Whether or not the mining boom is over, it is clear that while China monopolised our iron ore they are now diversifying supply. The result - another fundamental shift in Australia’s economy and there’s no going back to manufacturing or the sheep's back.
Those sectors are still important but business must recognise this is the Asian Century and our geography is critical. The looming challenge for Australian business is to compete within Asia and to look beyond resources to do so; now they need our brains.
With a burgeoning middle-class comes increasing demand for the trappings of middle-class life; recreation, education, professional services and healthcare. Australia, politically stable with strong social and financial infrastructure is well placed to compete in this market. The challenge for business leaders is to determine 'how'.
It's not as simple as marketing the ANZ in Chinese. Australian business needs to capture the hearts and minds of the Asian audience. That means investing in understanding the market.
And it must happen at all levels of business. Graduates, middle management and executives should all immerse themselves in Asian lifestyle and business culture.
I once checked into a flight from Dar es Salaam to Johannesburg next to an American. Dressed from head-to-toe in University of Tennessee paraphernalia he looked every bit the ignorant American traveller. Then I realised he was chatting to the employee on the desk in fluent Swahili. Intrigued, I quizzed him about this. How, and why, did he speak the language so well? It turned out he ran a program to place US basketball coaches into Tanzanian schools. That was interesting, but what stuck with me was the requirement for the candidates to spend three months just living with a Zanzibari family to learn the culture, language and customs. It was only then that they could be considered for a placement.
Australian business must mimic that approach to engage with Asia. It’s insufficient to know that the language and culture are different; we must understand the culture and language. Then we will be able to exploit our regional advantage and create value.
The other piece of the puzzle is to understand how our product fits the market. My friend from Tennessee understood his product very well; undeniably the US is a world-leader in basketball. The challenge for Australian business is to identify our strengths and leverage that. It is Business Strategy-101 but that doesn’t make it less valuable.
Australians have been good at growing wool or mining and the economy has thrived. But, natural resources can take you only so far. There needs to be something else to sell. Australian business must figure out what that "something else" is. High political stability and established infrastructure is a good place to start.
Business must take a lead and engage at non-official levels. Get back to basics; understand our regional market, identify strengths and opportunities and leverage all that to compete successfully in the Asian century.