A campaign is under way to get the Year 2000 issue on to the boardroom table.
Information Technology Association executive director Tony Tait says the problem needs to be addressed at management level, and the association has formed a Year 2000 group, in conjunction with the Ministry of Commerce's IT advisory group (ITAG).
Both Tait and Auckland-based systems consultant Rob Clarke say Year 2000 issues will affect much more than mainframe computers.
The association has warned that production systems, telecommunications, satellites and defence systems also rely on dates for some aspects of their operations.
"There's usually some computer-based system running these things," says Tait. "It might be a computer in the machine or elsewhere and those computers are certain to have dates in their programs somewhere."
Tait says ITANZ will encourage businesses in general and not just IT specialists to focus on the issue. He says a major effort is required from business people to analyse the extent of the problem and how to fix it.
"There's still a tendency for non-IT people to say it's a computer problem; we don't have to think about it," says Tait. "But if there's a problem and the CEO hasn't done anything about it they could find themselves in difficulty.
"I think the IT industry is pretty well aware of it," he says. "We're quite certain that the other part of the business community aren't. We're encouraging everybody through this awareness campaign to ask their suppliers if their software is year 2000 compliant.
"PC applications may not be as critical as mainframe systems but they'll be enough to cause chaos."
"We're also saying that while you as an organisation are in good shape, that all your software's okay, if your suppliers or customers haven't done that then your business is also threatened. There's an upstream and a downstream issue that businesses have to focus on as well."
At the worst extreme, there's a possibility of such executives finding themselves liable, he says, which is why the Year 2000 group is now working with bodies such as the Institute of Management and the Institute of Company Directors to spread word among their members.
He cites a Coopers and Lybrand report earlier this year which showed a low level of awareness of the problem. Coopers will be following that up with another report in April next year, he says, "and we'll be using that as a benchmark."
"It's not that complex a task to fix the Year 2000 problem," he says. "The difficulty lies in finding out where the problems actually are."
There's the possibility of some companies getting a shock, he says. While their own systems might be fully geared for the end of the millennium, if those of their suppliers or customers are not, then the whole chain is disrupted. And that is where the potential for lawsuits lies.
Rob Clarke agrees that PC-based systems are vulnerable to year 2000 problems.
"People are starting to collect information now that runs into the problem," he says.
This will potentially affect any system that does projections or depreciation of anything else beyond the year 2000.
Clarke says people will need to think the whole process through and that it may be a fundamental problem with the programming language they use.
While Clarke says packaged software is vulnerable, he believes the real area of concern is with custom-written applications. "That's where the highest risk is."
Even relatively recent packaged software can have problems. A search of Microsoft's Web page reveals that the company is looking into problems with File Manager displaying incorrect dates for files created with a date after 2000 and the latest Exchange Server service pack includes a year 2000 fix to avoid non-delivery messages being sent for messages sent in the year 2000.