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The sullen stealth of disaster

This is the first article in a series entitled The Disaster Blogs.

Western nations, not just Australia, are in the process of a massive economic transformation. Just look at the middle class. It is fast disappearing, being hollowed out as some say.

Don’t ask me to quote any statistics. Just take a look yourself. Information technology has changed the nature of employment. Many jobs have disappeared.

I used to have an office with a receptionist and other staff. Remember when they introduced that antiquated thing called a pager? It entirely transformed the business. We no longer needed a receptionist and could not afford one anyway.

But the change did more than make the receptionist redundant. It also made the whole concept of an office redundant. And that was just the start. Everything, including the business model, changed thereafter as the technology continued to develop.

I’m glad it did. I would have gone bankrupt long ago had I not adapted to the changes because, frankly, I just couldn’t support the overheads.

But stop to think of the consequences for the people. There was a time when my small consulting business supported up to thirty people including extended families. Now it just supports my wife and myself, when I’m “working” rather than volunteering that is.

The changes were painful for everyone, not just my former staff. It ended my own dream of growing a much larger consulting business and caused tremendous personal pain as I went through the process of terminating each job. I never want to go through that particularly stress ever again. Had I not done so then, however, the pain would likely have been even greater later.

What’s the point of all this? Technological and financial change come hand in hand. That’s pretty obvious.

The changes have been upon me personally for the past 20+ years and my own experience is but a microcosm of what has been happening at a wider level across the whole country, indeed across the world. It seems to be accelerating. Just look at what is happening at the big end of town as companies like GMH, Toyota and Alcoa announce their impending closures.

Put another way, the pain that my former staff and I felt is now being replicated across the face of the nation by a much larger number of people and the businesses that have employed them.

Which brings me to the point: the personal consequences of rapid economic change can be and often are nothing short of a disaster for those directly involved—managers, business owners and staff alike.

This is an area of professional expertise as well as personal experience on which I have long reflected after helping to lead the recovery of Aceh as senior adviser to the Indonesian Government following the world’s greatest human tragedy, the 2004 Tsunami. I wrote about my Aceh experience in Tsunami Chronicles, a six-book series about how we rebuilt that out-of-the-way province in four short years.

All disasters, be they natural or man made, physical or economic, have one thing in common: they overwhelm the ability of those affected to the point where they need outside help to cope.

Three key qualities distinguished what we did in Aceh: coherent, consistent and energetic political leadership from the top; a breakthrough culture of urgency in every department to overcome business-as-usual lethargy; and a reformist zeal that streamlined wider government programs as we worked to make them more responsive than they otherwise would have been.

There was more, much more, but those were some of the standout elements. They worked. But, as I sit to the sidelines observing the present approach to disaster management in Australia, I worry that we as a nation are too complacent in how we think about and approach disaster management. We seem only able to comprehend a disaster like a bush fire or flood when it hits us in the face. The other, wider disasters of a more general but endemic nature, seem to pass relatively unnoticed and get treated from a public policy perspective with the same nonchalance.

About Bill Nicol

Bill Nicol

Bill Nicol is an international government and business speaker and strategist with long experience in crisis management. He helped plan, design and lead Indonesia’s post-tsunami recovery operations in Aceh before writing a six-volume analysis of this and post-disaster operations across Asia and in Haiti—Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures in Disaster Management. He continues to advise the international community on post-disaster operations and recovery architecture, and promotes a greater integration of non-government and private-sector services in these areas. A former print, radio and television journalist and published investigative author, he writes poetry in his spare time and occasionally blogs on management and leadership. He is increasingly drawn back to his roots as a current-affairs television reporter to explore concepts of self and organisational management in an audio-visual format. You can find him at http://www.nicolnotes.com.

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