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




Talking with TED, finding purpose, doing analytics, and 25 mins

Appearing in In The Black magazine, November 2018 


TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking

By Chris Anderson

Headline, $25, 224 pages, ISBN 9781472228055

TED Talks 9781472228055Large parts of the Internet seem to have descended into meaningless chatter but the TED Talks site stand out as a beacon of clarity and relevance. Anderson, the curator of the site, is adamant about the importance of clear communication, and in this book (recently re-released) he provides advice on everything from organising content to setting up a lectern.

TED Talks are given on a wide range of topics but the underlying lesson is the same regardless of subject: know what your point is and how to get to it. There is no single method for a good presentation but Anderson explores five tools in detail: connection, narration, explanation, persuasion and revelation. Showing a little vulnerability, and even some humour, can help. The book has an important section on how to explain complex issues, something particularly relevant to finance professionals. The key is to build on the audience’s existing knowledge, bringing in new concepts in an ordered way.

Anderson does not much like visual aids but he nevertheless offers some useful tips. He underlines the importance of preparation and rehearsal, and has solid advice on managing nerves. Public speaking is a skill which can be learned, and this book is a very good place to start.


The 25 Minute Meeting

By Donna McGeorge

Wiley, $25, 208 pages, ISBN 9780730359234

McGeorge, a corporate trainer and facilitator, believes that bad meetings are the bane of business life, and when you see her calculations of the cost of lost time it is hard to disagree. Most meetings take about an hour but usually there is only 25 minutes of effective work. So, she says, limit the meeting to this time. It’s obvious, once someone has suggested it.The 25 Minute Meeting

McGeorge argues that the first step is to determine whether the meeting is even necessary (she believes that two-thirds of meetings are not). In many cases the wrong people are there, or there are too many participants (McGeorge suggests a limit of five). To make a meeting effective the purpose must be clear, the agenda provided in plenty of time, and discussion must be relevant. And everyone should leave their phones on their desk.

Much of the book is for meeting organisers but the lessons are for all participants. McGeorge believes that the chairperson must be firm in keeping things on track; this will be welcomed by everyone. And everyone should leave knowing what they have to do next. The book sets all this out with admirable clarity and systematic organisation – a model, in fact, for an effective and enjoyable meeting.


The Purpose Effect

By Dan Pontefract

Elevate Publishing, 288 pages, ISBN 9781773270562 (hard copy); ISBN 9781773270579 (e-book)

Pontefract’s previous book, Flat Army, was about developing collaborative mechanisms within organisations as an alternative to hierarchies and silos. In The Purpose Effect he takes this theme further, looking for ways to build personal satisfaction. He starts from the premise that a company should act in a socially responsible way, and that its values need to be understood by employees. In fact, much of the book is directed at employees, although the latter chapters are designed for corporate and team leaders.

The Purpose EffectHe asks employees to examine the relationship between their individual purpose, the purpose of the organisation, and their role within it. Do you really aspire to the position of the boss, or is it merely what you have been told you should do? If you get there, what will you do to improve the organisation and society? Is there another direction that might be more satisfying? Difficult questions, but necessary.

Pontefract provides several case studies, with his examination of Deloitte being the most interesting. It created “a culture of purpose” by seeking to instil confidence and responsibility in employees. Such programs can lift productivity but the real goal, says Pontefract, is not to improve the bottom line but to make the world a better place.


Analytics and Big Data for Accountants

By Jim Lindell

Wiley, 226 pages, ISBN 9781119512332 (hard copy); ISBN 9781119512363 (e-book)

This book is meant to accompany a course given by the author, a format which offers a step-by-step guide starting with basic concepts. There are chapters explaining the definition, background and development of Big Data, and an interesting section on recent and emerging trends. The real value of the book, however, lies in the chapters dealing with various analytical tools and how they can be applied, and the discussion on which tool best fits a given purpose. The section on using analytics with strategy and planning is also highly relevant.

Lindell incorporates a range of exercises and knowledge tests, using examples that grow increasingly complex. Even though he is writing about the American business environment the lessons are generally applicable, and the chapter ‘Big Data in the Accounting Department’ is especially instructive. This underlines an important advantage of this book: a reader can begin at a place which fits their own level of existing knowledge. A section that should be read by everyone, however, is the chapter dealing with privacy, which includes examples of major ethical lapses.

This is a useful book for anyone who needs to know what Big Data is and how it can be used – which means, really, everyone.
Analytics and Big Data for Accountants


The US$, fixing teams, and new leaders

Appearing in In The Black magazine, September 2018


The Almighty Dollar

By Dharshini David

Simon & Schuster, $33, 256 pages, ISBN 9781783963768

Almighty DollarDespite the best efforts of bitcoin, the euro, and the renmimbi, the US dollar remains the key global currency. It is recognisable around the world, is convertible nearly anywhere, and in times of crisis becomes the flight option of choice. How, says economist David, did this happen, and what is the effect on the world economy? In The Almighty Dollar she explores the phenomenon of what, in economic parlance, is called the “circular flow of income”, following a (hypothetical) dollar spent in a Walmart in Texas as it travels to a Chinese manufacturer, then to Africa, and then on to a German pension fund. After a series of other spending/investment stops it finally ends up back in the hands of the Texan consumer.

This is a contrived device, yes, but it helps to explains the processes involved. And also the scale of the flow of cash: US$1.2 trillion of banknotes are currently in circulation, with half the dollars actually outside the US. David might have spent more time in explaining why other currencies have not supplanted the greenback as the global role of the US has relatively declined but the story she tells is a fascinating one, a good balance of insight and narrative.


Fix Your Team

By Rose Bryant-Smith and Grevis Beard

Wiley, $28, 296 pages, ISBN 9780730354499

A good team is a productive mix of complementary skills; a bad team is a world of hurt for everyone involved. Bryant-Smith and Beard, consultants in solving workplace conflicts, believe that many team leaders fail to realise that their job is not about technical expertise but people management. The authors’ aim is to explain the most common problems and to offer practical, targeted answers to each one.Fix Your Team

Some of the issues, such as a lack of certainty in goals and confusion in lines of responsibility, are structural and can be addressed by clear communication from the leader. Others, such as unproductive meetings, need organised training. The hardest problems are clashes between people, and they can range from bullying to manipulation. Counselling can assist but sometimes intervention from specialists is needed. Joint exercises can do much to bind a team together as well as reveal the hidden abilities of members. A weekend retreat, with upskilling, can improve the engagement of employees who are only going through the motions. Most of all, the team leader must be able to develop emotional intelligence and empathy, even if it requires additional training. It is not easy, say Bryant-Smith and Beard, but it is necessary.



Leadership Transitions

By Richard Elsner and Bridget Farrands

Kogan Page, $58, 208 pages, ISBN 9780749466923

There is no shortage of books on leadership but researchers Elsner and Farrands argue that most leaders, when they take up a new position, find a vast gap between the theory and the practice. Success is more likely if the transition is approached as a learning process, especially when coming to terms with the “undiscussables” of a new organisation and its culture. They specifically argue against the idea of a new leader making immediate and radical changes. It is more likely to give an impression of insecurity than strength.

Leadership TransitionsThey see effective transitions as composed of three phases. Arrival is the time of encountering unexpected barriers, complications and unknowns. The core task in this phase is to meet and know the organisation. In the Survival phase, the new leader communicates their core values, and then, guided by those values, develops a mandate to lead. The third phase is Thriving. Here, leaders use their experience to decide the priorities and how to move forward.

Along the way, Elsner and Farrands examine the eight critical “tensions” new leaders will encounter and how a balance might be achieved. A leadership transition is always going to be difficult but this book provides sound, well-presented advice.


Contemporary Environmental Accounting

By Stefan Schaltegger and Roger Burritt

Routledge, $48, 462 pages, ISBN 9781351282505

This is a re-release of a seminal 2000 publication and it remains a solid guide on integrating traditional accounting with environmental issues. The book is designed as a textbook but would be equally valuable to working accountants and business leaders. The authors, both academics who specialise in this area, explain how traditional practices and new methods differ, and offer practical examples of how the principles are applied in Europe, North America and Australia. A particularly useful section deals with life-cycle assessment, probably the most common model in use in environmental information management. There is also discussion of issues such as accounting for environmentally induced financial impacts and the kind of environmental management that is compatible with increases in shareholder value, and suggestions on ways to assess and report external environmental events.

Some of this material is daunting in its technical nature but Schaltegger and Burritt manage to keep it accessible for non-specialists. Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for review, which would be good for students. The section dealing with environmental management accounting gives an excellent overview of that field, and the book includes a helpful compendium of terms which allows for easy look-up of needed definitions.Contemporary Environmental Accounting

Misplaced nostalgia

Appearing in Australian Spectator, 11 August 2018


The Knowledge Solution: what’s wrong and how to fix it

Curated by Melbourne University Press; introduction by Michelle Grattan

Melbourne University Press, $30, 216 pages, ISBN 9780522873832


Grattan has been a part of the political landscape for nearly a half-century, so when she says that there has been a marked change in the nature of debate in the past few years – and not a change for the better – we should pay attention. Indeed, her introductory essay is the best part of a book which is, to put it kindly, rather ramshackle.

She is right in saying that we are living in an age where huge amounts of information are readily available, and there are more channels of communication than ever before. But at some point this became part of the problem. If a government tries to step back from the 24/7 news cycle to think about long-term solutions to difficult problems the media space is quickly filled by the other side, or by advocacy groups, or by people claiming to be experts in something or other (they might be or they might not be, it is increasingly difficult to tell). Social media has turned into a quagmire, in which everyone has an opinion but none are particularly trustworthy.

The Knowledge SolutionGrattan does not mention it, but the Net forum of which she is associate editor and chief political correspondent, The Conversation, is an example. The essays provided by academics and qualified researchers are usually pretty good, but anything they have to say is drowned out by the public commentary, which is generally a mix of the usual Left tripe and wacko conspiracy theories. It is no longer a platform for discussion but a nasty, shouting echo chamber.

Also rushing to fill any hint of a vacuum is a slew of minor parties, which look more and more like celebrity vehicles. They usually have received only a small number of votes but they have learned a critical lesson: outrage gets you noticed. This might not matter, except that the electoral system gives them a crucial role in the Senate. Which makes them even better grist for the media mill.

Much of the current climate of distrust goes back to the media, although Grattan does not see the journalistic profession as being able to improve the situation. She suggests: “If the politicians took a higher road there would be pressure, at least, on the media to follow”. Well, good luck with that.

Nevertheless, she raises some important ideas about the current situation and where it is going. Following them up would have probably made a good book. Unfortunately, most of The Knowledge Solution seems firmly stuck in the past. Ruth Barcan’s essay on right-wing populism was published in 1998, for example.

Paul Kelly’s piece, taken from his 2014 book, examines why the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments failed. This was interesting when it was first published but now it seems like a voice from another age. Jonathan Green’s piece on political narratives is from 2013 and seems similarly dated.

Tony Abbott contributes a piece but it is from his 2013 memoir Battlelines; it is hard to see the relevance. Gray Connolly examines the Abbott government, but it has all been heard before. Here is something that the Canberra commentariat might take a note of: out here in the real world, Abbott is no longer seen as a player. The broad view is that he had his chance and he blew it. Why the Press Gallery and the Left in general remain obsessed with him is a mystery, and is one more factor contributing to the feeling that the chattering classes are in a world of their own.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does, as the book takes a Left turn down memory lane. Here is Bill Shorten meandering through the Hawke, and even the Whitlam, days. It’s all about policy, reform, and tough decisions. Says Mister Mediscare. Really, it makes one not so much laugh as snicker.

Terri Butler continues the theme, basically arguing that the ALP is wonderful and the Liberals are corrupt and satanic, and therefore Labor should be elected. Ho hum.

Greg Combet’s essay seems to have wandered in as a space-filler. It deals with James Hardie and the asbestos case. Not uninteresting in itself, but why is it in this book? Much the same can be said for Melissa Lukashenko’s 2015 essay on traditional indigenous democracy. It raises interesting points, but what has it got to do with the impact of social media and information overload on the current governing of Australia? There is the feeling that the theme has been forgotten and the book has turned into a tick-the-boxes exercise in political correctness.

The prize for misplaced nostalgia, however, must go to Gareth Evans. Although the memoir from which the piece is drawn was published in 2017, Evan’s gaze is firmly backwards, as he tells us – once again – about the wonders of the Hawke/Keating era. This is, in fact, an idea which pops up throughout the book, and one must wonder why. Yes, there were some crucial and overdue reforms implemented at that time. But we should also remember that it was Paul Keating – still a favourite of the Canberra Press Gallery – who brought a new level of invective, division and hatred to Australian politics. If there is a feeling in the general community that politics has become about tearing down your opponents, and that lies at the root of distrust, then Keating is where it started.

Given the subtitle of this book, there are surprisingly few ideas for change. An exception is a piece by Richard Walsh, arguing for an injection of direct democracy. Maybe, but the rancour generated by the same-sex marriage plebiscite suggests that Australians might have lost the capacity for reasoned, reasonable discussion. One might hope not, but the signs point that way.

This could have been an important book. Instead, with only a few exceptions, it is a mash-up of dated and irrelevant material. Ironically, it is a good example of the problem, but it is a long way from a solution.

Eat Me

The Vegetarian
By Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Hogarth (US 2016 edition), 208 pages, $10

This novel has won a vast amount of praise and is the first Korean novel to be awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Published in Korean in 2007, it is partially based on Kang’s 1997 short story ‘The Fruit of My Woman’, where a woman turns into a plant (it was published in English in 2015 in a collection of Kang’s stories).

The Vegetarian is a disturbing book, although structurally it is not actually a novel but three connected novellas. In the first, an unremarkable woman called Yeong-hye suddenly announces to her husband that she is becoming vegetarian, and has thrown away all the meat in the freezer. She is not clear on the reason, aside from saying that she had a dream.

The VegetarianIt should be said that Korean culture places great stock in dream messages. But it should also be said that vegetarianism is unusual in Korea (aside from the substantial number of Buddhists in the country). Koreans are actually quite proud of their meat-heavy cuisine, as it indicates that the company has become prosperous after decades of post-war struggle. So in choosing this course with little explanation to her husband means that Yeong-hye is breaking a number of entrenched social rules.

The rest of the first novella involves the husband and others of her family trying to make sense of what is going on, even as she seems to move further into a world of her own. When her father tries to force a piece of pork down her throat she stabs herself, but after that she seems strangely indifferent.

It is this sense of remove, as well as her transforming body, that attracts her brother-in-law, an artist struggling through a dry spell, to her in the second novella. His attempt to use her as a model to reinvigorate his work ends badly for everyone; the circle of social collapse kicked off by Yeong-hye decision is spreading.

The third novel revolves around her sister, In-hye, who watches Yeong-hye’s physical and mental condition deteriorate after she gives up eating altogether. We find out more about Yeong-hye’s dense, violent dreams, although we never really learn the underlying causes for her slow-motion suicide. Increasingly invasive methods of force-feeding do not achieve much; she has effectively left the world of the living already. For In-hye there are recurring images of the trees in the hospital grounds, matching those of Yeong-hye’s labyrinthine subconscious. Connections that lead nowhere, threads that make nothing, answers that provide only more questions. There is a Kafkaesque quality to the pointlessness, but also a certain inevitability. Yeong-hye has, in her own way, broken loose from the strictures of Korean society, and indeed of humanity. She becomes free only to die in a method of her choosing: is this victory or the worst possible defeat? Kang does not offer an answer.

No solutions, but instead there is some beautiful writing, and many striking images. Each section has its own rhythm and tone, so perfectly constructed that one almost forgets the bizarre, tragic narrative. It is a piece of work that stays with you, in a way that is haunting, querulous, and unique.

Image result for han kang

Off the meds

The Good Son

By You-Jeong Jeong; translated by Chi-Young Kim

Hachette, $33, 309 pages, ISBN  9781408709740

The Good Son auYou-Jeong’s thrillers are extremely popular in South Korea and have been translated widely; strangely, this novel, her fourth, is the first one to be translated into English. But Australian readers might note that the cover tag-line – ‘how well does a mother know her son?’ – is rather misleading. It turns out that the mother of Yu-jin, a 25-year-old student who lives at home – knows him better than he knows himself.

In fact, the story starts with Yu-jin (who takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to new heights) waking to find himself covered in blood, and then finding his mother’s body. He cannot remember what happened; he assumes that he had one of his epileptic seizures during the period the murder occurred. He is off his meds, a crucial issue. He tries to ‘investigate’ but it is clear that he is the one responsible; his mother’s ghost even tells him so.

One lie leads to another, and the cover-ups spread. As he reads his mother’s journal he realises that the heavyweight drugs he has been taking for years were not to stop epilepsy but to suppress his psychopathy. As pieces of memory return – although it is not always clear what is real and what is imagined – he comes to understand that the various tragedies endured by the family were his doing, not accidents. And, he realises, he is alright with that.

As the violence spirals out of control the past comes into focus, and Yu-jin – even though he sees himself as the victim in all this – emerges as a deeply horrifying individual. And there is no justice here, no redemption, no forgiveness. He simply continues on his murderous way.

It is a labyrinthine story, although perhaps there is too much narrative dependence on You-Jeong Jeongthe mother’s journal. Neither is there any real explanation for Yu-jin’s psychosis: he was just born that way, apparently.  This makes sense within Korean culture but Western readers might want a bit more.

Nevertheless, The Good Son is a compelling read, with a chilling atmosphere and some unexpected twists. It’s not the best novel of the year, but it’s pretty good.

Tales from the strange North

Appearing in the Weekend Australian, Review magazine, 5-6 May 2018


Defectors spill the beans on starving Hermit Kingdom


Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation

By Daniel Tudor

Tuttle Publishing, 288pp, $29.99

North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate

By Loretta Napoleoni

UWA Publishing, 250pp, $19.99


It seems to hang on the hazy horizon, communicating by way of bizarre ­announcements and occasional explosions.

North Korea is such an unlikely country that it might be a parallel dimension, and would even be faintly comical if nuclear weapons were not in the mix.

The recent thaw in relations has shed some light on the power structures, but ­little is known about how ordinary people lead their lives.

Daniel Tudor’s remarkable book is a start on changing that. It is based on a weekly column, Ask A North Korean, published by an American online newspaper based in Seoul. The column invites readers to put questions to North Kor­ean defectors, and it is hugely popular in South Korea. The book is a series of in-depth interviews with four defectors, covering everything from politics to fashion.

Ask A North KoreanOne surprise is that so many people have ­escaped from North Korea. There are more than 30,000 living in Seoul and many more in China and elsewhere.

Perhaps it should not be surprising: a central theme of the book is the raw toughness of living in North Korea. Outside the major cities, hunger is an everyday reality; in the cities it is a little better but there is still not much food security.

The good news, such as it is, is that the economy is slowly improving. The famine of the 1990s was a turning point for the country. Shortages of everything brought the black ­market into the open, and a wave of small businesses sprang up to provide what the lumbering state-owned enterprises could not.

The government tolerated the move, knowing there was no alternative. Eventually, something like a private-sector economy running parallel to the state-managed system developed. It was enough to keep the country afloat, at least, and it has continued to grow.

One of the biggest businesses is the trade in television programs and news from South Korea and China, mainly on USB sticks, which has undercut the government’s monopoly on information. Another booming activity is the sale of home-brewed liquor — a way to escape from the grinding reality, presumably. Second-hand clothes from Japan are also big sellers.

For its part the government does not seem to be particularly interested in economic management. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, sometimes talks about “juche”, a loose idea of national self-reliance, and he seems to see small private businesses as fitting into the framework. He also says, according to several of the interviewees, that nuclear weapons are more important than food.

That, and the raising of the Kim clan to near-divine status. The rules of their veneration keep changing, leading to a level of confusion on what is required.

This can be dangerous, as any hint of a lack of love for the leader can mean a one-way trip to a prison camp, not just for the individual but for their entire family. It is like Stalin’s terror as performed by the Keystone cops. Most people just keep their heads down, go through the ­motions, and bow when they are supposed to.

The defectors in the book have little to say about the North Korean elite, mainly because it is largely separate from the general population.

They note, however, that since the economy began to privatise, many people in the circle around the Kim family have become very rich, usually from skimming a portion of government business.

This group is known as donju — “masters of money”. It appears that no one believes in socialism or juche any more.

For the elite, the goal is more money. For the Kims, it is staying in power. For most of the population, it is surviving.

If Ask a North Korean is the view from the bottom up, Loretta Napoleoni takes a different perspective in North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate. She claims the book is ­“dispassionate” but this is hard to accept. In fact, she has never been in the country (according to the book’s publishers), even though she makes a variety of claims about what she calls the North’s “glorious” past.

Some are strikingly odd: in her account of the Korean War, for example, she somehow neglects to mention the 300,000 Chinese ­soldiers who came in on the North’s side.

There might be a reason for this: she sees the North-South conflict as a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union, and acknowled­ging China’s involvement would upset her ­paradigm.

This is not to say she wholeheartedly supports the current North Korean regime. She calls juche “the Scientology of totalitarianism” and points to the government’s involvement in the global drug trade and other illicit activities.

Nevertheless, Napoleoni seems to fall into that caste of European academics who take the view that any enemy of the US is at least ­worthy of a sympathetic hearing. She applauds Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader) for “outsmarting” Bill Clinton on a deal called the Agreed Framework, under which the US ­promised aid in return for North Korea freezing its nuclear program. In fact, North Korea reneged on the deal before the ink was dry, which Napoleoni sees as pretty clever.

Interestingly, she says sanctions will never be effective and any diplomatic contact is unlikely. Given this, it is hard to know what ­Napoleoni would make of the events of the past few months. She would probably say Donald Trump had nothing to do with it, that he just happened to bumble along at the right time.

It’s nonsense, of course.

Bellicose language, tougher sanctions, and a willingness to sit down to talk about nukes are the new elements Trump brought to the game, and the approach seems to have worked. How it will play out is still not known, but it might be appropriate to give some credit where it is due.


Oddballs and Lefties

Appearing in Australian Spectator, 21 April 2018


Hinch vs Canberra: Behind the Human Headlines

By Derryn Hinch

Melbourne University Press, $25, 210 pages, ISBN 9780522873177


Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia

By Clive Hamilton

Hardie Grant, $33, 356 pages, ISBN 9781743794807


Ah, populism: is it a fulsome democratic expression of giving people what they want or merely join-the-dots fear-mongering? Bit of both, judging from these two books.

Derryn Hinch has certainly chased enough ambulances in his day, through various forms of media. His face and name were, at least, well enough known for him to win a Senate place at the last election, helped along by the complex arithmetic of preferences. He isn’t the strangest person to sit on the red benches but he is probably in the top ten.Hinch vs Canberra

Hinch vs Canberra is a diary of his first year in the Senate, and as these things go it is an interesting read. He was not exactly a political novice: in his career he has observed many figures and issues close-up. His personal trajectory has also been wild: he ran completely out of money at one point, has struggled with booze, and has spent time in jail, mainly for contempt after naming accused paedophiles. It is certainly a different profile to the lawyers and political operators that dominate the parliamentary numbers.

His war on paedophiles is a constant theme running through his career, and he counts getting a ban on passports for convicted paedophiles as a major achievement. Hard to argue with it, and it is not the sort of issue that the big parties would take up without a hard push.

On other issues, however, Hinch is all over the place. He talks about the need to give ordinary people a voice but opposed the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. He chides the Turnbull government for not sticking to principles but is quite happy to block them when they try to do so. He accepts the concept of a government mandate but only on those issues he agrees with. And so on. At least he is consistent in his inconsistency. He must be very difficult to negotiate with, simply because it is never clear what he really wants.

Something that comes through in the book is how much the dual-citizenship saga dominated the parliamentary year. He was one of the first to be investigated, as he was born in New Zealand. But he had lodged the required forms; he argues that if he could do it everyone else should have been able to, too. This might be simplifying things a bit, especially in those cases where people unknowingly inherited foreign citizenship through a parent. But there was enough foolishness and hypocrisy to go around, and the issue continues to simmer.

Hinch says he was surprised that being a senator is, well, so much work. It looks much easier from the outside: you don’t see the endless mountain of paperwork and the grinding labour of committee hearings. And no matter what you do you cop a torrent of abuse, especially through social media. The CFMEU in particular has an army of trolls that poured out the invective and threats over the ABCC vote. Hinch is pretty good at brushing it off but for newcomers less experienced with vilification it must be a real trial.

Along the way, he provides some clever sketches of those he encountered. He sees Turnbull as personally genuine and honest. He is lukewarm on Shorten but likes his wife. Mathias Corman, with whom he regularly dealt, is pragmatic and straightforward. The Greens are a mixed bag, united mainly in their tendency to take a good idea and run too far with it. His disdain for Pauline Hanson is exceeded only by his dislike for Gillian Triggs, with whom he traded barbs in committee hearings over 18C.

It must be said that Hinch has a streak of nastiness to him. His constant referral to Joyce as Barnyard Barnaby is merely childish, and sometimes he seems to make trouble for the sake of it. His inclination to refer to himself in the third person becomes grating after a while. Nevertheless, Hinch seems to give the taxpayers their money’s worth, which is more than can be said for many others.

If Hinch is the headline-grabbing sort of populist, left-wing academic Clive Hamilton is more inclined towards the conspiracy theory side of things. Silent Invasion has a roundabout history: Hamilton says that the initial publisher pulled the plug on the book because “they were afraid of retaliation from Beijing”.  This comment sets the tone for the book: the tentacles of the Chinese enemy are everywhere, he says.

Yes, Hamilton has some interesting points to make. The hard men who lead the Chinese Untitled-2Communist Party have a very racist view of the world, and see interference in other countries as entirely justified. Yes, there have been donations by Chinese people in Australia, linked to the CCP, to political parties. Yes, the CCP is a thoroughly nasty in the way it operates. Yes, there are Chinese in Australia, mainly students but also a few others, whose loyalty is towards China rather than Australia.

But none of this is new, and whether it amounts to an “invasion” is another question. Stitching together selected quotes and comments does not make a case, especially when successive Australian governments have treated Chinese assertions, such as the claim to the South China Sea, for example, with disdain. But Hamilton marches onwards, even going so far as to say that “China is using fake history to position itself to make a future claim over Australia”. Presumably, Hamilton is meaning scare us, but it just sounds a bit silly.

Is this what the Left has come to? A sort of paranoid quasi-nationalism? Apparently so. It is a pity, because some of these matters deserve serious treatment. They do not find it here.


Living with tax, defining power, and the perfect wave

Appearing in In The Black magazine, April 2018


Life and Taxes: A Look at Life Through Tax

By Mark Chapman

CCH, 288 pages, $60, ISBN (hard copy) 9781925554380; (e-book) 9781925554410

Life and TaxesMost people don’t think about taxes much but Chapman, Director of Tax Communications with H&R Block Australia, obviously does. His aim here is to simplify a complex field by examining what taxes apply at different stages of life. This makes a great deal of sense, and Chapman walks through the processes of signing onto the tax system with that first job, as well as the issues of starting up a business. Paying tax is simpler than it used to be but nevertheless there are problems to understand and some benefits that are not immediately obvious. He also takes a look at the emerging sharing economy, with sections for Uber drivers and AirBNB participants.

He looks at the rules that apply to investments, with a careful discussion of negative gearing. Superannuation is another messy area that he explains well. He examines the tax implications of marriage, having children, and divorce, with tips on how to utilise the deductions. In the concluding sections he looks at retirement, estate planning and, of course, death (the other great inevitability).

It is hard to think of anything Chapman has missed. Specialists might argue that there is nothing new here but that is missing the point, which is to be able to answer most tax questions quickly and easily. There is also a comprehensive index and a glossary of terms, which make this book a very helpful package.


New Power

Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms

Doubleday, $33, 336 pages, ISBN 9780385541114

This book began life as a well-regarded article in Harvard Business Review and the authors have developed their theme across a range of sites and platforms. Fitting, since their argument is that social media is the driving force of society today. Heimans is a co-founder of the GetUp! site and Timms is involved in numerous activist causes, so they have plenty of real-world experience. And, indeed, there is an intuitive sense to the view that the nature of power is changing from institutional, leader-driven and specialised to flatter, participatory and populist. Not just political power but commercial structures as well, illustrated by the growth of sharing-economy platforms.

Heimans and Timms are clearly enthusiastic about their subject but they leave many questions New Powerunanswered. Yes, groups like Black Lives Matter are organised by social media but they only have effect by putting pressure on traditional institutions. Likewise, a number of politicians and companies have proven adept at using social media mechanisms but it is often the case that those mechanisms are controlled by professional operators. Heimans and Timms never quite explain these connections, preferring to focus on the large numbers of people who participate in campaigns. In fact, the book would have been better with fewer case studies and more analysis. It is an interesting ride, and there are plenty of ideas, but it is not as convincing as the authors believe.


 Outside Insight: Navigating a World Drowning in Data

By Jorn Lyseggen

Portfolio, $35, 336 pages, ISBN 9780241288269

Lyseggen is the founder of Meltwater, a global consulting firm that specialises in media intelligence. He argues that most companies focus on internal data such as KPIs and quarterly sales. This tendency to look backwards can easily separate a company from what is happening in the industry, with its competitors, and to its customers. New thinking that looks outwards and to the future is needed.

This is much easier to say than do, but there are ‘breadcrumbs’: little pieces of data that, when taken together, can reveal a much bigger picture. Social media sites offer a staggering amount of information on customer trends but there are also important nuggets (particularly when looking at what competitors are doing) in job hires, acquisitions, and patent applications. Usefully, Lyseggen looks at ‘outside insights’ for marketing, product development, investment and risk assessment, and explains where the most useful data can be found.

Of course, finding the raw material is the easy part: organising it into useful information is much harder. Algorithms and AI can be a great help, but analysis of all these crumbs is (at present, at least) as much an art form as a science. Indeed, there is a feeling that this field is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, it is sure to grow, and this book is a useful signpost to what is coming next.   


The Big Wave Method

By Mark Visser

HayHouse, $23, 200 pages, ISBN 9781401953201Big Wave Method

Elite athletes often see a mystical quality in their chosen sport, and riding big waves has a certain spiritual aspect in any case. Pro surfer Visser loves what he does but he is also remarkably clear-headed about how you get from good to great. Overcome the fears that hold you back, he says. That’s about it, really.

Fears are where you find them, and for some people giving a speech is as frightening as jumping out of an airplane. The way to overcome fear, Visser says, is to work at it. Generating a positive mindset is done by constantly telling yourself that you can achieve your goal. Visser notes that it took him nine months, and included placing written notes to himself everywhere. Then there is the research. You have to break the problem into component pieces to understand the possible solutions. And, of course, practice … and more practice … and still more practice. By the time you confront the challenge, you know exactly what to do and how to do it. 

This might seem simplistic, except that it is coming from someone who has been there and done it – a surfer who was once afraid of the water. Is winning the big championship guaranteed? Of course not, says Visser. But just getting out there can be an even more important type of victory.


Tax disputes, hybrid enterprises, and when to work

Appearing in In The Black magazine, March 2018


ATO Disputes

By Andrew Johnson

CCH, 232 pages, $120, ISBN (hard copy) 9781925554564; (e-book) 9781925554571

ATO Disputes cover version 2The Australian Taxation Office looms large in the lives of many finance professionals but despite its importance it is not particularly well-known. Johnson sets out to remedy this, focusing on the ATO’s dispute resolution procedures, the area in which he mainly worked in the organisation. He notes that the ATO has seen a huge cultural shift in the past two decades, moving from heavy-handed compliance functions towards customer experience. The key factor has been data-matching technology but there has also been a legislative push toward greater transparency and accountability.

This is not to say that the ATO has given up its enforcement powers. Instead, as Johnson emphasises, they are mainly reserved for those who are determined to do the wrong thing. Where there is genuine disagreement or error, the ATO first seeks facilitative and administrative remedies. Johnson explains the procedures with authority and clarity, outlining the main policy documents and discussing the “accountant’s concession”. He deals in detail with the ATO’s settlement processes, an area where there is a great deal of misunderstanding – he even provides a list of ‘myths’, and looks at some sample formulae for settlements.

ATO Disputes adds up at a comprehensive, solid package. You might hope that you will never need to know how to handle disputes with the ATO, but the reality is that one day you probably will.



A World of Three Zeroes

By Muhammad Yunus

Scribe, $33, 304 pages, ISBN 9781925322477

Yunus is an unusual creature: an economist with a firm sense of the practical. His Grameen Bank, through offering micro-loans to entrepreneurs, has done a huge amount to help poor people in developing countries work their way out of poverty. So when he takes a look at the Big Picture it is worthwhile listening to him.

The time is right, he says, to re-think capitalism. The central idea is of hybrid enterprises that blend the best of for-profit and non-profit organisations, either standing alone or as off-shoots of traditional companies. He believes that most people are natural entrepreneurs, and the remedy to poverty is to focus not on job creation but start-up opportunities. Entrepreneurship aimed at the mass market is likely to prove more sustainable than high-end goods, and more likely to spread the economic benefits, including employment.World of Three Zeroes

Yunus sees important opportunities in renewable energy, especially in emerging economies which do not have large legacy investments. He provides several case studies of new energy systems but his argument here is not entirely convincing. Still, you have to start somewhere, and the intention is good (if perhaps premature).

There is a lot to like in this book, and Yunus’ faith in the entrepreneurial spirit is uplifting. His focus is on developing countries but there are plenty of lessons for everyone, and a wealth of ideas to think about.



Beta: Quiet Girls Can Run the World

By Rebecca Holman

Coronet, $33, 240 pages, ISBN 9781473656192

What constitutes successful performance? It depends on what you mean by success, says Holman. We have become conditioned to think it in ‘alpha’ terms: the loudest voice, the heftiest paycheck, the most decisive executive on the block. But it doesn’t have to be that way: it can equally be about quietly getting the job done, communal leadership, and emotional intelligence – ‘beta’ style, in other words. Holman (who is editor of the women’s digital magazine Debrief) believes that many women in the corporate world have bought into the alpha idea, and that has made the rest feel insecure and unsure about their own work style. Her advice is to work and live in the way that allows you to be comfortable, and if that means not going to the gym at 5am and foregoing the late-night conference calls, then so be it. Performing effectively does not have to mean making other people afraid of you.

This is an interesting approach but sometimes Holman gets a bit lost in her argument. She admits that even beta leaders have some alpha traits, and she is hard-pressed to come up with examples of successful beta leaders. Nevertheless, her core message – take the energy you might waste questioning yourself and put it into productive use elsewhere – has an undeniable and positive resonance.


When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

By Daniel Pink

Riverhead, $33, 256 pages, ISBN 9780735210622

Pink has written several books on self-motivation and personal organisation, and in When he takes his theme a step further by looking at new research on the best – and worst – time of day to make critical decisions and start new projects.

He unearths a wealth of data showing that people, regardless of culture and upbringing, perform best in the morning and early evening. This holds true for everyone from surgeons to judges, students to CEOs. He delves into the specific reasons, which turn out to mainly relate to biological rhythms and inherent limitations on attention spans.

There is fascinating research on the interaction between neuroscience and decision-making, a growing field in management theory. Endorphin flows and the immune system play crucial roles, and Pink suggests ways they can be strengthened. Regular exercise is beneficial but one of the best things turns out to be singing with other people. Something to remember for the next promotion interview, perhaps.

As it happens, afternoons are not a total waste. They are good for solid, practical work, where attention to detail is more important than creativity. Organised breaks can do much to lift productivity.

The aim here is to help business readers use this information to perform more effectively. The case studies are instructive, and Pink provides a useful summary at the end of each section.