Scot Herrick reminds his readers to think about money the way businesses do.

He writes:

For business, it’s all about the money. Unfortunately, for too many knowledge workers, it isn’t.

Instead, we are told to love our work. We are told to work extra hours – for no pay. We are told that we should be loyal to companies when companies will lay us off in a cold-blooded minute.

This is sound advice.

We’ve all come across examples of large organisations that make vast profits yet lean on individuals to donate knowledge, time and energy in return for… nothing.

Journalists get this a lot. We are often expected to work ‘for exposure’. In most case the people who ask for this work for organisations that never give anything away.

We’ll put the inverse Robin Hood injustice of taking from the poor and giving to the rich aside for one moment and focus on the important point:

If you don’t value your time and work, nobody else will.

Rewarding knowledge workers

Brainpower: Rewarding knowledge workers is an article adapted from a presentation given by consulting firm Mercer. It looks at the needs and wants of knowledge workers from a managerial point of view. While its conclusion is far from original (bosses need to look after knowledge workers if they want to stay competitive) the core message needs underlining.

“…a pressing question facing companies today is how to sustain and grow this competitive advantage, which is created and housed in the minds of its knowledge workers.”

A key part of getting this right is understanding who counts as a knowledge worker. In the past the cut-off point was often thought to be the college degree. That’s still a minimum requirement, but the real key is people who need to adapt their knowledge to solve problems and innovate rather than follow an established procedure or a script.

In the chart that would be those in the top right quadrant.

Anything below the adapt line could, in theory anyway, be automated.

 

A pandemic could be a good time to start a new technology business1.

On one level that sounds nuts.

We live in uncertain times. There’s a logic in staying with your current employer.

That’s more the case if that employer has stood by you. You can’t overlook collecting wages through 18 months of worldwide upheaval.

Less so if you work for someone who has shirked their responsibilities.

Yet, there’s a strong case for starting a business in an economic down phase.

Born in a storm

The world’s two largest businesses, Apple and Microsoft, were both born in recession.

If we’ve learned one thing about business, success is about people and great ideas.

Sure, the economy has an effect on performance. Yet compared with the founders and their ideas, it doesn’t register.

The right people and the right product or service will win in the worst economic conditions.

A bad idea coupled with less gifted people will flounder even in a boom.

Business cycles

You can’t ignore economic cycles. This would be a terrible time to open a restaurant or a new tourist venture.

It’s different for a tech company. While there may be a link between a tech company’s sales and the state of the economy, that’s not always the case.

In the past 18 months the tech giants have more than doubled in their market capitalisation.

When Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft the pair had nothing more than a version of Basic for a microcomputer. There was a serious recession.

Yet, it turned out that Microsoft Basic was the product a sizeable market was waiting for.

Give ’em what they want

Which brings us to another point about today’s uncertain economy. There are products and services that match what people need in a pandemic.

Think of Zoom, a product almost no-one heard of 18 months ago. Think of online grocery sales, a market that was struggling to take off in 2019 but now struggles to meet demand. There are other examples.

Another advantage to starting a business in interesting times is there’s less competition. Others are not a brave. You may have your chosen niche to yourself.

Getting investors onboard during uncertain times is more of a challenge. It’s not insurmountable.

The smartest investors know that you buy bargains in down markets. When the good times come everyone wants to invest.

Risk

Your biggest risk is that you quit your job, start a business, then it fails. You may fear you will be broke and looking for a work in a deep recession.

First, if you are smart enough to get a business started, you have what it takes to earn a crust in the toughest of times. Even a failed venture can be a springboard to better things.

Second, if things get that bad, your employer could be looking at trimming headcount. That security blanket you were hoping to cling to could disappear overnight.

If you’ve got the right plan. Now is the time to use it.


  1. This is not legal or business advice. Go to a professional for that. This is the thoughts of someone who has watched the tech sector for 40 years. ↩︎

Finance ministers from the G7 group of nations propose a minimum 15 percent tax on large multinational firms.

The proposal aims at companies with profit margins of more than 10 percent. In the tech sector it would apply to the likes of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple. It may not apply to Amazon as the company’s online shopping margins can be below the threshold.

Companies will pay taxes in the country where they make revenue.

The idea is that this will put a stop to the practice of companies billing all their New Zealand revenue through an Irish subsidiary. Big companies shift income to lower tax countries to avoid paying higher rates of tax.

Digital service tax

There is also a plan to abolish digital service taxes.

Countries use these to tax services like digital streaming. A firm might deliver this from overseas, collecting revenue in the consuming country.

Governments have used these taxes to get money from companies that otherwise bypass traditional collection mechanisms.

America, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan make up the G7. The European Union is taking part in the meetings as a guest.

While these are large economies and make up a hefty slice of the world’s total, the tax reforms are unlikely to work unless other countries sign up. Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa will take part in the next round of meetings. Later the proposal will go to the G20.

Critics of the proposal say that a 15 percent tax rate is too low. It is lower than the company tax rate in many countries that are likely to sign up to the project.

Loopholes

No doubt the target companies will have teams of tax lawyers looking for loopholes.

There are plenty of complications. At his blog, Bernard Hickey points out the European and US governments are talking about different aspects.

They could be talking past each other.

It looks as if the proposal is a better deal for America than other nations. It is, after all, the home of many tech giants. Hickey says the losers will be tax havens. He suggests New Zealand could be more than $300 million a year better off.

Sometimes with projects like this, it’s important to establish the idea that these large companies pay any tax. From there, governments can make on to make sure they pay enough. Either way, this isn’t going to happen overnight and may not happen at all.

Artificial intelligence is changing how New Zealanders work. More change is on the way. An Otago University report looks at the main effects and suggests ways of reducing damage.

The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Jobs and Work in New Zealand takes a broad look at the subject.

There’s a lot in the report. If you have time, it’s worth a read. It covers controversial areas like AI being used for workplace surveillance.

Elsewhere it looks at what work should and should not be delegated to chatbots.

Balanced

It’s a balanced view. Yes, there is uncertainty about what AI means for jobs. Authors Professor James Maclaurin, Professor Colin Gavaghan and Associate Professor Alistair Knott say there are plenty of ways things could go badly, leading to widespread harm, unfairness and discrimination.

Yet they remind us it doesn’t have to be bad.

The authors talk about enabling AI which works alongside humans; “increasing efficiency, productivity and potentially incomes”.

This is as opposed to displacing AI which pushes workers into low paid work with technology taking on high value tasks.

Who gets to dominate?

It’s a big question which one gets to dominate in New Zealand and whether the benefits happen here or if they end up making Microsoft and Google shareholders richer and the rest of us poorer.

Maclaurin talks about the dangers of artificial intelligence increasing inequality and making high value work scarce.

He says the most promising way of dealing with this is to shorten the working week. Remember from the productivity report how we’re already working more hours than everyone else, so we’ve plenty of room to move here.

“Experiments here and overseas suggest that office workers can often maintain productivity despite dropping to a four-day week.”

Government support

Knott, who works in the computer science department, says: “To ensure this, New Zealand government should support local AI ventures.

“Companies in the social media space, offering targeted local products, are especially to be encouraged — particularly if they implement higher standards of privacy and transparency than the multinational platforms currently do.

“Government might even invest in such companies, as it did when setting up Kiwibank to compete with offshore banking concerns.”

There are useful practical recommendations including:

  • We encourage government to acknowledge Māori and Pasifika perspectives on work-life balance in evaluating New Zealand’s response to AI.
  • In the face of an uncertain future, New Zealand must discourage over-specialisation in education. Education and training at all levels must equip young New Zealanders with a broad array of the skills and expertise required for an AI driven world.1

  1. This is vital. Too often we hear our economy needs STEM education and that’s the end of the story. In truth, the humanities are every bit as important and will be more so as AI takes on more and more work. ↩︎

There’s a widespread feeling that remote work is now mainstream. Many assume that we will never go back to the old ways of working.

If that’s true, it’s been a long time coming. For years experts and pundits have predicted many more people will work from home in the future.

There’s evidence that the number of people working from home, at least for some of the time, was already rising before the Covid–19 pandemic accelerated the trend.

Remote work slow, steady rise

The rise has been slow, but steady.

It exploded when New Zealand and most of the world went into lockdown. Anyone who’s work could be done remotely logged on from home. Data volumes on broadband networks soared and hitherto esoteric applications like Zoom became part of everyday life for white collar workers.

For some home will be cemented in as their main future workplace. It’s worth remembering this only applies to certain types of work, a surgeon can’t operate via Zoom, nor can a supermarket shelf stacker.

The National Business Review closed down its editorial office, apparently for ever. The paper gave staff an allowance to cover home working costs.

Lonely, alienating?

Remote work is not too lonely and alienating for journalists. The job often involves attending functions or meeting people for interviews or information gathering.1 It could be hard going for some.

Yet, hundreds of companies are working through similar plans.

One key thing that changed with the early 2020 lockdown was that managers and individuals alike realised that mass remote working is possible and practical. Until now there was scepticism, especially among more anally-retentive managers.

Productivity questions

There are still questions over its desirability in every case. Some voices say remote working is more productive. Other managers hate the idea of not being able to look out from the corner suite to see rows of heads down with people beavering away.

For what it’s worth, my experience over the years is that it can be more productive at times, but work quickly eats in to the rest of your life. I certainly do more than a forty hour week and can count the number of non-working weekends over the last 15 years on my fingertips.

Either way, my gut tells me that while we are going to see more home or remote working than before lockdown, there will also be a drift back to the office.

Mix and match remote work

Maybe people will work from home two or three days a week and commute on the other days. Or it could be people will work one way when they need to focus on their own, and another way when close collaboration is needed.

It’s not all about me, but let’s go back to my experience in this department. I find if I only work from home, my productivity is OK, but not great.

Likewise, if I only work from an office, it’s not great either. But if I mix things up, productivity shoots up. If I have the freedom to work from home as and when the mood or my energy levels dictate, I get the best result of all.

Your experience might be different. It certainly will if you have a young family or if there’s not a lot of space at home. In those cases getting out is wise. This goes some way to explain the popularity of co-working spaces.

Which brings me to the other key point. It’s likely that many future workplaces will look and feel a lot more like co-working spaces.


  1. Well, that’s my experience and I’ve been working this way for almost 15 years now and sporadically for periods before this one. ↩︎

At the Guardian, Douglas Rushkoff says our technology is now an entire environment. We live there. We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control

He says:

“We may come to remember this decade as the one when human beings finally realized we are up against something. We’re just not quite sure what it is.

“More of us have come to understand that our digital technologies are not always bringing out our best natures. People woke up to the fact that our digital platforms are being coded by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. This is the decade when, finally, the “tech backlash” began.

But it’s a little late.”

It is a long essay and not easy reading, especially at a time of year when most New Zealanders and Australians have switched off their work brains.

Yet, if you have the time, it is worth reading it all.

Rushkoff knows his stuff and offers some powerful insights. In the essay he runs through the key issues.

Issues are not new

To cut it short, he starts out by saying surveillance capitalism and manipulation are not new. They have long been part our online activity and in our apps for ages. It’s being going on for 20 years now.

He says while these ideas are getting all the attention today, things have moved on. Surveillance capitalism and manipulation may no longer be relevant concerns.

Rushkoff argues we now spend most of how waking hours bathing in the waters of Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google. In other words: “We have been shaped into who the data says we are”.

Join the party

Until now, the common response has been about joining in. There is pressure for young people to learn to code. I’m all for motivated, interested youngsters learning to code, it remains a good career choice.

We don’t have enough people tackling these issues from a social science or art point of view. (Rushkoff talks about liberal arts).

Writers, journalists, movie makers, artists and others have an important role to play. We can communicate and understanding what is going on from a non-engineering or financial perspective.

It’s a complex, deep essay. You may find it too much to absorb in a single reading. I’ve come back to it a few times.

A disappointing omission is that Rushkoff fails to make a connection between this and evidence that our digital lives make us less happy.

Take back control

One thing we can do to mitigate the problems is to take back control of our online experience. If you like to spend less time bathing in what is, if not a toxic soup, certainly something less than ideal.

How to fight back? First, do all the obvious hygiene things. Quit Facebook, choose apps and operating systems where there is room for privacy. Use alternatives to Google.

Embrace openness in all its aspects, not only Open Source software. Be wary of products like Android which are surveillance tools with a little usefulness thrown in.

Be especially wary of ‘free’ services. The price you pay may be far higher than you think.

You don’t have to learn to code. Indeed, unless you have an aptitude or an urge to do so, I recommend you don’t. People like you can read more printed books instead. But when you do, write and talk about your experiences and ideas.

Declare independence

Try to develop an independent online presence. One that isn’t part of a commercial data collection operation.

Learn how to use WordPress. Write a blog instead of posting articles on Facebook or Linkedin. Share things. Investigated ideas like the IndieWeb or Microblogging, both are refreshing. Build links with humans, not corporations or bots.

Rushkoff’s optimistic finishing points echo those broad ideas, even he dresses them in different language. The key here is to seize back as much control as you can.

You’ll be happier.

 

As education minister, Hekia Parata upset New Zealand’s tech sector by not elevating digital technology teaching to the level they asked for.

The debate hasn’t stopped.

It may never stop. The technology industry is wealthy and powerful. It knows how to lobby. It is a master of using the media. Its voice will be heard.

It has a good point.

Digital curriculum

There’s a strong case for giving digital technology a greater share of the curriculum.

Digital technology doesn’t belong in a vocational ghetto alongside woodwork and other non-academic subjects.

While there is a case for non-academic digital education, technology also needs to be taught to a higher standard.

But let’s not carried away. Whether you call it digital literacy or technology it should not be on a par with language or maths teaching.

They are fundamental.

Although you might argue the same about technology’s role in the modern world, that’s not quite true.

Literacy and digital, different aspects of the same thing

You can’t do digital well without being able to read and communicate.

Without reading skills a young person’s digital experience can’t advance far beyond taking selfies, playing games and watching streamed video.

Most digital devices are, one way or another, communications tools.

Even if the tools evolve to the point where an ability to write or type is no longer essential, people still need basic communications skills.

If the goal is to encourage more young New Zealanders into technology careers, they need to be articulate and numerate to cope with the work.

At a pinch you can train a literate, articulate adult to work in almost every tech industry role. Although it may not be impossible to find meaningful work for those without those skills, it will be harder.

Education bigger picture

Education has be about more than preparing people for the workplace. Digital skills are important for every other aspect of life.

Which brings us to the most important aspect of technology education: the digital divide.

We often think the digital divide is only about access to devices, tools and networks. It is usually framed as something that affects poorer or more remote New Zealanders.

Yet there’s another divide that’s just as bad.

People who feel unable to perform even basic digital tasks because they lack the skills are as disadvantaged as those who can’t get online.

The same goes for people who can’t read, write or otherwise communicate. We don’t call that a digital divide, but it amounts to something similar. Let’s call it the literacy divide.

It’s great that we devote money, time and energy to helping people get across the digital divide. More power to those working in this area.

Yet we also need to use the same vigour to deal with the basic literacy divide because those people are in the same dark place.

So, by all means ramp up digital education, but not at the expense of something that’s more fundemental.