Tag Archives: Risk

The Changing Way we Work & Live – part 3

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid...

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first in this series of posts looked at how technology advances are enabling location independence for people at work, and the second looked at some of the socio-economic impacts of this move. In fact, the changes are potentially even more widespread further into the future, as a recent MindBullets post discussed.

Essentially, what this post suggests is that in the next decade or so, a combination of 3D printing – that technology is already available, albeit in a somewhat rudimentary form still – and cheap robotics will render manufacturing as we know it obsolete.

What’s more, this combination of technologies will make the production lines of old irrelevant as we move to true user choice in every product. We all remember the early days of the mass produced car, when Henry Ford suggested that customers could have the Model T in any colour they liked, so long as it was black. Contrast that with today where the buyer has, literally thousands of combinations of colour, internal and external finish, engine and accessories available to make a vehicle unique, or at least highly individualized. In the future, there will be no limit to the choices available as each product will be built/printed to your exact specification.

The impacts of this are, of course, dramatic – imagine the impact on China if its low-cost manufacturing prowess is no longer needed as it is faster and cheaper to make items at/near the customer. What will the effect be on the economies of countries like China, Mexico and others where a largely unskilled labour force has provided economic growth through mass manufacturing? And what will the consequent ripple effects around the world be as a result?

What, too, will be the impact on the logistics and transportation industries if there is no longer the need for transporting all the freshly-made products around the world? Shipping, air, road and rail transport, and warehousing will all undergo massive changes and many companies that are household names will have to adapt radically or disappear.

The Amazon of the future, for example, instead of having huge warehouses filled with a multiplicity of product and a logistics operation predicting demand and ensuring, so far as is possible, just-in-time delivery from its vast range of suppliers, will have a series of printing/manufacturing modules and will create products to order in a matter of minutes – and the only transport needed is to the consumer. As prices of 3D printers continue to fall, imagine a world where these are in every home, negating even this ‘last mile’ transportation.

There will, of course, still be the need for some level of transportation – the raw materials for the 3D printers and robotic manufacturing operations, but this will be much less onerous than the transportation of today.

There is, of course, still one area that 3D printing and robotic manufacturing has not solved – organic material. This means that food – fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish and so on – will still, for the foreseeable future at least, need to be transported from the farms to consumers in some way. Here, too, we’re seeing huge change today as increasing numbers of consumers buy this online, bypassing the need for physical supermarkets and shops, and we’ll look at the effects of all this online shopping in the next part of this series.

There’s no question that the current advances in 3D printing and robotics will dramatically change the way products are made and delivered and the effects of this on companies and countries will be massive. Technology is really causing the pace of change to accelerate more and more quickly – the future just gets more and more interesting.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 April.

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Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?

Can Mergers & Acquisitions be More Successful?

Board meeting room

Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that although many companies, and almost all large ones, grow through mergers and acquisitions, most of these result in a decline in overall value, rather than the envisaged increase?

In the lead-up to such activity – the “engagement period” if you like – shareholders are shown clearly the benefits that the merger or acquisition will bring: lower overall costs, great (combined) market share, stronger sales teams, more experienced management in the combined entity, and so on. All of which is supposed to lead to greater overall value for the shareholders – a case of the proverbial 1+1 resulting in a good deal more than 2.

The reality is, far too often, startlingly different with 1+1 adding up to a good deal less than 2. In other words, significant shareholder value is lost in the process.

Naturally, there are many reasons for this decline in value – most commonly those resulting from a attempt to merge two very different corporate cultures and the consequent fall-out. And much of this happens in the board room.

I’ve seen many cases of incompatible cultures clashing in boardrooms, although I’m fortunate to have avoided this first-hand. Too often, the newly constituted board in an M&A situation will have directors drawn from the two companies proportionate to the value of each part in the transaction and so the acquirer will seek to dominate the acquiree, even when the reason for the acquisition (as is often the case) is that the latter has qualities the former believes is missing from its own company. The result is the departure of the very expertise being acquired and the consequent drop in overall value.

It seems to me that there is one reasonably simple way to increase the likelihood of success – and that is to increase the size of the overall board with the appointment of further Independent Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) when companies are undertaking mergers and acquisitions.

The Corporate Governance Code states “Except for smaller companies, at least half the Board, excluding the Chairman, should comprise Non-Executive Directors determined by the Board to be independent. A smaller company should have at least two independent Non-Executive Directors.”  But how many companies actually carry this through?

Should this strong recommendation not be even more strictly adhered to during the M&A process? Bringing a substantial body of independent, experienced NEDs to a board can reduce the level of infighting and help to ensure that the talent/expertise being acquired stays in the transaction.

As we see the global economy slowly recovering, we can expect to see a strong increase in M&A activity as companies seek to assure their future positions while values are still relatively low. This is the time for boards of companies – large and small alike – to become more independent.

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A Failure of Leadership

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted many problems – problems with the technology for drilling at depths where the water pressure is around a ton per square inch; problems with BP not being transparent from the outset as to the extent of the spill; problems with oil companies putting short-term profits ahead of ensuring that these issues cannot happen; problems with the US Regulators who seemingly have been extremely lax in applying the regulations and have been granting waivers freely to the oil industry; problems with our ability to clean up oil spills even 21 years after Exxon Valdez (what’s happened to Kevin Costner’s centrifuge-based cleaner?)…

But for me, one of the most surprising things to emerge from this has been the failure of leadership. BP’s leadership issues are, to an extent, understandable – although not excusable – in that they have been focused on protecting shareholder value by trying to downplay the size, scope and likely cost of the problem. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, as I’ve said, but one can understand it, so it’s not too surprising.

No, the leadership failure I’m referring to has been that of President Obama.

I realise that this statement might cause something of a firestorm from some readers of this blog, but bear with me on this for there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken – so it’s not (yet) too late.

We need to recognise that when running for office, then-Senator Barack Obama focused on the need for change – a need that the US population clearly believed in, given the fact that it propelled a largely-unknown junior Senator to the office of President. Central to this theme was his strong belief that things could best be accomplished by working together on the issues with all concerned parties – no matter on which side of the fence they stood.

This, of course, has not been a great success in the Congress and Senate as the divisions have, in many cases, simply been too deep to facilitate working together. The oil spill, though, is a different matter – for there is no question that everyone has a common goal: to stop the leak and clean up the mess as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the environment as is possible.

However, apart from being slow off the mark in terms of visiting the Gulf Coast, President Obama has spent most of his time publicly berating BP rather than being seen to work with them to address the issue in the most comprehensive way. Perhaps he was trying to cover up the shortcomings in his own administration – those regulatory bodies that were not doing their job properly – given the looming mid-term elections, or perhaps his anger simply clouded his judgement. Either way, instead of seeking to work shoulder-to-shoulder with BP and for them to jointly marshal the considerable forces that could be at their disposal if they, and other oil companies, worked together, the situation has become one of adversity. And an adversarial relationship never produces the best overall result.

It’s time for President Obama to put personal feelings and party politics aside on this problem; to work with all stakeholders – oil companies, state and local government (of all political persuasions), and anyone else that can play a positive role. He needs to remember his campaign promise to change the way things are done in Washington, and to work for the best result regardless of personal feelings, of politics and of attribution of blame. There’s plenty of time for all that after the mess is cleaned up.

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Analyse This!

‘Analysis Paralysis’ is often cited as a reason for businesses failing to achieve their potential – too much time spent analysing an opportunity (or problem) with the result that the window closes and nothing is achieved. In fact, much has been written about this, with Google, alone, returning over half a million pages!

The problem is that many in business – particularly the more entrepreneurially-minded – use this syndrome as an excuse not to analyse anything, relying instead on ‘gut feel’ for all decisions.

However, analysis is a critical part of achieving maximum success in a business and there are many areas where this can be automated to a large extent, too.

One often-overlooked area of a business – because it is nowhere near as glamorous as Sales in many eyes – is Credit Control (also referred to as the Debtors’ or Accounts Receivable Department, depending on where you are in the world). And yet, it’s an area that can have a huge impact on the overall health of a company, and one where analysis should play an important role.

In the years BCC (Before Credit Crunch), of course, many companies effectively outsourced much of the decision-making to Credit Insurers, who would determine appropriate account limits for customers, and would chase up for the longer-overdue debt once it was reported to them. The company was paid out either way – by the customer or the insurer – so was less concerned.

This, of course, has all changed.

Credit Insurers are now a lot more careful with their level of risk and companies are having to re-evaluate their approach: do they accept lower credit limits and a consequent restriction to their business, or do they ‘self insure’ to maximise their opportunities?

By analysing their customers’ payment patterns over time, companies will develop a much better understanding of their customers, being better able to assign appropriate credit limits, while also developing an early-warning system of impending trouble.

What’s more, utilising this information in cash-flow forecasts will provide a far more accurate picture of expected income for a given period than the ‘rule of thumb’ that so many companies seem to still use. And, of course, this should feed through to enable companies to give accurate information to their creditors as to payments due, and take maximum advantage of any early-settlement discounts that may be available.

It all comes down to understanding your business more thoroughly. If nothing else, the economic conditions of the past couple of years should encourage businesses to pay a lot more attention to the fundamentals, and that will be good for everyone going forward.

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Small Customers – A Neglected Resource

The efficiency focus of the past 18 months may well have added substantially to the risk profile of companies, while simultaneously reducing their profitability.

After all, efficiency for most means focusing on the largest customers – allowing one to reduce headcount (less people, managing fewer customers), reduce transaction costs (fewer, larger transactions) and, in many eyes, reduce risk (bigger customers are more trustworthy).

However, aren’t your biggest customers the ones that demand, and generally get, the best prices? Do your biggest customers not get the longer payment terms they request? Are your biggest customers really less work than others?

And what about the impact on your business of the failure to pay of one of your biggest customers? As we’ve seen, they’re far from invincible.

Conversely, most businesses will find that their smaller customers:
• Deliver better margins;
• Will pay more promptly (if for no other reason than you have more leverage);
• Are no more work than the larger ones, and often less so as they are less demanding;

On top of this, the impact of a failure on your business is far less severe, and you substantially reduce your overall business risk by spreading a given value across a number of customers, instead of concentrating it in one place.

What’s more, as business starts to pick up, the companies likely to grow most quickly will be the small ones – a 20% growth on $1 Million revenue is generally a good deal easier to find than a 20% growth on $1 Billion revenue. So having a good number of smaller customers will improve your growth prospects, too.

Analyse the true profitability (return on working capital, including all costs) by customer segment: you’ll find it a very interesting exercise.

I’m not for a moment advocating that you fire all your biggest customers, but rather that you not just focus on larger customers at the expense of smaller ones. As with all things in life, you need to achieve a balance.

Small customers should be embraced as much as large ones – after all, if you have a ready resource that will help you grow faster than the market average while improving your profitability and simultaneously reducing your risk, shouldn’t you make the best use of it?