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The Future of Work and Industrial Relations in Australia

QUESTION: HOW MAY WE BETTER UNDERSTAND AND IMPROVE WORKPLACE RELATIONS IN AUSTRALIA IN THE CONTEXT OF 21ST CENTURY CAPITALISM?

SUBTEXT: the present adversarial system of workplace relations place employers, employees and governments in an impossible situation. Until and unless there is a convergence of interests and common ground found between all the stakeholders in workplaces, national productivity and long term job security remain at risk. One thing we are certain of is that the problems of the 21st century workplace cannot be resolved by using the 20th century processes that created the problems in the first place. We need to find a better way.

WHAT ARE THE BIG ISSUES THAT NEED OUR ATTENTION?

Finding a starting point or entry point into the question is both easy and complex at the same time. There are obvious issues around productivity, job security and incomes. There are wider issues around new technologies, employee representation and engagement, and occupational health and safety. Still further out are issues of family-work balance, diversity management, and superannuation. There are issues around conflict resolution, social capital and the environment. Not to mention job design, new forms of work organisation and workplace leadership and the quality of management. Finally, we also have the persistent adversarial industrial relations systems and culture which is ingrained in the DNA of unions, employers and governments.

IT’S A WICKED PROBLEM

There are social and economic questions in the world that are sometimes described as “wicked”. That is, they are problems to which we cannot find agreement on the answers because we cannot agree on the questions to be addressed. Improving workplace relations in Australia is a wicked problem. Everyone is an expert. Everyone has a point of view based on their own experience. Employers and union, and governments and associations all form blocs, extend their influence through politics and networks, and maintain an uneasy balance within the existing system. The only problem is that it is a zero sum game they are playing. One side wins when the other side loses.

Rather than seeking answers, the players seek victory or death (or even worse - expedient compromise). The idea of a pendulum of power swinging backwards and forwards over the decades leads to better conflict strategies and less common solutions. There is no long term outcome other than more conflict. Employers justify their position by arguing the rights of capital, unions argue the rights of labour, government argue the need for social harmony while actually sponsoring one side or the other. Employees who want a simple life are left looking for jobs, income and a place to live. Maybe we should start there?

THE OBVIOUS ANSWER: IT ALL STARTS WITH A DECENT JOB

The international Gallup research organisation recently conducted a global survey on expectations of people around the globe for themselves and their children and the outcome was clear; the billions of people on the planet in both developed and developing countries want one thing above all others - a decent job.

What do people mean by a decent job?

They mean a formal job with regular hours and regular income. They do not mean informal work with insecure employment, uncertain hours and no predictable income. A decent job is a social as well as an economic concept. It implies self-worth and a valued status in the society and the family. It's not just about earning a wage.

It follows then that the role of national leaders, employers and everyone in the society has an obligation to create decent jobs and to fill those jobs with everyone who wants to work. Creation of decent jobs becomes the touchstone of the economy. Public and private investment in the economy must focus on large scale job creation - decent jobs for everyone. This is the path to higher GDP, improved services and ultimately a more sustainable community.

THE OBVIOUS QUESTION: WHO PAYS?

The vexed issue of income determination must form the centre piece of any revised workplace relations system in Australia. In this issue there are three components: the capacity of the economy to sustain a general level of income distribution, the capacity of an employer to pay wages, and the value of the work from the employee. These issues form the essence of the relationship between government, employers and employees. This relationship is at the heart of work in the 21st century just as it was in the previous century. The question is how to manage the system to the benefit of all?

Adversarial industrial relations ensures a zero sum game. As employers win, so employees lose. As employees lose so their relationship with the employers declines. Collective action through union and more direct means such as sabotage, high job turnover and low productivity increases. As employees win, so employers turn to government to create laws and rules to contain the employees and protect their business interests. When governments sympathetic to employees are elected, they introduce laws to favour the employees.

Income determination in the 21st century must move away from this game. We need to identify and agree on a sustainable basis for income determination that jointly optimises the interests of employees, employers and the community in general.

The original arbitration system in Australia at the turn of the 20th century offered a basic wage as the foundation for income distribution. In the 21st century a return to an agreed decent national wage as opposed to enterprise bargaining is needed. This should take into account the capacity of the economy and the need for a reasonable standard of living for all who work in order to to support general wage increases; and should not rely on some legal representation process of appearances by unions and employers in front of a government tribunal, or piecemeal bargaining at the local level.

The notion of a decent wage should be separated from the industrial relations system. We can then move to related aspects of this core principle: a decent job not only has security, income and reasonable hours; it also should been seen to be worthwhile and productive. Some countries are already moving in this direction e.g. Finland just announced a minimum monthly living income for all citizens.

THE BIG PICTURE – WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT OUR GRAND CHILDREN

Decent jobs are not a one-off idea. They fit within a whole picture of what we want in Australia over the next 100 years. Political cycles, corporate strategic planning time frames and generational limits are not the best way of looking at what we need to do to create and keep decent jobs. We need to ask ourselves what we need to do to secure jobs for our great grandchildren, not just our children.

This takes us into questions about structural change in the Australian economy, social trends, environmental goals, and national security.  We need to talk about economic growth, value creation, public and private investment, global and regional trade and diplomatic relationships, national security, sustainability, emerging technologies and infrastructure. We are obliged to take positions on these matters because they directly impact on our medium and long term ability have decent jobs. By placing decent jobs at the centre of things we can start to re-frame some of the elements of the wicked problem that we call industrial relations in Australia. It also assists in redefining the goals of governments, employers and unions.

 
Front-line Leadership

(As published in The Conversation in March 2014)

Australia has more than two million registered businesses, and at least equally that number of actual places of work. These range from one and two person workplaces to groups of 100 people plus. These work places are the front line in the productivity debate.

The CEO and the operations executives of these businesses may make the big decisions, but the supervisors, coordinators, team leaders and frontline managers are at the sharp end of the game. The face-to-face connection between supervisors and line operators, office workers, nurses, truck drivers, shop assistants and a thousand other occupations is where leadership meets productivity.

It is therefore interesting that in most discussions when “workplace leadership and productivity” is raised we find hundreds of contributions about professional development, mentoring, coaching, and executive courses as they relate to senior managers, engineers, CEOs, and other top line occupations. Learning, education and expensive behavioural “high performance” programs tend to dominate the conversation. Frontline managers are usually relegated to vocational training programs - perhaps a Certificate 4 in Front Line Management if they are lucky.

Management and leadership are equally important

There is nothing wrong with vocational training, by the way. It produces competencies and assessments based on national content and common “packages” that deliver the goods to students via Registered Training Organisations. The question is: why put workplace management and workplace leadership into different categories? Executives head off to universities or overseas programs to learn about workplace leadership. Supervisors usually get to go to TAFE and learn about time management.

More importantly, this simplistic view of leadership as an optional adjunct to supervision, and leadership as a core capability for senior managers, misses the point about productivity in the workplace.

We can talk about labour productivity as a factor in national economic matters, but it’s only when we drill down into actual workplaces that we see the basic truth: improved productivity in Australian workplaces is the outcome of the quality of working relationships on the job - where people actually work.

Those relationships are shaped in part by the capacity of the workplace leader or supervisor to maintain and deepen the quality of the connections between people.

In 2003 the Business Council of Australia commissioned field research conducted by myself and a colleague to actually ask people on the job what they thought were the key characteristics of good workplace leadership. Since that research was published it has been affirmed by other academics, and by managers around in the country.

What makes a good leader?

There are clear qualities of an excellent workplace leader. They are (in no apparent order and in the words of people on the job): being a player/coach, fairness, accessibility, empowering people, ethical, not getting in the way of people, no ambushes, giving recognition where due, building trust, no bullshit, helping in a crisis, being “out there” for the group, honesty, and “walking the talk”.

Now it’s likely that academic commentators will pounce on these descriptors and label them as “broad and ill-defined attributes”. It simply doesn’t matter how you categorise them. What we have as far back as 2003 (and possibly earlier if we include the 1995 Karpin Report and work undertaken by Telstra on cultural factors in workplace productivity in the mid 1990s) is a vivid picture of workplace leadership as seen by the people who show up for work every day. This is where the discussion must start about leadership and productivity in Australia.

Vocational training and a few short courses at TAFE does not cut it for front line managers. Companies and public service agencies should invest in their workplace leaders with the same intensity and commitment they usually give the more highly paid managers in their organisations. It is ironic that the more senior one becomes the more available leadership education becomes. Funding for such education seems a logical “investment” in the business, while funding for front line management education often seems to be a “cost” to the business.

Leadership on the job requires business to take the same care and attention to selection, recruitment and education as they do for the senior positions in a business. The frontline leaders are the cutting edge of any operation. They are usually the first to appreciate when things are going well, and when they are going wrong. Their intervention on the job can save a situation, or make it worse. They can lead groups to excellence, or drive them to desperation. They can keep a business alive, or bring it to its knees.

The Telstra cultural imprint studies (see the Industry and Business Skills Council - IBSA - for a summary report and recent update) in the 1990s implied that there are three kinds of frontline managers in Australian places of work: leaders, bosses and bastards. Leaders at this level are few and far between, there are many bosses (good ones and bad ones); and way too many bastards. Good bosses can become great workplace leaders if they are encouraged and educated. Unfortunately bad bosses are often left to become bastards, and once a bastard - always a bastard!

We can do better. We just need to focus on actual workplace leadership, not just on executive and professional development.

 
Simply the Best Workplaces Redux

OVERVIEW

In 2003 the Business Council of Australia (BCA) commissioned Daryll Hull and Vivienne Read to undertake field work on the “best” workplaces in Australia, as defined by BCA members, using BCA criteria of “excellence”. This seminal work resulted in the formulation of a framework of fourteen attributes for best workplaces within the Australian work environment. In the decade since this work was published there have been other studies on workplace productivity and workplace leadership in Australia.

CAN WE STEP INTO THE SAME RIVER TWICE?

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated: ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers. Loosely transliterated the idea is that it is not possible to revisit the past as knowledge always move on.  History flows like a river and new data, ideas and values overtake past thinking. Given the passing of the last decade, and the volume of newly published studies in workplace matters, what may we find if we step into the river carrying the 2003 study with us?

The research question is: are the conclusions of the 2003 study still valid today, or have they been overtaken by new ideas and new studies?

A comprehensive search of literature published on Australian workplace productivity since 2003 was undertaken in early 2014. From an analysis of in excess of 100 selected papers and refereed journal articles locally and overseas it appears that the underpinning ideas of the 2003 research remain constant. There have been no obvious studies published that contradict the 2003 findings, there are several articles that affirm them and even more articles which cite them as baseline guides/affirmation of their own work.

For example, the 2003 study (originally  published on-line as a “Working Paper”) has been cited at least 34 times in 10 years as a reference for articles, books and refereed commentaries across a range of academic disciplines and topics across the past decade. The 2003 study continues to be cited today.

(Google Scholar 2014 http://scholar.google.com.au/citations?user=sdgFehoAAAAJ&hl=en )

There are dozens of positive current references to and citations of the 2003 study using a basic Google search under “Simply the Best Workplaces in Australia”. They range from articles in A Star Journals, submissions to government inquiries, blogs, references in book chapters, magazine and newspaper articles, and citations by commercial consulting groups who have used the 2003 work in the field. They are spread across Australia and overseas. Something in the study continues to resonate with people about the findings of the 2003 study.

 
It's official - we are at Peak Oil!

The IEA and the OECD WEA both agree for the first time - we hit "peak oil" in 2006. This raises a host of interesting and planet changing issues. Most critical , and completely separate from human induced climate change, we find oursleves on the slippery slope towards 50% less energy supplies in 50 years maximum. Never mind the price due to market forces, there will simply be 50% less oil available to run the global society.

Countries like Australia are going to be hard hit, becuase of our relatively small population and HUGE distances that we have to cover to deliver goods and people from A to B. We also have some related issues - high consumption of energy per capita, relatively cheap access to electricity, gas and other energy sources. We don't have a carbon conscious culture - we burn it, use, drive it, waste it like there is no tomorrow - perhaps that's right after all - there will be no tomorrow!

Politically The Greens have the moral high ground, and the main parties seem content to squabble over who said what, to whom, when and why not. The rest of us either sit back and whinge (write blogs), stay silent and/or hope it will all be OK sometime in the future when "someone does something about it".

Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the planet (to misquote someone). We need innovation and we need it now. We need new ideas and we need them now. We need management with courage and foresight and we need it now. We need leadership, commonsense and more people engaged than ever before around an issue that threatens us, our children and their children - now. No excuses, no backsliding. Peak oil is the high water mark for our civilisation. The next move is either up or down, and for the first time in recent History the choice really is ours.