Happy 2019! An idiot looks at the future of business, and turnips

I owe you an apology or two.

First, I’m meant to be running this as a business blog, hosted on my business website, and (if I can trust my analytics) read almost solely by a bunch of LinkedIn contacts (thank you for your support).

Yet I fear my last few posts have gradually strayed further and further away from the office and into the territory of global politics, or what my Mum used to call ‘setting the world to rights.’

This is unacceptable, and I’m sorry. My only plea in mitigation is that with state of the world as it is, I…. no, I’m off again, leave it.

My second apology is for using this post to get in early on the time-honoured end-of-year traditions of predicting the future and recycling the past.

I will share where I think business needs to head in 2019 and beyond, and in doing so I’ll be rehashing a bunch of material from earlier posts, possibly branding it as a ‘Best of 2018’ and bunging it out quick so I can get down to the pub with everyone else.

It’s an idiot’s eye view because I am no expert in any of this, but then as Mr Trump and his populist pals would have it,  experts are very bad people anyway.

What are the things we can be pretty sure of in the next few years and decades?

More and more stuff will get automated, we’ll run out of world if we’re not careful, everyone will get much angrier and older, and there’ll be at least one more season of ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.’

How should business respond to all this?

I believe it needs to do nothing less than reinvent itself. The shift starts with automation, but encompasses all the environmental, ageing demographic and politics of hate stuff too.

I’ve shared some thoughts on this in other posts, but I feel it’s important enough to revisit here, with hopefully some new perspective.

It also shows that I’m an idiot because to me the need for the shift is crushingly obvious, yet people don’t seem to be seriously considering it, so I must be missing something.

This particular idiot sustained himself through a 35 year career in IT by repeatedly reminding himself that it’s basically all just 1’s and 0’s, so in similar vein I’d like to go back to where business started to explain what I mean.

You could say that business started when someone grew more turnips than they could eat.

They twigged that the parsnip farmer next door fancied a turnip from time to time, remembered that they themselves were partial to a parsnip, and did a deal.

Once they’d established their turnips as convertible currency and started slipping someone else a few to help them grow and trade more, the foundations for modern business were laid.

And that basic dependency on people being both producers and consumers is critical in business to this day.

People work to produce goods and services in order to get paid so they can buy goods and services which other people have produced.

We’ve come a long way from turnips and parsnips in terms of the range of goods and services we produce and how efficiently we produce them, but the basic model remains people driven.

Capitalism makes us focus constantly on working harder or smarter to produce and sell more stuff so that we can get more and more money to spend on cooler and cooler things.

Automation helps us with this because it makes us more even more productive and more profitable.

But, and here’s where my inner idiot kicks in, I can’t see how we can carry on with the  drive to automation without it reaching a tipping point where people are no longer at the core of the model.

As my business takes on more and more automation and uses fewer and fewer people, my profits will increase, but only to a point where there aren’t enough working people left to buy my products and services.

If my magical turnip machine means I can grow, sell and distribute my turnips without employing anyone (except maybe my IT guy), I lose those expensive guys from my payroll, but we also lose their buying power from the economy.

We can retrain our turnip growers as magical turnip machine experts or digital marketing executives, but how realistic is it to retrain everyone whose jobs are eventually automated?

Even allowing for the growth of jobs in areas like digital and content, does it make any kind of sense to envisage a world where we’ve automated everything we can but we still have roughly the same number of people working? And if they aren’t working, who is buying?

One answer to all this is to redistribute the wealth generated by automation. Bring in a robot tax, use it to fund a universal working wage, and restore the balance.

Although this may help, it has associations with traditional views of stuff like taxation and welfare payments as anti-business. More fundamentally, if we’re all being paid for doing nothing, what happens to our sense of purpose?

I hope and believe business can be much more radical and creative in dealing with this  change.

I like to think that reformers of the industrial revolution like Robert Owen and Joseph Rowntree saw that mistreatment of workers was not only morally wrong, but that investing in better working, educational and social conditions for employees would be better for business in the long run.

Similarly, I hope the new thinking is prepared to challenge some of our sacred cows of business, not to undermine capitalism, but because it makes good business sense.

Which brings us back to the world getting too hot and all of us getting angrier, older, sicker and poorer, none of which is going to be great for your year on year profit growth.

I believe the way forward for business is to use the bounty from automation to invest in supporting and improving the society and environment which sustains its markets.

There are some signs of this happening already; it’s vital we see more of it in the coming years.

When Donald Trump first threatened to withdraw the USA from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, Tim Cook, Brad Smith, Elon Musk and other major business leaders stated their companies’ continuing commitment to tackle climate change.

We’ve seen glimmers of similar business push back against government anti-globalisation policies.

Money talks, so maybe if the guys making the big bucks start funnelling some of the cash that used to go in pay checks into initiatives which help tackle global warming, nationalism and protectionism, it might help us get a bit less hot and angry.

Apart from anything else, the populist and protectionist clarion call to  ‘Protect <insert nationality> Jobs for <insert nationality> People!’ tends to lose traction when robots are doing those jobs anyway.

I appreciate all this still doesn’t replace the vital sense of purpose people get from working, and I don’t have an easy answer to that.

I hope that business investment in education, the arts and grass roots sport might help us get that sense of purpose from something more fulfilling than staring at a spreadsheet or production line all day, but that’s a whole other post.

And it won’t stop us getting old and sick.

I have a suggestion for that, although I have to declare an interest, speaking as a reasonably fit and active 58 year old.

The problem with us getting old and sick is largely in the ‘sick’ part.  It’s not the ageing population itself, it’s the amount of resources us oldies soak up because we can’t look after ourselves.

So, business, why not invest in keeping us, the OCTTBs (Old Codger Ticking Time Bombs), out of care for as long as possible?

Don’t just give us money. There’s every chance we’ll spend it on gin and custard creams and end up in 24 hour medical care even sooner.

Give us free adventure holidays, subscriptions to online libraries, anything which encourages us to stay mentally and physically active for as long as possible.

It reduces the burden on society, and it lets you keep selling more stuff to old people for longer before the sales opportunities narrow to cardigans and fudge.

Even better, give us oldies stuff in exchange for reviewing it or blogging about it for you, so we get something else to keep the grey cells young and you get some free marketing.

These are just inklings. I’m an optimist at heart, so my prediction for the future of business is that greater and more influential minds than mine will take on this essential challenge of re-engineering our entire model of business and work, and that they will grasp the opportunities it presents to make our lives, the world and business better and richer in every sense of the word.

In the meantime, yes, a free hiking holiday would be nice, please and thank you, and may I wish you a very happy Christmas or whatever holiday you observe around now, and a fulfilling, contented and productive 2019.

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