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Dr Gordon Perchthold asks : Are you managing defects or analysing the root cause?

Dr Gordon Perchthold

Advance.org Chairman Yasmin Allen hosted a global digital roundtable on the Future of Work in the New Economy and welcomed guests from the UK, the USA, Japan and Singapore. Dr Gordon Perchthold joined us from the Singapore Management University and shared his thoughts below.


Michael Priddis, CEO of Faethm.ai today demonstrated he has developed a fact-base, rather than relying on opinions, to define the problem of the Future of Work – or the Evolution of Work as he suggests we now refer to it – and an imperative for a social and business transformation.  

Our discussion at the roundtable Future of Work in the New Economy today included industry participants shining a light on what they are doing to address the changing work skills challenge, accelerated with COVID-19, within their own workplace.  

This is an approach, if using a manufacturing process analogy, of defect management – spending resources to fix defects in the output from the production process. It is well recognised as being a lagging and more costly approach.  

It is much better to undertake root cause analysis and fix the problem at source (yes, my career as a management consulting partner still influences me). In terms of skills for the future economy, this means addressing the misalignment of the University’s production of knowledge and skills for the social-economic environment of Australia

Are universities sufficiently connected with business?

While the relevance of academic research and teaching for society is a global issue, the evidence exists from numerous studies and global comparatives (ERA National Report 2014) that there is a material disconnect between the protective bubble of the academic world, and the social-economy reality of business in Australia.  

Australian universities (and it varies by discipline) do produce great research — it is just that their research is not relevant or not translated to the business world to be commercialised.  

In addition, Australian universities teach and develop students (which is a second priority relative to research), who do learn, although based on surveys of business executives, students do not learn the knowledge and skills that prepare them adequately for industry.

The output is defective in some measure.

Industry collaboration

While much focus is placed on science and technology, let us not forget that it is the discipline of business management that develops the leadership skills for framing opportunities/problems; strategic prioritisation; and capital allocation. It is business leadership that will determine the focus of our science and technology practitioners.

As outlined in the World Economic Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow: Mapping Opportunity in the New Economy Report (Jan 2020), it is the business management discipline that accounts for almost 50% of the skill sets needed in the future economy.

Yet, the business management discipline in universities is probably among the most removed from collaborative engagement with industry.

Just as with Australia’s international engagement with Asia, the challenge of university business management relevance to society has been identified, discussed, but does not appear to have resulted in demonstrable actions nor outcomes.  

Questions to contemplate

  • Is the re-orientation of universities for the dynamics and faster pace of the new economy just a wicked problem that is too difficult to rectify?  
  • Will it continue to require industry, those companies that have the resources, to expend post-haste, the additional learning and development resources for basic management knowledge (beyond, industry specific skills)?
  • What about Australian SMEs that do not have such resources (nor recognise the problem)?

The Singapore experience

In Singapore, there is recognition they have that challenge with academic relevance to society (as most countries do, although, in the U.S. more academic professors supplement their income with board positions and management consulting forcing a greater engagement with industry).  

My position at SMU as an academic with a PhD but one who is aligned to a ‘practice’, as opposed to research or teaching, stream is not common in Australia. All faculty are regularly questioned by the Dean as to how their research and teaching is relevant to Singapore society — that is not a question raised, nor measured in Australia.

These are easy ‘quick win’ measures to put in place recognising that to evolve the culture and orientation of universities is indeed a wicked problem requiring a multi-threaded approach.

The challenge for Australia

So, can Australia ever become and sustain international competitiveness if it does not rectify the root causes?  Applying retrofits means Australia will always be playing catch up which is not a sustainable winning strategy.

Further information

Gordon Perchthold PhD MBA
Associate Professor of Strategic Management (Practice)
SMU-X Business Capstone Coordinator
Lee Kong Chian School of Business
Singapore Management University