Wine, coal and tourists

Wine, coal and tourists

Can Australian IT learn from the wine industry?

In the early 1970s Monty Python had a sketch that lampooned Australian wine. People in Britain at the time thought it was hilarious. Australian wine back then was synonymous with very vin ordinaire. Yet twenty years later when I was organising drinks after my mother's funeral the predominant wines in British bottle shops were Australian. While this was a fitting way for us to salute the life of my Australian mother it also signified the determination of the local wine industry to take on the world.

Can IT learn something from the wine industry? That was the question raised in a recent discussion in Sydney sponsored by the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and chaired by Professor John Houghton from the Centre of Strategic Economic Studies at Victoria University. John had been commissioned by the ACS to assess the state of the IT industry in Australia. His conclusion was that while Australia was a strong consumer of technology, the indigenous IT industry was declining. Since this had a significant impact on Australia's trade balance, and made us potentially hostage to key products from other countries, the discussion focused on what could be done to address this.

The audience was an eclectic mix of senior industry experts. Among them there was a strong consensus that if these circumstances were to change the industry needed to demonstrate some resolve. Wine was not the only example given of where in the last 20 years this country has taken on the world and won. The local coal industry has opened up major new markets, the tourist boards have made the country the number one place to visit and the sports academies have turned Australians from the chumps at the Montreal Olympics to the champs at Sydney in 2000. It was noted that what all these had in common was that if we set our minds to it, and have a strategy to implement, we are capable of matching it with the very best.

One leading CIO, however, noted how difficult it was for a major corporation to purchase from a small Australian start-up company instead of a larger overseas rival. In an uncertain world CIOs are asked to stake their reputation on an embryonic talent with no track record. Given the vagaries of the IT industry at present they have to assess whether the organisation will even be around to support them in a few years time. My old NCR boss Tony Benson noted that when Clarify scored its first overseas success one of the decisive factors was the fact that EPIC, (the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation - the federal government's export credit agency), acted as guarantor. Perhaps such risk reduction could be a tangible way the government could help fledgling Australian IT companies get a start within the country.

Nevertheless, there was a strong belief that Australians should do more to exploit its assets. Many mentioned we have a strong education system, political stability, comparatively low wages compared with the rest of the developed world, corporate watchdogs, first-rate infrastructure and a strong, deregulated economy. Several thought there was no reason why Australia could not chase the offshore development work from Europe and North America. This had helped spawn a vibrant software industry in India.

In all I left the meeting in a far more optimistic mood than I had entered it. I was impressed that so many senior industry people had shared their time and thoughts. We have many assets that we can easily take for granted. We have a reputation for being resourceful and for being creative users of IT. Wine, coal and tourism have shown what can be done. Why not IT?

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