Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Applying Theory to Practice: Understanding Telecommunications and Transport Policy Outcomes

I am giving a lecture on how my transport and communications research relates to the themes of strategy, governance and innovation. The lecture will take place in the Ann Harding Centre at the University of Canberra from 9:30am on Friday 28 August 2015. The lecture is part of an event for staff and partners working with the DÅ«cere/University of Canberra MBA in Innovation and Leadership.

I have provided my lecture notes below. If you have any questions you are welcome to contact me via my work email,

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Countering the myths of technology in the workplace

New internal research conducted by the Australian Taxation Office provides some of the first real proof that digital-mania in the workplace is driven by myths. People are simply not subscribing to the hype about technology in the workplace.
I've been an early adopter of new technologies in my work for many years. After trialling Facebook in teaching in 2007, using Yammer and Twitter in 2010, and using e-texts to replace expensive hard copies, I found that the digital native is a myth. Nowadays I focus on effective use of technology, and sometimes that means low-tech.

No so twenty years ago. When I first joined Army, we were forced to draft (by hand) endless minutes concerning every piece of administration one could imagine. Every leave application, every request for resources, every approval required a covering minute to accompany the relevant form.

I purchased an Amstrad word processor from a friend and hooked it up to a printer. Instead of the usual draft by hand, have it red-penned several times, take all day to complete one minute, I shocked my boss by adding his corrections and returning with a new minute moments later and reduced my admin time by days. Technology was effective.

Later, I hired a Packard Bell 486 SX-33 and my own Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 540 printer and admin was a breeze. It took my unit several years before computers were a normal part of doing business.

But these days, I find a 50/50 split in screen-readers and paper-readers. Colleagues found that students did not like using their mobile phones for their university study. Some students even found it "creepy". Some liked  to use their Facebook accounts for university study but others hated it.

What I found was that the more involved I became in instantaneous communication with my students, the less they did for themselves and their problem solving and written communication skills deteriorated into help-seeking and text-speak. It simply didn't work.

Up until this time, I had all of my work and personal communication mixed up. There was no line between work and personal. I was working 24/7.

To add insult to injury, the more cutting-edge I became, the more I became a one-person helpdesk for hundreds of students who were unfamiliar with the professional use of social media. One Sunday morning at 3am (during the mid-semester break) I spent an hour helping a student with an essay via Facebook. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Then I tried open source products such as Wikiversity. I found the same problem - I was a one-person helpdesk. Then, when I wanted to have Moodle's capabilities improved, I found that I had to "vote" for functionality that any commercial learning management system (LMS) provided as a matter of course.

The benefits of technology were not all-encompassing. A suggestion at one of the local "hack" sessions suggested we could "network in general awesomeness" and that was it. I went back to basics.

What I found was that so many products are sold to organisations without consultation with the users of the product. The promises of many marketing campaigns are routinely proven to be false hope. Effective use of technology is key.

The ATO's latest research on the use of technology by its workforce is a breath of fresh air. After endlessly being told by people that lecturers who do not use the latest social media are behind the times and yada yada yada and then seeing work produced by the "hypers", it was clear we had lost the plot. The ATO has proven the same point. ATO People deputy commissioner Jacqueline Curtis says it succinctly:
“The research we did really strongly suggests it is important to co-design with your workforce in order to be sure that the assumptions you are making about their needs and requirements are not just assumptions, that they are actually reflecting the needs of the workforce”
The assumption that more is better and that social media is "the way to go" is about technology for technology's sake. A reality check is needed. 

Yesterday I saw a new web-based approach that uses advanced search technology to create individually customised reports. What this means is that for the first time in about a decade, it is now just as fast to find information on the website as it used to be to find the same information using an indexed hard copy book. Wow. Ten years.

The question needs to be asked: What are you trying to achieve? Using web-based applications or social media does not help students develop sound communication or problem-solving skills. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect. 

And bring-your-own-device does not really help the user experience. It helps workers do more work while not at work, while still being expected to turn up during the required working hours. And it often means incompatibility problems that can cause unnecessary delays. And don't get me started on people who insist on using Macs.

But that's not to say that I do not use technology in my work. Indeed, I remain at the cutting edge in my teaching. But my approach is significantly different. And it avoids all kinds of hype.

The ATO's findings are food for thought for any organisation. Think about what you are trying to achieve through technology, rather than following trends created by skilful marketing.

For the love of God, ask your people what they need to do their jobs more effectively, rather than imposing yet another system that not only costs more, but makes one's job even harder because the majority of work time is spent trying to make the new system work.

And the next time some geek tells you they have some "awesome" new technology, and your old-fashioned university degree can be replaced by ten-minute TED Talks? Don't believe the hype. It's a myth </ end rant>.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Pub Test: Did the E-type Jaguar herald the Australian Muscle Car?

I often quip about any mention of Jag based on the tongue-in-cheek humour (to non-Jag owners!) from the series Mad Men, where the Americans make endless comments about the Jaguar’s unreliability

But the E-type Jaguar  has a special place in the development of Australian muscle cars.

In Australian motorsport, the E-type Jaguar's fame  was confirmed after Bob Jane (founder of Bob JaneT-Mart) won the 1963 Gran Turismo competition in a 1963 E-type Jag

The Ford Cortina Mk1 GT and later the Mini Cooper S dominated the early to mid-60s events, leading to the development of the Ford Falcon XR GT. There was considerable pressure for Australia to develop its own muscle cars and Holden (GM - Chevrolet) and Ford Australia (earlier Falcons were based mostly on American models) saw a change from UK-inspired vehicles to US-inspired vehicles.

Finally, Australian-inspired vehicles beginning with the Ford Falcon XR GT and later the Holden Monaro GTS 350 and Holden LJ Torana XU-1 appeared.

The Australian muscle car period peaked with the development of the Ford Falcon XY GTHO Phase III, for a time touted as the fastest 4-door production car in the world, and declined with the Ford Falcon XA GTHO Phase IV amid controversy over the impact of muscle cars on the streets. The "Supercar scare" of 1972 saw manufacturers pull out of the race-bred street car game.

At the tender age of seven, I had the honour of sitting in Allan Moffat’s #1 XC Falcon GT after it won the 1977 Hardie-Ferodo Bathurst (with Colin Bond’s #2 XC Falcon GT finishing in second place, even though Moffat’s car was buggered and they finished 1-2 for promotional reasons) at Roselands Shopping Centre in Sydney (it was then considered the largest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere). The two-door Falcon “hardtop” remains my favourite car to this day.

I was fortunate enough to drive a 1973 XB GS Fairmont as my first car, so although I am contented with my automatic Panzers these days, there is a fair bit of petrol head in my past. In good condition, the Fairmonts sell at auction for around $36,000 these days but mine rusted out in the Cairns weather. So I do have a soft spot for Aussie grunt.

But the E-type Jaguar, combined with Bob Jane and his brother Bill Jane, is where it all began. Indeed, I would argue that the E-type Jaguar heralded the Australian muscle car in Australian motorsport. 

But could you pass the Australian “pub test” with the argument that the E-type Jaguar was responsible for heralding the Australian muscle car era?

Well, yes!

Why? When you look at the Great Race results from 1963 until the 1984, it was dominated by Fords and Holdens (except for 1966). But what if we go back just a little bit further? It was Jaguar.

The winners of the first two Australian Touring Car Championship races (the origin of the Great Race at Bathurst) were Jaguars in 1960 and 1962. But the 1960 winner was a Jaguar Mark 1 "Saloon", whereas in 1962 the E-type Jaguar was a genuine sports car.

After that, beefed-up production sedans dominated again until the XR GT. So in Australian motorsport - the type I grew up with - the E-type Jaguar heralds the beginning of the Aussie muscle car.

And I reckon that would pass the "pub test".

Sunday, 9 August 2015

What happens when the Australian government does not get overly involved in industry? Holden.

Whenever I report on the research I conducted into Australian telecommunications during the period 2005-2013, I often refer to the over-bearing extent of government control and how this has stifled Australian industry. This brings numerous calls from anonymous commentators about how the market had failed and therefore government intervention was necessary.

In telecommunications, the simple fact is that government has never given the market a chance to function. Now I don't mean that a free market will ensure towns like Longreach in Queensland's central west  get the NBN (now nbn) tomorrow. What I mean is that federal politicians use telecommunications policy as a way of garnering votes.

Of course, politicians need to garner votes. Utopian views of the world are at best naive or at worst unconstructive. But there is some merit to contemporary (if we consider the views of Adam Smith as contemporary)  ideas about striking a balance between government and business.

So tonight while researching my family history (my great-grandfather was a foreman with General  Motors-Holden in Sydney after the Second World War) , I stumbled upon this ripper of a quote from the National Archives:
Although Cabinet identified two major drawbacks to the Holden proposal – a limited range of vehicles and uncertainty in the plan – the low requirement for government assistance made it attractive. The major drawback of Ford’s plan was the requirement for a high level of assistance.
Holden's prominence during Australia's "golden age" of manufacturing was brought about by a company that did not need government assistance. Meanwhile, the founder of mass production (Ford) wanted more from government. I was astounded.

It is bizarre how difficult it can be to make comment, even when based on empirical research, without being on the receiving end of well-meaning criticism that smacks of ideology. I am sure others could make the same claim of me.

But I wonder if one could compare a series of important Australian industries and their ongoing success in relation to the amount of government "assistance" that was provided? Of course, how we measure success would be an important exercise. And, no doubt, where government subsidies reigned supreme only the foolhardiest of industries would be hamstrung.

Yet if you were to think immediately of four things that come to mind when thinking about Australia: football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars, none of these things come from government.

So I find it rather, let's say - unexpected  - that Australians today (at least those I am exposed to whenever I write about telecommunications) think that government intervention in the market is a thing to be encouraged. I can think of three recent examples that suggest otherwise:
  1. Kevin Rudd's "green car" initiative. They were going anyway and now they are gone.
  2. The "Home Insulation Scheme". Need I say more.
  3. Anything the Coalition ever said, especially the bits about citizens pulling their weight. 
If we look at the scorecard, then in telecommunications at least, the government is having a shocker. But what shocks me most is that Australians think that our governments were ever any good at industry policy. Am I just getting old? I was only five at the time but I knew Whitlam was having a shocker.

And I think, when it comes to telecommunications, that most modern day "believers" don't remember how bad it was to have to deal with Telecom Australia. Seriously, it was like asking your ex-girlfriend to give you back your records. If this doesn't make sense, then you never had anything at all to do with Telecom Australia, or, in its previous form and (as its contractors used to refer to it), "pig's meat and gravy" (PMG). It is like asking for a well-deserved pay-rise from a tight-arsed boss.

Either that or you don't know what I mean by records.

What else can I say to convince the ideologues? Probably nothing, But what happens when the Australian government does not get overly involved in industry? Holden.

Keep that in mind the next time you think that the Australian Government has all the answers about our industrial future. I believe that the average Australian holds the key. Only they have never been allowed to use it.

It's time Australia's Government let go of its penal colony attitude and gave up its hold on industry. If you think not, then please show me evidence to the contrary.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Turnbull's plan to speed up the delivery of Australia's broadband network

The Conversation

Michael de Percy, University of Canberra

The number of people involved in Australia’s national broadband network (nbn) is set to double to about 9,000 after Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week announced plans to recruit and train an extra 4,500 workers.

This will make it even faster to roll out the rest of the national broadband network, and no doubt symbolises the Coalition’s leaner, quicker-to-roll-out version of the original NBN – re-branded earlier this year as a lower-case nbn for a reported A$700,000.

But why the rush?

Let’s have a look at what has been achieved in the past six years.

In the beginning…

The Howard Government struggled with all things internet. Australia had “fraudband” because it was too expensive and slow.

Then Opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, said a national broadband network was “nation-building for the 21st century”. And after Labor’s election, NBN Co was born on April 9, 2009.

However, the NBN took a back seat due to Labor’s leadership turmoil. Except when the Coalition poked fun at the NBN for taking too long. NBN Co blamed its partners and then its boss quit.

Things were going downhill.

From NBN to nbn

The Coalition’s cost-benefit analysis, released almost a year ago, found Labor’s NBN was extravagant. NBN was stripped back by changing Labor’s fibre-to-the-home model to a multi-technology mix (MTM) model. Slower speeds but rolled out faster – that was the plan.

Now Turnbull is having a bob each way with the broadband network. Finish the bits already started with fibre, then finish the bits that haven’t been started yet using multiple and ultimately cheaper technologies. Makes sense.

Although he would probably prefer to let the market sort it all out. If people want broadband, then somebody will sell it to them. Except maybe in the bush. Then the government should help make it work. Kevin07 thought government could do it all better – that’s why he set up NBN.

So Turnbull had little choice but to continue with the contracts set up by Labor. That’s the trouble with building things: it’s expensive to change your mind once the building starts.

It’s also hard to tear up contracts once they’ve started. Do this too many times and big business might stop building things for you. And when you are a politician, this makes you look bad.

The whole point of NBN was to fix the “fraudband”. Now we have nbn with a MTM. Occasionally the Coalition still struggles with internet things, but not Turnbull. He wants to ensure Australia gets the nbn sooner rather than later.

How are we travelling?

Well, it depends. The whole point of spending billions of dollars on NBN (nbn) was to give Australians better access to faster broadband. Since last election, NBN was available to 1 in 50 households. Now nbn is available to 1 in 10. Things are looking up.

But how do we stack up against other countries?

I usually compare Australia with Canada, but it can be helpful to compare Australia with other countries in the OECD too. This is how Australia fared before Kevin07:

Broadband Subscribers per 100 People, June 2007.
OECD Broadband Growth and Policies in OECD Countries 2008
Then, just before NBN Co was born, Australians appear to have stopped subscribing while they waited patiently for better broadband. Compared with other OECD member countries, this meant that Australian broadband was worse than before the 2007 election:

Broadband Subscribers per 100 People, December 2008.
OECD Broadband Portal (Accessed 29 July 2012)
The trouble is, after six years of NBN (nbn), things are still heading south:

OECD Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, by technology, December 2014
OECD Broadband Portal (Accessed 3 August 2015)
Now let’s look at broadband speeds. To make it easier to read the graph, I have chosen to compare Australia with New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and Greece. I chose the last one because Greece is having problems at the moment and it might help put things in perspective.

The graph below shows the fraction of subscribers with connection speeds of greater than 15mbps. Remember, NBN was meant to provide up to 100mbps and nbn at least 25mbps:

Akamai State of the Internet Report: Speeds greater than 15mbps.
Akamai State of the Internet Connectivity Visualizations
What does it all mean? I’ve argued for many years that government control of the market stifles industry. That’s not to say that smarter ways of privatising Telstra or deploying NBN couldn’t have made a difference. We can hypothesise until the cows come home.

But one of the richest OECD countries – Australia – has broadband speeds closer to one of the poorest – Greece.

Has it been worth it?

Streaming services such as Netflix should boost fixed-line broadband demand. This might prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Coalition.

But when the next new technology comes along, government shouldn’t try to second-guess the market. Indeed, where government wasn’t meddling, the market has worked. Australia is a world leader in mobile broadband, for example:

OECD Mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, by technology, December 2014
OECD Broadband Portal (Accessed 3 August 2015)
It’s getting harder to see the public value in nbn. But it’s too late to stop it now. Better to double the workforce and finish it quickly and quietly. That seems to be Turnbull’s way out of this mess.

Michael de Percy is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at University of Canberra.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Connecting the Nation by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at Background image © @redshinestudio