Category Archives: Irish economy

Solving problems

Some of the more interesting things I find myself reading turn up via my twitter feed. I have not yet identified who is best at identifying the things I find interesting, but someone during the week was reading about brainstorming and creativity.

I found this interesting because one of the things I have hated about brainstorming is the lack of critical analysis of the output. I find that where you have discussions where the merits and the demerits of an approach are considered – and you are prepared to listen to them – you’ll get a far more positive outcome. What interested me about that article however was not the discussion on brainstorming, but the discusssion on building design. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately not necessarily in the context of effectively getting things done but in the context of utility (which indirectly leads to getting things done I suppose).

What I have been leaning towards is that concentrating on the beauty of an environment is of secondary importance if the utility is limited. A key example I have to deal with lately is the idea of beautiful dustbins which are miles from anyone’s desks. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone that this was probably not a good idea as people will just get dustbins and put them near their desks anyway. Utility wins over form. To some extent, when I look at the examples cited in that article, that’s what I see happening. People will do what they can to create an atmosphere where they can get their job done.

I’m not familiar with what research is done at an architectural or interior decor level into this. I know a lot of work goes into looking at the built environment but that’s not the same. I know that a lot of interior decorators who have decorated kitchens in houses that I have considered buying or renting in the last 10 years have clearly no idea how to cook. Or else they weren’t interior decorators. Apartments with inadequate storage, for example.

And work offices. I’ve worked in a few over my time and can say without any shadow of doubt that the aesthetic beauty of an office is of secondary importance to me than whether it makes it easier or harder for me to get my job done. This leads to me – for example – introducing headphones to shut out the noise which gets amplified by the aesthetically designed ceilings, or photographs on my desk to provide some humanity to the stark black and white design.

But the environment is only part of the problem. Communication while facilitated or hampered by environments is still controlled by human beings and a lot of human beings are happy to talk but not so happy to listen.

Somehow if we could more people to listen and analyse rather than talk and reject anyone else’s talking, the world might be more efficient.

What do we tell the youth of today, anyway?

I picked this up on my twitter feed this morning.

If you were giving a talk to 16 yr olds about economy, would you be upbeat to inspire them or more downbeat to snap them out of complacency?

(Liam Delaney, Professor of Economics Stirling University. Research Fellow UCD Geary Institute, occasionally blogs here also.)

We’re talking about 16 year olds here. Complacency is not what 16 year olds do. They dream, and old fogeys put a lot of effort into getting them to attach to reality. Being downbeat is part of that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an utterly stupid way to go about things. Here’s the basic truth about economies. They generally trend towards improved life but they do it in wild cycles. There is not an economist nor a business man in the world who truly understands those cycles because those cycles are the collective output of a lot of small economies acting together in non-centrally planned ways. They are not rational and what’s more, they can be changed at the microlevel without any reference to any sort of economic theory about what the right thing to do is.

In other words, what you say to teenagers is Economies go up, economies go down, you try to learn to ride the cycle, and, although I am sure Liam might not agree with me on this, you can probably ignore economists dealing in economic theory because despite its pretensions, it is barely a measurable science, dismal or otherwise. The most interesting economists I know are not really economists; they’re statisticians.

Yes,  Economies go up, and they go down and you, coming into a down cycle, difficult as it might look, have massive, massive advantages over those who come into a good cycle. You have the chance to be creative in how you deal with issues and difficulties. You learn to be resourceful. You learn to achieve an awful lot with comparatively little. And you’re in a good place when the good times come.

And you have dreams and with the resourcefulness that you can be delivering now, you can try to exploit them. Not everyone will be a pop star but I’ll bet Steve Jobs wanted to be a fireman when he was 5. Lives change. Different things, opportunities, people come along. The way you look at life now will change. So while you’ll need to plan for the future – this is where I say get a decent education – you need to look at how you’re doing now as well. Play that guitar. Do that gig. Never regret that you didn’t try something at least once.

What you do will make the economy of the future. The more you believe in what you are doing, the better that future will be. You may travel. Travel and temporary migration will be one of the best things that can happen you because the world will change, the lens you look through to see it will change. Some of the best things that have happened to Irish society happened because people left and came back. Societal change in Ireland was driven by the diaspora who came back. Look on it as an opportunity and another building block in your life and your future and not something to be negative about.

This is what I would be telling sixteen year olds if I were Liam Delaney. And I wouldn’t be thinking of being negative to kick the complacency out of them because if nothing else, that will destroy the economy and society for a further generation. We need them to build the future, not lie around wondering just how bad things are going to get before they get a job of some description.

Ireland has been poorly served by her experts and ruling class. We need to change that.

When you’re done, read this from Ronan Lyons, last August.

Bottling Silicon Valley

One of our TDs took himself off to Silicon Valley a while back to see what was special about the place and more to the point, could we create something similar here in Ireland. In a way, it was a laudable objective, and you can read the article he wrote subsequent to the trip here.

I honestly believe that collective will would allow something special to be created here; but that will isn’t something you’d find in SIlicon Valley. There are a couple of things which make the Valley special – I’m not necessarily going to go into this in detail but the following are obvious advantages:

  • proximity to high quality education
  • infrastructure
  • access to finance

There are a couple of other small items as well such as greater tolerance of business failure, and faster recovery from said business failure.

Eoghan Murphy didn’t really talk about these in detail except the business failure side of things; he concentrated on solutions that involved importing people, via programs of paying people’s salaries, for example.

I’m not sure this is the way to look at things. We need to teach people to have ideas, and the faith that they can carry them through. Ireland is appalling at this; I suspect, in part, because of the social judgmentalism which I think the Catholic Church gifted us. How we judge people’s success is depressing. It’s not often because they have created something special, but only because they went to the right schools, or, made money and talk to the right people.

In my view, the ecosystem which is Silicon Valley, or some functional equivalent, might be better grown here if we look at two key things:

  • education system
  • how we fund start ups.

We do neither particularly well. If you look at both Facebook (which I don’t like) and Google, both of them grew out college projects to some extent. In the early days of Google (and if you have not read In the Plex by Steven Levy you should), they got huge support from Stanford University. It’s the sort of support that not one university here could do because they don’t really have the money.

Via a ridiculous job creation scheme, the government appropriated money from pension funds to do something about our unemployment. If we want to create something innovative and special here, Job Bridge was not where we should have put the money; and nor is it in “trying to create Silicon Valley”.

We have some useful advantages here. We have the wherewithal to build decent data centres. We have the wherewithal to teach people to exploit them. That is where I’d like to see that money going; into the future and not just the present.

Hmmm…So..should we learn Chinese?

Via the Journal – a site I haven’t really worked out the purpose of yet – we have this little piece on whether we should all be learning Chinese.

There are a couple of key pieces of information:

Richard Barrett, who set up Treasury Holdings with Johnny Ronan, suggested from the audience that Irish people should be learning Chinese to equip us to fully embrace the possibilities for trade with the surging Asian economy.

I have issues with this, as indeed I have issues with anyone who pipes up and says “we should be learning X language for Y overly simplistic reason”. I may be wrong but I understand that Richard Barrett does a lot of trade in China which will probably explain his interest in getting our young people to learn China. But it’s not the sort of trade I want to see this country wasting any more money on collectively. Treasury Holdings was a development company and yes, some of its loans were taken on board by NAMA. In other words, this is not a sector of industry which would necessarily create a lot of sustainable economic growth for large numbers of enterprises.

I want to see our young people creating things; being given the freedom to create things. They will need communication skills as well – I will come to that in a moment – but above all, before they can trade with another country, they need something to sell. We are not teaching them to create stuff to sell in general. I’m sure there are people out there trying…individually – but if we were going to put any money and effort into the economic future of the country it should start with problem solving and creating things. So if we’re going to bring something new into the education system, it shouldn’t be ONE particular language, suggested by a property magnate.

I’d be in favour of much improved programming and design skills but that’s another argument later.

The thing is…we don’t trade much with China; not compared to how much we trade with France and Germany. And we already have problems getting our young people to learn to speak either effectively. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I am not going to go into the details now. To get our young people speaking any of the Chinese languages effectively out of school is a massive task when we can’t get them speaking an Indo-European language effectively.

One of the issues I have in Ireland is that it’s possible for someone like Richard Barratt to pop something like this out and have the Taoiseach have to respond to it without any real understanding of how possible it is – where are all these Chinese language teachers going to come from, for example – and how much is it going to cost given the rarity of the skill – and what directly is it going to bring the country if we don’t also – and more importantly – teach our young people to create something that we can trade with? Being able to speak Chinese and English is not enough. You need something to trade with.

Maybe I am missing something here.

listening…

I recently downloaded the latest Steven Levy book, “In the Plex” which is pretty much a history of Google. It’s now on my nice friendly iPad where Kindle software delivers me a lot of interesting things.

I use Google products on a daily basis. Their search is generally reliable apart from a blip last year when it was useless for a while. With personalisation/instant search it seems to be improving again. I use gmail because – by and large – it works and now it’s accessible on all my devices with relatively little hassle. But I didn’t know too much about the company other than it was founded by a couple of kids some time ago. Those kids are around my age now which is a bit odd when you think of it.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me about Google is just how creative they are on certain fronts. They need to save money? They ask their staff for ideas on how to do it. I’ve worked in quite a few companies. I have to say that for the lossmaking ones, I don’t think they ever entertained the idea that asking their staff for advice on where to cut waste was a good idea. Many old school companies just go for the wages and staff every time.

The other thing which they do that I think is highly interesting is their 20% idea. If you’re not familiar with this (and if you don’t work in tech, you probably wouldn’t be), the general gist is that Google employees can turn 20% of their work time over to a personal project that interests them – a lot of google products grew out of this. I think 3M may have done something not too different from whence we got post-it notes.

One of the things which I have noticed that stifles innovation in a lot of companies – not internet search companies – is that ideas are often top down. Another thing is obviously when an idea comes from bottom up is that there is a cat fight over who gets credit for it. This isn’t really in the interest of the company when you think about it. If you brought about a situation whereby anyone who had an idea could fight for it and also be given appropriate credit for it, you might find a lot more interesting innovation coming from your staff. With it, that will bring a lot more employee involvement beyond merely the salary. Just the feeling of having made an unexpected difference.

Google hasn’t a massively hierarchical management structure for a company of its size which may make it easier to implement slightly left of centre ideas like this. But I don’t see any real reason why it couldn’t work in a hierarchically managed company either. A key component of why Google is where it is now is that it was a company that fostered ideas. A lot of mainstream companies – regardless of size – don’t do this any more. They are not looking at ideas really; they are looking at money and how to get it.

Yet every company everywhere started with an idea. I think ultimately that those ideas are currency, and because of the culture in many companies – where communication is very often a one way route – ideas get lost, or delayed.

It’s something to think about. I have another blog on this site which I use as an ideas whiteboard. There isn’t a whole lot there now but it’s a creative space where I think it would be useful to be able to look at things and reason out how they could work.

LinkedIn penetration – What’s it worth really?

Last week, ComScore issued a press release highlighting the penetration rates for Twitter and LinkedIn in a number of different companies. The Netherlands came out top. What was interesting – and hence rather more widely reported than you’d expect normally – was that Ireland came second in the table for LinkedIn. I was a little surprised. The press release is here. It concentrates mainly on the Netherlands use of social networking media but there is that table of penetration for LinkedIn and that’s what I want to talk about.

It caught my interest because at the same time, an online forum which I frequent was running a discussion on how to find jobs in IT in Ireland. Networking via LinkedIn featured as a key component of something people should be doing; and how they should manage their profile, for example. It interested me because it strikes me that LinkedIn is working more or less as a lot of people feel FaceBook should be – a connection building exercise. I’m not sure FaceBook really works that way.

Given that Ireland is behind a lot of other countries in terms of penetration of FaceBook and Twitter, I’m intrigued to know why we score highly on LinkedIn. It’s possible that this penetration is as a result of:

  • high number of IT professionals;
  • high number of professionals intermingling with the US market;
  • high levels of staff turnover in the IT sector.

LinkedIn is a little interesting on the financial front too as it is due to IPO sometime this year. The expected flotation figure is – comparatively speaking (according to Mashable by the way), not all that high. This is important because the figures being bandied about for FaceBook are rather stratospheric, despite a complete absence of useful financial information. LinkedIn’s IPO documentation offers a lot more clarity.

The recruitment process in Ireland has changed a lot over the last 10 years. I was direct-hired to my current company having done battle with the recruitment agencies which, from what I can see, are really not all that trusted. LinkedIn cites job vacancies as one of their main income streams and anecdotally, I know people who have been headhunted via LinkedIn. I wonder if a key contribution to LinkedIn’s position in Ireland relates to recruitment specifically and I’d be interested in finding a way of figuring it out.

LinkedIn is an interesting way of finding a job; however. If you have any colleagues (or direct line reporting) within your network, it may be difficult to hide the fact that you are interested in moving which may or may not be a good thing depending on a number of matters such as workplace atmosphere and hierarchy, remuneration issues and workplace culture.

One of the things that struck me most about LinkedIn at the time I registered by the way was how structured it was in terms of describing your background, experience. A key complaint I have about the online form application modusfindanewjobus is that it is can be very difficult to fit that around your actual life and experience. I particularly found this with an IBM form lately.

While that makes it easier for HR staff, it may not – and almost certainly isn’t – necessarily in the interest of either an employer or a potential candidate. For that reason – I think there will always be an interest in a well designed and informative CV. LinkedIn allow you to upload these which is helpful.

Declaration of interest – my linkedin profile is here.

Role of education in Ireland

I wound up in a twitter discussion with Marc Coleman today because he is running for election to the Seanad and he got into some sort of a tiff with Brian Lucey, an academic in Trinity, this week. As I follow both of them, the argument caught my attention and I ended up contributing. I believe the roots of the debate were in an article which Marc wrote for the Sunday Independent, link here, and which left me somewhat cold as far as writing style was concerned.

With respect to the debate on twitter, however, it reminded me that a key issue in Ireland is that the debate on education seems to be very fragmented. No one ever seems to clearly answer the question “What do we want of our education system?” Ultimately, our commentators and politicians spend time arguing on micro issues without first of all even assessing the purpose of our education system. As such, we wind up with letter writing campaigns to the newspapers about such esoteric matters as:

  • the place of Irish in the curriculum
  • teachers’ holidays being too long
  • the dumbing down of the maths syllabus
  • how few people are doing higher level course which would lead them on to research and development
  • how badly we do at languages (and how we should kill off Irish language teaching to deal with this)
  • classroom buildings/facilities
  • class sizes.

Marc Coleman appears to be unhappy at how we measure academic productivity. He latched onto academic lecture contact hours and used personal anecdote as a stick to beat Irish academics with. I’m not going to argue against the simple fact that compared to other countries, many of our academics are relatively well paid; only that if you want to bring about a way of measuring their worth to us, a little more detail is called for.

I don’t work in academia. I came close, about 10 years ago, to applying for a lectureship but the position in question was part time and held not enough promise in terms of research options. Marc Coleman wants us to only hire the good people, but has not yet answered me the simple question of How do we identify them. Nor can he tell me how we develop them. You don’t really buy good academic off academic trees; they need to be nurtured and their research funded.

I’m not happy with certain aspects of education in Ireland. I think our primary and secondary school cycles could do with being modernised. Having spoken to a number of teachers, I’m aware that where we have failing schools, we have ploughed lots of money and have failed to get parental engagement. I’m not enough of an expert on the social sciences front to figure out how we address that. I did volunteer to give grinds to kids in a disadvantaged comprehensive when I was a student myself – I’m not sure if the program is still running – but this anecdote is nowhere near adequate to make me an expert in dealing with some of the problems our education system faces at the coalface.

I’m not in the mood for picking over the carcass of whether researcher/lecturer A should be earning more or less than random person B doing a similar job somewhere because it’s a meaningless debate if you don’t actually first of all decide what you want the education system to achieve. For example, I’m not sure it is to our benefit collectively that it brought about a situation whereby the points race causes most of our brightest to direct themselves towards law, for example. Or that perceived economic benefit dictates trends in demand for third level courses. This does not exploit our collective ability to the best.

If I were a Seanad election candidate, I wouldn’t be focussing initially on what we pay our academics in terms of whether they represent value for money. I would be asking people what they want from education. It’s a very, very important question that would enable us to better identify value for money from the system. What is the required outcome? Arguing over contact hours is not going to answer that question.

While we currently do not charge tuition fees for undergraduate students, it’s worth noting that the UK is moving to a fee based system (and the implementation of that in England is causing ructions with respect to access being dictated by access to money), and the US has had a fee based system for years. The merit of that system is being questioned, given the debts that are imposed on young people going to college and the disconnect between those debts and the likelihood that their jobs will ever enable them to pay of those fees. Put simply, if you cause every job to require a college degree but then do not produce salaries that will enable people to pay off the cost of getting said degrees, you have a problem.

Because we have had a policy of trying to enable as many people to get into third level colleges as possible, we have diluted the value of basic university degrees such that postgraduate qualifications are near mandatory if you want to get a job. I’m not sure that this is to the benefit of the wider economy, particularly in a country which currently has abotu 15% unemployment.

I’d prefer it if our Seanad candidates considered wider questions like this rather than running into the cost of bits of the whole system.

Upping the ante in maths.

It’s August, so we have had the school leaving exam results and as is typical, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about maths. Put simply, we’re not good enough at it.

Collectively, I mean. There are some individuals doing nicely. Anyway, one of the options being suggested to improve interest in maths is bribery, I mean, bonus points for mathematics.

Bonus points for mathematics is not new. When I did my leaving certificate oooooh, exactly 20 years ago now, they existed. Since then, they don’t exist, the maths syllabus has been streamlined at least once, if not twice and foundation maths was invented. And all told, things do not seem to be getting better.

So the solution is Project maths;

Mrs Coughlan said the new Project Maths – a pilot scheme in 24 schools – would be rolled out across the country.

“I believe from the very tentative results that we have seen thus far that it is the most appropriate way in which we can encourage more young people to take higher level mathematics,” she said.

Helpful. Mrs Coughlan, for the benefit of posterity is the Education Minister of the time. 24 schools are the basis on which we will make this decision. I’m not certain that’s a good idea.

The problem – which is not unique to higher level mathematics – is that the attitude to education has changed. We don’t sell it correctly to teenagers, and they expect to be sold things. I do not know why – I don’t have children, so much of what I believe is pure and idle speculation. We do have a number of youngsters who do not necessarily understand the effort/reward set up of exams. And that the reward may not necessarily be just passing the exams, but more interesting things in the future.

When I was at school, I was taught maths by a man who took the occasional week off the syllabus to teach us how it was useful for economics and computer programming, neither of which were taught in my school. Some people worked hard in his class because they were scared of him. Others worked hard because in some way, he was inspirational. Maths was a tool for other things apart from being an end in itself.

Much of the educational curriculum is often written off with “I’ll never need to “… prove another theorem in my life. We have a generation of people who dismiss aspects of the education system as being a waste of time, without recognising how those aspects might fit into other things they want to do. For example, I do honestly believe we should be teaching kids to do some sort of programming at second level anyway, but there isn’t a hope in hell any of them will be able to do that without some reasonable grounding in maths, for example.

There’s too much emphasis – I think – on immediate usefulness of various aspects of parts of the curriculum – eg, computer courses tend to consist of the ECDL which is handy enough but it’s hardly taxing to learn how to use a wordprocessor if you can read – but apart from training an army of teenage mutant ninja hackers, a lot of people can’t see the point in kids learning to write their own programs, because, sure they can buy them.

Education is about a way of thinking. I think we’ve lost sight of that. And until we learn to show teenagers how things that they’ve convinced themselves are a waste of time (eg maths) are not a waste of time (eg don’t you want to write computer games), we probably won’t be able to up the ante in maths in the short term.

Part of this means we need to look at how we teach these things. Not necessarily curriculum content. Only that – in all honesty – there are probably a lot of people teaching mathematics who should perhaps not be teaching mathematics.

For the long term, I think we need to look at the education cycle in Ireland anyway. I think the primary/secondary split and move to specialisation in the timetable is too late. However, that is an argument for another day. In the meantime, a look at Professor Stewart’s various maths curiosities reveals that however belatedly, people are interested in maths.

So our reg system is a problem, is it?

The Irish Times published this article about how we were selling more cars this year like it’s a good thing. I’ve mixed feelings about how good it is because frankly, a significant majority of the motor industry in Ireland is retail sales based on imports. I don’t think we have anything more than a few components factories in the country and certainly no major league auto assembly.

So there’s this. If we skip the nitpicking feeling I have that this is an extremely poorly written article from a stylistic point of view and move on to the actual content, I’m a bit worried about it. I have to wonder how much reality it actually reflects.

The scorn that some drivers received on the roads last year simply because of the number plates on their cars raises an issue that now needs further consideration.

I’m really confused by this. I know we didn’t sell a whole lot of cars last year nationwide, but still I find it difficult to believe that people were made to feel guilty about it. I don’t inhabit that kind of world, admittedly but was there really that much ill-feeling on the highways and byeways if you dared to display a 09 on your registration plate?

In simple terms, I really don’t believe it happened.

If we are to help the long-term survival of the motor industry and the thousand it employs we need to reassess our number plate system. There remains far too much focus on start of year sales, driven largely by a registration system that gives such prominence to the year of registration. It creates an unnecessary social status issue, that means dealerships are over-run at the start of the year and virtually idle from the autumn period.

Removing the year from the registration plate seems a sensible approach. The industry can do their bit as well: ensuring that trade-in prices take account of the months of ownership rather than simply valuing all cars for a single year under the same price bracket. There are many suggestions for an alternative to the current year system. It’s time to open the debate.

The current registration plate system was introduced in 1987 and is delightfully simple, consisting of the year, a region identifier and a rolling counter. It has little to do with with how healthy we want the auto industry to be.

Purely economically, new cars bought in Ireland are imported. They contribute to our balance of trade and not necessarily in a positive way. Certainly they contribute a certain amount of tax take via VRT; however, from an economic and environmental point of view, it is not really viable to continue buying and selling the volume of cars we were selling between 2000 and 2006, for example. If nothing else, that level of new car purchase causes major over supply and storage issues on the second hand front.

I can’t see, either, how changing the registration number system will change the actual number of cars bought or sold; and if you are in a cyclical business with specific seasons, surely this factors into how you manage your business. It may balance it across the year somewhat – although I doubt it based on experience in other countries where new year sales spurts were all too common also – but it will not increase your turnover too much. The market only buys what it can bear. And with the best will in the world, not too many people trust the second hand car market to be honest and up front. I wouldn’t be dependent on them playing their part as described in the quote above.

We need to face up to the fact that the glory days of the early 2000s are gone. The personal transportation market is going to change; will have changed forced on it by environmental factors. Messing around with the reg system will not address that reality; and to be honest, I see little or no evidence that the motor industry recognises that it’s not really all that important to Ireland anyway. We can probably survive on fewer dealers than we have now, that’s for sure.

In short, I think this thesis is superficial and ill thought out.