Join Winnies War and mind your language!
This first appeared on the opinion pages of The Melbourne Age
Winston Churchill may be well known for the battles he waged in the name of the Allied Forces but it is the lesser know war he declared on the desecration of the English language that still rages. At the height of the Battle of Britain with war all round him Churchill barked out an edict banning bureaucratese, legalese, officialese, jargon and other gobbledygook in favour of plain English. To him it was the fastest method of conveying concise, unambiguous messages to command.
As a practising plain English editor and writer, I can assure you this battle is ongoing and it is coming at us on many fronts from the supermarket shelves to the corridors of our national capital. It is fed by intellectual vanity, fear of looking dumb, pesky lawyers (of course) and a general public that has been bludgeoned into submission by its heavy, dull, self-important pedantry. This enemy of clarity and friend of the obscurantist feeds off our numb acceptance of it in our everyday lives.
Speaking of pesky lawyers, here’s a sample of something I recently had to turn into plain English for a reluctant law firm. “The conditions of chapters 13 and 14 shall with modifications deemed as necessary extend and apply to and in relation to this Section and others, without affect to the aforementioned in the sense of its generality, in particular with the modification that any reference to plastic or plastic products shall be construed as a reference to rubber products also in full. (58 words) Still awake? My solution was “what chapters 13 and 14 say about plastic and plastic products also applies to rubber. (15 words)”. Say no more!
Just as you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse neither should you be turning nouns into verbs. For those out there who practise these verbal gymnastics I have “benchmarked” your attainment and have decided not to “calendar” you a meeting so “access” your information on your way out my door before I “task” you a spanking. Mind you, it can sometimes work, for example US visionary Buckminster Fuller once described, “God as a verb not a noun, proper or improper”. Mind you he didn’t go on to say “I God you” but you get the drift.
Then there’s the buzz word salads that slink across my desk and curl up in the corner staring their evil stare. Buzzword users like to hide in the vagaries of big words. They use “realise” rather than do “facilitate” rather than “make easier” or my pet hate “utilise” rather than “use. These jumbled assaults on my beloved English seem designed to intimidate, depersonalise and divert the reader from the fact that the writer has no answer. Scratch the surface and you are in free fall for these battalions of nothingness often carry no precise meaning at all. A case in point is the following blast of corporate waffle I edited as part of an annual report for a finance client. “By analysing and validating strategies moving forward we can better ascertain our total customer satisfaction base and thus better empower our interactive competency team process.” In other words “closely monitoring strategies teaches us more about customer satisfaction and improves our team work.”
Not surprisingly, however, it is the bottom line imperative that will probably drive companies and governments to take up plain English. Recent US research demonstrates that Australian business may be losing as much as $2 billion a year through unclear communication which equates to about 35,000 jobs. This is based on a US survey of 3,000 customers about the promotional material they are emailed and mailed. It was found that up to a third were simply boycotting products that came with bad writing, costing the US economy about $10 billion per annum.
However, it’s not all bad news as the recent stoush in the US over Facebook’s user agreement demonstrates. The company took a public relations belting after the blogosphere raged at it for making changes to its user agreement without notice and without it really being clear what the changes were. The main problem was changes to two sentences that gave Facebook a licence over any content even after you’ve deleted your profile. In an amazing turn of events for a modern corporate, Facebook is taking bold steps to recraft its Terms of Services agreement into plain English. If this goes ahead, and if Facebook users start to demand the same plain English language of the other companies, it might set an important new precedent for all consumers. After all, real consumer choice doesn’t exist unless we can read, understand and then act on information we are presented with. In the words of Albert Einstein, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”
Welcome to Australian Democracy for dummies
On behalf of Captain I gotta Zip and The Sheriff of Nothingham hill I’d like to welcome all Australian’s to Australian Democracy for dummies. A national vote fest that’s doing things with democracy ancient Greek philosophers could only dream off. No this is not about News Limited waving its manhood with menace at the Ruddster, it’s not even about selfies or Ménage à twats or lord help us those dam boats. And it certainly not about whether or not the dog ate the liberal party’s costings. It did. I saw it. End of story.
No my fellow Australians it’s about being forced on election day to get out there and vote under the threat of being fined to exercise you god given right to avoid getting fined. But what a day out eh? A waddle down to the local school to fight off those pamphlet wielding zombies – the greenie who wants to legalise ecstasy with-in same sex indigenous marriages and the local bigot who wants those people from the country of Islam stay in their own country of Islam. After running that gauntlet you slide up to pearly gates of democracy where the tuck shop lady ticks your name. You then shuffle towards the ballot box singing you put your Prime Minister in, you put your Prime Minister out, you put your Prime Minister in, and you shake him/her all about before casting your impulse in to the abyss of Australian democracy. With that done you emerge full of democratic spirit with one simple question “where’s that sausage sizzle?”
No but seriously…
With soaring vision for the 21st Century, Tony Abbott has committed Australia to a gigantic U-turn on climate, carbon and clean energy. This follows his plans to bring Australia storming into the Asian century by better aligning it to the traditional values of the Catholic Church. I expect his next step will be to partner with Alan Jones in demanding a constitutional amendment to make ruddy faced shouting our new national language.
Meanwhile Kevin has cut all ties, particularly the blue ones and has assured us all if we all try hard enough there’s nothing we can’t bring back from 2007. But Kev, programmatic specificity aside, I way you to help you achieve your much vaunted 2016 surplus - the immediate cessation of all unemployment benefits to the nations’ unemployed trees. I mean trees have been rorting the benefits system for years. Those slack jawed yokels just stand about converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and quite literally watching the grass grow. The message to young Australians? Don’t be taking a leaf out of their book!
But we have it pretty good here, perched in Asia, a stable government, a pretty good economy. A free nation where anyone can make it big. For example Professor Clive Palmer owns a company which digs up ore and sells it so he’s expert in everything! In Russia however, following the passing of anti gay laws, being gay in Russia is now officially worse than being Russian in Russia. A recent government survey over seen by President Putin of everyday Russians, whose children were being detained just down the hall, found 143 per cent of those surveyed agreed homosexuality is a disease you can catch watching American TV and 113 per cent believed it is a bad habit often associated with left handed tennis players. And just when you thought it could get any funkier the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church last month brought the Russian church storming into the 16th century when he called same-sex marriage “a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse.” This from a man who is also well known for a wearing gorgeous gold hats and for have only ever lived with other men.
And then there’s poor, struggling Nauru. This perennial Aussie political football has been severely weakened following the announcement that someone had stolen the stole the Nauruan government’s PC. It remains a mystery as the PC was situated in a well-guarded tent on edges of what was once Nauru largest guano mine. Also stolen was a pair of parliamentary flippers, the president’s thongs, and top secret blue prints for the design of Nauru’s new parliamentary hammock.
So whether the Liberals are found to be a one trick Tony or Labour just a ruddy mess I say put down the glasses, the horse has bolted and that train has sailed because it’s a foregone conclusion that the winner will be Limited News.
Facebook Opinion Piece
This first appeared on the opinion pages of The Melbourne Age
EVERY now and then the living are lucky enough to find themselves at the dawn of an epoch. This feeling was palpable in the late 1990s as our best and brightest burned off down the then-potholed information superhighway.
Despite this, a web-based company called Hotmail launched its email service in July 1996 and by December 1997 boasted 8.5 million users – a stunning achievement for the time. Hotmail was the be-all and end-all in web-based email and everyone had a Hotmail address.
Not surprisingly, the big money wanted in. Microsoft moved fast in late 1997 with a cool $US400 million offer that Hotmail’s young guns couldn’t refuse. But, as we know, history has a way of not panning out how it ought, and Bill Gates and his merry men found that Hotmail turned out to be a storm in an IT cup.
Within a few years it would be swamped by a rapidly fracturing, ever-expanding marketplace. Yahoo!, Gmail and numerous other young punks moved in. Hotmail tripped over and never really got back up.
Its legacy, however, has proved important. Hotmail introduced us to the wonders of web-based email; allowing businesses to offer it to staff and opening them up to 24/7 access without training and re-skilling.
And therein lies the lesson for devotees of Facebook. At present, Facebook is how most people engage in social networking online but, if history is anything to go by, it will be a footnote. In other words, its ultimate contribution will be like Hotmail – an instructive force that showed businesses how to integrate social networking techniques into their solutions.
Facebook is literally a phenomenon, a business for its time; a web 2.0 icon that has gathered a staggering 200 million users in less than two years. As the world’s fourth most popular website, it uploads 14 million photos a day. Its users have generated $230 million in ad revenue this year, and it is popular with kids. A recent US college student survey named it the second-most popular ”thing” (it tied with beer and was just beaten by the iPod).
But stay still too long in the fast-changing ether world of the WWW, and you’ll turn to stone. Already other social networking sites are making big inroads into Facebook’s iconic status. There’s Badoo in Europe, with more than 37 million users, Friendster in South-East Asia with 90 million, LinkedIn (which is mainly for business users) with 43 million and the Google-owned Orkut, already well established in India and Brazil, with 67 million users.
Today Facebook is already seeing off the competition, having just bought FriendFeed, which has long been a geek destination in the vein of Twitter. Management has made noises about synergies and plans to incorporate FriendFeed into operations, but from a distance it looks more like a defensive play.
As for those in business wanting to hitch their horses to the Facebook wagon, remember MySpace? Rupert Murdoch bought it for more than half a billion dollars four years ago and now it’s a shadow of its former self.
Anyone with kids will recall that a year ago they were on that thing 24 hours a day creating elaborate fonts, uploading pictures and downloading whatever. Today, MySpace is yesterday. And therein lies another lesson for business: we can no longer assume people who generate content are a stable property and attribute any kind of permanence to their behaviour.
While incorporating Facebook into a new business model may be understandable, in the long term, it’s an impermanent proposition. Sure, Facebook has shown us that giving people a voice in content production is a great, cheap way to foster brand loyalty, but why give away all your traffic to it? You worked damn hard to get it in the first place, so invest in doing it yourself.
Meanwhile, Facebook has a few problems of its own – privacy and confidentiality issues, intellectual property issues and identity fraud, just to name a few. Italian soccer hero Alessandro Del Piero is suing it over a fake profile bearing his name that links to neo-Nazis, and workplaces like the NSW Department of Education and Training, have banned it. Students and youth groups are also claiming that the transient friendships it offers are damaging teenagers’ ability to connect in the real world, leaving some traumatised and even suicidal.
Then there’s the simple issue of Status Update Exhaustion. Of Facebook’s 250 million registered users, 30 million update their status at least once a day in largely narcissistic fluff. Frankly, who cares if the new kitten has learnt to climb the couch or that you just burnt the rice?
Just when you thought that was enough, along comes Twitter, with its even more inane tweets that lead many of us to the conclusion that too many tweets make you a twat.
There is no doubt we are moving towards a more participatory culture online. However, as social networking features are integrated and offered by newer, cooler players, Facebook will loose its alpha status and businesses that tied their fortunes to it will be left looking for the next big thing.
More and more users will also demand some sort of editing of the white noise of web 2.0 as they seek a blend of social and mainstream media. Google has launched Google Wave (basically Gmail on steroids), a meld of email, social networking, instant messaging and document collaboration; while Microsoft’s coming release of Outlook 2010 is geared to mimic social networking. Meanwhile, Email 3.0 is coming and bringing with it an inbox mix of social media, instant messaging, text messaging and news-feed widgets.
The beat goes on. Footnote anyone?
Monash Business Review
Andrew Pegler was editor of Monash Business Review for three years, which published original research, including fully refereed academic articles, plus case studies, ideas, trends, special events and more. The journal covered business in a broad sense for an equally broad audience ranging from managers to graduates, and academics in management, corporate strategy, finance and other disciplines.
The Challenges for SME’s in the present climate
This article first appeared in the Monash University Business Review
The well trodden road for SMEs is littered by the failures and short coming of many who tried and enlightened by the success of those that made it. One thing they all had in common was a set of challenges that could undo the best of intentions. Andrew Pegler takes a look at a few.
In Australia an SME is defined as a firm with less than 200 full time employees and/or less than $10 million turnover. Of our 624,010 SMEs, more than two thirds employ between one and four people with a further 180,880 employing between five and 19 meaning that 93.5 per cent of people employed by SMEs in Australia are employed by what can be described as ‘micro-SMEs’, namely companies with less than 20 employees. These mostly independently owned and operated businesses survive by adapting the crucial issues of return on investment, debt-equity ratio, break-even analysis and cash flow to their particular business. Meanwhile an emphasis on liquidity, rather than profit, gets them through the everyday reality of skills shortages, stretched finances, and the short-range management lens determined by the erratic and intensely competitive environment they operate in.
It’s about confidence stupid
One of the things SMEs are most sensitive to, more so than their than their bigger business counterparts, is confidence. This intangible but crucial determinant of profits and losses was revealed to be waning in a recent National Australia Bank survey of SMEs which took in 650 with an annual sales turnover of between $2 million and $10 million. It found most felt conditions were worsening with labor market pressures, interest rates and demand the main constraints. “The role of confidence is all important,” claims Tony Steven, Chief Executive of small business peak body the Council of Small Business of Australia. “When the economy is going well SME confidence builds with it, but when the Reserve Bank puts up interest rates we get a critical mass where consumers and SME confidence crashes at once. I believe this has now happened and confidence won’t return quickly. I also think SMEs are still carrying too much debt which can impact heavily on confidence. These debt levels also reflect the most important issue to us at the moment which is education around how to run a business.”
Skills, Skills, Skills
Broadly speaking, in an era of high employment as we have in most Western Economies at the moment, small businesses suffer skills shortages because the staff they need are already hired by larger organisations offering better salaries with more bells and whistles. “Skills has been an issue for us but we’ve developed a successful response to the challenge,” explains Dianne Taylor, joint owner of Stug Australia, a Melbourne based mechanical engineering company with 32 employees. “We literally had to take a marketing strategy approach and ask ourselves what is our unique value proposition and we discovered our advantage is size. So we’ve focused on creating a more family friendly work culture where the boss knows your name and it has worked really well.”
It’s not all bad news moving forward, for SMEs with the Federal Government about to boost Australia’s skilled migrant intake by 30%, taking skilled migrant numbers to 133,500 for the year, by far the largest component of the country’s total migrant intake of 190,300.
Innovation on the global playing field
Countries and regions like China, India, Brazil, South East Asia and now Eastern Europe now attract the majority of Foreign Direct Investment and increasingly dominate global supply chains. Brazil, Russia, India and China combined – the BRIC economies – are putting over 3 billion highly competitive workers on the global playing field and not just in low-wage manufacturing and information labour but increasingly in high-skilled areas like engineering, programming and design. Some sobering figures back this – while China produces over 350,000 tertiary qualified engineers a year the US only produces 138,00; over 400,000 American tax returns will be processed by Indian accounting firms this year and Brazil’s second largest source of exports is now passenger jets made by Embraer, the world’s fourth largest civilian airplane maker. With those sort of figures it’s not hard to see why Goldman Sachs estimates that in less than 40 years the BRIC economies will be larger than the G6.
In order to gain a niche in this fiercely completive global economy Australian SMEs need to find something that nobody is doing and innovate on it. To quote one of Australia’s leading innovation researchers, Steve Dowrick Head of the School of Economics at the Australian National University “…although the rest of the world provides a huge source of ideas and technologies, a country like Australia cannot rely on a strategy of passive absorption to maintain strong productivity performance. In order to benefit from the global public good of world knowledge, countries need to have well trained scientists, a technologically capable workforce and active engagement in cutting edge research.”
Misperception of policy makers
As a founding father of entrepreneurship, the late Mike Scott of Stirling University in the UK, once famously quipped “a small business is not a little big business”. It is easy to assume that all businesses are the same, regardless of size. That they have the same structures, competencies, capacity to delivery on customer requests, capability to handle legal issues, HR etc, etc but they don’t. Policy makers often overlook these facts and treat all businesses as the same, because they are dealing at a meta level, on policy, law and so on. “About the only thing small and large businesses have in common is they sell goods or services,” says Associate Professor Mark Dibben of the Monash University School of Business & Economics. “SMEs don’t exist for the benefit of shareholders and don’t have any capacity to generate big funds like big business. Also their raison d’etre is often worlds apart, big business is about growth and shareholder value while an SME is more often about putting the owner’s kids through school and keeping a roof over the family’s head. This generally smaller scale of SMEs means that things like company tax laws, GST registration, employment law, data warehousing and health and safety compliance are a disproportionate burden to SME’s compared to their larger competitors. It’s not to say that the laws are wrong, or should be changed it’s just that the burdens on SMEs are not at the forefront of legislators minds.”
Funding high technology
High technology SME’s come in all shapes and sizes ranging from IT and Biotechnology to makers of advanced materials and medical device. They need state-of-the-art equipment for optimum results, marketability and contract retention and the challenges they face include problematic legal definitions of patentability, the high risks of research, long lead times to the commercial exploitation and, particularly in biotech, sticky moral/ethical issues like embryonic stem cells use. However, according to Prof. Nick Birrell Director, Monash Asia Pacific Centre for Science & Wealth Creation, their main challenge is getting finance. “If you are a bio tech and you want to undertake a clinical trial it costs a lot of money. Banks are not that keen to lend unless you have established revenue and profit so typically a high tech will look to venture capital which is often very hard to get.
And things just got a whole lot tougher since Commercial Ready, a Federal Government SME grants program that subsidised innovation and commercialisation, was scrapped in the recent Budget,” says Prof. Birrell “Companies used to be able to claim 50% of innovation project costs under the program, up to AU$5 million and its demise is considered by most high tech SME’s as a disaster.” Any new grants programs will not be introduced until the next year’s budget, which will mean that SMEs looking for help with their innovation projects will have to wait.
Weaving a web
Meanwhile, on today’s web-enabled playing field SMEs can work together or compete, regardless of geography, time zones or soon, even language. This means business not only has the ability to move jobs wherever there’s a factory, but now wherever there’s broadband. Tech savvy SMEs with an internationally viable product can exploit serious exporting opportunities with the right web presence. However, as Mark Dibben warns, a global presence, especially in emerging industries, can be problematic because of the possibility of an unexpected and considerable surge in demand. “The demands placed on an SME will be commensurate with the quality of its website in other words if they look like a big business they’ll be expected to deliver like one. This can crush a business much like it nearly did with Amazon when it first started. ”
Regulation: Better the devil you know?
Important to any functioning SME sector are the invisible but all powerful tillers of regulation. According to research from Ibis World our least cumbersome sectors, in terms of regulation, are health and community services, personal services and cultural and recreational services while the most regulated are the construction, agriculture and mining sectors. Not surprisingly mining enjoys the best growth conditions.
Regulation takes many forms from licenses to permits to quotas some examples include limits on taxi licences, taxes on exports, anti merger legislation and, although often derided, industry codes of conduct like those in advertising and television. “The two big issues for most SMEs remains compliance associated with GST and the State payroll tax,” reveals Graeme Chipp, Managing Director of the Growth Solutions Group which employs 20 and consults to senior management in Strategy and Marketing. “The associated paperwork with the GST is not insignificant given quarterly BAS requirements and State payroll tax is a clear penalty for growth particularly in our industry where creating new productive jobs for people is as much a key driver of growth as it is an outcome.”
Tall Poppy Syndrome
This article first appeared on http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/
Apparently Kevin Rudd is worth $60 million. Apparently Malcolm Turnball is worth $120 million. Apparently this is an issue because apparently the drought has not killed off all the tall poppies. Yes folks the ever-present egalitarian Aussie scythe is out and swinging’ and it has our top two pollies in its sight.
Australian’s are compelled to deflate the pretensions of those who take themselves too seriously or flaunt their success without due humility. We like our leaders to be like us. It’s called the tall poppy syndrome. Turnball’s mistake the other week of not knowing which footy team he supports could eventually prove an election issue and Kevin’s recent nifty off swinger on the parliament lawn could swing a few seats.
We have carved ourselves a classless Elysian Fields, the final resting place of meek, where millionaires rub shoulders with the unemployed under the beach showers, taxi drivers yell with surgeons at the footy and tradies swap waves with intellectuals in the surf. Indeed this all noble stuff but when writ large as with the Rudd/Turnball ‘modesty-off’ we have going on now, there’s an element of farce that echoes Monty Python’s We Were So Poor skit. “Well when I say “house” it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to us.” Stop Press! Kevin grew up in a corridor with 126 others and young Malcolm had to eat gravel for breakfast!
For me, the most striking thing to come out of this race to the bottom to get to the top is the contrast with the US presidential candidates. Over there you wear your wealth and success as a badge of honour. It shows the kind folks at home you keenly align with the core US values of rugged individualism and nous. It tells the voting public you are capable and you’ve lived in the real world and prospered on your wits. Perhaps the most direct parallel is John McCain. Just like our Therese, his wife Cindy is stinkin’ rich. Cindy is an heiress to her father’s stake in Hensley & Co. of Phoenix worth over US$100 million. Her beer earnings have afforded the GOP presidential nominee a wealthy lifestyle with a private jet and vacation homes at his disposal, and her connections launched his political career. And no one holds that against him. Sorry Kevin.
Then there’s Mitt Romney a one time serious Republican presidential contender. He was CEO of a significant management consulting firm called Bain & Company, and he was all over private equity as co-founder of Bain Capital. After this stellar business career he was CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics and then became the 70th Governor of Massachusetts. Today Mitt has a net worth of $400 million USD, not including a $100 million blind trust in the name of his children. In the US such a hugely lucrative career as a banker credentials him as a capable administrator, worthy of public office. Sorry Malcolm.
Then there’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, not short of a dollar or two, who racked up more than $30 million in debt during her Democratic primary campaign, (mind you she could emerge from her loss with a bundle of campaign cash to either play kingmaker or mount another campaign of her own.) Sorry Bill.
This article appeared on http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/ in 2009. ABC Unleashed presents diverse and robust opinion about politics, society, belief and behaviour.
Meanwhile back here in Oz it’s all about modesty and to maintain that ruse here’s a few etiquette tips for the aspiring polly. Lose any trace of superiority in public, don’t enunciate too clearly, punctuate sentences with the word mate (pronounced maaattte!!), practise comfortably sipping beer from a bottle for the camera and never, ever say “joy good show” when you can say “on ya”. Be comfortable in the surf, be happy to kiss babies for the cameras, keep your wealth a dirty little secret, and most importantly avoid Italian suits and French clocks.