Job Creation in the Age of Disruption: Article by Jennifer Westacott

This is an edited extract of the Kingsley Laffer Memorial Lecture delivered by BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott at The Sydney University Business School on 13 August 2015. It was published in The Daily Telegraph on 14 August 2015 under the title 'At a dawn of the new modernity.'

Australia is talking about the need for a whole suite of policy changes that will help us respond to disruption, grow our economy and preserve our living standards.

Today my focus is the disruption from technology and digitisation. Having just returned from an intensive month of meetings in Silicon Valley, I now have an acute sense of their impact on business models and on the world of work, and a real sense of urgency to speak and act on it.

In Silicon Valley I observed two unstoppable phenomena that will profoundly impact on the nature of work and workplaces.

The first of these is pure technology in the form of artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D printing.

It’s one thing to hear or read about these things. It’s another thing altogether to see an object like a shoe or a tool, once part of a complex manufacturing process, printed ­before your eyes.

Or to see a line of robots clearly communicating with each other and learning from each other in the manufacturing process. This technological change turns our concept of manufacturing and supply on its head.

The second phenomenon was connectivity, the internet of everything which combines data with people, processes and things so businesses (and governments) can harness it in ways the consumer demands.

The consumer is now the innovator and business models will be chasing consumer preferences. The consumer is also the regulator — try and shut down Uber and see what happens.

Connectivity is fragmenting supply chains, and disrupting business models and labour dynamics.

I came away from my time in the US energised, not defeated, and raring to get on and seize Australia’s piece of the action.

What really struck me is that if we can combine the advantages of our geography and time zone with our incredibly skilled workforce and openness to take up technology, we are positioned to get out ahead of the pack. What also struck me, however, was how much our regulation and policy discussions on a range of issues focus on yesterday’s problems.

Words I heard constantly in Silicon Valley are “adaptation’’ and “agility’’. This is the key challenge of workplace relations reform.

It will not come as a surprise to hear me say that it is enterprises, in large part, that create economic activity and the vast majority of jobs.

No matter which side of the debate we’re on, if we are looking to go back and settle old scores or use old mindsets in this discussion, we will fail.