Kim Williams: new rules of engagement for the political class

Kim Williams' new book, Rules of Engagement
Kim Williams’ new book, Rules of Engagement

Commerce is not uniquely virtuous and governments in Australia do many good things. But do they do them well? Much of our society’s systems work well enough but our regulatory and administrative culture is sapping the energy and vitality we need to forge ahead. It provides a huge leadership test and multiple management challenges. The problem manifests itself most plainly in the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about setting the chosen course, testing it, advocating for it persuasively and ensuring that the priorities and resource allocation that it requires are well understood and accepted. Management is about effective administration to deliver the required targeted outcome. Too often in Australia we confuse the process of doing with the act of deciding. Leadership and the muddle created with execution is seen in the consistent misunderstandings that arise between government and commercial endeavour, where the languages, the rules and the operational imperatives are often misunderstood. All too frequently there is an absence of real connection, creating confusion of the worst kind. It is a modern problem in western democracies, generally, but we have it in unusually bad measure in Australia, where process is often preferred above and beyond the actual outcome.

All these leadership, advocacy, commercial assessment and execution skills are needed in modern media, given the historically unprecedented transfer of power from producers to consumers as seen particularly in that industry. The significance of the power shift is difficult to exaggerate and impossible to stop. It is probably the largest citizen empowerment change in history, and it has happened almost entirely from technology and the impact that has had on consumer behaviour and more importantly, expectation. We see it in the fact that three once small digital start-up Australian companies — Seek, Car Sales and REA — are now each worth more than Fairfax, the company that used to control the so-called “rivers of gold”, the classified advertising in Melbourne and Sydney. The lessons from that shift are stark and merit revisitation repeatedly.

These changes were convincingly described by Chris Anderson in his terrific book The Long Tail, which speaks with such perception and elegance as to the nature of the changes and their impact on new chains of consumption and commerce, where the old paradigm has been replaced with a new one and consumers will nominate what interests them and in doing so there will be ready and active renewal on past products, such as, for example, media into digital formats, giving the whole of one’s back catalogue a healthy and vigorous new life. As importantly with new material, the social web of endless commentaries and advisories offered freely and vigorously can kill something that is deemed to be boring or out of kilter with any single part of the commentariat’s preferences very quickly. Everything has changed.

“In the untidy, often difficult and distributed way of things, there is an expression of new political and personal ideas in fundamentally important, interesting ways.”

We see this in the fact that some media personalities — especially in radio, where wide influence has been indulged and enjoyed — have been humbled by ordinary citizens with nothing more than a Facebook or Twitter account. I am not suggesting, knowing some of the personalities involved, that they remained humbled for long. Kyle Sandilands, to take but one example, has continued to operate with impunity, uninfluenced apparently by any of the outraged commentary. But the activists who take them on, speak their version of truth to power resiliently and, at times, defiantly, and on occasion cause the media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to respond quite ferociously. In the untidy, often difficult and distributed way of things, there is an expression of new political and personal ideas in fundamentally important, interesting ways. The game has changed. Consumers are in charge.

This creates the most interesting conundrum. In an era of such consumer empowerment how do you balance the creation of new things so as to give consumers what they need rather than what they think they want? That is the great consumer leadership question of the current era and much of it comes back to the quality of your management execution, your communication and advocacy to achieve the intended outcome that evidence dictates is the necessary course. This is at the nub of the political challenge in the 21st¬†century and many politicians have yet to learn the new rules as to the necessity to go out and “sell, sell, sell”, but on the new basis of really well composed and carefully crafted evidence-based policy. It requires a refashioning of many political skill sets.

Old paradigms are breaking down or are already broken. The internet has no respect for the establishment in and of itself. The internet is a furiously strong levelling agent, where new models in all things are becoming commonplace. Nothing and no one is safe. Merit, ingenuity, speed, flexibility and performance now increasingly rule the day.The internet has given unparalleled empowerment to invention and creativity with the release of entirely new energised ways of working and connecting. Some of these forces can be destructive where, for example, the old ways of doing things were profitable but now there is a new way that is not or requires that half your workforce has to go if you are to be so. The position of the former broadsheet newspapers now as compared with the time when they had classified advertising is a case in point. The power of these new forces is now often beyond our direct control.

However, fresh thinking and creative ingenuity can win through, I believe, because the cost of entry is now lower than at any time before, so that the cost of failure has never been lower. This economic reality allows for new models, possibilities and expectations to be very actively explored. Never has creativity been so unencumbered — we all need to reflect long and hard on the implications of this new operating landscape.

This means there is plenty of room for a new generation of entrepreneurs, inventors, marketers and their collaborators to create new digitally empowered ideas and products. The web is indifferent to geography or background, which means that its force is palpable everywhere across multiple borders, making competition harder and the terms of engagement often less congenial in geographically distant places like Australia where our isolated location delivered certain benefits to incumbents and enabled slow response and in many circumstances somewhat fat, happy and lazy behaviour. The new era is a huge wake-up call to everyone.

This is an edited extract from Rules of Engagement by Kim Williams (MUP), published this week and available at

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