A reflection on some aspects of the Global Drucker Forum 2015, with thoughts pertaining to the 2016 Forum theme: The Entrepreneurial Society

…by which I mean they have self-belief, self-control, and self-actualisation.

But they’re not the solution to rising unemployment caused by the rise of machines. We heard a lot at the recent Drucker Forum about the rise of machines, and how natural monopolies are being eliminated as competitive advantages erode quicker. Stability is not normal any more.

So we can plan our societies for reducing levels of employment, and find things for people to fill their time with, together with a socially inclusive way of allowing them to fulfil their needs for food, shelter etc. and/or we can find ways of allowing them employment opportunities which are different from now. There is a rise in freelancing – in other words, small projects for disparate employers, and rising entrepreneurial activities now as big businesses benefits both in employment and market share eroded rapidly. We’ve argued before that small businesses will be taking over from big business and we’ve heard nothing to the contrary. Big business ways of working/models are in the main dead men walking. We want more personalisation and customisation and better experiences with the things that we buy, and big business has difficulty in providing this in a mass production and mass marketing environment.

My suggestion is that we have moved from a village economy pre-Industrial Revolution through mass production and standardisation during the industrial and technological revolutions of the last 200 – 300 years, and we are moving back now to a village economy, albeit a global village, where we can get exactly what we want made with direct input from ourselves to the maker.

How does this help what is becoming a rapidly disenfranchised workforce as jobs are lost through technological advances? A session at the Drucker Forum argued that entrepreneurs would provide much of the solution, but I don’t think this is the case. Entrepreneurs are self-centred. That’s a good thing if you’re an entrepreneur, as it helps you to grow businesses. But individuals cannot grow the many businesses needed to soak up the excess employment capacity that is going to be generated. And I don’t think they need to. Excluding those activities that will still work in big businesses which will maybe run utilities and transport and the like, I think there are now three classes of employment. There will still be the freelancers who work for individual projects for whoever will pay them. There will still be entrepreneurs who will employ a body of people for that activity. But I think the big rise will be in self-employment. And by self-employment I mean people who will work for themselves employing a few people in a localised manner with no real requirement to build the business into something which they will intend to sell, and then start again like an entrepreneur does.

As such I think that the word entrepreneur is being misused. Not all people want to be an entrepreneur, but most aspire to be able to control their own destiny, which self-employment (and freelancing) provides every bit as well as entrepreneurship. Most will actually be entrepreneurial in some aspect of their activities, without having to build a model which relies on rapid growth and sale, just to do that over again. That doesn’t fit with most people’s objectives and aspirations.

The technological revolution has allowed small businesses to compete on a global stage, as we’ve mentioned before, and also compete against any size business. The small business can be more flexible, more personal, and faster to respond to changes in markets. It’s also very quick easy and cheap to test markets in this digital era.

The challenge for government is to stop pouring resource into the 5% of high growth potential businesses which are going to succeed anyway, and start teaching and supporting self-employment in a way that encourages many small business owners to take on at least one extra person. Just by doing this, potential unemployment issues caused by replacement technology could be significantly mitigated.

To achieve this, education on self-employment needs a radical overhaul. Just as graduate business education needs significant changes to nurture softer skills rather than just analytical ones, so does education for the self-employment model need realignment. This is currently being taught as a series of disparate technical disciplines with no way of amalgamating disciplines to see how they interact and fit together. We are taught how to write a business plan, how to do our books, how to do social media marketing, but we are not taught how these pieces of the jigsaw fit into the picture. Essentially businesses get the jigsaw pieces but they never see the picture on the box. How then will they know where the pieces relate to one another and the overall picture, and how they can join those things together? That is the challenge for education and government.

We try in our own small way to coach our client base so they understand how things relate and how they can think better about it. By doing this we expect our clients’ businesses to be easier for them to manage, and to achieve the growth that they want. This is not necessarily the most growth achievable as it is their individual/personal objectives which are important.  These may not be wholly money based and in fact they seldom are. As our values change to reflect the richness of our life, this balance of aspirations will become more important.

Entrepreneurs still have their place, as they will lead where markets will be in future.  The self-employed can feed from the knowledge created by entrepreneurs of what is new, useful and interesting. But they don’t have to be as daring as the entrepreneurs to achieve their objectives. They can go near the leading edge, instead of what is often the bleeding edge with its higher risks. They may wish to balance their risk profile because of other personal factors, such as family, and community.

Government policy has to recognise this change. Most governments operate some decades behind the times in terms of how they think businesses are structured and work. They also impose and rigorously enforce rules which become increasingly nonsensical in the workplace. Apart from the changing education policy towards self-employment, there needs to be more awareness of how social change affects public policy, and an implicit assumption that policy and rules have to change a lot faster. As government’s main job is to be re-elected, they need to tune in to popular movements which involves doing two things differently. Firstly, they should listen considerably more than they talk, and secondly, they should not assume that they have all the solutions (and neither should the electorate). The American constitution starts with ‘We, the people’, not ‘We, the government’. We need looser public policy to accommodate rapid changes in demographics and work profiles, which needs a growing realisation that people, whether freelancers, self-employed, or entrepreneurs, insist on running their own lives in their own way to make it meaningful for each individual.