Last word: our changing place in a changing world

This article first appeared in Contractor Perspectives 2017.

Kevin Lawrence, Editor, Contractor magazine. 

WHEN YOU VISIT a casino all you have to do is understand how to beat the odds. For sure they may be stacked against you, but that’s the thrill of the game. To beat the house.

When you buy a house, all you have to do is pay the mortgage on time, and the market will reward you when it’s time to move on.

When you set up a business, all you have to do is understand how to beat the competition. Work faster, cheaper or smarter than your competitors, and you’ll do well.

But these outcomes are only assured when there’s the proverbial level playing field. All it takes is the unbalanced roulette wheel; the builder using inferior products or unqualified labour for the home-owner to end up losing most, if not all, their equity; or the uncontrolled middle-manager offering (or accepting) undeclared incentives to sweeten the deal to the exclusion of a competitor.

There are winners beating losers in every part of society every day. We’ve been told that if you could eat or drink an ‘incentive’ or gift in a day, it didn’t used to be considered either a bribe or corrupt. Unofficially, that’s probably still relevant, and gift registers should take care of that. But there are plenty of ways boundaries of good practice can be stretched that don’t include bribes, yet could never be considered saint-like behaviour.

Because the pressure to perform better or faster, be accountable and transparent, and compete against different cultural mores is hard for everyone to ignore all the time. And some do bend rules. We know this. After all, it’s not a long walk between “milking the asset” to “milking the goose that lays the golden egg”.

BNZ economist Tony Alexander reckons growth in New Zealand is forecast to average almost three percent per annum over the next five years, and fiscal surpluses seem assured, even after the cost of the Kaikoura earthquakes have been taken into account. And so what happens to our ability to handle these productivity pressures when the current economic boom takes a down-turn, as it inevitably will.

It’s our systems that need to be sufficiently resilient. Good asset management knowledge and data. Open systems that can be accessed by many, not just a select few. And hiring practices that clearly state what’s acceptable, and why. It’s a reality that the ascendancy of Asian economies over recent years means we’re increasingly dealing with people whose views of the world don’t match our own.

As a case in point, there have been pockets of excitement created by the news that a record 64 tower cranes were operating in Auckland at the end of the year, according to the RLB Crane Index.

To put that into perspective, I recently counted 30 tower cranes working on just one building at the Shanghai airport. Our work practices may not always match, but then again Shanghai has also built over 600 kilometres of incredibly efficient suburban underground railways in a little over 20 years.

Auckland is still booming: but we’d better get used to our changing place in a changing world – and the changing pressures on our business culture that will bring.

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