GLOBALISATION : Kiwi Competitiveness in the Global Economy – Burt Munro; John Wayne from Invercargill

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 source of competitive advantage or liability – and do they actually even represent what we really are?
We believe we’re nation of small businesses, yet the top 30 businesses in New Zealand control about as large percentage of our economy as the Fortune 500 control in the US. We believe we’re rural people, despite being one of the most urbanised countries in the world.
If this were just 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 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 unique niche or becomes extinct. niche is composed of species ability to exploit food supplies, water, shelter, etc in 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 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 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 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 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”. Indeed. While movie-Burt corresponds with real-Burt to high degree in terms of the facts, the movie magic through which Roger Donaldson turns movie-Burt into good yarn also turns him into the essence of Kiwiana the way Hollywood directors like John Ford turned John Wayne into the distillation of the way Americans saw themselves.
If we wanted to look at the good and the bad sides of Kiwiana, we could do worse than to examine Burt. In fact, we, the authors, have used discussion of Burt for just this purpose while doing management training.
What can one say in praise of Burt? He never gave up. He drew an average of an extra four miles per hour out of the same bike for almost 40 years until vehicle manufactured with top speed of 55mph could run at more than 200. He embodied Kiwi ingenuity and number 8 wire mentality. He learned to cast his own pistons out of dismantlers’ auto parts; ran the bike until something blew up, then improved the part that had failed.
He certainly punched above his weight, taking his bike from the bottom of the world to world record. And significantly, as Burt’s adventures take him from Los Angeles to Bonneville across the alien American Southwest, Burt makes one friend after another by being good bloke, not tall poppy. All of these are both genuine achievements and qualities of which Kiwis in general can take pride.
What of the other side of the ledger? Burt was notoriously unconcerned with safety, “I build them to go, not to stop”. He was lone wolf, not team player. Many expats, ourselves and others, find it very Kiwi that Burt would spend all his money and then some, take several months and survive long string of misadventures to get to Bonneville for speed trials – without having first checked the rules for registration! None of this is meant mean-spiritedly. To repeat, we all find that our greatest strengths come from the same place as our greatest weaknesses. If we are to profit from the one, we must recognise and deal with the other.
So, are our cherished Kiwi values assets or liabilities?
Whatever anyone thinks of the Government’s recent efforts to usher us into knowledge economy, it is hard to deny that we are in the midst of the most important shift in Kiwi business since – well, Kiwi business. It is only bit simplistic to say that our post-contact economic history rests on one innovation – refrigeration. Wool got us going. Wool and mutton kept us going. And, of course, those days are over. If we wish to maintain our standards of living, let alone improve them, we clearly have to answer the question of what other kinds of business will fill the breach.
There is one point all the answers put forward so far have in common. Whether we look to dairy and Fonterra, to overseas education and tourism, or to the vaguely defined ‘creative industries’, all avenues forward thrust us into games that are played internationally and where success means being world-competitive. Not too far down that road, the path diverges sharply. If we can suss out what knowledge economy is and we can find high-value activities in it that we do as well as or better than others worldwide, we get to work and live like the most affluent nations. If we fail to follow that path, increasingly we get to work and live like second or third world nation.
What will Kiwis do in the world economy? That remains to be seen. Our income has slipped to below 80 percent of the OECD average. Our wages for skilled workers are notoriously low. We have replaced wool and mutton, not with high-value products, but with other commodities. We do not exist in ‘global’ export economy as much as an Aus-American one, since these two countries account for almost 80 percent of our exports. And what do we export? Overwhelmingly, we export animal products, fruit and vegetables, machine components – oh, and our own most highly educated people!
Returning to the idea of national competitive advantage, what can Kiwis do distinctively well in the world? We think of Italians for style, Germans for fine engineering, Chinese for cheap manufacture, Kiwis for… well, f

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