We've come a long way since Kevin 07, WorkChoices and the description of climate change as the "greatest moral challenge of our time". On the flipside, with Rudd circulating for the leadership, the Fair Work Act damned daily in the press and a carbon tax on its way, maybe we're heading back to where we started – but a lot more battered and bruised.
As SmartCompany celebrates its fifth birthday, we're looking forward and backwards in a special two-part feature.
In part one, we take a look at the key trends that have shaped the last five years.
In this second part of the special, we've spoken to some of the country's great thinkers to find out what's in store for Australian businesses over the next five years.
What are the themes entrepreneurs need to be aware of? And how should SMEs prepare?
Volatility rolls on
If the average deleveraging cycle lasts about a decade, we still have a long way to go before the global financial crisis recedes – and either a bust-up of the euro or a nasty recession from strict austerity measures don't bode well for Europe, and its business partners across the world.
Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy and chief executive at AMP Capital Investors, says private-sector deleveraging among advanced companies will curb economic growth in the years to come – and the past few years' volatility will continue as central banks in Europe and the US continue with their "extreme" monetary policies; that is, holding interest rates around zero.
Lest companies think they can bow out of macro-economic concerns, Professor Kosmas Smrnios, lecturer in entrepreneurship at RMIT, says SMEs can ill-afford to put their heads in the sand by avoiding global competition.
"Organisations will need to look at the big picture," he says. "A parochial stance will be a thing of the past unless someone can deliver a niche product to suit a particular market."
Technology and structural change
RMIT's Smrnios says with technology developing in leaps and bounds, the focus is on how organisations can better use technologies to manage global competition and changes in supply. And as the shelf life for products and services shrink, Smrnios says technology will help companies stand out from a pack, be creative and innovative.
The Service 2020: Megatrends for the decade ahead report, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and released last month, says firms will need to use the increased transparency brought by social media to their advantage.
"The clear trend to come out of this [social media] is that organisations understand it's here to stay and they need to harness it," says BDO Australia national chairman Tony Schifmann.
But although few would argue that companies can afford to ignore the enormous audiences of Twitter and Facebook, it'll be imperative for businesses to work out on their return on investment. Social media can go awry or soak up too much time; expect smarter methods to emerge as businesses get smarter with their social media practices.
The effect of technology will be most profoundly felt by the retail sector, says IBISWorld founder Phil Ruthven, likening its impact to the introduction of self-services decades ago. Just as self-service caused the demise of many retailers from the 1960s onwards, he argues, online is doing it all over again.
A new consumer
Demographer Bernard Salt says changing business models should be front of mind for all business-leaders.
"It's almost like in the Australian business community, the consumer market was travelling along and then ran into the GFC, and now everyone is battening down the hatches waiting for it to pass. But my view is we'll come out of the storm pointing in another direction," Salt says.
"Big picture structural shifts are afoot and business needs to be anything but complacent about strategic thinking."
"If you've invested in a business predicated on a model based on the 1970s through to 2010, and the model has genuinely shifted, then no amount of smart business practices will fix it."
So who's in line? Salt says by 2020, between 15-20% of retail sales could be competing online, having a profound impact on retailers and the traditional consumer model.
Similar change will sweep through the tourism industry, which has traditionally been predicated on mum, dad and the kids going on holiday in Queensland rather than jumping on a Jetstar flight to Bali.
And then there's manufacturing: Salt says although Germany has managed to retain its manufacturing sector, this is largely because its manufacturing is value-added, sophisticated and generally can't be replicated in China – yet. These are some weighty questions for out-of-favour sectors.
Smrnios says sustainability will be another key theme in business for the next five years.
With the carbon tax and associated compensation taking force later this year, and the commitment of Labor and the Greens to prepare for the "green economy", SMEs are urged to familiarise themselves with the financial incentives and Government programs for greening up.
An ageing population and ongoing skills shortages mean staffing will remain a key issue for entrepreneurs in the years ahead. Smrnios says the focus will be on finding and retaining people who:
- have the appropriate skills;
- fit in with the culture,
- can work in teams;
- solve problems; and
- be up-to-date with technology.
Beyond the issue of Australia's ageing population – how will it be funded, how much longer people will have to work, how will the Government and companies deal with foreign labour – industrial relations will likely loom as a hot-button issue for the country.
Phil Ruthven of IBISWorld says there is "some suggestion that the industrial relations legislation [Fair Work] may be a bit of time bomb for the future," particularly among mining and construction companies.
Time will tell what the Fair Work review throws up, and how the Coalition would change things if it won the next election. No doubt we'll get yet another system that will claim to get the balance right.