years and her time as head of the Human Rights Commission. She thinks of herself as the defender of Australia’s marginalised people but it is not clear that she has ever met any of them. She seems mystified that anyone would question her authority, an opinion that extends to parliamentary committees. One might expect that her life would make for interesting reading but in fact the book is strangely dour. Triggs is not one for self-reflection or even acknowledging that people on the other side might have legitimate views and grievances. She has no doubts, no questions, only the certainty of her own righteousness. There is a sense of living in a bubble of people who are, well, very much like her: Guardian-world. The only interesting thing about Triggs, as a person, is that she once hoped to be a ballet dancer. Go figure.
If Triggs’ book is somewhat plodding Kevin Donnelly’s How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia: Enemies Within and Without (Wilkinson Publishing) suffers from hyper-activity. He is well-known as a newspaper columnist, and many of the short pieces in this book would be more at home in that format. His anger and conviction over the rise of the cultural Left, with its broad streak of authoritarianism and its facetious Untitled-2arrogance, cannot be doubted, but often Donnelly’s temper is greater than his temperance. He raises many important points, especially about the influence of the Left in the education system, only to bury them as he jumps into another attack. What was needed here was a strong editorial hand to keep him focused. This is not a bad book but a cooler head would have made it a much better one.
As always, competition for this reviewer’s not-so-coveted prize, the Trees Are Dying For This award for the most unnecessary book of the year, was strong. A contender for the TADFT was Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Hardie Grant), an exercise in paranoid quasi-nationalism. Hamilton’s thesis is that the clever manipulators in Beijing are slowly taking over Australian politics, media and education institutions, perhaps as a prelude to a claim that the Australian continent actually belongs to China. Presumably, Hamilton is meaning to scare us but it all comes across as rather silly.
Good effort, but the TADFT has to go to The Knowledge Solution: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It (Melbourne University Press). True, there is an interesting introductory essay by Michelle Grattan on the impact of social media and the 24/7 news cycle on politics. But the rest of the book is taken up by re-hashes of old MUP books, many of the pieces reiterating how wonderful the Hawke-Keating era was. Really? For $30? To whoever at MUP came up with this idea, a cheap TADFT certificate awaits your collection. And if this reviewer gave a prize for the year’s most misleading title, you would have won that too.

The Knowledge Solution

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing your mind (the right way)

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2018

 

Detonate: Why – And How – Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (And Bring a Beginner’s Mind) to Survive
By Jeff Tuff and Steven Goldbach
Wiley, $42, 224 pages,

DetonateTuff and Goldbach, senior figures in Deloitte Consulting, have seen many established companies flounder when trying to deal with change, and they have reached the conclusion that ‘best practices’ are part of the problem more than part of the solution. In an earlier era, the idea of doing what had succeeded before made sense but in a time of constant disruption it is the path to failure. Even more, they say, the relatively slow speed of marketplace change allowed wasteful habits to continue without consequence. No longer.
There is an intuitive logic to this, but the issue with this analysis is what comes after the demolition of the old way of doing things. This is where the real value of the book lies, as Tuff and Goldbach set out a road-map for a new method of operations. In particular, managers have to look less at organisational charts and more at psychology, both of employees and of customers. Equally, they must develop a “beginner’s mind” which is open to radical ideas and concepts, and be willing to experiment.
Tuff and Goldbach write with contagious enthusiasm, and offer good case studies and examples. Interesting stuff, presented in an interesting way.

 

Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, And Succeed with Any Type of Boss
By Mary Abbajay
Wiley, $40, 224 pages

In a society obsessed by leadership Abbajay takes the view that the ability to effectively follow is an under-rated skill. Moreover, she says in this short but pithy book, it is a skill that can and should be learned. The point of Managing Up is not about manipulating your boss – although Abbajay provides an interesting analysis of the different types of bosses – but about building collaborative relationships. Working with a boss is a partnership, albeit an unequal one, and a little empathy and understanding can go a long way.Managing Up.docx
Abbajay provides a series of lessons on how to communicate with a boss, and how to adapt to their style. These skills will be valuable when you move into a position of leadership yourself, she says, so put effort into developing them.
She acknowledges that some bosses will try to take credit for the work of their reports but in most cases the leading people in the organisation will know who is really responsible. Abbajay offers plenty of stories to illustrate her points and there are useful checklists and summaries in the book as well. In the end, it is about taking control of your workplace life – a lesson that is well worth learning.

 

Chasing Digital: A Playbook for the New Economy
By Anthony Stevens and Louis Strauss
Wiley, $33, 204 pages

For many corporations the prospect of digitisation is daunting. It need not be, say Stevens and Strauss, consultants in this field; in fact, it can open a whole new range of possibilities. In Chasing Digital they provide a five-step plan for the transition, and they Chasing Digitalavoid techno-babble in favour of a real-world perspective.
They realise that most companies, even as they make the transition, still need to turn a daily profit, so they recommend a two-track approach of using technology to improve operations in the legacy company (“Engine A”) while creating a digital version (“Engine B”). Eventually, many functions of Engine A can be folded into Engine B but there needs to a clear understanding of the value chain. Getting the software right is critical, and Stevens and Strauss emphasise that having a platform appropriate to customer demand is more important than bells and whistles. Investing in external advice can help, even as the Engine B team is being built. They recommend having a Digital Director to supervise the transition, with part of their job being to explain the process to the board. Digitisation requires a new mindset as much as new tech – not easy, but necessary in the long run.

 

How To Speak Human
By Dougal Jackson and Jen Jackson
Wiley, $30, 192 pages, ISBN 9780730359548

The Jacksons are founders of Jaxzyn, which they describe as an “employment experience” company. This fits with the chatty, conversational style of this book, although the authors clearly have a deep belief in the importance of positive communication in a busy, noisy world. Whether you are marketing a product or marketing yourself there is useful advice here, especially in the sections on building a narrative, using curiosity and surprise, and matching images to words.
They have a special interest in transforming complexity into clarity by finding the issues of most interest to the audience and using an appropriate level of language. But they emphasise that communicating simplicity requires a thorough understanding of the source material. They also explain the importance of choosing words carefully, favouring the active and the concrete over fuzzy abstractions and time-worn clichés. The key to good communication is personal engagement, not showing how many big words or Latin phrases you know.
One of the most significant sections of the book is the concluding chapter, where the Jacksons examine common excuses for not communicating clearly. They dispel reasons such as legal compliance, cost and technical complication. The risks associated with poor communication, they say, are even greater.

How To Speak Human