Predictions 2012: The biggest challenge for ICT

Faster broadband isn't the only thing required to transform New Zealand's economy, says head of computer science at Otago University Brendan McCane

Otago University head of computer science Brendan McCane shares his view on what is the biggest challenge facing ICT in 2012.

It is an exciting time to be in computing. Computing is changing the world at an astonishing pace. Fifteen years ago there was no Google; 10 years ago there was no Wikipedia; seven years ago there was no Facebook; five years ago there was no Twitter; five years ago there was no iPhone. Innovation and growth is happening in ICT faster than any other sector and possibly faster than any point in the history of civilisation.

It has recently been said that every company is now a software company (David Kirkpatrick, www.forbes.com). Is it true for New Zealand companies?

Let us consider one of New Zealand’s largest companies: Fonterra. It would be harder to imagine a less likely culprit for a software company. Yet in 2008, Fonterra launched GlobalDairyTrade, an online auction platform for internationally traded dairy commodoties. Although not its primary business, Fonterra is now a software company.

The case is less clear for small- to medium-sized companies, yet almost every company now has an online presence. Granted, most websites of small companies are very basic, and only include company information and occasionally an online purchasing option. Nevertheless, the web has become a fully fledged software-delivery platform. Many companies are not taking full advantage of the platform, and to do so, they need to become software companies. By “software company”, I mean that every company needs to make ICT an integral part of its business strategy, including keeping up with the rapidly changing ICT landscape and that means doing some software development.

Several years ago, the government of the day trumpeted transforming NZ into a “knowledge economy”. Today, the rhetoric has changed but the sentiment is similar. The current government hopes to transform the economy by building an Ultra-Fast Broadband network.

According to National’s policy document, “National is building broadband infrastructure that will help transform New Zealand’s future, promote greater innovation, create more jobs with higher incomes, and grow our economy.”

I hope they are right, and I’m sure it won’t hurt, but will it help?

It will certainly make it easier for most of us to consume more digital content. It will probably become feasible for a local Netflix-like company to flourish. Perhaps it will encourage a spate of creative content-creators to deliver their content over the web. But it’s not at all clear how it will “promote greater innovation” or “create more jobs with higher incomes”.

What is unifying these disparate themes?

In 2001, Computer Science at Otago had almost 500 students enrolled in our main first year course. In 2011, we had about 200. These numbers are consistent throughout NZ and the western world, and the current numbers are simply insufficient. I have tracked the number of vacancies advertised online over several years and ICT vacancies are consistently double that of any other industry.

If every company needs to be a software company to compete; if “New Zealand is to promote greater innovation and create more jobs with higher incomes, and grow our economy”; if we are to become a true “knowledge economy”; then we need to acquire knowledge and skills in the most dynamic sector of industry: ICT. We can’t rely on the government to do this - it is too important for that. Everyone in ICT needs to trumpet the benefits of ICT knowledge and skills and encourage more people into the industry.

What is the biggest challenge for ICT in 2012? It is the same as it ever was: it is people, it is people, it is people.

* This fortnight Computerworld is featuring a series of opinion pieces by leading ICT professionals in which they look at what's in store for 2012. Tomorrow: Microsoft New Zealand managing director Paul Muckleston.

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