The Australian Information Industry Association was overdue for a reboot when new Chief Executive Rob Fitzpatrick took over two months ago. In the time since, he has been on ‘a listening tour’ of stakeholders, a sure sign – if ever there was one – of an organisation navigating troubled waters.
This will be a significant challenge. The organisation has aged in an industry that keeps changing at a faster rate. The challenges facing Mr Fitzpatrick are not the kind that get ‘fixed’ with a coat of paint and some new furniture.
For the 37 years since it was launched as a vendor representative to government, the AIIA has been the tech sector’s peak body (and one of the few tech associations over the years with real experience in Canberra, or with governments more broadly.
But the industry has obviously changed. It is no longer dominated so completely by a handful of multinational suppliers who so dictated the technical standards for the world. (This may seem odd to say in an era of Google, Facebook, Adobe, Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon.) Users have incredible power these days.
The niches in tech are deep and rich. This has led to a splintering of representative groups – although clearly Mr Fitzpatrick sees a continued need for a peak body to speak with a single voice on national issues.
Rob Fitzpatrick arrived in the role via and economics/law degree from Sydney and an MBA from Wharton. He has spent time in management consultancies (McKinsey), TelcoLand (Optus), a variety of tech startups and commercialisation outfits (like ITS Australia) before ending up at NICTA, the forebear to Data61.
He has even spent time at industry groups, including Meat & Livestock Australia and the Property Council of Australia.
Mr Fitzpatrick seems very well qualified for the role. You have to wonder at a six month global search that ends up finding the new guy around the corner at Redfern’s NICTA headquarters.
It is unfair to say the AIIA struggles for relevancy. But it has been caught by the speed of the industry changes. It has evolved previously, and if Rob Fitzpatrick has his way a new evolutionary process is about to begin.
He tells a story about being in Germany the giant CeBIT tech fair in Hannover some years ago. He was there with NICTA, which was hosting the then Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy at the event.
Senator Conroy told him: “When I want to get a view from the property sector, I go talk to the Property Council. If I want to understand what’s happening on boards, I go to the AIDC (Australian Institute of Company Directors) or the BCA (Business Council of Australia.)”
But he said if he wanted a view of the tech sector – which he obviously did as Communications Minister – there were 26 different industry association.
The number has now reduced to 18.
For an industry that is supposed to be at the heart of an innovation agenda that at the centre of this government’s economic policy, that’s a sub-optimal situation.
Which brings us back to Mr Fitzpatrick’s challenge. Who does the AIIA now represent?
In a previous evolutionary time, the AIIA shifted its strategic focus from multinational VendorLand to the needs of the local mid-tier tech companies. This is has been the engine room of the sector – the channel partners for the vendors, the local companies that added a layer of integration and service smarts to the stack.
The AIIA is looking to broaden its membership base again, to better reflect the diversity of the industry and its horizontal underpinnings in industries right across the economy.
Right now, Mr Fitzpatrick says the AIIA currently represents “the majority of industry revenue” – perhaps as you would expect from an organisation with large multinationals as members.
But he says 80 per cent of the current membership are SMEs – the small to medium-sized tech firms. He says it has attracted also a growing number of startups.
But the figures don’t tell the whole story. In fact, the AIIA won’t release its current membership numbers, although they have been known generally to be in decline over a longish period. They are thought to be in the low to mid hundreds.
Given that this relatively small number represents the majority of the market probably lends credibility to criticism that the AIIA is still too dominated by the big multinational players. Mr Fitzpatrick is looking further afield for members.
He wants to see more heavy users join the association.”I believe we need companies that would probably consider that they are not primarily tech companies, but for whom tech is an increasingly important part of the business,” he said.
That covers a huge range of potential new members – from banks to airlines to health insurers to agri-businesses. There are large and successful companies in these markets that put their tech at the centre.
The fragmentation of the industry needs to be looked at as a positive he says. Companies develop specific expertise in deep niches, and create excellent innovations as a result. But they still have the same tech-based policy needs. That means access to skills, to STEM expertise, access to capital, tax relief on R&D – and the list goes on.
Mr Fitzpatrick argues the “peak body” is more important than ever.
But here’s the nut. While there is extensive common ground for different parts of the industry, there also standout differences in advocacy and policy objectives.
The ‘new’ AIIA is still mulling its options. Mr Fitzpatrick will present to the board in the next couple of weeks both with plans to boost membership as well as a revamp of its strategic priorities and its advocacy agenda.
He is also pressing with ideas to help unearth some of the great Australian innovations that remain hidden in plain sight every day. “We absolutely need to shine a light on and recognise the great innovation that is already happening here.”
There is a frustration that culturally Australia always draws from the same well when it is trying to pat itself on the back.
“We talk about the Hills Hoist, the black box, WiFi and examples like that. But there are incredible innovation going on all the time in Australia and we need to do a better job at telling those stories.”
An election year is an interesting time to be starting the role. It’s going to be a busy year – not least as Mr Fitzpatrick puts his own stamp on the AIIA election manifesto.
I am interested to see where they go with the NBN during the election, as it is an area where history tells us the AIIA treads lightly.