Improving our Competitiveness

added by Craig Steel
View of female sprinter from behind, crouching before starting race

The cost of poor productivity - and living beyond ones means - has never been more evident than it is in Greece today. Regrettably the Greeks (and other EU nations) have found themselves in one of the most unenviable situations one could imagine. Not only are they sinking in debt, they appear completely unable to dig themselves out and as a consequence, are losing the will of those they most need to support them.

As sobering as it might be, the EU crisis offers us as a nation a reminder of the need for each of us to continually examine our commercial premise and indeed our entire strategy; for if there is one thing we need to understand to improve our long term prospects, it is how we can become more productive and ultimately more competitive.

To explore the idea of competitiveness, I suggest we consider the subject through a different lens, being one we are more conscious of, even though we haven’t as yet learnt the lesson as to how to truly optimise it - sport.  

When we think of the word ‘competitiveness’ we tend to think about business, however it is not until we think about the word ‘compete’ or ‘competing’ that we tend to appreciate the significance of its meaning; as interpreted by those at the helm of an elite sports team. In other words, it is all very well to be competitive, but in order to excel over the longer term we need to think about winning; I don’t mean ‘at all costs’ and in an ‘unsportsmanslike’ like manner, but rather in a focused, deliberate and assertive manner. The notion of winning in my experience strikes a different chord within an audience, and thus a different response, than the idea of simply being more competitive. If we talk about being more competitive we tend to think about being a little better than we have been, however when we think about the idea of winning, we stimulate an entirely different conversation.

For example, if we were to say to a sports team, we want you to try and be a little better than you have been, we are unlikely to capture their imagination. However if we set our sights on winning the championship, we are more likely to grab their attention. The reason for this is because people want to be part of something special in order to be recognised as a relevant feature of something significant, not just a cog in an otherwise unmemorable entity. If you were to drill into the subject with your team, I am confident you would find your people responding, however if you were to talk about the idea of trying to be better than you have been, you may encounter a degree of cynicism i.e. if you fail to provide a reason as to why your people need to change, they will more than likely assume you are expressing your dissatisfaction with their current performance rather than emphasising your interest in the possibility of winning.    

In today’s fast paced consumer driven society, people need to feel their life has meaning beyond the value of their spending. In other words, people need to know their life is relevant and important to others, not just to themselves and their mothers. They need to believe they are part of something more than a generator of wealth for their shareholders in order to value their own existence (and thus overcome their sense of dissatisfaction and indeed their feared irrelevance - which typically transpires as a consequence of their lack of purpose). In order to leverage what naturally exists (which is entirely appropriate), and in doing so enable your people to overcome this rife and endemic impediment, why not set a more visionary goal by ‘engaging’ your people more deeply?

In other words, what could you achieve if you not only ‘set’ yourselves a bigger and more challenging goal, but ‘equipped’ your people with the tools to step-up in order to achieve it? Could you edge into new territory or carve out a new market and revenue stream by deploying your people more intelligently? The reason I ask is because it is still remarkably rare to observe a company ‘leveraging’ its workforce potential even though they presumably know that if they did, their people would thank them for it.


Improving our Competitiveness - part two

An interesting conversation the government has put on the table recently that could be considered part of the ‘improving our competitiveness’ debate is the idea of paying teachers based on their ‘performance’ rather than their ‘presence’. While this will no doubt remain a political discussion, it is important to think about for it will allow us to explore the ‘purpose’ of the teaching profession in terms of improving our productivity rather than thinking the purpose of the discussion is to try and ‘preserve’ it.

What I mean by this is if we as a nation were willing to examine the purpose of teaching, we would realise the wisdom of not only assessing our teachers’ ability to honour this purpose today, but how we could help them advance against an agreed understanding long into the future.

In practical terms, the Key Government has decided to look at the outcomes of our education system rather than simply appreciating the efforts of those currently employed within it. If we want to improve our competitiveness as a nation, we need to think about how we will equip the next generation with the tools to contribute rather than producing future generations and hoping they will find their way.

In my opinion class size, which is one of the most contentious issues of the discussion, is only relevant if considered in accordance with a teacher’s capability, not by the number of children sitting in the actual classroom. The number of children attending a class is less relevant to the outcomes those children will experience than the competence and effectiveness of the person teaching them. If we had a highly capable and engaged teacher leading a class of 30, I am confident they would produce better outcomes than a less effective and engaged teacher overseeing a class of 15 (this has been backed up by international research). The reason parents don’t want their children to be in a bigger class is not because they are afraid their child will receive less one-on-one time with their teacher, but that their child’s teacher may become overwhelmed by the size of the class and as a result be unable to engage them - thereby suggesting society’s suspicions of the significance of this dilemma.

That said I accept teachers today have additional challenges as a result of more special-needs children attending their classes and/or more disruptive and disengaged children caused by absent and/or ineffective parenting.

A question I believe the government needs to ask the nation in order to position the debate is; if we could improve the performance and effectiveness of our teachers, in order to improve student outcomes, would we (as a nation) be willing to support them? If the answer was yes, which I am confident it would be, then why are opposition parties appearing to undermine it? My belief about this, as simple or cynical as it may be, is that it is all a matter of politics and the desire to retain one’s base of support.

The fact of the matter is that if we have people in the profession opposing it, it is more than enough evidence to suggest that we need to do something about it. The reason I say this is because if our teachers were focused on honouring their purpose - as one would hope - they would look for all the support they could get to improve their ability to do it rather than being afraid of the consequences of what might happen to them if we were able to assess their performance.

I find it interesting that while most of us operate in an open and transparent (and competitive) market, many in the teaching profession believe they should not have to. To suggest the reason for this is because they cannot alter who they are required to teach or influence student outcomes completely - while true - misses the point entirely. The ‘starting point’ is not what matters; it is the progress our children achieve as a consequence of their education that should ultimately be of interest. If we accepted that each child, and in fairness each community they live in, may very well be advantaged or disadvantaged whatever the case may be,  what matters to us as a nation is how well we equip and enable them (via our education system) to prosper and contribute in the future as an independent human being.

If I were to look back on my own education (which I don’t believe was particularly unique), I can honestly say there were only a couple of teachers who I believe had the wisdom and ability to engage me (which I accept may say just as much about me as the teachers I was taught by) however if we were to ask our children how many of their teachers cause them to ‘want’ to attend their class in order to learn (as opposed to accepting the need to go to school because that was what was expected), how many would they place in this category?

In other words, just because a teacher is not deemed to be ‘incompetent’ doesn’t mean they are ‘highly’ effective and therefore beyond the need of development. For this reason, I support the idea of improving the performance capability of our teachers, not because I suspect we have major issues but because our children are so crucial to our future, that we want them to be extremely successful.

An argument that has been presented in an attempt to off-set the need for intervention is that the education system in this country is perfectly acceptable (world-class) and therefore doesn’t warrant such scrutiny. While I have no reason to question that i.e. I accept it is both fair and accurate, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to establish a world-leading education system that benchmarks itself not on international standards, but how well it enables our young to reach their full potential.

An interesting idea lurching about in the government psyche (that points toward this notion) is that of Charter schools. If we were to consider the extent of the issues that prompted them (being I understand our unacceptably high failure rates in certain sections or segments of society), it would be impossible to deny the need for us as a nation to explore other options in order to improve their outcomes. If we are serious about improving our competitiveness, we have to accept that every individual failure needs to be addressed if we are going to change our predicament. If our community education system would need to change that much to enable these students to advance, why wouldn’t we be prepared to trial an alternative that might work infinitely better?

The problem with the counter argument, as per the response from the industry towards those who choose to send their children to private schools, does nothing more than tilt the focus of this conversation towards those who denounce their relevance. In other words the statistics show that a proportion of our children are failing at school and yet despite the appalling figures, we deny them an alternative.

The reason I believe the majority of parents who send their children to private schools do so not because they are seeking ‘status and privilege’ as many proponents suggest, but because they are less willing to take a chance on their children’s education when they know there is so much at stake i.e. they are sending their children to a school they believe will be better equipped to provide them with the education they believe they will need to prosper in an increasingly competitive market.     

It is important I state here that I have absolutely zero interest in trying to suggest that our teachers are the cause of our children’s failures - as that is a result of us parents. Rather I am suggesting that if we have an opportunity to change or improve their outcomes, despite their starting position, we should take it with open arms as the benefits we receive as a nation will more than off-set the cost i.e. the entire debate should be about us as a nation being prepared to help our teachers affect our children more positively by helping them obtain a mandate to engage them ever more deeply. That does not mean we should therefore see such an intervention as a ‘lessening’ of the role of the family (parents or primary caregivers) it simply means we should value the opportunity to be able to influence each and every child in order to help them succeed.

Of course the point about all of this, and indeed the purpose of this newsletter, is to emphasise the fact that we live in a competitive market meaning our ability to advance as a nation is crucial to our long term prosperity. If we want to retain our current lifestyle, let alone improve it, we must accept the need to equip our population - especially our young - with the skills and capacity to contribute.


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