By the numbers: Julia, listen to Kevin on productivity

Only one politician has highlighted an issue crucial to Australia's future, an issue that technology can help fix.
Written by Phil Dobbie, Contributor

While the Labor party folds in on itself and an Abbott government seems more likely than ever, only one politician has highlighted a crucial issue in Australia, one that technology can help fix. Too bad he's just been relegated to the back bench.

Forget the budget deficit, that can wait. Don't worry about the boats, everyone's getting an influx of them. Instead, let's look at productivity — the measure of how effectively as a nation we turn labour and capital into goods and services. On that metric we're line ball with economically troubled nations like the UK and Spain.

Kevin Rudd raised this concern back in January 2010, saying we needed to increase productivity to meet the challenges of an ageing population. He wanted productivity growth to reach 2 per cent annually by 2050. Too bad we went backwards that year, while the G7 countries (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and USA) grew by 2.4 per cent. Worse still, Rudd's comments were largely ignored, with the public agenda focused firmly on getting the budget back into surplus. If productivity is an issue, surely we should be investing in the infrastructure to fix it?


(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet Australia)

The same lack of vision seems to apply to corporate Australia. For the last few years Telstra's Productivity Indicator has shown that companies that lead on productivity recognise the need to make investments to drive efficiency, including investing in communications technology (ICT). It also showed that most companies don't realise their productivity ambitions, simply because they don't invest enough.

The Telstra report indicates that, with sufficient investment, companies could have reduced costs and increased revenues — which would have a direct impact on productivity. Of course, to continue to drive improvements, innovation is also critical. New companies need to come up with the next wave of big ideas that will offer efficiency gains for business. Yet, as demonstrated in last week's By the Numbers, financiers seem to be fleeing from the ICT sector. So, not only are businesses not investing enough in technology, investors are blind to it too.

Of course, it's not just technology that delivers productivity gains. A broad educated workforce, quality management skills, effective competition and good labour relations can all play their part.

But technology can help improve each of these elements, too. Remember how Karl Marx wrote of an alienated workforce exploited by the filthy capitalists? They weren't paid the full value of their work and became disconnected from the end product, making them sloppy and less productive. He compared that to the time before the industrial revolution, when tradespeople took pride in what they produced and felt a sense of achievement. Perhaps, with high-speed fibre into our homes, more of us can work for ourselves, on contract, feel less like a cog in the machine and reach self-actualisation (without the need for a people's revolution). We'll be productive, educate ourselves to become even more so and live happily ever after.

To me, there is enough evidence for Julia Gillard to pick up where Rudd left off and make technology the main policy platform for the next year or so — productivity is an issue and to an extent they are trying to fix it with the NBN. But there is much more that can be done, including raising the country's standard of digital literacy. That could start with an evening class, two nights a week, for the opposition leader. Or, now he's got time on his hands, perhaps Rudd can give him a crash course.

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