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Out of the Desert

Out of the Desert

CIOs could help show the way to a lost and wandering local ICT industry.

When Moses descended Mt Sinai, he was not carrying a Commandment etched in a stone that read "Do More With Less".

That is a commandment we gave ourselves in a tight business environment in which companies confronted falling consumption yet demanded higher profit from greater efficiency. The IT department, pilloried and even blamed for the passing global recession, has had to take more than its fair share of the burden.

Now, it is time to change all that. The vibe around the industry feels better than it has for three years. CIOs are talking up their spending for 2004 and vendors are getting excited about talking to clients whose idea of multitasking has been to shake their head and say "no" at the same time.

Surveys by analyst companies support the positive outlook. Three of the majors - IDC, Gartner and Forrester - have all produced numbers predicting the purse will shed its padlock. The most extraordinary results came from Gartner, which claims spending in Australia will rise 17 per cent on this year's level. To say the company received a sceptical reception for that claim is putting it mildly. How many of you are really going to party that hard next year?

In fairness to Gartner, its results were skewed by a big-spending 37 per cent of organisations, such as Telstra and a number of financial service operators and major retailers. They are all planning to dig deep into the piggybank next year. However, one in six actually say they will cut IT expenditure, which is a bit of a worry.

More of a worry, however, is the state of the domestic industry itself. Its fortunes do not necessarily correlate with the amount of money washing around the IT ecosystem; a 17 per cent hike in IT budgets does not provide decent broadband coverage or better-quality technology education. The danger over the next 12 months is that while the ICT industry rebounds, everyone but the passionate few will conveniently forget that serious long-term challenges confront Australia in its so far inept progress towards becoming a leading producer of technology, rather than only a world-class customer.

The two of the foremost industry bodies - the Australian Information Industries Association (AIIA) and the Australian Computer Society (ACS) - have started again to articulate the nation's unsatisfactory progress. This message needs to be heard clearly across governments and industries. For too long the ICT sector has been preaching to the choir, describing in one breath the scale of the challenges ahead, and in the next, praising colleagues for making a the best of a difficult job.

New leaders of the ICT industry need to emerge. Many of the most likely candidates, I'm afraid to say, have disappeared under a pile of spreadsheets and quarterly reports, drowning in the pressure created by a market downturn and stockholder demands.

Life was not always thus. Five years ago, IBM chief Bob Savage and Fujitsu CEO and chairman Neville Roach could hold an audience regardless of industry domain. They spoke loudly and passionately about the value of IT that transcended the cultural divide between business and technology. If you had asked anyone then who were leaders of the IT industry, Savage and Roach would have been the first names to spring to mind, even though they might sound like a dodgy legal firm when coupled together. Ask the same question today and most industry people struggle for an answer.

Savage and Roach have moved on in their lives, leaving a vacuum. Both the AIIA and the ACS represent their constituents admirably, but few in their membership cross the chasm of communication that embraces the reality of commerce and the pioneering spirit of information technology. The only person to have done so in the last couple of years is Commonwealth Bank managing director David Murray. When he lambasted the industry for failing to deliver on promises, blowing budgets and missing deadlines, he struck a chord with a business community tired of writing out cheques, while horrifying many on the opposite side of the chasm who felt threatened.

Love or hate him, Murray spoke a truth that reached out to multiple audiences in a way no one from the tech camp has achieved since. That situation must change and CIOs have an important role to play.

Firstly, they are very much part of the industry - its lifeblood in fact - regardless of the economic sector in which they operate. Even though their background might be finance or operations, that is not an excuse to recoil from a debate that is not so much about technology as Australia's capacity to compete globally. Unlike most other individuals in technology, the CIO has the presence, experience and mandate to move between the spheres of business and technology in a trusted and seamless manner. How a CIO should engage in the debate is the first challenge.

The AIIA, a group that has been the pre-eminent influence on government IT policy in the last decade, has no membership category for the CIO as its members are the vendors' companies. ACS, a professionals' organisation, is a better option but only 11 per cent of its membership are CIOs. According to its chief executive, Dennis Furini, there are plenty of C-level stars in technology who struggle to engage. "I don't think they have the time," he says. "They are very busy people."

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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More about Australian Computer SocietyAustralian Computer SocietyAustralian Information Industry AssocBillionCommonwealth Bank of AustraliaFujitsuGartnerIBM AustraliaIDC AustraliaTelstra CorporationVictoria UniversityVictoria University

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