Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Essay - why who signs what is important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mapping the Australian blogosphere

Thursday this week, Neil (Ninglun) ran a post, Blogging–a side-track, that I found quite distracting. Why distracting? blogg3_thumbWell, it included this excerpted graphic showing relationships between some blogs in the immediate neighbourhood. Neil has added names over the URLs.  

Neil's post then led me to a post by Dr Axel Bruns, First Steps in Mapping the Australian Blogosphere. This includes maps of linkages across the Australian blogosphere.

To generate the maps, Dr Bruns took the period 17 July to 27 August 2010 and then mapped the links (2.3 million) between the 8,300 blogs they are presently following. This includes some newspaper sites. This generated a map of blogs and blog relationships; sites that didn't receive at least three links during the period were excluded.    

Dr Bruns is careful to make clear that the work at this stage is partial. For example, only 8,300 blogs are included, with a bias towards the political, while the data needs to be cleaned. Still, it's an interesting snapshot.

Like all bloggers, once I knew I was there, I started by finding this blog, then looked for others. This was a clunky process, given my screen size. I had to constantly reduce and enlarge in my efforts to track across the maps. In doing this, I was helped in by my knowledge of blogs. This made it a little easier to interpret. Well, what did I find?

Dr Bruns is, of course, correct about the partial nature of the sample. I couldn't find Skepticslawyer, for example. A rough check found six links to this blog in the period, of which two came from me! I suspect the sample is also short on business or professional blogs, while the three link requirement conceals smaller networks, history blogs come to mind. There is also an issue here that some networks are mixed in that they include overseas sites.

Accepting these qualifications, I found the type of political clustering that you might expect, broadly reflecting party and left/right affiliations. For example, on the left Larvatus Prodeo, John Quiggin and Club Troppo are major, somewhat overlapping, nodes, each with their own if linked clusters. On the other side of the fence, Catallaxy has a similar but smaller cluster. 

The Crikey group of blogs forms another node/cluster in its own right. 

One of the things that leads to heavy clustering of all the political blogs into a mass of hard to read colour is, I think, the presence of cross-quoting. This groups the left, left-centre blogs most closely, but also pulls the right, right-centre blogs somewhat together towards the left blogs. I am sure that this can be analysed further from the data by taking individual nodes and then looking at the relationships between them.

Visually, and we are talking links not traffic, left and left-centre blogs dominate the Australian political blogging environment. There are more of them, while cross-links are common. I guess that this would fit common perceptions.

Looking at the map grouping blogs by colour, political blogs are light green. Neil, Adrian and this blog are classified as political blogs. However, we (and this blog in particular) appear on the map as out-riders, somewhat remote from the main political cluster and independent of any of the key political nodes. I guess that's what we are too.

The tools that Dr Bruns and his colleagues are using are obviously quite powerful. I am going to be very interested to see how all this evolves. I probably know the linkages and patterns around our own immediate blogging world quite well, but the research helps set this in a broader context.  

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rethymno and the complicated history of Crete

After breakfast on that first morning in Rethymno (Early morning in Rethymno), the party retraced the steps I had followed in my early morning walk. This took somewhat longer, with frequent stops at the stalls and coffee shops that clustered along the small waterfront. While out guidebook was dismissive of this area as a tourist trap, and there is greater choice further back, it is very pretty. P1010109  

Shopping remains  a female persuasion. Considered as a spectator sport, it ranks low on my personal list. Still, it gave me lots of time to watch and listen.

Listening to the voices around me, I realised just how many Australians there were in the midst of the European throng, including the inevitable Germans on their package tours. I say the inevitable Germans because there are parts of Greece where the German presence is, in tourist terms, almost overwhelming.   

The high Australian dollar and strong economy does make travel easier, but it is more than this. The mass migration to Australia after the Second World War that almost de-populated some parts of Greece and especially some of the islands means that many Greek people have family in Australia. I lost count of the number of times I met someone who had an uncle, cousin, brother or nieces and nephews in Australia.  

Considering the island's size, there were fewer migrants from Crete, perhaps 7,000 in the period between 1955 and 1970, than from other places. However, there is another link. The Second World War Battle for Crete saw 274 Australian deaths, 507 troops wounded, 3,079 captured. New Zealand casualties were greater - 671 dead, 967 wounded, 2,180 captured. The Battle for Crete may be largely unknown in Australia, but it is not forgotten in Crete.

The past is always present in Greece. Old enmities die hard. To my mind, the single most important achievement of the movement towards European unification lies in the way that it has eased some of the tensions that once bedeviled Europe.

One of the first things that I do on arrival in any new place is to find a supermarket. Not only do I get tired of restaurant food, but itP1010156 also becomes expensive. Shopping finished, we walked to the other side of the old town to re-find the supermarket I had seen on my early morning walk.

Carrying wine, bread, cheese, olives, salami and a little fruit, we returned to sit in our alley way and plan our assault on the Forteza or Fort, the huge Venetian built fort that dominates the town. 

We are conditioned today to think in terms of countries with defined borders. Greeks come from Greece, a place on the map. Greek history is the history of Greece.

This boundary constrained way of thinking is deeply embedded. In fact, each part of Greece has its own history. Greece did not exist as an entity until the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, which finally saw Greece recognised as an entity in May 1832. Athens became capital the following year.

Crete itself did not become a formal part of Greece until 1913.

Prior to 1897 and despite rebellions, it remained part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1897, great power intervention (Britain, France, Italy and Russia) saw the island effectively detached from the Ottoman Empire, leading to the creation of an independent Cretan state. In 1908, the Cretan Parliament declared union with Greece, but this was not recognised until 1913.

Sounds complicated? Well, it is! It's also quite blood thirsty.

Our concern this day was the Venetian period of Cretan history, for Old Rethymno is a Venetian city. Now here I need to bore you with a little more history.

For a considerable period of history, Crete was part of the Eastern Roman, Greek or Byzantine Empire. The names used vary, although Byzantine has become common parlance.

The Eastern Roman Empire dates from 285 AD when Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two, east and west. He did so for governance reasons. Over time, the western half declined. The Eastern Roman Empire survived in some form until 1453, still thinking of itself as Roman, the successor of the original Empire.

  Crete became part of the Roman Empire in 69 BC and remained so until the eight twenties when it fell into the hands of Iberian Muslims under Abu Hafs  who established a piratical emirate on the island.

Pirates! Now that's another story. Did you know, I didn't, that the first Cretan migrants to Australia were probably a group transported to NSW in 1829 for piratical activities?

To the Government in Constantinople, the loss of Crete was not just a territorial loss, but also the creation of a nest of pirates that threatened the sea trade that was so important to the Empire. Successive campaigns to recover the island failed until 961, when Nicephorus Phocas reconquered Crete for the Empire.

Over the next two hundred years, private wealth rose in the Empire in part at the expense of central power and resources. Fatally weakened, Constantinople was sacked in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. In the division of spoils that followed, Venice gained control of Crete. One result was the rise of Rethymno as a Venetian centre.Hotel Leo

The Hotel Leo, our hotel in  Rethymno and one that I would strongly recommend, was built during this period. Dating from 1450, it was the mansion of the Venetian logal magesty.

It's role as an historical site has its problems: "We cannot alter things", explained the owner." It's very hard when it comes to changes."  Still, from the viewpoint of the visitor, the thick walls and crazy architecture adds to its charms even if it makes hotel management harder.

We in Australia teach history very badly. We like our history simple, black and white.

I mention this now because youngest is actually doing an essay on the Byzantine period and is struggling even though she has just seen some of the historical sites.

The question is fair enough, the relative importance of politics vs religion in the period leading up to the sack of Constantinople. Yet it fails because of the absence of context, of a story. It isn't just a question of religion or politics, but of a total pattern.

The geo-political position facing Venice was quite complicated. It was a city state. However, like Athens before it and England later, it ruled a maritime empire. Trade was central. In turn, this made naval power central.

Venice also had to contend with complicated and changing relationships between other powers. At home, it had to manage the rise of, and conflict between, changing forces, including a papacy that was both a temporal and spiritual power. Abroad, it had to manage the trading and political relationships required to preserve its control of trade. This included its relationships with the Byzantine Empire.

Venice grew as the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire in the west, it prospered because of its later relations with the Byzantine Empire, the biggest European power of the time. A constant stream of secret messages passed into Venice to inform the Government. These, together with the Papal archives, provide a picture of the complex relationships in the Mediterranean at a time when England was still emerging.

The merchants of Venice were, I think, practical men. They had little time for the more arcane religious disputes. These were thinP1010167gs to be managed. Yet, as practical men, they faced a conflict between a dollar in the hand now and the longer term. Venice's role during the Crusades gave them an immediate gain in terms of wealth and power, but the damage done to the Byzantine Empire on which their wealth actually depended arguably doomed them in the longer term. However, that doom was sometime coming.

To hold their new territory, they built forts. The Forteza at Rethymno is a huge construction. Designed to protect the harbour the town grew up around it.

It was a very hot day as we walked up to the fort. The sun was merciless, especially at the top where there was no shade. I was without a hat.

Later that day my wife, who gets quite cranky about things such as my habit of ignoring the sun, took me out forcibly to by a new hat. For the moment, I sheltered in the occasional shade below the ramparts and tried to imagine how the whole thing might have worked.

At its peak, Venice had some 3,000 warships with more than 30,000 crew. All Venetian ships were designed to be multi-purpose, with cargo vessels required to carry armaments. So the old harbour below must have been crowded with craft of various type. 

The fortifications themselves seemed mainly designed to protect from the sea. Yet they were also built at at a time when gunpowder was about to become important. This changed the military equation, because it meant that even the most powerful fortifications were more vulnerable. Even so, I did wonder just how a place like this might fall.P1010161

In 1645, four hundred plus years after Venice took control of Crete, the Ottoman Empire began its attack.

Four hundred years! That's a remarkable time span, even if dwarfed by the time that the various Roman Empires controlled Crete. I wonder if Australia can last that long?

The battle wasn't easy. The siege of Candia to the west lasted from 1648–1669. The last Venetian outpost finally fell in 1718. Still, now the Ottomans were in charge, even if this seems today as just a flick of an historical eye-lid, less than two hundred years.

So far as the Forteza was concerned, the Ottomans were not going to waste an important military asset. They modified it as required, but otherwise maintained it.

The last photo below shows the interior of the old Mosque built on the site in place of the previous Orthodox church. And so things change!


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Early morning in Rethymno

Arrival in Rethymno covered our journey from Dubai to Rethymno.

I tend to wake up early, well before anyone else in the family. That's when I do a lot of my reading and writing, and its a habit I cannot break even on holidays. So early on that first morning, I left the Hotel Leo for a walk round Rethymno's old town. I guess that I'm a bit like a dog here. I like to mark out my patchP1010112, working out just where things are.

This shot shows the old town mixture. In the front the power lines, falling back through Venetian feeling buildings to the old mosque in background. Crete's history is quite complicated, especially to someone used to Australia's relative historical simplicities. A little more on this anon.

I had been told that Rethymno did not wake early. That's quite untrue, for there are two Rethymno's.

The day begins early for many locals such as council workers or delivery people. School begins early too, around 8:15, but also finishes early, around 1.

I began my walk in the early dawn, with workers taking coffee at early opening cafes, with the street sweepers and the delivery vans. By the time I wended my way home, teachers and students were arriving at school, while those going to work for the day thronged the bus stops on the outskirts of the old town.

Second Rethymno, tourist Rethymno, springs to life a little latter. As I walked home, work Rethymno dropped away. By the time P1010104I reached our little alleyway, the world was quiet, yet to stir, the hotel doors still locked. Fortunately, my wife was already up, downstairs in the lobby using WiFi to check her emails.

Given my habits, room keys were a problem in Greece. There was usually only one per room, and that usually worked the power as well. If I left early in the morning and took the key, there was no power. If I left the key, then I might not be able to get back into the hotel.

Still on problems, the Greek custom with toilet paper came as a surprise. I am sure that inveterate travellers are aware of this one, but I was not.

We had it carefully explained to us on our arrival the night before.

We must not put toilet paper in the toilet. It must go in the bin beside the toilet. I looked puzzled. "We have very small sewerage pipes. If you put the paper in the toilet, it may block the pipes".

I must say that I found this custom very difficult. Not only did it seem quite un-hygienic and difficult tor the staff, there was often only one small bin for all forms of rubbish, but it also ran up against deeply entrenched habits. For the first part of the trip, I just kept forgetting!

It is now 9:30 and breakfast is being served. Breakfast was included in all our bookings, something that was very important to me because I was on such a tight personal budget. Taking the first half of the year to focus on my writing as I did may have helped my writing projects, but it also left me very short of cash. Eating a big breakfast meant that I could skimp on later meals.P1010102

That first morning in Rethymno we gathered in our alleyway over breakfast to plan the day. Looking at the photo, I keep getting a shock at just how stooped I have become. "Stand up straight", my mother used to say to me. "Good posture is important." Clearly she was right!

In the short time we were in Rethymno, we became very fond of this alley. We gathered here, ate here, drank here, read here, wrote postcards and checked emails. We also met the people from the adjoining shops. It became our alleyway. Indeed, sitting there at home, we gazed with bemusement at the tourists who came up it, looking around in interest.

This may sound silly, but it was our alley!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Frustrations over the NBN discussion

Last night I watched the episode on the  new National Broadband Network on SBS TV's Insight Program. You will find the transcript here. For the benefit of readers outside Australia, this is the new national optical fibre network under construction by the NBNCo for the Australian Government at an estimated cost of c.$A43 billion. It is a political hot potato in this country.

I got quite frustrated during the program. I felt that Jenny Brockie as moderator failed to control discussion, allowing it to be high jacked. As a consequence, I felt that I had learned nothing new. I also got cranky at her failure to let one of the UNE Deputy VCs really speak. The University has had more than fifteen years' experience in on-line delivery.

There was a time that I knew quite a lot about this stuff, first as a policy adviser and then as a consultant and at community level. Watching Paul Budde and Kevin Morgan duel really took me back. Kevin was in attack dog mode, while Paul reiterated the potential benefits on the other side. Neither added much to my understanding, nor for that matter did Malcolm Turnbull.

Accepting that I am now out of touch, I wanted to make a few general comments about issues that concern me.  

    There is no doubt that cost-benefit analysis is a useful tool in assessing major projects. However, it suffers from a number of weaknesses, weaknesses that mean that cost-benefit analysis can actually be a good way of blocking things that might well be desirable. Treasuries are very good at this technique. You can be pretty sure that the reason why Mr Turnbull is so keen that the NBN be referred to the Productivity Commission is that, in his judgement and on his numbers, the PC is likely to report in negative terms.

In cost-benefit analysis, there is often an asymmetry between costs and benefits. The costs come first and are generally better known, whereas the benefits are always in the future and are more difficult to calculate. This is especially so where there is a prospective or blue sky element.

If you look at the various proponents in the broadband debate, you can see that those in favour argue in part in terms of applications and take-up that are yet to be defined, those against dismiss such prospective benefits and also argue that the same benefits can be achieved in alternative ways and at lower cost.

One of the reasons why I got frustrated with last night's show was that much of the discussion was couched in generalities, whereas I wanted more discussion on examples and specific possibilities to inform my thinking. Some of this was there, but it got swamped.

Another problem with cost-benefit analysis is that it can be difficult to identify and include externalities, costs or benefits associated with but beyond the project. This, too, is present in the current debate.

If you look at Mr Windsor's arguments, for example, he is arguing that the sum of the parts will be greater than the whole, that beyond the benefits to the individual consumer (private or business) come benefits in economic activity and in service delivery that would not otherwise be possible. Those on the other side are dismissive. Again, I would like to have seen this teased out in greater detail.

In all this, there is also an important distributional question. Cost-benefit analysis deals with aggregates. This conceals the reality that the distribution of costs and benefits will vary between types of customers and between areas. Reactions to the NBN are affected by this. Again, we can see this in play at the present time.

To illustrate all this a little further, I want to take inland New England as something of a case study.

As in the rest of the country, views on the NBN are split. Those comfortable with the service they are getting now are more likely to be opposed on the grounds that it's not needed. This group ranges from those who rarely if ever use the internet through to quite intensive users with currently reasonable connections. Conversely, those unable to do the things they want, or who are frustrated with the current service, are likely to be pro. This is a big geographic area, so there is a third group as well, those falling to the 5% who won't be able to get cable anyway. Many in this group are doubtful of the NBN as a whole because there are major costs with fibre, whereas they won't benefit.

These views all represent current positions, one of the features of the overall debate.

West Armidale was selected by the NBNCo as one of the pilot sites for initial test roll-out. This area includes the University of New England.

Roll-out coincided with the Federal election campaign. In the highly politicised environment and with doubts about costs, benefits and indeed the NBN's very survival, initial acceptance of the offer of free connection was very low indeed among ordinary residential users - less than 10%. Following the election, the University, Tony Windsor as Federal MP, the Council, the Chamber of Commerce and both local newspapers (among others) combined in a campaign to get sign-ups. The end result was an 88% connection rate, including the University.

There is a history to this one that is relevant to the broader debate, one of the reasons I was cranky with Jennie Brockie's failure to consult UNE's Professor Duncan until the very end. I quote from the transcript:  

JENNY BROCKIE: Annabelle, you had your hand up all through the last section and I want to involve you because you are Deputy Vice Chancellor in Armidale, one of the next roll-out sites for the NBN. More than 80% of students at UNE use distance learning, is that right?

PROFESSOR ANNABELLE DUNCAN, DEPUTY VICE CHANCELLOR, UNE: About 70% of them use distance learning, yes.

JENNY BROCKIE: What will it mean for them?

PROFESSOR ANNABELLE DUNCAN: It will make a huge difference to them. At the moment, much of the interaction between the students, both domestic students and the university, is really passive. There's some active interaction - that is, we can send the material through chat rooms for example, we can get material back that way. But all of those students who study off-site miss the real experience that comes from tutorials, for example, at the university. The interaction between different students, the interactions between the student and real-time with their lecturer and the discussions that go around that - that is all a very important part of the learning experience of the people on the university campus. They miss that if they are not on the campus.

With broadband we can have a virtually classroom, we can have a tutor, maybe in Armidale, maybe somewhere else in the world - anywhere. We can also have students joining that particular tutorial from anywhere again around Australia or internationally, for that matter, if we choose to. They can then take part in a real classroom experience so it makes it a much more powerful learning experience for those people.

As a major distance education provider, UNE has been concerned about better communications for a number of years, as have some of the other educational institutions in the city, including especially The Armidale School. In the first half of the 1990s, the university was involved in complicated and ultimately largely fruitless discussions with Telecom about the establishment of a new network that would allow it better on-line delivery. As part of this, I went to the trial of a new videoconferencing facility intended to allow interactive distance education. It was still very clunky, difficult to use.

During this same period, a number of us were involved in an attempt (the Collective Wisdom Project) to create an on-line network between Armidale schools, one that would allow cooperation and resource sharing between schools and would compliment the UNE work.

As part of this, early in 1996 we mounted a major display in the Armidale Town Hall in which students from various schools gathered to prepare web pages from material sent in from the schools. There was also an interactive link to an audience gathered at the UNE centre in Sydney. In retrospect, this was a remarkably ambitious project. What was semi-concealed at the time, was that a key element in the display - the then Telecom dial-up access from the schools - actually failed.

To UNE as well as some other Armidale interests, NBN is actually a make or break type of thing for a non-metro centre in a competitive world. The progressive wiring up of the university, of its colleges, of the schools, of the hospital, the doctors' surgeries, of the aged care facilities, provides opportunities to do things previously denied, as well as things not yet foreseen.

The extension of high speed connections elsewhere adds to the potential benefits. For example, the teaching of medicine in an environment where trainee doctors have to do part of their training at places distant from the home campus.

It will be clear that, like all of us, my own perceptions of the NBN are affected by my own experiences. However, my experience has also been that it is always helpful to point and counter-point between general principles and actual examples. Without the first, things are likely to fall over. The second is required to test and inform the first.

How would I summarise all this? I suppose simply this.

Both Minister Conroy and Malcolm Turnbull are attempting to argue cases. Minds fixed, their purpose is to persuade. This dialectic can be helpful in delineating alternative views, but it can also confuse. More effort needs to be devoted to disentangling and testing the various arguments.

Herein lay my problem with the SBS program. Too much time was devoted to the protagonists, too little time to a forensic analysis of the issues. At the end, I wasn't much wiser.    

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Arrival in Rethymno

Today I was going to continue the discussion that I began in Skepticlawyer and the humanities. I will come back to this, because from my perspective, that post was simply clearing some of the ground in my own mind. However, I now have access to the Greek trip photos, and so want to continue the story from my last travel post, Postcard from Dubai.

From Dubai, we caught the Emirates' flight next morning (Sunday 19 September 2010) for Athens en-route to Crete. Flying into Athens for the first time I was struck by just hAthens, smoking roomow dry and treeless the hills were.

Upon arrival, I made my usual visit to the smoking room before exiting customs. Yes, I know that I shouldn't smoke, but it is quite a good way of meeting people. My family laughs at the way I do this, but it helps ease my insatiable curiosity!

In this case, the bloke in jeans on the left had come to visit family and was full of tips. Meantime, my family waited outside and took photos.

By Australian standards, the Greeks and especially the older ones are a very friendly and patty people. I lost count of the number of times I would get to talking with someone and then have them pat me on the back or shoulder as we walked away. 

Once we were through customs and waiting for our connecting flight, youngest made a beeline for McDonalds while I prowled around looking for possible photos. I did take some, but none were especially good.

The time came to join the Aegean flight to Crete. Here we had one of those nasty shocks. At Sydney duty free, Dee had purchased two small bottles of alcohol, including a very nice gin, so that we could have a drink in the evenings. This was promptly confiscated by security even though it was still in in its original sealed bag from Sydney,

This was not the first time this had happened. Two years ago I had to bin a very expensive bottle of scotch at Hong Kong airport. The problem is that it is quite hard to know when you are likely to break the rules regarding liquids on planes. In the Greek case, we would have been okay had we put the bottles into the main luggage before checking in. This was not possible in the Hong Kong case, because our luggage was going straight to Shanghai. I was simply doomed to lose the scotch because the security arrangements required us to re-enter security.

  Have you had similar experiences? Do you know what the rules are?

As an aside, Kangaroo Valley David asked for my impression of Greek security and security procedures. Apart from our annoyance over the alcohol, at no time did we find the security oppressive, nor were we worried at any time about security threats.  It just wasn't an issue.

We had wondered whether or not we might be affected by the strikes and demonstrations over the austerity measures. There were a number of demonstrations while we were there; there was at least one truck blockade with TV footage of empty supermarket shelves in Athens; some museums were either closed or, better, free as a consequence of industrial action; while people drove round old utes or small trucks broadcasting recorded protest messages. However, there were no real problems from a visitor viewpoint.

"We are lucky in Crete", one woman explained to me, "because we grow and process our own food. It's worse in Athens."

"Those politicians", she went on. "The ordinary person did not ask them to borrow the money. Now we all pay the price." The tourist season had been quite good on Crete because of international tourists. This was less true elsewhere. "Numbers arOur van, Sept 2010e down", another woman said on Mykonos. "The people from Athens haven't come in the way they normally do."

By the time we caught our plane for Hania, we were all very tired.

At Hania airport, we had made arrangements to pick up a van large enough to hold five plus assorted luggage. We became quite fond of that van, but initially there was all the usual confusion over things such as doors, window locks (one proved to be broken) and the workings of various controls.

Once loaded, we headed for Rethymno. All in all, I think that we made a planning mistake here. We would have been better off over-nighting at Hania. 

Both Hania and the road itself are very pretty, but we really didn't have time to look at this. Instead, very tired, we had to navigate Greek roads for the first time in a strange car heading into the growing dusk. This first drive was quite nerve wracking. By the time we arrived at Rethymno, it was well after dark,

We were staying in the old Venetian part of the city. Cars are banned heLost in Rethymnore on most streets during certain times, and our hotel had no parking. But where was the hotel on the midst of all those small alleys?

By accident, we found a car park in the old city and then set out dragging our luggage through the streets looking for the hotel. We had instructions, but kept getting lost.

Next morning we were to find that the old city was really very small, but now we were just confused, in fact walking within feet of the hotel without seeing it. Finally, after multiple telephone calls, we got there.

It was quite late by our body time and we were tired, but we still needed to eat. Dropping the bags, we walked a few paces to a restaurant recommended by the Hotel with the very Greek name, Bohemian!

It wasn't a bad restaurant, actually; reasonable food and a very pretty courtyard. Youngest quickly left for bed, while the rest of us sat round and unwound. dinner, first evening Rethymno

There is always something exotic and exciting in being in a strange place for the first time. Now that we were comfortable, fixed in place for a time, those narrow streets that not so many moments before had seemed so confusing were now just interesting.

During our first family trip to Europe, we collectively fell in love with Venice. Even in our tiredness, the Venetian feel to Rethymno was unmistakable. Now we were about to find out more.

But that's another story.   

Monday, October 25, 2010

Skepticlawyer and the humanities

There has been an interesting discussion over on Skepticslawyer triggered by a post of SL's, First cut is the deepest.

I have read your post several times, SL. I find that I feel that I disagree with you most profoundly. My problem is that I am not absolutely sure why! I find that I agree with many of your individual points; it is the combination that seems to put me off.

Let me start discussion by asking a basic question. What, to your mind, is the role of a university?

I put the question this way because it seemed to me that SL had a particular view of the role of the university, that her suggestions linked to but were in some ways independent of that view, that there might be a degree of underlying confusion. This is not a criticism, but a personal reaction conditioned by my own thoughts and experiences.

I am not quite sure how many posts I have written linked in some way to higher education or to universities, many hundreds perhaps. The number of posts is indicative of my interest in the area, the tone of those posts indicative of my concerns about what I see as a decline in the Australian university as an institution. Clearly, if I perceive there to be a decline, then I must have a defined starting point. Like SL, I must have my own view on the role of a university, one that I have in fact tried to articulate in some of my posts.

Our society is unique among Australian universities in the residential system, and only though your full participation in college, social, club and other activities will you realise completely your part in it.

By all means work - you have enrolled principally for academic reasons, but a university is not merely a degree factory - academic success is not synonymous with education in the fullest sense of the word. We hope you will keep this in mind and join wholeheartedly in extracurricular as well as in academic aspects of university life. Student view, Orientation Week Handbook, University of New England, 1963.

Your primary purpose, of course, is to study for a degree, otherwise you will waste a great valuable time, your own and your lecturers, much public money, and in these days of restricted entry deprive some other student of a coveted place. University study does not consist in the passive absorption of information but in the dynamic pursuit of knowledge which arises from the clash of informed minds and the unrelenting refusal to accept first appearances as final truths.. You are entering a community of scholars where your own contributions will be accepted. It is surprising how often your teachers can be stimulated by a brilliant idea or an illuminating phrase from a first year student. Ean M Fraser, official view, Orientation Week Handbook, University of New England, 1963.

I entered university on the cusp of the transformation that, within a decade, was to change Australian universities from institutions providing an education for a small if growing elite to provision of mass education. The above quotes from the 1963 UNE Orientation Week Handbook University accurately capture the ethos of that world - community of scholars, dynamic pursuit of knowledge, education in the fullest sense of the word. While sometimes observed in the breach , the ethos was deeply held. Certainly I held it.

I grew up in a family of academics: my father and his brother were both senior academics, as were two first cousins on Dad's side. Between them, they had some thirteen or so degrees from universities in three countries including London, Manchester and Cambridge in the UK. Between them, they had taught at universities in five countries. All four combined to some degree interests in history, economics and anthropology. All four had worked for international agencies and were interested in the practical application of their knowledge and skills in areas such as economic and community development. 

The academic world was quite small in those days. Growing up in an academic household in a small university city, I either knew, had met, or at least knew of most of the names of those involved in key intellectual debates at the time in Australia and more broadly. In a sense, they were personalised. John Maynard Keynes was not just a well known economist, but also a person Uncle Horace knew when he completed his PhD at Cambridge where Keynes brought him into the vigorous discussions of the Political Economy Club. For his part, my father chose to do his PhD at Manchester rather than Cambridge (he had the choice) simply because Horace had been at Cambridge earlier.

I make these autobiographical points because they affect my own judgements about the changes that have taken place in higher education in Australia. I assess the changes that have taken place in Australian universities in general and my own university in particular against the ideas and experiences formed during that earlier period. Of course my ideas have changed over time, and then changed again. But those earlier ideas and experiences have carried through as a steady thread.

There have always been different views about the role of universities across time and between countries. The intellectual tradition that my family and then I grew up in was British. This was a different university concept than applied in, say, Germany with its greater emphasis on the vocational and applied. It was also different from the US where, because of history, there was far greater variety in degree granting institutions. The lesson here is that we need to be a little careful in applying the term university as a concept, to stand back and ask what just what we mean by it.

In What was it all for? (here and here), Professor Don Aitkin suggests that the expansion of mass secondary and university education was one of the great Australian achievements of the last decades of the twentieth century. I think that he was right. However, and I am sure that Don would agree with this, it has come at a cost. Some of those costs are simply a function of scale. Others reflect shifting perceptions and values in Australia and beyond.

In the last part of this post, I want to look briefly at a few of the changes that I have previously identified as important. These are important to me because, in many ways, my old University has proved especially vulnerable, highlighting the conflicts that can arise. 

End of the community of scholars

The idea of a university as a self-governing community of scholars became deeply embedded in the British university tradition and its structures. This held even with the new public universities dependent on Government funding and whose key role linked to Government objectives. This has been replaced by new structures in which Government attempts to mandate or control pretty much every aspect of university life. The very idea of universities as self-accrediting institutions with control over their own awards and standards has been replaced by Australian Government mandated accreditation and quality control.

Rise of corporate approaches

  The most recent conflict at the University of New England was between a Chancellor whose view was that the University was a business and an academic view that the University was a university that should be run in a business like way. The models and language of the corporate world have become deeply embedded in modern Australian universities. Problematically, those models and language are in fact inter-acting interpretations by public and university officials of a world to which neither actually belongs.

I dealt briefly with one aspect of corporatisation in Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities. The problem I have is that I struggle to see how to reconcile current concepts with my perceptions of the role of a university. A performance based, market driven university may be very successful on current performance measures, yet fail on most of the measures that I would use to assess performance.

Education vs training

To start with a definitional point, training focuses on the acquisition of certain skills, whereas education focuses more on on knowledge and ways of thinking. By its nature, training centres on what we know now, whereas education provides the base for what we might know in the future. Of course, the dividing line between the two is always blurred, yet I think that the distinction is still valid. 

Australian universities have always included certain aspects of vocational training. However, the vocational element has now become dominant, with the language of training becoming pervasive.

Let me try to illustrate this with an example.

Teacher training was one of the key elements of the old University of New England. Quite a high proportion of students were on the old Teacher's College scholarships. However,the first concern was to give them subject knowledge. A potential history or english or science teacher focused on learning history or english or science. Here they did the same courses as everyone else. Later, once they had acquired the subject knowledge, they did a DipEd to acquire the teaching knowledge and skills.

Today, or so it seems to me, teachers generally do a Bachelor of Education which includes content but where the key focus is on teaching knowledge and skills. They may or may not be better teachers, but I think that their content knowledge (the stuff they actually have to teach) is less. Certainly, one of the main identified problems with the new national history curriculum at schools is the absence of teachers with sufficient content knowledge to deliver the course.  

More broadly, I don't think that some of the things that we used to expect from university are easily measurable in a world where everything must be defined in terms of subject specific learning outcomes. Just how do you define "University study does not consist in the passive absorption of information but in the dynamic pursuit of knowledge which arises from the clash of informed minds and the unrelenting refusal to accept first appearances as final truths.." in the context of specific course outcomes?    

Professionalisation and course proliferation

As someone who has worked as a professional strategic consultant with a special focus on professional services firms, I have had a special interest in professional services and what it means to be a professional. As part of this, I have watched the process of professionalisation, including creeping accreditatiion.

It was always going to be the case that expanding student numbers with a growing mix of skills, abilities and interests would require a growing mix of courses. I see nothing wrong with this, nor do I have fixed perceptions of what is suitable for university level study. What I am concerned about is the way that the whole process had led to what I see as fragmentation in fields of study to the point that none can be certain what students actually know, nor about their ability to write or think.

This has been happening for a while. Speaking from an employee viewpoint, the task of assessing graduates has become far more complicated.

It has always been the case that different disciplines in different universities require different weightings. Today, it's just harder. One outcome is that the overall ranking of the university has actually become more important.

Forty years ago, you might say that discipline x in university y is just not good at the moment even though university y ranks high in the overall rankings. It is harder to do this today just because things are more complex. This means that employers are more inclined to run with aggregate reputation.


I may seem to have come a long way from SL's post, but I have barely scratched the surface.

SL was concerned about the humanities.

My old university still teaches the humanities, including Latin. I am an adjunct member of the School of Humanities. I have argued that the fact that it it is still a university, as I see it, should become a key distinguishing competitive feature. Yet the reality is that this is a hard road.

SL supports a hierarchy of universities. So do I. Yet she still wants universities that teach the humanities in circumstances where to teach humanities can actually conflict with the achievement of global rankings required for university success. As a very simple example, current measures of research intensity (a global measurement) are ranked against the humanities. In a purely competitive environment, there is presently very little room for the humanities.

My argument that UNE must compete on its traditional role as a university including the humanities is not just a value judgment, but is also partially a course of despair. It has no choice because it cannot compete on other things. My hope is that there are sufficient students who value the university experience that I had to make for viability.      

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A peek into Canberra, 1984

I had intended to renew posting on my Greek trip, but cannot do so properly until I have access to the photos. We downloaded the photos from the various cameras onto my wife's computer. However, she now has to transfer these to a memory stick before I can properly access them.

Just at present, I am going through the sometimes difficult process of tidying up books and papers. It's been something like an archeological investigation of my own past. In one of the books I found a part completed letter from 1984 that I had begun and then put aside for some reason. I thought that I would share it with you.

                                                                                                                                23 February 84

Dear Mum and Dad

It seems hard to believe, but since I got back work has been getting busier. The IAC Computer report arrived the day I left for Armidale, then the following week the IAC report on consumer electronics arrived. So did the Minister. He came back from overseas with some of his ideas clarified and immediately launched a policy review.

This really took me back. This was a time of fundamental change in Australian industry policy, the replacement of the old tariff based industry protection approach with a progressive move towards a low tariff, more open economy. It was also a time when we were trying to develop new approaches towards Australia's high technology industries. To help drive this, I had been asked the previous June to create a new branch in the then Department of Industry and Commerce, the Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries Branch. This had to be done from scratch.

To help drive the process, the Department had decided to send a series of references to the Industry Assistance Commission on different aspects of Australia's electronics industries. Previously the Tariff Board and now the Productivity Commission, the IAC was a major driver of change towards lower protection. The advantage of the IAC process from our perspective lay in the fact references to it required a formal Government response, so the very act of sending a reference effectively mandated subsequent change. The IAC's normal stance was well known. However, since we controlled both the reference and the development of the subsequent response, we weren't necessarily bound to recommend acceptance.

Industry policy was one of the big divide areas in Canberra at the time.

My own Department caught up in the whole paraphernalia of the then protection regime - the crazy patchwork quilt of multiple tariffs, temporary assistance measures, dumping inquiries -  accepted that tariffs must come down, but wanted a phased process. Treasury who regarded us as captive to existing industry interests took a much more purist approach; free trade now, or the closest they could get. To this end, they also mounted a continuing campaign to try to get control of the IAC reference process.

In some ways I sat in the middle. I thought that the existing protection structures were simply crazy and had to go and as fast as possible. However, we had to find new ways of encouraging industry development or risk our manufacturing sector and the service sectors that depended on it simply imploding. I guess that you can put the three positions this way. Treasury said make us pure, my Department said make us pure, but not yet, and I just wanted to know what would work. Those who are interested can find out more about the policy debate in Case studies in public administration.

In many ways, the computer and consumer electronics IAC reports represent the divide between the old and the new.

We wanted Australians including Australian industry to have access to computer products at world prices. However, we also wanted to give Australian industry a chance of participating in the global computer industry. We therefore steered through a decision that abolished all tariffs on computer products, but also put in place a bounty on the manufacture of computers wherever they fell. This meant not just computers as such, but also computers embedded in other products.

By contrast, consumer electronics was just a mess. At the time that Australia decided to introduce TV, we also decided to adopt the PAL system whose patents were held by Australian firm AWA. Treasury, worried by the risk of no competition and faced by protests from Japan, steered through a decision that actually forced AWA to give a license to its Japanese competitors.

In the way it was done, this has to be one of the dumbest policy positions of all time. The result was that Australia not only lost any value in the patent, but Japanese came to dominate the Australian and global PAL market.

A little later and faced with the potential collapse of the Australian colour TV assembly industry, Japan and Australia negotiated a secret deal by which the Japanese industry via the Government agreed to limit competition in Australia for certain TV sizes, thus providing an effective non-tariff barrier. Inevitably, the IAC staff came across the existence of the earlier agreement. To them, it was an example of the worst type of protectionism and they decided to reveal its existence in their report.

All this broke soon after this area came under my control. I had no idea that the agreement actually existed, until the matter broke. Then all hell broke loose. The Japanese Government was very upset and brought what pressure they could to stop release of the details. The Department had earlier provided confidential briefing about the agreement, briefing that might now go onto the public record. The IAC was obdurate.

All this took the issue into the stratosphere well above my head. I talked to the Embassy and the IAC, but basically did as I was told. The thing I found interesting is that, at the end of the day, none of this mattered in a practical sense because it did not affect subsequent decisions. Today it is a minor and forgotten blip.

The last (the ministerial policy review) may well have good results, but for the moment its increased pressure. I have to release resources for it (including my own time); I'm afraid my heart sank. Still, after its all over, we should have moved forward. I'm also putting my foot down. The pressures have prevented me doing anything other than work, and that's not good enough, so now I'm refusing to do things. I've decided to limit my working day to a maximum of ten hours.

I cannot remember the details of the ministerial policy review, although I do remember the pressures at the time. Looking back, I seem to have been more disciplined then in a work sense. I preferred to start work a little earlier, generally about 8, and then tried to finish at 6. I would then work at weekends from time to time to break particular log jams.

For the life of me, I could not understand why some of my colleagues saw late evening hours almost as a sign of doing the right thing. This included gathering for a drink together after 6.30. I would do this from time to time simply because it was helpful. I noticed that I generally started earlier than them, and also questioned the effectiveness of their evening work. Certainly my output wasn't any less. I also had a problem with the sometimes expectation that junior staff had to alter their hours just to fit in.

It's interesting that I was sufficiently concerned at the time to keep a very detailed work log for three weeks listing everything every activity or interruption by time. At the end of that I made a few minor changes to my working approach, but was otherwise re-assured.       

H. arrived in town last weekend on her way to Melbourne to pick up Bear. Came Friday evening and went on Sunday, which was all very pleasant. Saturday afternoon she and I went to see Gorky Park, which was good. Then, on Sunday, I went to see Diva, which probed to be one of the best movies I've ever seen. French, with a taut plot and beautiful photography. One magnificent shot: a light house against a night sky, centre stage, with a road in centre screen up to the lighthouse. It was like a modern or semi-modern European painting.

I saw a lot of films at this time, more than I had seen before or since. I wonder whether or not I would still like Diva? I actually went to see it several times while it was on, something that I rarely do. 

I see from the Express that Manning Clark's Australia Day speech has generated a storm. Seems over-reaction to me. I can't agree with Clark's views. I don't like republics, like the present flag, and am generally (I suppose) a conservative. But even given all this, the most I think that Clark can be accused of is bad taste. This is, I admit, an awful crime. Speaking of taste (no, I know you weren't) its interesting the way our ideas are formed. I grew up hating fussy Victorian lines, but now that they are fashionable I'm learning to like them.

Interesting that I was prepared to admit that I was a conservative, something I felt the need to deny later in Why I am not a conservative. It's also interesting just how relaxed I was on the issues that Clarke raised. This dissolved just ten years later in fury over what I saw as Mr Keating's arrogant and contemptuous dismissal of symbols that I was attached to as belonging to the scrap heap of history. It would take me another ten years to recover something of the same degree of tolerance that I had in 1984; even now, a harder edge remains.

I grew up surrounded by Victorian furniture and its successors. The over-crowded rooms of older people that I knew contrasted with the clean Scandinavian lines that were the mark of good taste. Single with spare cash, I was then frequenting the auction rooms, especially looking at paintings. Hard to believe how well off in real terms I was then.        

Returning to work for a moment, with the car industry work now almost over, Don Fraser's attention is returning to my area and I can't bear it. 

The letter finishes here.

Poor Don. While all the car industry plan work was going on, he as Division Head had very little time for anything else. I briefed him and sought approval as appropriate, but otherwise he needed me to do my own thing. Now he was looking to re-assert his role in my area, and I didn't like it!

I can be a fairly assertive person. Managing up has always been one of my problems, one reason why I have written so much about it. Don and I worked the issue through, but it can't have been easy for him.  

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - culture wars, multiculturalism and change

The post of mine on this blog that continues to draw the greatest traffic by far is a post from November 2008, Sunday Essay - the importance of quiet time in a crowded world. I think that it's a well written post, but it's not the writing that attracts, it's the title. The constant stream of visits shows that it strikes a chord.

The release of former Australian PM John Howard's autobiographical memoir, Lazarus Rising, has attracted considerable Australian media attention (here, here, here for example). While I will buy or borrow the book at some point, I have no desire to revisit some of the things that Mr Howard talks about in other than an historical context.

One of our problems as we grow older is a tendency to re-fight old wars. I am as prone to this as anyone else, yet I have no desire to revisit multiculturalism or indeed Australia's cultural wars in the context of current politics. There is a good book there one day for someone who can properly unpack it all.

I say this because I still remember my sense of mortification from some posts I wrote back in 2007. In December of that year, a post by John Quiggin led me to write Deconstructing the Culture Wars - a personal aide memoire. This was a fairly carefully written post trying to disentangle some of the issues from a personal perspective. Then a comment from Lexcen led me to write another post, Australia's Culture Wars - uniquely Australian? taking a different tack.

In writing the first post I had implicitly accepted what we might call the conventional view, that the Australian culture wars were Australian, but also part of a broader phenomenon that included the transmission to Australia of certain ideas coming from the US. I was trying to unpack this.

Lexcen's comment made me do a preliminary web search trying to investigate the history of the culture wars.  I found that the term "culture wars" seemed to be most prevalent in the US and Australia, but that the Australian culture wars themselves seemed to be a uniquely Australian phenomenon drawing from our own history. I summarised my overall conclusions this way:

    1. While the term culture wars is used in several ways, the term "culture wars" in the way I was describing it appears to exist in only Australia and the US.
    2. Measured by frequency of usage, the great bulk of references to "culture wars" are Australian. Fourteen in the first few Google pages as compared to just 4 from US sources.
    3. There appears to be very little similarity between the "culture wars" in the two countries. As an example, the religious element that appears so important in the US is largely missing in Australia.
    4. I am forced to the conclusion that the Australian "culture wars" are just that, Australian "culture wars". I also begin to suspect that the term was first introduced into and popularised in Australia as a handy pejorative device by one side of the debate.

But why was I mortified? Well, I felt that I had been trapped into a way of thinking, spending time and thought analysing an issue when I should have been asking more basis questions.

As I said, the culture wars will make a good book one day linked not just to politics, but also to the history of Australian thought. In the meantime, I don't want to paddle in Mr Howard's pool.

I suppose that my biggest personal problem is that I have come to reject both sides. The world is simply not composed of just two models, a multi-cultural society on one side as compared to a multi-racial Australia with common values on the other. It is far more complex than that.

It is interesting, but it was Mr Howard's own Government that made me reject the idea that Australia must be a society dominated by common values.

There is a balance issue here. No society can really survive without  common core values. Yet I found myself constantly objecting to the Howard Government expression of this, from its citizenship test through its emphasis on Australia's military history as a unifying device, to its belief that all Australian students must study Australian history and civics as defined whether they liked it or not. This is far too simple for a society that, by its nature, must be pluralist.

On the other side, beyond its historical Fraser context in assisting Australia to adjust to a more complex culturally and racially mixed society, multiculturalism as an ism has limited intellectual content. At its extreme, it appears to deny that a society needs a degree of shared values and history, something that strikes me as plain silly. More moderately, if it simply means that Australia should recognise and tolerate different cultures within a frame set by core values, then it is not especially profound, just common sense.

This has become a bit of a lecture. I apologise for that. Still staying in lecturer mode, I wanted to finish with a brief comment on Angela Merkel since her views have been linked to Mr Howard's comments. Here I quote from the Australian:

His (Mr Howard's) stance gains contemporary relevance from Chancellor Angela Merkel comments last Sunday that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had "utterly failed."

The German position has little contemporary relevance to Australia. Leaving aside the issue of just what Ms Merkel means when she uses the word multicultural, the two societies are very different.

At the end of the Second World War, over 90% of Australians were locally born. We were, in very broad terms, a culturally homogeneous society. For better or worse and for our own reasons, Australians then decided to support mass migration. Yes, there was a racial basis in the initial immigration selection process, but so large was the migration process that the practical effect was that, by 1975, Australia had moved from a culturally homogeneous society to a multicultural one. The progressive abolition of the White Australia Policy changed the ethic mix of immigrants, the appearance if you like, but did not affect the overall pattern. The adoption of the term multicultural by the Fraser Government was of itself a recognition of this change.

I am not sure when the term multicultural first emerged in a global context. The earliest reference I have found is 1941. I think that the first official expression was in Canada in 1971, then especially influenced by the need to harmonise French and English. However, I stand to be corrected here, the first full expression of multicultural in official policy terms was in Australia during the second half of the 1970s.

There is an enormous difference between Germany today and Canada or Australia of the 1970s. Both Canada and Australia are countries who chose for their own reasons to change. In a sense, we have been there and done that. Like it or not, we have been multicultural for many years.

The position in Europe is different, far more complicated, because of history. There is simply not the same linkage in Australia between ethnicity, culture and the sense of national identity. The idea of Germans = German ethnicity = German language and culture =  defined area = German nationalism is alien to Australia.

The very language that was earlier used in Australia including official documents - Australian people, Australian race -  that now makes modern Australians cringe was, of itself, a sign of the difference. We cringe because we see the idea of building a new but different British race on far shores as racist. Indeed it was, because it was set in the context of nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas of race and ethnicity that would later give rise (among other things) to the holocaust. Yet we forget the idea of newness, of change, of identity.

Today, Germany is, to a degree at least, stuck in the idea of being German. The idea of Australian is far more flexible. It is far easier to delete the concept of being British from the idea of a new Australian people than it is to delete German from the idea of the German people. 

I, for one, may be unhappy at our rejection of the British component of our past. However, I do accept that it is just so much easier to redefine a concept centred on the new than one centred on the old.    

Friday, October 22, 2010

A note on executive salaries

For a number of reasons I took down yesterday's second post for editing. I will repost later.

In a comment on Weariness with competition and the search for efficiency, KVD suggested Icarus and Phoenix: Crash and Burn as a title for a book on modern corporate management approaches. I like that.

Thinking further on the senior executive salary issue, when I first became a consultant, I was interested in varying charge rates and the relationship between those and client type and size. In simple terms, bigger clients were able and prepared to pay more per hour because the absolute size of the expected gain was higher. The same things applies with executive salaries.

High CEO salaries are usually justified on the grounds that they are market determined. At one level, that's true. Remuneration committees sit down and look at equivalent  remuneration packages and then set a package level expected to attract/retain the right person. Where a candidate is especially desired, a premium is paid. This creates the CEO salary equivalent of bracket-creep, for that higher salary is then incorporated into market data used to determine later CEO salaries. Those higher CEO packages then cascade down into adjustments to the salaries of senior executives. 

From what I have seen, companies that promote internally are somewhat less prone to salary inflation because they don't have the same need to pay a premium to attract the perceived good outside candidate. To my knowledge, I stand to be corrected, there is no statistically significant positive correlation between company performance and higher salary levels after adjusting for industry type. Indeed, the work done by American management writer Jim Collins suggests the opposite. Consistently high performing companies tend to have higher rates of internal promotion and somewhat lower remuneration packages than their less successful rivals.

If you think about it, that makes sense. Very successful companies are generally places where people want to work. They don't need to pay the same individual price premium as their somewhat less successful rivals. They certainly don't feel the same need for high profile silver bullet style CEOs.  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Weariness with competition and the search for efficiency

In October, Gail Kelly, CEO of the large Australian bank Westpac, announced further job cuts. At the same time, Forbes magazine listed her as eighth on its list of the most powerful women in the world. As it happened, one of our party in Greece was one of those made redundant as part of Mrs Kelly's cuts.

Also in October, Australian health fund NIB (a former mutual) launched an unsolicited take-over for Geelong based mutual GMHBA, an action attacked by the Sydney Morning Herald's Michael Pascoe in an article entitled How to steal a mutual. Then, on Tuesday, I was talking to old colleagues about the big staff cuts in another organisation, about the impacts this was having on performance. We also talked about high staff turnover in yet another organisation as a consequence of management problems. Today, the papers are full of the savage UK budget cuts. As I write, the proportion of the Australian workforce in temporary, casual or contact positions is higher than 50 per cent.

The $9 million that Gail Kelly spent on buying a house at Terry Hills on Sydney's Northern Beaches may sound a lot, but it is still less than her annual salary of around $10.6 million. The annual remuneration of NIB's CEO Mark Fitzgibbon at $1.14 million is a lot less than that of Mrs Kelly. Still, its not bad compared to the $495,000 he earned the year before demutualisation, not bad compared to the $870,000 he earned in 2007, the  year following.

This post is not an attack on executive salaries, although I do think that these are now, on average, out of kilter with the long term contribution of the executives concerned. Rather, it is an expression of weariness, of concern at the hidden costs associated with current management approaches.

Talking to a senior manager the other day, she said that she really could not do her job properly, that it was almost impossible to plan effectively when things were so unstable. Another manager complained that head count controls forced her to use contractors even though they were more expensive.

I have always been a supporter of the concept of continuous improvement, the idea of continuous incremental improvements. It is always possible to do better. Further, things that have worked in the past are constantly affected by organisational and market changes, leading to a requirement for change. Sometimes major change is required where there is a disconnect between the organisation as it stands and its function.

The problem I have, the reason for my weariness, is that the relentless drive to achieve efficiencies, to reduce (or at least be seen to be acting to reduce) costs, has become self-defeating. To use the jargon, the concept of efficiency has actually replaced that of effectiveness.

We can see this if we look at the concepts of fat and of redundancy.

Fat is a bad thing. We have to cut it out, to slim the organisation down. In excess, fat is a bad thing. The obese organisation becomes slower, less able to respond. Yet a degree of fat is actually not bad, because it allows managers to do new things, to respond to change.

Redundancy, the presence of surplus capacity or of fall back systems, is also a necessary thing in complex systems. As we have seen in electricity generation and distribution, you can reduce costs and increase profits by reducing redundancy. However, as you do, the chances of catastrophic systemic failure can increase.

Much of my work over recent decades has been as a strategic or management consultant. As a general rule of thumb, it is relatively easy to reduce costs. However, enhancing the organisation's longer term chances of survival is a far harder task.

At national level, I have argued that current approaches to public administration and public policy have passed their use by date. I just don't think that they work very well, for reasons that I have tried to spell out at length in past posts.            

One of the odd things here is that I find myself arguing against the very concepts that I once supported so strongly as a way of bringing about improvement. It's not that I think that the concepts themselves were wrong. Rather, that their blind, unthinking, application has become self-defeating. Still, that's another story!     

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Answering Thomas's question

Thomas asked me for me for my take on the recent deal between UNE and Sydney University. My response is set out in UNE's strategic positioning.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lessons of history

Partly as a consequence of the Greek trip, I am still firmly stuck in a world dominated by history. It is very hard for someone with my interests not to be when presently so absorbed in a history saturated region.

One of the things that I most want at the moment is a decent history of the British Empire. I have a pretty good general knowledge, but so much of the history is written from an English or British centric perspective (England with the Empire as an extension), various local perspectives (nation with Empire as backdrop) or theme perspective (mainly Imperialism as such). I want to know about the Empire over time as a more or less working entity (it was sometimes a pretty ramshackle affair). Without this, it's hard to trace influences in any comparative way.

I wonder where the phrase the dead hand of history came from? I did a bit of a web search, but in the time available could not come up with a definitive result. As a phrase, it does effectively capture the idea that the past can weigh upon the present.

During the week, I received an email from Australian Policy & History alerting me to the latest articles. I mentioned this new venture back in June. Its slogan, linking the past with the present for the future, summarises its aim: to link historians with policy-makers, the media and the Australian public. In doing so, it aims to inform public debate and promote better public policy-making through an understanding of history.

Sometimes understanding the past can simply inflame old wounds; the refreshed past becomes a weapon to be used for better and worst in present struggles. However, my experience has been that an understanding of history can play an important role in exposing and thus reducing the dead hand impact.

I said in my original post on Australian Policy & History that I was not a believer in the lessons of history. When I said that, I was really thinking of the way that the term has been sometimes used in the past, the idea that the study of history can somehow provide instructions that will enable us to future proof our moving present, our way of life, our civilisation.  That's far too grand for me. The ruins of Akrotiri, of Pompeii, of Rome itself, show the futility of that hope. Man may propose, but the Gods or Fate dispose.

At a simpler level, I do think that the study of history and especially history in a context can not only reduce the dead hand effect, but also provide useful principles and hints to guide current thinking. I must admit to a degree of frustration here, however. Too often, we seem to repeat past mistakes in our rush to achieve pragmatic outcomes. The past is dismissed as irrelevant.

There is quite an interesting case study here at the moment, the partial unwinding of some of the ideas and approaches in public policy that became dominant during the period of what I have called the flowering of the New Zealand model. This is being done as a pragmatic but partial response to the problems that emerged as a consequence of the sometimes blind application of that model. I find it interesting that there should be so little reference back to the experiences of the time.

Another interesting if perhaps less important example is the debate on the current mining boom. 2010 bears a striking resemblance to 1980. But that's another story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Andrew Bolt and the question of Aboriginality

One of the difficulties arising from being an active blogger over a long period is that the sheer volume of posts (now over 3,200) can make it difficult to remember, let alone find, past posts on particular topics.

I mention this because, at the end of September, Legal Eagle had an interesting post, Ethnic identity and the law, dealing in part with a court case in which some indigenous people are suing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt over some articles he wrote about indigenous identification and skin colour.

I read the post in Greece and really could not comment at the time. However, I knew that I had written something on the issue of the definition of Aboriginality. Now searching on return, I found this post Sunday and now Monday Essay - personal reflections on Australia's Indigenous peoples from 13 April 2009. This includes a brief discussion of the concept of Aboriginality. There I quoted one current definition:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.

It will be clear from the careful way I phrased the post that I found this a difficult issue amidst a suite of difficult issues relating to Australia's Aboriginal peoples. At a purely personal level, I have had to struggle to disentangle all the complexities of history and principle involved with our treatment of our indigenous peoples in a context where actions by both non-Aboriginal reformers and often well-intentioned official policies just make things more complicated.

The definition of Aboriginality I quoted with its emphasis on descent, self-identification and community recognition is of itself an attempt to replace the previous "race" based definition based on proportions of Aboriginality with a more sensible and rational definition.

The central problem with the previous definition was that it linked a single variable - descent- to official policies and programs based on that variable. There was a cascading chain of ideas: varying community and official attitudes about the Aborigines led to official policies and programs based on those attitudes. In turn, this required official definitions of the people to whom the policies and programs were to apply. Given then current ideas about race and ethnicity, proportions of Aboriginality came to be central.

The approach was, of course, deeply flawed. Among other things, it conflated perceptions about race and culture, concluding that culture as perceived (the idea of a child race, for example) was directly linked not just to race, but even the proportion of race.

Today, we still have the same cascading chain of ideas. Varying community and official attitudes about the Aborigines still leads to official policies and programs based on those attitudes that in turn require official definitions of the people to whom the policies and programs are to apply. The definitions of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander still matter beyond the personal level because they have practical effects; costs as well as benefits attach to them.

If we have to have official definitions, then the current three fold definition is to my mind clearly better. However, it also has its own problems and costs and is, I think, unsustainable in the longer term as the basis for policy. This gets me into difficult territory, so let me try to explain as simply as possible, recognising that I am still trying to think these issues through.

I have spent a fair bit of time over the last few years working on Aboriginal demography. This has included (among other things) analysis of trends and the generation of projections for use in planning service delivery. Increasingly, I struggle to know what these generalised statistics actually mean.

As I have said before, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not a single uniform entity, but are made up of a multiplicity of groups with a multiplicity of needs. Further, those needs contain a mixture of Aboriginal specific needs linked to history and culture with needs that are, in fact, sub-sets of needs within the broader communities in which the specific indigenous people live. The end result is a variable patchwork quilt.

Take Sydney as an example.

The number of Aboriginal people in Sydney is growing, if at a slower rate than the State average. Because there is out-migration of Aboriginal people from Sydney, Sydney's growth depends in part upon the natural birthrate, in part upon inter-marriage and self-identification. If two Aboriginal people marry and have two kids, the Aboriginal population as measured rises by two. If those Aboriginal people select non-Aboriginal partners and each have two kids who chose to classify themselves as Aboriginal, then Sydney's Aboriginal population as measured rises by four rather than two.

There is considerable variation in the Aboriginal condition within Sydney. For example, while Aboriginal home ownership is higher than the national average, it varies greatly across Sydney.

The problem that then arises is that statistics based on a simple definition of Aboriginality combines with service delivery based on that same definition to create something of a mess. The mess compounds as geographic coverage expands across the nation.

Am I opposed to Aboriginal specific services and policies? I am not. I have had far too much direct contact now with Aboriginal people to adopt that position. I am arguing, however, that we need to be far more flexible, more nuanced, in our approach. This brings me back to Andrew Bolt. Here I quote from Andrew Bolt as reported by Legal Eagle:

…Mellor and McMillan are representatives of a booming new class of victim you’d never have imagined we’d have to support with special prizes and jobs.

They are “white Aborigines” – people who, out of their multi-stranded but largely European genealogy, decide to identify with the thinnest of all those strands, and the one that’s contributed least to their looks. Yes, the Aboriginal one now so fashionable among artists and academics.

Let me start by listing areas that I agree with him:

  1. I agree that the current definition of Aboriginality and its link to entitlements can create problems.
  2. I agree that that there is probably a group of people who chose Aboriginality to gain benefits. Just ask any Aboriginal person in NSW on this one.
  3. I agree that there is a group - I would not limit it to artists or academics - who have made Aborigines a fashionable cause based on their perceptions of historical wrongs without adequate regard to either the historical record or the reality of variation within the Aboriginal community.

Now the areas where Mr Bolt is just plain wrong:

  1. He ignores the link between Aboriginality, culture and family up-bringing, focusing instead on skin colour and looks. I don't want to go into the long and in some ways sad history of this one, but if you grow up in an Aboriginal community, identify with it and are identified with it, then you are Aboriginal regardless of blood proportions. For example, you probably speak and are recognised to speak Aboriginal English. This is not a comment on Aboriginal English, simply on the way we use a variety of markers to categorise people.  
  2. I know of no evidence to support the assertion that there is a "booming new class of victims" supported "with special prizes and jobs". I do know of specific individuals, I do know that among Australia's welfare poor there is an incentive at the margin to claim Aboriginality as a way of getting a possible edge, but we are talking in hundreds, perhaps low thousands, not tens of thousands.
  3. Mr Bolt fails to recognise that Aboriginal people themselves are the greatest barrier to this type of rip-off. This one deserves a special comment.

Kinship is central to Aboriginal culture. To be accepted, you must be able to show and have accepted your kin relationships. Aboriginal people actually guard this quite closely. In my experience, they quickly identify people who are trying to use claims of Aboriginality for personal benefit and close ranks against them. It is a matter of pride.