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Knowledge economy 101: Collaborate to compete

Knowledge economy 101: Collaborate to compete

What are we teaching our children? And what is the attitude of public servants charged with supporting our economic development?

One of the most fundamental laws of the new economy is that knowledge can be shared without diminishing the provider’s own stock. It is a true win-win situation as it means that those who share enjoy a considerable advantage over people who do not. Yet there are signs that New Zealand is scoring an “F” in this particular subject at a time when we are already late entrants to the school of knowledge economy business. Education and government are two areas of particular concern because they underline our attitude towards the fundamental precept of collaborating to compete. What are we teaching our children? And what is the attitude of public servants charged with supporting our economic development?

This month I went back to school as one of a group of business people invited by Manukau City to become a principal for a day, a concept pioneered in the US.

Tangaroa College in Otara has 800 pupils, almost exclusively Pacific Islanders and Maori. Created 25 years ago by the same people who designed Paremoremo Prison, its environment is less than inspirational. Add to this one of the lowest decile ratings in New Zealand and three “tinny” houses in walking distance. And the fact that the school provides many of its pupils with a uniform and one square meal a day. Tangaroa’s students would appear to have an uphill battle to succeed.

It is a far cry from the hallowed grounds of a private school such as Kings College. Yet one of the most interesting things to come out of that day was an anecdote from a teacher who had taught communication skills at both schools.

Part of the course encourages collaboration and networking to enable students to work better as part of a team — as is encouraged by business practice today. In teaching the course at Kings she was challenged by a pupil who could not see the point in learning to work with other people. He had every intention of never working with or for anyone and therefore could not see the need to waste time learning something so useless.

Unfortunately, his father, a captain of industry, shared this view and intervened on his son’s behalf. While their viewpoint is not shared by the majority, that it existed at all is at odds with the way the world is moving.

Kings College, traditionally the breeding ground of many of our business leaders, has an ethos of success through competition rather than collaboration. Individual performance is praised; sharing to achieve results is seen as a sign of weakness.

At Tangaroa College, in contrast, collaboration in the community is an essential life skill and one of the most valuable ways in which the kids develop knowledge.

Their attitude towards sharing not only makes them a pleasure to work with but also gives me some hope for their future.

I was grateful to Manukau City for the chance to share my business knowledge with a school. The kids and staff at the college made it an especially rewarding experience. We all need to start sharpening our collaboration skills and one of the finest opportunities to do this could exist at your local school. While I believe most schools attempt to make the exercise a win-win, I’m not so sure the same can be said for government.

In the last issue of CIO I highlighted the problem of risk-aversion within the public sector as it is causing a significant problem in the way government agencies implement economic development programmes. My concern lies with the manner in which the programmes are being undertaken. Put simply, the agencies want to own the issue, so the public become the servants and business is there to serve the agencies, rather than vice versa.

While government ministries and agencies might consult with the business sector they are the ones who:

1. Determine how our national investment will best be spent.

2. Want to control the development process.

The VIF venture capital funding initiative is a prime example of a government body suggesting that it will shape the private sector it is there to support.

My personal experience with colleagues in the agencies has, on the whole, been good — especially in the ICT sector. They are enthusiastic, dedicated and keen to see results. The problem stems from the basic mandate of these bodies. They are government representatives and ultimately guardians of the public purse. It makes them averse to taking the kind of risks needed to get new business off the ground. The decisions they make are generally half-measures or, as with the VIF, take far too long to be implemented.

Developing the New Zealand IT sector should be no different from developing a business and therefore be treated as such. A private-public collaboration — NZ IT Inc, a small holding company — would be in a far better position to come up with the kind of high-risk business development initiatives needed to make the IT industry successful. Such a venture could make recommendations that public servants are not allowed to suggest. Everyone would win and it is definitely achievable, as our IT sector is currently about the size of a small US high-tech corporation.

The issue of public sector involvement with the commercial IT industry was also highlighted by a second event during the month — the opportunity to be involved with the annual New Zealand and Australian trade ministers’ meeting to forge closer economic relations. Part of the meeting was to have ICT Industry representatives engage in discussions with their Australian counterparts.

Two aspects of the meeting brought home to me just how much our national IT strategy is under-resourced. Firstly, the Australian contingent was very proactive towards its New Zealand “little brother” and wanted to engage in all sorts of joint development initiatives. The drawback was that the New Zealand IT industry doesn’t have the organisational capability to engage with them at the same level. The Australian IT sector has a number of supporting organisations, many of which enjoy government assistance, research programmes, funding schemes and other forms of encouragement.

In contrast, there is little government investment in the infrastructure required to build the New Zealand ICT industry. Apart from putting money into agencies like Industry New Zealand, which services the entire economic development spectrum, the only funding finding its way into the sector is via research grants from the Foundation for Science Research and Technology. Little more than 2% goes into the IT sector, and of that by far the majority goes to university and institutional researchers.

Hopefully the ICT taskforce (in addition to advising on issues impeding the development of the IT industry) will convince government to establish a substantial industry infrastructure investment. We need an organisation to drive investment programmes that both government and the public sector can look to and benefit from. I am told Federated Farmers was government-funded for the first five years of its life. This is certainly an example of successful large-scale collaboration.

The second, somewhat unexpected, outcome from the trade ministers’ meeting was my first encounter with goodwill burnout. The meeting was being held in Christchurch and since the industry participants were required to pick up their own transport and accommodation costs, local IT businesspeople were approached for their involvement. While most wish to do their best to advance the good of the country, when I spoke to people about the meeting I encountered a groundswell of feeling that bureaucracy was abusing their goodwill.

This is a situation where New Zealand companies have effectively become poster-children for the nation’s technological or creative prowess. The problem is that, once outside the limelight, the companies feel they have been used without any benefit accruing. They have spent money they can’t really afford and have seen no tangible benefit — while the agency participants have had their costs paid for by the New Zealand taxpayer.

In fact, one company said the British government had done more to boost their bottom line than our own government ever had. They had been granted an all-expenses-paid trip to the UK, been taken round the country and introduced to potential business partners, some of whom they had forged firm agreements with.

These goodwill burnout comments were not just restricted to the IT companies. While we are experiencing unprecedented top-level governmental support, it is obviously yet to be converted into practical assistance at a grassroots level. Kiwi success stories aren’t getting any easier to find and while most are happy to put their hand up and be promoted as industry icons, they need to see some form of reciprocation filtering back.

If foreign governments are prepared to pay New Zealand companies to visit and develop their business, surely the same opportunity should be extended from home. It’s time for our own government to start collaborating with the business partners they are seeking to encourage on a win-for-all basis.

Again, it comes down to basic collaboration skills. It is not a one-way system. For successful collaboration, everyone involved needs to feel they are gaining.

While collaboration comes naturally to some, to others it is a skill that needs to be worked at. Be it on an individual, pupil-to-pupil basis, or a national, government-to-industry basis, we are not going to score very highly as a nation unless we can start demonstrating an ability to give as well as take — in other words, collaborate to compete.

John Blackham can be reached at ajb@xsol.com.

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