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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 December 2005, 09:01 GMT
Back to the future, all over again
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Clothes store in China
China's economic muscle caused growing friction in 2005
This column, like the radio programmes I do, is supposed to peep through the knot-hole in the garden fence a little bit into the - only partly visible - future.

Like In Business and Global Business, it has to identify ideas just over the horizon, just before they become commonplace.

So this is a good time, between two years, to look back on the things I have mentioned during 2005 and take some of them forward into 2006.

The first of these Work in Progress pieces in May was a reminder of how unimaginably vast a new economic powerhouse China is going to be.

The rise of China

No sooner weblogged than the European Union clashed with China over booming textile exports, the result of the end to the 30-year-old protectionist truce for western clothes manufacturers called the MultiFibre Arrangement.

This will be, of course, the first of many such clashes; the rise of China, and the consequent moving over of many previously rich nations, has only just begun.

I mentioned how computerisation had transformed banking since I lived behind a bank in the 1950s, as a bank manager's son.

Peter Drucker - remembered here in November after he died at the age of 95 - used to insist that computers had yet to impact the management of organisations, which sounds incredible.

He is probably right, though.

Two US businessman work on their way to the office
Have computers really changed how businesses are organised?

We have not seen many companies changing the shape of their hierarchies and the way they work as a result of spending millions on new computing systems which they normally use to reinforce or reflect the structure of the business, rather than redrawing it from scratch which is the opportunity on offer.

As the internet discloses its business implications, there's a lot more to come.

Some of the Drucker obituarists thought that his ideas were too much like common sense to be worthy of the status of great thoughts.

So they were; but as most organisations are so tied up in evasion and obfuscation, common sense such as Professor Drucker's is a rare phenomenon.

Russian quest

'BRICs' I don't know about.

Without a doubt India and China are going to become huge economic players, though there is plenty of room for stumbles especially in China where a big upsurge in public protest appears to be unnerving the authorities.

But Brazil at the top table of the world?

Oil facility in Russia
Despite its oil wealth, much of Russia is being left behind

Only as a direct supplier to the vast appetites of the new consumers, I suspect.

Russia at the top table of the world?

Well, a journey across Russia coast to coast this autumn demonstrated to me that much of the country is booming.

It is shaking off the past, not only in the obvious cities such as St Petersburg and Moscow, though much of the countryside remain sick at heart, as it has been for hundreds of years.

But Russia's is an oil economy almost pure and simple, and it has not yet learnt how to turn its new wealth into anything but new consumers.

GM's successor?

The traditional car industry keeps on going downhill fast.

Ford's debt has now be blessed with "junk" status, and Jaguar is adding to its problems.

The plight of automobiles is a reminder of how changed the business scene is from the world they sang about in the film musical L'll Abner: "What's good for General Motors, is good for the USA!"

Now the question is whether there are enough up and coming industries to replace GM as the engine of US growth.

Google goes on streaming out new projects, music search the latest.

Google's headquarters
Has Google made a mistake by playing its hand?

Yet, it has kept its new personal search machine low key, presumably because it is still worried about the privacy implications.

A 45-year-old Google employee questioned my report that Google hired only recruits within two years of leaving university, to keep the company ideas fresh and uncorrupted.

One correspondent suggested that Google was after patents for the human body, in order to make it searchable too.

But just before Christmas, Google announced it was paying $1bn for a 5% stake in America Online (AOL), which will involve AOL material getting complex priority display on searches.

False step?

This strikes at the hitherto pretty much unbiased simplicity of the Google page.

It suggests to me that the fastest growing company in the world may have made a mistake in making a too early alliance, to keep AOL out of the hands of Microsoft.

Google's strength was going to be its mysterious and covert aloofness from others as it offered more and more searches to the world.

The AOL alliance begins to define it in a particular way, and that clarity of business strategy might be the beginning of the fall of Google.

It is up to someone else to build a better search engine, without alliances.

Interwoven into all of my themes in 2005 is the devastating constant: change.

Work or play

We are now deep enough into the 21st century to realise that work and play are going to be very different.

But will work shape play as we are all forced to spend years more earning our pensions?

Or will play finally determine what work we need to do? After all, the new videogames computers are more powerful than almost all the PCs, aren't they?

And Yahoo may vanquish Google if entertainment prevails.

Play is a serious business.

Back to more Work/Play in Progress in the New Year.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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