Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How do we manage on-line technology?

Today I just wanted to look briefly at some changes in the internet and communications world.

Quite a bit of my time this year has been spent on ways of making on-line more effective from a work process and training perspective. I summarised some of my conclusions in one of my weekly columns in the Armidale Express, Belshaw's World - the online myth.

I mention this because Australia's IT Wire has reported on a study commissioned by Ericsson across 33 OECD economies, including Australia, that found that a doubling of broadband speed produced a 0.3 percent increase in the GDP of that economy - $A3.9b in the case of Australia. I don't actually doubt the results, they are what I would have expected, but they did remind me of the difference between the general and the particular.

There is no doubt that the new communications technologies and most recently the internet have been a tremendous aid to productivity improvement. They have also created entire new business sectors. And yet there have been real downsides.

To my mind, the most important ones fall into three classes:

  • business activities have been damaged or even destroyed that are still of value to many
  • business processes that should have been changed have survived because automation allows them to be carried out at a lower cost. Worse, the investment in the automation then makes them hard to change
  • the new technology has facilitated a variety of controls and regulation at organisation and government level that greatly adds to overhead costs.

The message that I am trying to get across in a lot of my current writing is that we have yet to develop the best model for operating in the new environment. I have also tried to argue that if we don't do this, the incremental costs and problems associated with the new communications and computing technologies may ultimately impose risks and costs that will bring the whole system down.

This is quite hard to argue because it actually requires the adoption of a new and questioning mind set.

Take as a simple example, the way in which many firms are now trying to control or even limit email. Email is just so easy, is now so deeply embedded, that effective management is quite hard.

In some ways, on-line is like a drug, a quick hit with later problems.

I am not arguing that the technology should not be used. I am arguing that it should be managed.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Using part time & contract staff effectively

Over the last decade, organisations have increasingly looked to the use of part time and contract staff to fill gaps. The reasons vary.

In some cases the move is designed to meet the needs of particular people who for personal reasons do not want to work on a full time basis. In other cases, the appointments may be intended to fill a short term need or to give the organisation greater flexibility in managing head count.

Given that over half the Australian workforce is now part time, contract or casual you would think that organisations would have learned how to manage part time and contract staff effectively. The reality is rather different. Most organisations don't manage part time or contract staff especially well.

To my mind, the core reason for this lies the continuing tendency to treat part time and contract staff as though they were long term full time employees. The organisation knows that they are not, but it and managers behave as though they were. I thought that the best way of illustrating this was by example.

The Case of the Part Time Employee

Let's start with someone working say three days per week. We can consider two cases, the first a stand-alone employee, the second a job share arrangement.

The distinguishing feature about a part time employee is just that, they are part time. Their time is limited. If you treat them like a full time employee and expect them to be involved in all work group activities, then the proportion of their available time involved in such activities is likely to be significantly higher than the full time workers. Conversely, the amount of time available for their main job is reduced.

The next problem is more subtle. Work flows on regardless of the attendance of the part time employee. Decisions are made that affect the work of that employee in their absence.  Supervisors and indeed work colleagues do not adjust for their colleague's part time work. The end result can be wasted time and great frustration on the part of the part time employee.

In theory, this problem is overcome where work sharing is involved, because one of the work share partners is always there. In practice, however, problems can arise where their is ineffective hand-over of tasks between the work sharers.

To manage this properly, a proportion of time must be explicitly devoted to first defining hand-over procedures and then ensuring that they actually work.

The Contractor

It may seem self-evident to say this, but contractors are not full time employees. They are there for a limited time and have to judge their performance against the results they achieve while there. However, serious problems can arise where this simple fact is forgotten.

To consider this further, consider the case of someone employed on a three month contact to complete a specific assignment.

In normal circumstances, the contractor should come into a defined assignment. Then the first part of the assignment is spent on task refinement and on acquisition of the necessary specific in-house knowledge required for the work, while the last part of the three months is devoted to finalisation and hand-over.

Too often, the task or tasks have not been properly defined. Too often as well, the contractor is expected to participate in work related activities actually designed for a long term employee.

The worst results come where the manager effectively forgets that the contractor is there for a defined time. Many managers are busy, making it difficult for them to allocate effective time for consultation. Long term staff are used to this and can adjust, but for contractors it can mean periods sitting waiting for decisions or guidance that simply chews up available time.

Many managers are also inconsistent, changing priorities or directions without thought in response to immediate needs. That's fine if the contractor is actually doing a defined staff role for a short period. However, problems arise if the contractor is meant to be on a specific defined task. In worst case, this may simply not get done, or not get done to the required standard because of the interruptions. 

The Need for Thought

Contractors and part time staff can be an effective way of fillings gaps or of meeting specific needs. However, and this is my key point, this requires a degree of thought and indeed discipline that is sometimes simply not there.   

Friday, September 23, 2011

National planning for global downturn

I concluded my last post, Global economic gloom, with the comment:

Like many, I have been mulling over what all this means (for Australia). I thought that it might be helpful, at least to me, if I did some of the same type of very basic economic analysis that I did during the GFC. You know, the simple stuff based on first principles. That's a better guide than the more complex analysis at a time of change.

As I write, the stock exchange and financial markets have been all over the place, with some of the type of breathless reporting that I have commented on before. One minute we are all ruined, the second everybody seems to breath a sigh of relief!

From a practical business perspective, what is important first is changes in the marketplace in which the business operates, rather than overall trends. I make this point simply because the two are not the same, but may diverge quite widely. Then there are the effects on funding of changing conditions in financial markets. This raises a different set of issues independent of individual market conditions. I make these points because there is a tendency to focus on general trends when some businesses may in fact be doing very well.

wbc-acci-history There is no doubt in my mind that the Australia economy has weakened, although the pattern is variable across the country. The latest Westpac-ACCI survey of Australian industry shows this quite clearly.

We have a number of effects working in combination here. One is the rise in the value of the Australian dollar relative to some other currencies. This has affected certain trade exposed industries in particular. Then, and as has happened before, anecdotal evidence suggests that business is cutting back on discretionary spend, creating flow on effects in related areas including legal services. Then, too, housing has been weak, as has retail spending,

Australia operates in a global marketplace and is affected by changes in that market. These flow through to Australia along four dimensions:

  • Direct changes in demand for exports
  • Financial affects associated with exchange rate movements and in the availability of funds to the banking system
  • Psychological affects as people respond to global changes
  • The impact on superannuation funds of global changes in an environment where a significant proportion of funds are invested in equity and off-shore. This one is insufficiently discussed for with compulsory superannuation it actually has major impacts on domestic behaviour.

Australia may be exposed to international conditions, but that exposure is more limited I think than most realise:

  • Our main exports, minerals and primary products, have something of a natural buffer in that there is a stable base demand. Prices may fall - I have argued that present commodity prices are unsustainable -  but demand will continue
  • Our floating exchange rate means that falling export income would (should) translate to a lower Australian dollar, with domestic stimulus effects. Quite a bit of Australian industry wouldn't mind in the slightest if all the hype about the mining boom #2 proved false!
  • We are exposed to international financial markets, but the proportion of bank borrowings funded domestically has increased as local savings have increased
  • We have strong institutional structures and relatively low Government debts, giving plenty of capacity to expand spending.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, one of the problems that I pointed too was the way in which many countries had lost their public infrastructure investment pipelines. This linked to changing approaches to public administration in many countries. I suggested that one practical result was that Government plans to expand infrastructure spending could not be realised in the proposed time limits.

Putting aside special pleading, there appears to be general agreement in this country that Australia has been under investing in public infrastructure for many years. We have also been under investing in housing, given population growth. Managed properly, there is scope for considerable expansion of public or even public private investment that is likely to yield considerable paybacks in economic terms.

The problem with the previous Rudd Government stimulus measures in this area is that, in the absence of a real investment pipeline and with a need for urgency, we arguably didn't get a long term return for our dollars.

This need not be the case if proper planning is put in place now.

If you accept conventional wisdom about mining boom mark two, then the place for such spend is limited. But who, now, would argue with certainty that that boom will occur? We really do need to have a fall-back position in the event that it doesn't.       

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Global economic gloom

The release of the latest IMF global economic projections makes for gloomy reading.

In Australia, the latest minutes of the Reserve Bank's Monetary Policy Committee provides a useful summary of the overall domestic and global economic position as seen by the Bank.

It seems pretty clear that the IMF and others face considerable forecasting difficulties. That should not come as a surprise, for all the econometric models they use actually rely on a degree of stability that is presently lacking.

As it was during the GFC, Australia continues to be a lucky country. This is reflected in the Euromoney nomination of Treasurer Wayne Swan as the world's best finance minister. However, the country is still vulnerable at two levels.

The first is simply its reliance on certain markets and especially China and Japan. If they sneeze, Australia may catch a cold. The second is the high level of domestic household debt. This is manageable in a growing economy, but will become an increasing drag should economic conditions worse.

Like many, I have been mulling over what all this means. I thought that it might be helpful, at least to me, if I did some of the same type of very basic economic analysis that I did during the GFC. You know, the simple stuff based on first principles. That's a better guide than the more complex analysis at a time of change.