Sunday, July 12, 2015

Do we face a future of more than ordinary economic disruption?

Change is the most constant element in life. I can remember beginning a report I was drafting with words something like those more than 40 years ago. It was an appropriate thought in the context of the economic changes occurring in Australia during the 1970s and it is just as relevant today. Perhaps it was even relevant when Heraclitus said similar things about 2500 years ago.

During the 1970s I was under the impression that the pace of change was quickening, but in retrospect that was an illusion. The economic disruption occurring in the wake of the first oil price shock and the emergence of stagflation certainly involved a quickening in the rate of change relative to the abnormal stability of the 1950s and 60s. Looking back now, however, economic change over the last 40 years seems to have been less about quickening than about fits and starts. That seems to have also been true to a large extent during the preceding couple of centuries.

When people look back in 40 years are they likely to perceive that the first half of the 21st century was extraordinarily disruptive?  Or will they perceive this to have been a period of fairly normal disruption, with the pace of change being similar to that occurring on average since the beginning of the industrial revolution?
Richard Dobbs, James Manyika and Jonathan Woetzel, the authors of "No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends” (published this year by McKinsey and Company, the famous management consultancy firm) argue that many of the long standing trends of the 25 year “Great Moderation” prior to the 2008 financial crisis “have broken decisively” and “a radically different world is forming”. The authors give the impression that they think the current bout of creative destruction is by no means ordinary.

According to the authors we need an “intuition reset” because our intuitions have been formed in a world in which changes were incremental and somewhat predictable. We have to re-think our assumptions rather than making decisions on the basis of intuitions built on our experiences.

The authors argue that the world is in the middle of a dramatic transition resulting from four fundamental disruptive forces:
  • First, there is the shifting locus of economic activity and dynamism to emerging markets like China and to cities within those markets.
  • Second, there is an acceleration in the scope, scale and economic impact of technology.
  • Third, the average age of the human population is becoming older as a result of declining fertility and increasing longevity.
  • Fourth, there is globalization - the world has become much more connected through trade, movement of people and capital, and information flows.

As discussed in a recent article on this blog it is not clear whether there has actually been an acceleration in technological change. The other three factors are well-known features of the economic environment in which we have been living for the last decade or so.

Some of the implications of those forces are less well known. For example, new classes of consumers are emerging, for example from relatively unknown, middle weight, cities in China. Another example is the extent to which new technologies may enable small nimble firms to compete with large established companies.

The authors argue that the era of low interest rates is coming to an end. Their reasoning seems plausible. Monetary policies are likely to tighten somewhat as America and Europe recover from the great recession and inflation resumes. Population aging is likely to result in lower savings rates, since retired people normally have lower incomes and less capacity to save. And the rebalancing of growth in China is likely to favour consumption rather than saving.

Some of the authors’ proposed “intuition resets” are more controversial. For example, they suggest that a prolonged period of falling and steady prices for natural resources is coming to an end. It already seems as though they have underestimated the supply response brought about by high resource prices. I wonder whether Andrew Mackenzie, the CEO of BHP Billiton, read the section of the book containing that particular intuition reset before providing his glowing endorsement.

My main reason for buying this book was not the endorsement by Andrew Mackenzie (or even the one by Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary). I was particularly interested to learn what a book that draws upon McKinsey’s extensive work with companies and organisations around the world might have to say on the question of how technological change is likely to affect the job market.

The authors suggest that specialization, globalization and technology are making ‘interaction work’ – the searching, coordinating and monitoring required to exchange ideas, goods and services – a critical element of success in developed economies. Interaction jobs range from low skilled to high skilled and many of them involve services that are not internationally tradable, particularly in health care, education and government services industries. The number of these interaction jobs seem to growing rapidly:
“In the same period when nearly three million production and transaction jobs disappeared, nearly five million new interaction jobs were created in the United States”.
The numbers don’t quite match, but it looks as though this statement might relate to the period 2001-09 and be based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The authors note that technology is increasingly allowing employers to redesign and disaggregate work, with routine tasks being assigned to lower-skill employees. In some instances cross-training is enabling workers to perform a variety of tasks and reduce idle time. Workplaces are also being disaggregated as many interaction jobs can be conducted remotely. New technology is connecting purchasers of services to service providers in new and disruptive ways e.g. Uber and Airbnb.

While some parts of the book are full of examples, I was disappointed that the authors’ comments on the changing nature of work seem to be based mainly on abstract reasoning and aggregate statistics. I had hoped that the book based on McKinsey’s real world experience would harvest insights superior to those of academic economists on a range of questions that are highly relevant in considering the disruption associated with technological change. For example, after reading the book I am still wondering whether any evidence is emerging of a limit to the economic benefits that can be obtained by unbundling jobs into routine and non-routine tasks?  Is there evidence of decline in quality of service when unbundling is extended too far? Is there evidence of ongoing movement in the opposite direction as happened in the 1980s and 90s when PCs replaced typists and many professionals had to learn how to do their own typing?

The authors’ discussion of skill gaps is interesting. They project that around the world by 2020 a shortage of about 40 million high-skilled workers and 45 million medium skilled workers may emerge, alongside a surplus of 95 million low-skilled workers. It is easier to grasp what those big numbers might mean for employment and wages when they are disaggregated. The numbers come from a McKinsey report published in 2012. That report suggests that there might be around 3 percent too few tertiary educated workers in the U.S. and somewhat higher percentages in Europe. They project a surplus of medium and low-skilled workers of around 10 percent for advanced economies in 2020.

Without looking closely at the methodology, those projections do seem to provide grounds for concern that current skill gaps will widen. The authors recognize that the skills gap cannot be met by just increasing the numbers of people with tertiary qualifications. In some fields of study many graduates receive multiple job offers, while in others many end up in unskilled work. Even in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) a “quick churn in job requirements” is apparently common with workers having to master a new set of tools every few years. The solution proposed by the authors is fairly predictable: governments, companies and individuals need to “reset the way they think about labor markets, where to find workers, and the relationship between technology and work”.

My conclusion: I am not persuaded that current economic disruptions are out of the ordinary when compared with other major disruptions that have occurred in patterns of employment and skill requirements during the last couple of centuries. Nevertheless, there are grounds for concern in many parts of the world about the capacity of educational organisations funded by governments to adjust effectively to help meet changing labour market requirements.


1.     Historical perspective

Jim Belshaw has provided a comment below which adds useful historical perspective. I quote:

“Just dealing with the scale of change, and if you work in 40 year increments from 1800s and look at the scale of change and major events in each period, you quickly get the feel that stability is unusual. Then if you look at major technological advances during the period, you can also see that the scale, timing and effects were arguably as fast and significant than anything we have seen in the last forty years. So I would argue that your intuitive feel is correct.

The twenty five year "Great Moderation" is a little unusual, but not excessively so. In the newly formed Australian colonies we had quite a long run of economic advance up the 1848 depression, then another long run into the 1880s. After that economic activity was far more choppy. It was not until the end of the Second World War that we had another long growth period, if one broken by various economic crises, that ended in the 1970s.”

2.      Interaction work in provision of professional services

Noric Dilanchian, a lawyer whose areas of specialisation include protecting, documenting, managing and commercialising intellectual property, has provided some comments on Facebook. Edited excerpts are below:
  “The transaction vs interaction work distinction helps frame some technology developments. Transaction technologies, e.g. for ecommerce, are now maturing after 20 years or more of development. In contrast interaction technologies are less advanced and there are very interesting blips on the horizon.

I'm tracking these developments for professional purposes. They affect the future of the content industries that have been my career's focus. More critical for me, they hold out some promise for reducing the time taken in early stage contract drafting when one is business modelling before one tries to locate suitable resources to cut and paste together templates. This work involves interaction between professions and their clients/patients/public/audiences. Technologies that improve interaction are important at this time when the old form of interaction (meetings in rooms with lawyers) for various reasons (including cost) has declined.

Over the last year or two I've been observing progress in the way interaction work is affecting what computer scientists term ‘deep learning’, ‘machine learning’ and ‘neural networks’. There is also greater use now of visualisation software or visualisation in software. These software technologies are raising excitement as they appear to be producing promising results for product about to be released. In the history of computing artificial intelligence has gone through fits and starts. Right now it’s going through a fit as is being reported regarding augmented reality devices such as the Microsoft HoloLens (less easily in virtual reality devices, e.g. Oculus Rift), Google Photos, and next version of Microsoft's Skype." 

3.     The changing relationship between professional firms and their clients

Some comments that Jim Belshaw and Noric Dilanchian provided on an earlier post are relevant to considering problems that arise in attempting to unbundle services to enable the more routine aspects to be computerised. Jim has experience in conducting economic/commercial analysis from an informed legal perspective, while Noric has skills in provision of specific legal skills (described above). The comments are summarised below:

Jim: Two things became apparent. On the client side, there had been a decline in the in-house knowledge that would once have informed the request for legal advice. There was also an increase in impatience: “Just get us that contract”. On the legal side, there was greater reliance on and availability of templates and precedents. Use of templates can be efficient, but not if poorly informed clients are given boiler plate solutions that results in a reduction in the quality of legal advice and large legal bills.

Noric: There are now new ways of working. The platform used to be face to face meetings and work bees, but it is now electronic. Perhaps more important than the change in the platform, however, is the productivity impediment at the client-firm transactions level arising because the world has changed, but perceptions about roles and requirements have barely changed.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. I have been meaning to comment for a little while on your averages' post. I will come back to that.

Just dealing with the scale of change, and if you work in 40 year increments from 1800s and look at the scale of change and major events in each period, you quickly get the feel that stability is unusual.

Then if you look at major technological advances during the period, you can also see that the scale, timing and effects were arguably as fast and significant than anything we have seen in the last forty years. So I would argue that your intuitive feel is correct.

The twenty five year "Great Moderation" is a little unusual, but not excessively so. In the newly formed Australian colonies we had quite a long run of economic advance up the 1848 depression, then another long run into the 1880s. After that economic activity was far more choppy. It was not until the end of the Second World War that we had another long growth period, if one broken by various economic crises, that ended in the 1970s.

McKinsey loves models, standardised formulations, that can be used to gain publicity and sell services. I will comment more on their ideas later, but I really like the way that you are approaching some of these issues by asking questions in an integrated way.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Jim. I will bring your comment up into the post because it adds useful historical perspective.

Nicolas Dorier said...

One of my professional activity is trainer. I help companies to train their employees.
This is a very lucrative activity, since government is eager to force companies to spend money for training their employees. This push the price of corporate training to impressive level.

Sadly, I think those "incentives" to reduce the skill gap only benefit me and training companies in general.
The problem is that in my field (programming) technology change so fast, that employees ALWAYS need training.

The only sustainable way to fix the gap problem is not more training incentivized by government, but a general understanding that you should never stop learning after school.
In technology school, most of student understand that, and are able to teach themselves. But they often eventually get stuck into a specific job and their skillset stall. They then get trapped into a job they don't like anymore, and ask for training... repeat.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton, I liked the way that you brought the comments into the post. It's the same thing that I try to do from time to time because it adds value. It's also interesting that you are starting to get traction in comments.

Hi Nicholas without the h! I totally agree about the need to keep learning and I also agree with your point on the speed of change in programming and indeed software in general.

Just to extend the discussion a little, my experience as both a trainer and manager is that the great majority of skills are learned on the job. Modern schooling, and I think that this is a good thing, is focused in part on teaching people how to learn. Less so in Uni. Then they do, as you note, get stuck in jobs. Sometimes they end in a job that stretches them. They are the lucky ones. Often, they end in jobs where the new learning component is quite low after the necessary learning related to how we do things round here. Then, as you note, they ask for training. There is often a correlation between requests for training and bad management as well.

So the challenge is in terms of new ways of working just how do you redesign jobs to enhance the learning experience, recognising that you are actually giving people the skills to move on?

Winton Bates said...

Jim: It is helpful to have your comments and comments of others with a different range of experience. That is particularly so in relation to the current series of posts on technological change.

Nicolas: Thanks for your comment. I will be touching on education and training issues in my next post. One of the contributors to the report on the future of the Australian labour market that I will be discussing makes similar points to you about the need for learning to be self-directed and for people to learn throughout their lives. She suggests that people should be encouraged to manage their careers in the way they would manage a business. That seems to me to make a lot of sense particularly as the trend toward self-employment or small business seems likely to continue.
That would not resolve the problem of what happens to the people whose skills are becoming redundant. Retraining is not an easy option for mature age workers, particularly those who lack basic skills in use of computers and don't have good interpersonal skills. Some people in Australia are holding up the Danish approach as a model that we should consider. It sounds costly, but the alternative of supporting people on unemployment and disability benefits is also costly.

Noric Dilanchian said...

Winton: Thank you for collating comments into your Postscript. This is a footnote on additional information for noting.

The question of what is happening to productivity has a different response in this article titled "Productivity Growth and the Diffusion Problem" (

It discusses the OECD's 2015 102 page report titled "The Future of Productivity".

Winton Bates said...

Noric: Thanks for drawing my attention to this. I will add the references in a postscript to my post on declining productivity growth. I will also read the OECD report and comment in a later post.