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Thinking Aloud

Future Economy quest: What's at stake

Singapore must create new maps going into uncharted territory to tame new-economy dragons

Beyond here there be dragons. Legend has it map makers of old penned this phrase at the boundary of known lands.

And that may well be where Singapore stands today - at the edge of familiar ground with the prospect of having to step out into uncharted territory, to find new ways of earning a living.

Explorers of old went in search of gold, spices, the fountain of youth. Singapore's quest is no less daunting - it seeks fresh sources of growth and good jobs to keep the economic miracle of the past 50 years going.

Much is at stake.

 

Both GDP and job growth have slowed, and the decline in the latter may be here to stay, warned The Business Times in a Dec 29 article headlined "Era of slower job growth ahead".

In it, BT correspondent Chuang Peck Ming, who has covered the manpower beat for many years, noted that while the numbers are not all in, "data from January to September of 2015 is already pointing to sagging job growththat could hit a new low when the year is up".

The 16,200 jobs created in the first nine months of last year were the fewest since 2009, when Singapore took a hit from the global financial crisis.

"The drop in new jobs... is unusually big for an economy that's, while softening, still not in recession - at least officially. Something is deeply wrong, or it may just be an aberration. In any case, the question is already raised: Is low job growth here to stay? The year ahead should provide a clearer picture," he wrote.

Last Friday, labour chief Chan Chun Sing amplified these concerns in his maiden post on the NTUC blog (www.labourbeat.org). "In every downturn," he wrote, "it is better to assume there are deeper structural changes needed than assume that the downturn is cyclical and we will soon be back to business as usual."

On technology shifts that have thrown traditional industries and jobs into turmoil, Mr Chan highlighted the problem of creating jobs for older workers who cannot acquire skills for the new industries springing up.

He also posed this question: "Are our companies bold enough to invest in new technology and markets in the face of an impending cyclical slowdown? If they don't invest now, can we survive larger structural shifts?"

That is why the strategic review of Singapore's economic direction, led by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and his Future Economy committee, is high on the list of this year's national priorities.

One of its first tasks must surely be to take a leaf from the cartographers of old and map out the terrain ahead, as a first step to making sense of the economic present and future.

In this uncharted territory, the dragons that lie in wait are not fire-breathing monsters but disruptive forces that undermine how established companies and cities make their living.

Yet these same forces are also magical creatures that make it possible for men and women to do what they could once only imagine. The challenge is learning to tame these new-economy dragons.

The modern equivalent of map making is sensemaking, a term used by pioneering organisational psychologist Karl Weick to describe how organisations deal with uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Sensemaking is not just analysis but an act of creativity, so wrote four professors - Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski and Senge - of MIT's Sloan School in a 2007 article on leadership published in the Harvard Business Review.

Let me quote from their article, for it helps explain what good thinking on the future looks like.

Business leaders, the four MIT professors observed, are constantly trying to understand the contexts they operate in. They want to know how new technologies reshape industry, how changing cultural expectations shift the role of business in society, how globalisation of labour markets affect recruitment and expansion plans.

This process of sensemaking, they note, is like cartography because "what we map depends on where we look, what factors we choose to focus on, and what aspects of the terrain we decide to represent. Since these choices will shape the kind of map we produce, there is no perfect map of the terrain. Therefore, making sense is more than an act of analysis; it's an act of creativity".

"The key for leaders is to determine what would be a useful map given their particular goals and then to draw one that adequately represents the situation the organisation is facing at that moment. Executives who are strong in this capability know how to quickly capture the complexities of their environment and explain them to others in simple terms.

"This helps ensure that everyone is working from the same map, which makes it far easier to discuss and plan for the journey ahead. Leaders need to have the courage to present a map that highlights features they believe to be critical, even if their map doesn't conform to the dominant perspective," they wrote.

The success of sensemaking thus hinges not just on the quality of the map the leaders come up with, but also on their ability to help everyone else read and work off the same map. That is a challenge not to be underestimated because society is made up of individuals with different abilities and different interests.

The year-long review of the economy has just begun but already, businesses are lobbying hard for more government help to advance their interests, and political leaders will have to manage such expectations.

As for individual Singaporeans, the danger is that too many have become accustomed to following directions set by government, such that they are no longer able to read maps or make sense of the world on their own.

They have to relearn these skills urgently because no national blueprint can predict how individual jobs will change in the years ahead.

A friend who is a human resource executive at a multinational commodities firm has seen his job shift in the past year from recruiting top talent to laying them off. He said it was surprising that some colleagues had no clue that their jobs were on the line, despite numerous signs that the company, and indeed the whole industry, was facing tough times.

The long years of good growth may explain such complacency. But there is little room for that now, in this new era of economic transition.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Future Economy quest: What's at stake ThinkingAloud'. Print Edition | Subscribe