Face value results tell only one part of the story

Revisiting seminal management reports is like revisiting the rellies – stay too long, look too closely and you will probably see things you don’t want to find.

The Karpin Report of April 1995 was the largest selling Commonwealth document of the year (ending the unbroken record of that annual hot little number, the Budget papers). It was the news – mostly bad news – about the woeful state of Aussie business management.

David Karpin was in Perth late January, invited by the Curtin Graduate School of Business Leadership and Management graduate students to address them on the topic of preparing leaders for the new millennium.

Revisiting the Karpin Report five years on is a good starting point for discussion about how Australian management measures up now and where we are heading.

Choosing indicators of success is a bit more tricky than it used to be in the good old days of pure left-brain thinking, pure economic rationalism, and pure reliance on statistical measures.

Although Einstein said that some things you can count don’t matter and some things that matter you can’t count, some of us still do not accept that perhaps what matters most for long-term economic sustainability are the things you can’t count, like values, attitudes and quality of life issues in the workplace.

David Karpin cited a traditional, but handy, world economic report ranking all things statistical – the annual World Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum in Geneva.

The 1999 report shows Australia’s mercurial competitive performance has moved from tenth in 1989 down to sixteenth in 1992, up to twelfth in 1995, down to seventeenth in 1996 and up again to 12th in 1998, the report’s last year of record. We are looking good.

The competitiveness ranking of other nations in 1998, however, deserves closer scrutiny with the warning that, like those rellies, we may find indicators that upset our complacency that all is well with our global economy.

In 1998, Singapore, the US, Hong Kong and Taiwan rank first, second, third and fourth as the most competitive. Interestingly, three of the top four are Asian. Next come Canada, Switzerland and Luxembourg. The UK, the Netherlands and Ireland round out the top ten.

Australia is twelfth, which is OK. While David Karpin did not do so, if we keep looking, we note the Kiwis follow us at thirteenth (they were, ahem, third) and, most startling of all, Japan is fourteenth.

The world’s second largest economy, the greatest example of rapid industrialisation and economic rationalism has dropped below Australia, below Ireland, even below Taiwan.

Where’s Germany? The mighty European industrial force does not appear at all in the top twenty competitive nations. Goodness gracious – both Japan and Germany going down?

We need to look long and hard at our assumptions that the global economy is healthy, is stable and is, in fact, sustainable in its present form. Although the old boys may not want to see it, even the stats show a different global economic trend is emerging. Has economic rationalism overstayed its welcome?

• Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac Consultants.

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