Interview: The AIIA on the NBN, collaboration and turning Australia into an ICT leader (Part 1)

Computerworld talks to the AIIA's John Grant and Ian Birks on the challenges the Australian ICT industry faces this coming decade and the importance of accelerating NBN progress

AIIA's John Grant

AIIA's John Grant

IB: One of the major themes that has come from the conversations we’ve had is how critical collaboration is. Collaboration across economies, but also collaboration within our economy to achieve the kind of outcomes we need to achieve so that the layers of government, state, federal, local that we have in Australia, in some ways that can be an impedance to achieving some of the “jump-forward” outcomes that are being achieved in other countries. Obviously other countries make a single decision to invest in a particular area; when the Philippines for example has gone from virtually nowhere to $6 billion in outsourcing business in 10 years. They made a decision that they were going to be a leader in the outsourcing business, and they are!

JG: They are! $6 billion business employing 400,000 people; it’s an amazing story.

IB: So it’s hard for some businesses in Australia to really emulate that kind of decision making because of the different levels. So collaboration is really important, and collaboration between state and federal, which is improving, and which is probably as best as it has been for many years, is really going to be critical to address a lot of these issues. John heads up the innovation council for [Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research] Kim Carr, the IT Industry Innovation Council, which is a great thing. Good because it’s got a focus on innovation but also good because you’re bringing together the states and the federal people and industry people around a common agenda and we need more of that to achieve the outcomes we want to get to.

JG: We need much more alignment. You know we’re never going to take away the initiatives of the state or federal governments, but we need much more alignment and there needs to be much more collaboration. While Ian’s comments are correct in that state to federal collaboration is improving, it’s improving because the federal government has said around healthcare we have to do it this way, so then everyone has to re-align themselves. I think there needs to be a lot more of that because if we wait for everyone to understand it needs to be that way because we need to achieve the strategic position of Australia, it’ll take too long. I think there does need to be some force applied to that process, but that’s a really critical thing, to break down the bottle-necks that occur and the distractions that occur between the state governments and federal government.

How can we better leverage our collaboration with the Asia-Pacific region to better improve our stand?

IB: Well it’s largely about trade isn’t it? I think that’s one very obvious level. It’s a global world, a global industry, and these days pretty much anybody who sets up an IT business is not looking at that in the context of just the local environment. They’re looking at it potentially as a global community business, that’s kind of now the way you run your business these days. So we’ve got to make sure we give those companies the support they need and we’ve got to look for every opportunity to provide good trade between those countries. That’s partly what the dialogue here has been about, but it’s also what we focus on with Austrade and others in terms of trying to make sure that ICT is recognised as a major contributor to exports.

JG: To facilitate a lot of trade for example, to facilitate trade, to facilitate growth, there’s gotta be work done on standardisation on various things and harmonisation on legislation. For example: a) across state boundaries of Australia, and b) across national boundaries. So things like data security, privacy, when in fact a lot of what you might be viewing, and might be putting in data will be outside your own border. There’s a whole bunch of almost global stuff that has to be done to harmonise that and harmonise the rules and regulations around that. There should be a huge imperative around it, but that’s a long job, but that’s the sort of thing that also needs to be done, to make it able to happen.

What challenges does Australia face leading up to 2020 in this respect? What challenges are we going to have to overcome to be a force to be reckoned with?

IB: I think firstly we’ve got to support a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and that’s probably an area where we need a stronger focus. When you contrast what happens in this country versus others, it seems that we have great innovative thinking, we have organisations who set themselves up with great concepts, but the difficulty seems to be to take that to another level in terms of commercialising and growing their business, taking it offshore and getting the support that they should get to do that. I think that’s one of the key factors. We’ve got to look that whole eco-system of innovation, entrepreneurship and support that. Australia’s got to be a leader in how we use technology within our own country and that’s why the NBN is so important, because if we’re at the forefront, then we get to be aware of the opportunities for advancement and innovation, and we can lead with those particular follow-through actions.

JG: If you ask me what one thing, the one thing I think is the second point that Ian has raised. We will be much better strategically positioned if we are a leading user of technology. Yes, we need to produce our technologies in order to sustain industries, we also need to increase our exports, but the adoption and use of technologies inside the borders of Australia is really where we should make sure we do a damn good job and that’s a leadership thing. At the Realising Our Broadband Future conference I chaired a stream on e-business, and the conclusion of the panel was that the business leaders actually don’t get it. They don’t really understand the imperative around the adoption and use of technology to optimise the performance of their businesses, and that’s a pretty frightening conclusion.

It might be a little bit self-serving, but you can also point to leaders in the business community where that’s not the case but if you look at the OECD statistics, and look at the measures of innovation across the OECD nations, and in terms of innovation through innovative products for example, I think we rank 20th in the OECD nations in large companies. In the innovation through process improvement, I think we rank about 7th. Now that’s not where we wanna be, we’ve gotta be higher than that, that’s all you can say. It’s not a good position to be in and it reflects directly on leadership in business. While we might like to defend the fact that we have some leaders who are very entrepreneurial in terms of their application to innovation, the facts are saying that that’s not the case. So we need to look at the facts, and we need to not fly in the face of the facts.

IB: I think we have been a leader in applications of technologies in many ways, but what we haven’t been a leader in is understanding how that technology can transform your business. I think outside of the IT industry, if we reflect on the general business community, they’ve taken technology and used it effectively throughout their business, but what they really haven’t been doing is reflecting on how you use an opportunity for a whole new business model here, or transforming their business. If we can get that transformative thinking going, that’s the critical success factor for the national broadband network and making us more globally competitive as John has been saying.

Stay tuned to Computerworld for the second part of this interview

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Tags John GrantAIIAian birksNational Broadband Network (NBN)Asia Pacific Digital Innovation Summit (APDIS)

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