Summit throws spotlight on IT

A $200,000 talkfest or the sod-turning ceremony for the construction of the knowledge economy?

A $200,000 talkfest or the sod-turning ceremony for the construction of the knowledge economy?

Recent Labour governments have a bit of history of organising "the grand event" which will unite the country behind the cause of economic revival. Remember the David Lange-inspired summit soon after the Labour election victory in 1984? The lasting image of that occasion, inclusively staged in Parliament, was of Sue Bradford tearfully describing the plight of the unemployed. Then followed a decade-and-a-half of free market frolics, whose end was signalled by the election of a new Labour-dominated government last year (and by Bradford's arrival in Parliament as a Green Party MP).

And so to this week's e-commerce summit. Symbolically, perhaps, this occasion takes place in Auckland, where most of the country's economic activity is centred. There'll be no representative of the unemployed taking the floor. Instead, there's a densely packed line-up of speakers from IT companies and organisations that have already taken strides toward the new economy.

Is it just coincidence that many of the sponsors of the event seem also to be represented on the speaker list? Baycorp (major sponsor), Cisco (major sponsor), IBM (major sponsor), SolNet (major sponsor) and Oracle (major sponsor) all contribute speakers or panellists.

Clearly, that universally accepted commercial lubricant, cash, even works with this government, written off by so many as hostile to business. Incidentally, esolutions, the alliance of Microsoft, Telecom and EDS, was apparently so confident of being the single major sponsor of the event that Microsoft was telling partners a couple of months ago that it was all sewn up. The arrangement came unstuck because of esolutions' proudly proclaimed "virtual company" status, which was queried by some government official. So Microsoft ends up as registration prize sponsor and Telecom is nowhere to be seen, while Telstra Saturn fills the final major sponsor slot.

What does it mean for the content of the summit, though? Attendees at the event will be hoping for -- and the country as a whole deserves -- better than a series of sales pitches from IT companies. The main audience of the event, according to IT Minister Paul Swain, is those small to medium-sized businesses that are comparatively ignorant about e-commerce. They need practical examples that demonstrate the benefits of doing business electronically and a clear idea of how their own organisations can take advantage of the technology. They need to be sold the concept of e-commerce, not products. Encouragingly, among the talking heads are some with experience establishing e-commerce strategies overseas and others with management credentials relevant to the running of modern businesses.

If activist Sue Bradford left the most enduring image of the last such summit, who will be the representative of down-trodden, old-style firms whose fortunes are the subject of this week's affair? An appropriate figurehead might be an IT manager, given the amount of attention politicians have been paying to information technology lately. Can't you just picture the attention of the nation focussed on the moving account of life in the IS trenches: mayhem as the server crashes yet again; end-user rage at network bottlenecks; and having to drop everything to attend to the boss's weekly request for help launching Microsoft Golf …

But I don't mean to trivialise the occasion. Fingers crossed something tangible comes from it. And heaven forbid the country embark on another free-floating voyage, this time on the seething ocean of untrammelled international e-commerce. But then, no one wants that, do they? After all, business leaders keep calling on the government to show some leadership, surely implying a that they want a steadying hand on the wheel. Or is it just lower taxes and wage rates that they're after?

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