Friday, July 28

Why Technology isn't improving productivity


Productivity is the economic measure to determine the overall performance of an economy in terms of the efficiency of labour and capital. In the past a key driver of productivity has been technological improvement. But Economists of more recent times continue to be surprised by the declines in productivity as indicated in the national accounts of developed countries. Whilst the individual identification of productivity in a digital world may be far more difficult to quantify statistically, nevertheless overall gains would still be evident in the aggregated numbers of output evident in national accounts.

What I aim to do with this brief paper is to seek to identify and discuss a number of issues which I believe are relevant. The bottom line however is that no one can say for sure what the exact reasons are and any study will be faced with a mountain of conflicting evidences in today’s complex developed world.

At the very outset the fact that a lack of productivity elicits so little coverage in discussion is in itself an indication of the current malaise because the subject to some degree has gone out of fashion. You might say in some respects we are spoilt for choice and drift into arrangements just as fashion dictates what to wear rather than what’s practical or necessary for our existence. The question then is how important is it that technology in a digital world yield overall improvements in productivity?      

What is oft overlooked is the only way we can advance overall living standards and increase real wages is by way of improvements in productivity. If in a digitized world this is no longer viable then we have to start questioning the very wisdom of the pathway that is before us.

In my view possible key drivers which derail the benefits of technology can be summarised as ever increasing amount of re- work, a marked drift away from quality, a far too rapid take up of new technology and technology overload which cancels out its individual benefits. What I propose to do is to discuss why I think these factors contribute to the current malaise.

Past Improvements in Productivity and growing complexity

However, as a preliminary first step I will outline in the form of a brief history how in the past technological investments have enhanced productivity. The fact is, of course very worthwhile gains are continuing to be made in every sphere notwithstanding they don’t add up to noticeable improvement in the national accounts of advanced economies.  My initial aim in taking this approach is to ascertain if any initial clues may emerge as to why these gains have now stalled.

In the past great strides were made possible by the use of technologies within machinery which automated processes and reduced labour. Translating such productivity gains into statistics was not difficult and the aggregated gains showed up readily in the output totals and by industry in national accounts. After all it was easy to see if you were producing more widgets with fewer people after investing in labour saving technologies. 

But over time manufacturing in developed economies shrunk as globalization took hold and many large manufacturing and distribution outlets were re-located in developing economies which offered lower costs principally because of lower wages paid.
During the ensuing period developed economies changed dramatically with the void in manufacturing filled by services which now make up over 70% of gross domestic product.

However initially the idea of productivity applying equally to the service industries was not considered feasible since labour performed tasks thought to be too complex and intuitive for machines or robots. But over time technology began to adapt and automation was implemented in earnest.  

What we are now seeing is increasing use of algorithms (An algorithm can be a procedure or a formula for solving a problem, which is predicated on actioning a sequence of specified actions) used to supplant what previously were reasonably advanced or even highly skilled labour tasks. At times entire so called back office functions are being eliminated. That provides large initial gains which is fine providing employees are retained for ongoing oversight. In the absence of that residual investment gains may be overshadowed by the onslaught of emerging bugs and the need for expensive rework.  

An ever increasing amount of re- work in business which is now largely hidden.

It follows on we are now all existing in a far more uncertain and complex time so that many of the applications we rely on are increasingly linked to large scale single off site depositories or service centres. What is also more evident is the so called “business disrupters” whose applications challenge the more expensive traditional base industries and particularly in the financial and business services industries.

Although the popularity of these applications is growing due to a lower cost base and resultant benefit to the consumer it does not necessarily entail any improvement overall in productivity. The same functions may be performed but with less security back –up and hence much lower initial costs can give way to increased outages and subsequent re work. 

When I talk to professionals, the concerns voiced all involve the same theme which boils down to their concerns over a lack of quality standards and that faults identification is being subcontracted out to the consumer. It’s more economical to wait for the customers to discover the faults then to run costly trials and testing before release. Of course there is going to be a price to pay at the user level in terms of increased re work. What might provide a bridge would be more “go to” partners who offers personal services to consumers and business alike to effectively take advantage of new technology, but a barrier is the high cost involved and expertise which must be continually updated. 

Another source for confusion is the standard practice of incentivizing consumers to do more, supposedly from easy to use references on websites and do it yourself technical set ups for new products. This is a phenomenon of our expanding digital world where enterprises increasingly want consumers to do their own on line account maintenance, enquiry or ordering. But what often passes for instructions can be little better than generalised poor or even non-existent steps. Just follow the prompts and unsurprisingly a large amount of re – work is almost always guaranteed.

People don’t include detailed explanations the fact it took those in small business, days to set up a new phone system or get a new product or program to work or to understand all the new features for the latest update they neither need nor requested.

A marked drift away from quality

Have you also noticed for instance the proliferation of programming patches, updates, and correcting errors, omissions or explanations that increasingly dominate communications on our devices?

The evidence of a lack of quality is now evident across a wide spectrum of goods and services and involves a corresponding increase in time to rectify even routine matters. One now as a matter of routine practice has to set aside increasing levels of time to talk to a machine before you finally reach a real person, after very long waiting periods. Eventually one is left with the opportunity to tell the machine whether the human intervention was successful. Are we trying to train the firm’s employees by talking to a machine and leaving feedback to the employee as to how successful they are at problem solving?    

Information Overload and a lack of clarity in communications 

We are all aware of the need for clear communications in business as it is critical to attend to the needs of customers and stakeholders if one is to have success. But clarity can all too easily be hijacked by the disjointed nature of electronic communication, so that often picking up a phone and speaking in person can be the best option.

Equally having to contend with too much technology can be counterproductive.
Take for instance a modem day employee with a laptop in use, a large monitor behind that and a smartphone and office phone alongside ringing impatiently has the potential to waste all of that high powered technology to the extent productivity suffers. Studies have repeatedly indicated neither sex are suited to multi-tasking which is a sure fire way to reduce productivity.

Trying to stay focused on current work while checking text messages, responding to the buzz of incoming emails and attending to intermittent phone calls is not conducive to high levels of productivity.  

So as multitasking becomes the norm for the younger generations who seem to be able to skilfully adapt to all of the new technology devices with relative ease (while still walking around) we might ask the question how did they get anything done? The answer is they manage because they have grown up in that era and learned to adapt – but don’t expect it to show up in any efficiencies or in productivity gains!

There needs to be more research as to the reasons productivity has stalled but I trust the points I have raised provide food for thought as to some possible drivers.

I do think we need to think more about how to make technology our servant rather than our master.


Monday, July 17

Oklahoma! - 1943 Restoration - Act 1

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts does this very well presented and painstaking recreation of Oklahoma as it premiered in 1943.What was remarkable was several of the original key show principals, now aged 93 attended the performance. Oklahoma was one of the most popular musicals ever composed by Rogers & Hammerstein. The plot and music continues to entertain and thrill audiences today, just as it was a boon with the troops during war time. It continued be popular in the world long after and toured Australia in 1949.
Ever since it has become a stalwart for musical societies everywhere.
I was first involved in a production in 1980. Our small group of singers intend to sing a medley of songs as per below from the show (with some adaption of the words to add some humor) for the next small concert at the Aged Care Centre. One never tires of the music.

Oklahoma –C Major
OOOOk-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain, Ok La Homa, 
Where the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet,
When the wind comes right behind the rain.
OOOOk-lahoma, Ev'ry night my honey lamb and I,
Sit alone and talk
and watch a hawk
makin' lazy circles in the sky.
We know we belong to the land
And the land we belong to is grand!
And when we say
Yeeow! Aye-yip-aye-yo-ee-ay!
We're only sayin'
You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!
O.K. L - A - H - O - M - A

Surry with the fringe on top /G Major
Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in the surrey,
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top!
Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppin' strutters.
Nosey folks'll peek through their shutters and their eyes will pop!
The wheels are yeller, the upholstery's brown,
The dashboard's genuine leather,
With isinglass curtains y' can roll right down,
In case there's a change in the weather.
Two bright sidelight's winkin' and blinkin',
Ain't no finer rig I'm a-thinkin'
You c'n keep your rig if you're thinkin' 'at I'd keer to swap
Fer that shiny, little surrey with the fringe on the top!
Hush, you bird, my baby's a-sleepin'!
Maybe got a dream worth a-keepin'
Whoa! you team, and jist keep a-creepin' at a slow clip clop.
Don't you hurry with the surrey with the fringe on the top!

Out of My dreams / F Major 
Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly
I will come as evening comes to woo a waiting sky.
Out of my dreams and into the hush of falling shadows,
When the mist is low and stars are breaking through
Then out of my dreams I'll go Into a dream with you.
Won't have to make up anymore stories
You'll be there!
Think of the bright midsummer night
Glories we can share.
Won't have to go on kissing a daydream
I'll have you
You'll be real
Real as the white moon lighting the blue.
Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly
I will come as evening comes to woo a waiting sky.
Out of my dreams and into the hush of falling shadows,
When the mist is low and stars are breaking through
Then out of my dreams I'll go
Into a dream with you.

Oh what a beautiful morning C Major
There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow
There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow.
The corn is as high as an elephant's eye
And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky.
Oh, what a beautiful Mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I've got a beautiful feelin'
Everything's goin' my way.
All the cattle are standin' like statues
All the cattle are standin' like statues
They don't turn their heads as they see me ride by
But a little brown mav'rick is winkin' her eye
Oh, what a beautiful Mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I've got a beautiful feelin'
Everything's goin' my way.
All the sounds of the earth are like music
All the sounds of the earth are like music
The breeze is so busy it don't miss a tree
An' a ol' weepin' willer is laughin' at me
Oh, what a beautiful Mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I've got a beautiful feelin'
Everything's goin' my way.
Oh, what a beautiful day!

I can’t say No !
I'm jist a girl who cain't say no,
I'm in a turrible fix

I always say "come on, le's go"
Jist when I orta say nix!
When a person tries to kiss a girl,
I know she orta give his face a smack.
But as soon as someone kisses me,
I somehow, sorta, wanta kiss him back!
I'm jist a fool when lights are low
I cain't be prissy and quaint
I ain't the type that can faint
How c'n I be whut I ain't?
I cain't say no!

I'm jist a boy who cain't say no,
I'm in a turrible fix
I always say "come on, le's go"
Jist when I orta say nix!

But when the girls try to kiss the boys,  
We knows we orta give ‘em just a peck   
But as soon as Annie kisses me,
I somehow, sorta, wanta kiss her back!
I'm jist a fool when lights are low
I cain't be a sissy or quaint
I ain't the type that can faint
How c'n I be whut I ain't?
I cain't say no!


Saturday, July 15

Nigel Westlake - Compassion, Symphony of Songs (2013) - Part 1

Compassion is an award winning composition by Nigel Westlake in conjunction with Lior Attar who is an independent Israeli-Australian singer-songwriter based in Melbourne.

The work was commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Vladimir Ashkenazy for the Sydney Symphony and the Australian Symphony orchestras with the support of Symphony Services International. The work evolved from a collection of rich worlds from Islam and Judaism whose profound and poetic messages capture the essence of a compassionate existence between human beings. The texts represent poems, proverbs and songs which underwrite this universal wisdom. One is drawn to the similarities and the universality of compassion expressed in music. 
Instrumentation:  2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo/alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contra-bassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, harp, piano/celeste, percussion (5 players), timpani, strings (, tenor voice (amplified).

1. Sim Shalom: Grant Peace -- 2. Eize Hu Chacham?  Who is Wise? -- 3. La Yu’minu: Until You Love Your Brother -- 4. Inna Rifqa: The Beauty Within -- 5. Al Takshu L’vavchem: Don’t Harden Your Hearts -- 6. Ma Wadani Ahadun: Until the End of Time -- 7. Avinu Malkeinu: Hymn of Compassion.

Wednesday, July 5

Roger Young Collective - Now You Has Jazz

On Monday as the Victorian co coordinator for retirees with my previous employer I organised our midyear function which was a concert at the Melbourne Arts Centre. Afterwards we enjoyed a luncheon at the Irish pub P J O’Brien’s.  

The above clip is just one small sample from the lead jazz singer and her ensemble. Her performance on the day was exemplary, possessing an ideal clear, bright and powerful voice which was thoroughly engaging throughout.  Violinist and arranger Roger Young brought a jazzy accent to mostly well- known screen numbers, being aptly supported by his string ensemble (Cello, Violin and double bass) plus the superb jazz musicians on Sax, Piano and Drums.