This week a joint international research index is being released that examines in some detail the workplace flexibility and performance of 51 countries across the globe, Australia being one.
In association with our American counterpart, my institute commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit, famous for its most liveable cities reports, to conduct the research and produce a user tool to compare the findings.
Essentially the workplace index describes how each of the 51 nations ranks as a place to operate a business productively, fairly and flexibly. To represent that, the EIU took a common ruler across the countries surveyed.
The EIU’s annual Global Liveability Report is essentially a report about past efforts; namely what business, political and community leaders have been doing to make their cities great places to live. By contrast, the new Global Index of Workplace Flexibility and Performance is more about the future. Its data provide answers to the question as to whether the countries surveyed are likely to be places that produce goods and services effectively and efficiently, and do so from within workplaces that are flexible, equitable, lightly regulated and responsive to sudden changes in world markets.
While Australia had four of the world’s top ten most liveable cities in the EIU rankings last year, we rank outside the top ten countries for workplace performance and flexibility.
Suffice to say that some of the results in the data will surprise many readers. The big economies dominating current world growth – USA, China and India – do not rank very well. While they are current economic giants, their overall nimbleness leaves a lot to be desired. The Scandinavian nations have the best mix and their rankings are closely followed by some smaller neighbours in northern Europe, and also Singapore.
This new index ranking of all 51 countries surveyed is supported by sub-index rankings in three fields: economic performance, operating environment, and workplace policy and regulatory framework. In the case of Australia, which likes to see itself as a top 10 and usually a top five OECD nation in terms of standard of living and overall economic performance, the results are sobering. Within our overall ranking of 12th, Australia’s operating environment is ranked as 8th best of the 51 countries, but our policy and regulatory framework is placed at number 19. Economic performance is ranked at 34, and highlights Australia’s stuttering productivity record over the last ten years relative to our global competitors.
In a globalised competitive world Australia’s operating environment has productive potential but our regulatory framework stands out as overly restrictive and conducive neither to optimal performance nor social equity. The knock-on effect of poor regulation is seen in the economic performance numbers, and the index provides some fuel in the current productivity debate. Productivity is critical to our future, and while some choose to criticise management as underperforming, this index shows management has to focus on regulatory compliance at least as much as output so there is a chicken-and-egg issue with simplistic criticisms of management on the productivity issue.
Our trans-Tasman cousin, New Zealand, out ranks us on all three indices and overall. While New Zealand is a smaller and narrower economy, it has clearly worked harder to get the most out of its more limited economic potential. Australia sits behind the United Kingdom, but its results are not significantly different to those of France, which is well known as a modern but also very bureaucratic place to do business.
The index provides a useful signal about a country’s economic and social future. The lower a country’s position in the rankings, with respect to its operating environment, its economic outcomes and/or the impact of regulation, the more subdued its economic and social performance is likely to be in future. The index also provides a set of signals as to where a country needs to lift its game if it wishes to be at the vanguard of world economic and social growth in years to come.
While Australian political leaders have enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of the world’s most liveable cities lists, the performance and flexibility required from our nation’s workplaces to stay at the top of those lists cannot be underestimated. There are some worrying signs in the workplace index that we are taking ourselves for granted, and are at significant risk of further slippage as a once great place to do business. And a sombre final note: only one Australian city is listed in the 2012 EIU top 10 results, Sydney at number five. Slippage in global rankings can occur very quickly when the eyes are taken off the ball.
This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review online. Peter Wilson AM is the national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute.
The Economist Intelligence Unit tool and a report on the data can be found on the AHRI website. The tool is only available to AHRI members.