There has been a lot of public discussion recently about the importance of innovation and the criticality of technology to Australia's place in the global village.
We are a nation of sports fanatics but can we really cut it on the world technology stage where it counts - intellectually and commercially - is the general theme.
My read on that is yes to the former - we are smart and understand the IT, Internet, e-commerce and biomedical space as well as anyone - but nay on the latter. Why is that?
First of all I think there is this great myth that Australians are fast adopters of technology. I agree with a culture of rapid take up but with a qualification that it is only once a technology is "proven" - usually in an overseas market such as the US. Australians are not "risk" takers in adopting technology. My experience over the last five years in the rapidly evolving Internet and e-commerce areas is that very, very few corporations or government agencies are willing to play a role as clients to foster a local solution. It seems much easier to take a "finished" product that appears to have already had its grounding in other markets.
The real problem is that we have been spoiled. Someone should tell John Howard that the "branch economy" has been alive and well in the IT industry for over 30 years and his Government agencies were the greatest perpetrators. If there was ever a scheme to kill the adoption of local software it was the blundered IT outsourcing program. The winners in this game were the multinationals. They would only ever choose a technology that they were familiar with - and probably had some commercial arrangements to do so. There was no incentive for them to engage local solutions. Just think of the opportunities we have missed for Australian companies in the last six years. What a waste!
The beauty of the US and European systems is that they gear product development for commercialisation as part of the business plan. The marketing machine is massive - up to five times more than development in fund allocation - and it is cranked! US business realises that achieving critical mass in a product is essential and that to get there the product not only has to be good but it has to be known about and understood. It doesn't always matter that the product is not quite there yet - just make sure it gets out fast and everybody knows about it. The irony for some Australian companies is that in the early days of the Internet and e-commerce they unwittingly ended up being the experimental client of US companies - the very thing they feared!
In the US there is also an attitude that a lot of products won't make it - and they are positive about that - but those that do will make it BIG! That's why you will see in Silicon Valley a lot of information exchange between perceived competitors and their venture capitalists. If we are to become "the next big thing" tomorrow we may be partners! is the creed.
I have also been impressed by the pride shown by many US clients in being selected to be the "beta test" client. Rather than feeling that they are exposing themselves to greater risk, they believe that, in helping the capability get to market sooner, they will gain a competitive advantage in the delivery of their own service. What a fantastic win-win attitude!
Meanwhile back in South Melbourne, Fremantle, Surry Hills and Milton, we are trying to stretch our meagre dollars to include research, development and marketing.
Does this mean we can never make it? Hardly! Look at the number of foreign companies that use Australia as their first "second" market. The solution for some has to be to get on the plane to the US, incorporate to get funded and hit it big time - Looksmart, WebMethod, Radiata, Bullant, Quokka to name a few. This is great for the founders and I admire their achievements but it does very little for Australia in the long term.
So Mr Howard, Premiers and enterprise and government leaders, if you want to stop the brain drain, keep Australia a clever country and find our place in the technology world, don't get fixated on tax concessions, R&D grants, and share plans schemes alone as the panacea.
Just encourage our corporate and government organisations to get more involved in the "commercialisation risk process" and buy Australian-developed solutions while they are still made in Australia. Sales are the key to all commercial solutions and there are no better sales than the one you make in your own backyard. Who knows, companies might even enjoy the experience of being so close to the action and really end up with the capability they need.
That way just one or two IT companies might get critical mass - even in our tiny market - and we may just kick start the Australian equivalent of a Nokia, Ericcson or Nortel. Now wouldn't that be great!
Grame Barty is founder and MD of HarvestRoad, a Web content publishing software technology company