Byline: NeoManagement Group
Number 8 wire. The tall poppy is the first to get cut. Punching above our weight. Kiwi ingenuity. Boat, bach and BMW. She'll be right. Will she?
What is the relationship between our folk image of ourselves and our place in the world economy? Are these qualities a source of competitive advantage or a liability - and do they actually even represent what we really are?
We believe we're a nation of small businesses, yet the top 30 businesses in New Zealand control about as large a percentage of our economy as the Fortune 500 control in the US. We believe we're a rural people, despite being one of the most urbanised countries in the world.
If this were just a matter of what we say to each other on the bus and in the pub it wouldn't matter, but there is more at stake. Our folk image of ourselves is tied to deeply held values about work/life balance and work habits. These, in turn, are tied to our ability to succeed as we become more exposed to the world economy. If we try to compete internationally on nothing more than myths about punching above our weight we should not be optimistic about the outcome. Even the bravest possum does poorly against the logging truck.
Two questions are intertwined here. One concerns the relationship between our work skills and values, and our ability to compete internationally. The other concerns the contradictions between our ways of working and internationally successful practices. It would be a sad victory if success came at the price of becoming just like America, Japan or Singapore. The tightrope we must walk is to match our skills and values with areas in which we can excel.
The key question is what niche Kiwi business can create in the world economy? The notion of niche entered strategic planning from biology, where it is an assumption of population ecology that every species either finds a unique niche or becomes extinct. A niche is composed of a species ability to exploit food supplies, water, shelter, etc in a way that gives it an advantage over all others. If we apply this thinking to business, it leads to the realisation that every successful business is unique in its ability to provide customer value and generate profit from it. In his book, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Harvard's Michael Porter has extended the application of strategic niche to nations in the world economy.
We are agreed that a prosperous future for New Zealand can no longer ride on wool and mutton, although they will continue to contribute. Further, it is not yet clear what will be added as they become less prominent in our economy. If we look at this situation in terms of finding a niche, the question we would ask is what Kiwis do distinctively well relative to other nations? That is, what strategic core competencies do we possess as a nation?
Presently, we tend to have two unrelated conversations about our cultural values. On the one hand, business leaders can be regularly heard to slag the "number 8 wire mentality". Others, however, seem to believe that success in something as complex and ill-defined as the "creative economy" can be anchored by something as vague as "Kiwi ingenuity".
The historian Paul Veyne once wrote that, "[A] culture is a tissue of exceptions, whose incoherence goes unnoticed by those involved in it." Like all folk knowledge, our folk image of the good Kiwi embodies deeply held values - and contradictions. As with people, all people, our greatest strengths come from the same deep place as our greatest weaknesses. We cannot have one without the other. If we are to benefit from developing the potential strength of these qualities, we must simultaneously recognise and protect against their dark side.
An iconic image of this duality is the portrayal of Burt Munro in The World's Fastest Indian, which one government website has called, "a refreshingly old school portrayal of classic Kiwi values". …