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It's a war out there, as former government body AUSTA Energy found out a few short months ago with the demise of its cozy life as a government entity.

Suddenly exposed to all the harsh realities of the market, AUSTA had to drastically alter its perceptions about the value of its information. For the first time, the new body faced a world of competitors greedy to stake a claim on its business, at a time when keeping that business and winning new clients was more critical than ever. To make matters worse, the new organisation knew it must now sink or swim on its own financial performance, with no hope of being bailed out of trouble by its hitherto political masters - the government of the day. That meant protecting that information became a major new imperative.

At the same time, the move from a secure position as part of a multibillion government body to a 240-strong consultancy practice vulnerable to the demands of the marketplace was forcing the new corporation to develop a market focus, with at least one eye firmly on the global market. Those changing circumstances introduced a new compulsion for the fledgling organisation, as Corporate Services manager Bernie Burke told a recent Information Warfare and Competitive Intelligence conference in Canberra. Suddenly for IS the "cozy" environment of the past gave way, and cost containment, overhead reduction and communication - along with the protection of confidentiality and the securing of intellectual property - became much more important. And the development of strategies for combating information warfare and competitive intelligence, including the adoption of new information offensive techniques and a strong defence against potential information attack, became a new and urgent priority.

All this came about because Queensland's Coalition Government came to power with a commitment to review the government-owned utility industry in anticipation of national energy market trading. That review recommended dividing the industry into three generating companies and an Engineering Services group, in preparation for the introduction of that competitive electricity market. As a result, AUSTA Energy came into being on 1 July 1997, one of four new government owned corporations established to take over all assets and functions of AUSTA Electric, the body that had been formed in 1995 to manage the construction and management of power stations. The intellectual property once residing in AUSTA Electric, including copyright, designs, patents and trademarks, was transferred to AUSTA Energy as the basis for the new corporation's consultancy business.

Today AUSTA Energy is a full-service engineering corporation providing a wide range of skills and services to the power generation industry and tasked with providing design, engineering and maintenance services and developing power generation on a fully competitive basis. AUSTA Energy's charter calls for it to market its international standard skills base throughout Queensland and the world, and develop energy projects in Australia and overseas as an equity investor, joint venture partner and power station operator. It knows it must win more clients in order to grow. Its mission, Burke says, is to create opportunities to add value to energy infrastructure in partnership with customers in Australia and overseas, especially in Indonesia, China and The Philippines.

"AUSTA Energy moved from its secure position as part of a multi-billion dollar government body to a consultancy practice consisting of around 240 staff," says Burke. "The new corporation had to develop a market focus (particularly overseas) which was new to AUSTA staff, and it was a culture change for the business."The changes meant AUSTA Energy's consultants had to become salesman, working out of mobile offices and requiring a lot of IT resources to help them cope with the new demands on their time in order to operate effectively. "There is also a recognition of the total cost of our operations and the need for reductions in overheads and cost if we are to survive in the open market," says Burke.

The changes moved IT into an entirely new ballpark, where the corporate-mission driven technology specialists had to develop a new game plan based around business intelligence, the mobile office and security. And no-one thought that was ever going to be easy. "Our old environment was geared to multisite, heavy administrative and maintenance processing using multimillion dollar Open VMS Digital servers - physically distributed but logically still centrally consolidated business-wise," says Burke.

"I also inherited an IT system which was made up of several different platforms like Windows 97, 95, etc and Office 95, Powertrak and VME. It was almost impossible to implement the simplest software change without creating about four test beds to ensure that it would work in the network for all users."That diversity of platforms meant that in order to meet customer requirements, AUSTA Electric was forced to have substantial numbers of IT staff on board, just to ensure it had the required familiarity with the different environments.

On the other hand, its new incarnation meant it needed entirely new types of applications in order for the totally new business to handle account management, sales management, resource management, job management, company management, client management, time sheets and expenses"We also required a more cost effective IT environment to suit our new size and mission and a new market. NT and less 'ambitious' applications were seen to be answer, including Axiom and Platinum. It was obvious that until we standardised, we would not succeed," says Burke.

Within the new body, while IT was seen as a valuable enabling tool, the trick was to identify where best to concentrate activities under a limited IT budget.

Burke's strategy was to select a uniform environment, evaluate security requirements and attempt to choose systems that would provide the lowest total cost for the life of the product - in other words, the best value for money.

If it was going to be war, IT's role would be to ensure there were enough weapons in the armoury to help AUSTA Energy gain ground wherever possible. As part of that "offensive information warfare and competitive intelligence capability", IT was charged with ensuring top-level communication for roving business managers and technical staff, both on AUSTA sites and when they travelled interstate and overseas.

"We decided that for our staff to be effective salespersons in this new environment, IT would spearhead our attack in providing effective communication by recording client intelligence and market information online, and cost analysis of the business. AUSTA Energy needed these tools to achieve the competitive edge to prosper in the open world," he says.

According to Burke, roving staff cannot survive without the efficient communications needed to achieve access to a range of information including standards, drawings and corporate news and gossip. They must also have access to efficient communications to allow transfer of information such as negotiation terms and contractual information, and to assist with decision making.

To that end, sales managers use mobile office equipment to communicate.

Telephone links to computers and mobile phones with fax capabilities permit managers to obtain immediate decisions, while voice mail is also available as needed. Together these technologies provide faster response time for clients, graphical representations of models, allow them to access files remotely, provide client information online and ensure their presentations are more professional.

Another tactical weapon is efficient bid preparation, including the provision of superior project management and technical tools to impress and assist clients. To assist bid preparation sales people are given IT tools to help them model proposed acquisitions or jobs, ensure the accuracy of cost estimates and allow them to undertake scenario analysis or sensitivity studies. Not only does this let them prepare tenders or specifications faster, Burke says it also allows the more efficient preparation of bids using past projects as the baseline for new project estimates.

Just as important in the battle for market share, though, is superior project management.

"Customers want their services or products provided on time and within budget, and obviously there is also the need to maintain our reputation as professional project managers," says Burke. "Our information systems provide us with the tools to monitor progress against schedule and budget and will be our survival kit to retain existing clients who will look somewhere else if service not satisfactory.

"IT tools like our project management system can help us formulate bids as well as manage contracts," he says. "The database that we hold in this system has real value and forms a vital part of our ability to meet the competition in bidding, winning and scheduling critical time projects. And up-to-date and timely cost information is important if our salespersons are to compete with international companies in the global markets."To this end strategies and tactics include the appointment of business function "champions" and the adoption of a coordinated approach in order to prioritise business requirements and gain an overall view of where "information" is and how to achieve integration. The IT group also actively seeks and implements innovative IT tools to provide a competitive edge; strives to achieve a two-way match between technology and work practices; uses common technology throughout the corporation; and works to "fast-track" implementation of IT projects by buying them off the shelf.

Then there's the intelligence side of the battle. IT knows it must continually strive to supply up-to-date and relevant information regarding the cost of various services, and ensure the availability of up-to-date "client intelligence" and competitor shadowing. "Business managers deal with high-powered potential client managers who can only afford limited time to hear proposals. They need to know the client's operating and management environment and the market environment in which it deals, before they can know how to satisfy clients' needs," says Burke.

"Australia lags sadly behind other countries in research, as companies from America, Europe and Japan have made inroads into our domestic markets over the past decade. Australian companies may find themselves further out of the market if they do not actively call upon research and information technology resources to improve their knowledge of the clients' position.

"It is also surprising to note just what information is available on clients," Burke says. "Annual reports are always a good source of information, providing not only the names of directors but also an understanding of the direction that the chairman and the directors are taking the company. Published corporate plans can provide the strategic direction the company is moving in. Depending on the complexity of the information, financial statements can be analysed to provide significant details about the management of the company as well as its financial viability."But "infowar" involves more than just intelligence about clients. Burke likes to quote a saying by John D Rockefeller: "Next to knowing all about your own business, the best thing to know about is the other fellow's business." For AUSTA Energy, which was in the past blissfully immune to the need to worry overmuch about competitors, both keeping abreast and ahead of its competitors and keeping its own intellectual capital regenerated and differentiated has become vital to survival.

These days, product managers are oriented to: keep abreast of new technology (particularly by searching the Internet), watch for new product developments, benchmark product performance, form strategic alliances with the best suppliers, formulate scenarios to help anticipate competitors' tactics, and conduct customer satisfaction surveys. "Naturally, if someone was able to access this data they would have a competitive advantage over us in bidding for new work," Burke says. "In warfare, we use weapons to gain a competitive edge.

But we also need to protect our base camp."That means being vigilant about a range of information, particularly intellectual property rights, considered as AUSTA Energy's "capital" base. The company may not be able to stop people leaving, but it can and will do everything possible to make sure that its expertise - intellectual information of any sort and accompanying documentation - is not wasted, stolen or taken advantage of by external bodies to the detriment of AUSTA Energy.

It exercises considerable control against the unintentional or unauthorised outflow of information of every kind, although Burke concedes this is the most difficult thing of all to guard against. It also guards against deliberate intrusion, particularly via the Internet or from disgruntled ex-employees. Its defensive strategies and tactics including making security management the responsibility of management at all levels. It also entails ensuring user awareness of the issues, and the adoption of security policy, procedures and work instructions (under its ISO9001 QA Regime) covering software piracy and intellectual rights infringement, physical and software access control and application and database access control.

"It is ultimately the manager's responsibility to nurture a culture which promotes a secure environment," Burke says.

For AUSTA Energy, security begins with development of a security policy and procedures. "The purpose of the security procedures is to ensure that the information systems approved by the audit committee and adopted by the organisation are available to all users. They are there to provide a guideline of what is expected of users of the system. They are all common sense, but collated in an orderly and readily accessible manner," he says.

The company is also determined to retain its Quality Assurance (QA) rating of ISO 9001. To this end, its security policy embraces an extremely broad range of issues, from infringement to fire detection and prevention. It has also had some initial discussions regarding the use of digital signatures.

Still, as Burke points out, no security policy is any use if it remains on a shelf gathering dust. "It is no good having all these policies unless management enforces them and managers believe in them. Management can do this by promoting and enforcing the policy through regular audits," says Burke.

The company also controls physical and computing access via standard IT management practices including a locked computer room, unique username and password, firewall, virus checking, screen saver password, system intrusion alerts and so on. And it maintains a robust system management regime, which Burke says is particularly important in the new age of NT when "mission-critical" applications depend on being able to maintain the continuity of service. To protect against Internet intrusion and control employee Web surfing and access to "offensive" sites, the company carefully monitors the activities of the 100 or so staff who are regular Internet users.

Put all those IT activities together, and AUSTA Energy is confident that as it adapts to a new mode of work it is also adopting information offensive and defensive tactics that will help it survive in the global battle zone.

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