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Unite and conquer

Unite and conquer

We still view IT primarily as a labour substitute, but leading organisations are moving on from an efficiency view of IT - a focus on transactions and events - to evaluating collaboration, people and the worldwide flow of ideas.

The Australia 2020 Summit focuses everyone on big-picture issues. What would you have said if you were asked to represent the interests of the IT sector at the event? What one thing can government do to strengthen the contribution of IT to Australia's competitiveness? Tyranny of distance

What is "the problem" with IT in Australia? Is it that the Aussie market is too small and isolated to germinate globally competitive IT companies? What about Hewlett-Packard's offer of $109 million last month to buy Tower Software? Tower has a large international client base and employs 240 staff in three continents. Clearly, Aussie entrepreneurs can cut it with the best.

It is often argued that the Australian market is too small to get IT companies started on a global scale, that insufficient capital is available for early-stage investments and that domestic organisations are too conservative to be early adopters of new technologies.

Globalisation, however, has flattened the world, and Australia has never had better access to international markets, particularly for digital products and services. Aussies are respected the world over for their ingenuity and ethic for work and service. Just get out there and make it happen!

Sure, there are many things government could do to smooth the path for local companies: seed funding, industry development programs, export incentive schemes and so on. Such plans, however, are already in place. And isn't there a point beyond which government handouts just create welfare dependency?

Is it that we lack, as a nation, enough skilled IT workers? Perhaps. Increasing funding and incentives for IT courses in tertiary training would no doubt be beneficial ... but won't demand create its own market-based signals for additional supply?

I suspect that a better grasp of the "problem" comes from examining the way Australian organisations are applying IT to create business or public value, rather than looking at the IT industry itself.

The problem, I think, is that we still view IT primarily as a labour substitute. We view it as a tool for more efficiently processing the transactions associated with the physical delivery of goods and services using databases, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, banking and logistics systems and so on.

Leading organisations internationally are moving on from an efficiency view of IT - a focus on transactions and events - to evaluating collaboration, people and the worldwide flow of ideas. Business success increasingly relies on the quality of interactions between people within and across organisations, globally and in real time.

The quality of interactions is being recognised as a major driver of innovation, supported by a new generation of knowledge management and collaboration tools and behaviours under the label of "enterprise 2.0".

This suggests a new focus for government IT policy.

Start small, scale up

Can we embrace the challenges Australia's constraints create and turn them into drivers of national competitiveness?

* Geographic isolation requires the nation to develop better ways of working as virtual teams, using advanced IT and telecommunications solutions.

* A relatively small domestic market requires that we develop better ways to tap opportunities on a global basis from day one.

* Scarcity of capital requires us to develop practical ways to start small and scale rapidly, leveraging open standards and open-source technologies.

* Skill and resource constraints require that we develop ways to assemble and reuse both, to source the required capabilities internationally and to harness the collaborative energy of dispersed teams.

The immediate observation is that all of these new ways of working are also the new realities for any organisation in the global market. Success is increasingly about reaching outwards for opportunities and into broader networks of people and partners to harness participation and collaboration.

So old-world models of organisation structure, hierarchy, governance and "hard-wired" integrated processes are necessary, to some degree, but not sufficient to drive the next phase of innovation.

We need to move on from competing on terms set by the past and leverage the opportunity, driven by necessity, to use IT to transform the way we do business and government - and then export this "Aussie know-how" to the world.

A starting point is for the government to get serious about streamlining its own processes to boost information sharing, partnering and collaboration with the community, with businesses, between agencies and across jurisdictions. This would show leadership, improve the workings of the public sector and stimulate the growth of Australian-based global companies that have exportable products and skills.

Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector at Ovum.

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