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AIIA looks to renew focus

NUMEROUS challenges await the WA branch of the Australian Information Industry Association and its new chairman Phil Foxwell.

Nominally, the AIIA represents the interests of information technology firms to government, the media and other companies. But there are numerous other organisations that also represent either the IT industry, or specific segments within it.

Most prominent among these is the Australian Computer Society, which claims to have 16,000 individual members across Australia. In this State, the WA Internet Association represents companies in the local Internet sector, while Software Engineering Australia (WA) represents mainly software developers.

But it seems the spotlight has fallen on AIIA at this time.

Mr Foxwell was elected chairman of the organisation’s WA executive committee less than two months ago. For the previous six months, Sharon Brown had held the position in a caretaker role, after the incumbent suddenly relinquished the role. As well as facing this difficulty, various industry sources – none of whom were prepared to go on the record – said the AIIA had been dogged for the past year or so by internal conflict.

Speaking to WA Business News, Mr Foxwell acknowledged the AIIA had lost its way to some degree in the past 18 months. He said some people in the local industry regarded the association as a “toothless tiger”, and said it had lost momentum as a lobbying force with government.

To resurrect the AIIA, Mr Foxwell said, he would turn around its focus and management style and rebuild its profile from the ground up.

In the opinion of one industry veteran, the word Australian in the AIIA’s title would more aptly stand for American, such is the influence on policy of major international companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Fujitsu.

The source, who requested anonymity, said this was not surprising, given that representatives from these companies were expected to lobby on behalf of their companies as part of their job – a task that is far more difficult for small business managers and owners to devote time to.

But, said the source: “If the AIIA were really looking after the local industry, they’d be making sure the multinationals that are going to get contracts have some obligation to help the local industry”.

Another IT executive said the AIIA was not a cohesive group because of the variety of its membership and members’ differing desires.

“A lot of those people are more concerned with their own survival, so I think the bigger picture is often forgotten,” the executive said.

“Some might be looking to protect our local industry, and some are looking to protect something else, so I think it’s going to be a difficult job for Phil.”

Mal Bryce, a long-term industry player and now the chairman of the State Government’s ICT Forum, would not comment on the AIIA itself, but said the emergence of the information and communications technology sector over the past 25 years had produced a range of different interest groups and sub-groups. He said the gap between the interests of companies that sold foreign technology and the interests of emerging domestic firms was fundamental and not new.

“What tends to happen – there’s no question about it – is that the very powerful in this field tend to dwarf the young and the emerging,” Mr Bryce said.

“This is something that has caused particular concern to those people who are trying to grow Australian companies for a long, long time.”

The CEO of SEAWA, Stuart Hope, was more forthright in his assessment of the association, however.

“The AIIA is very good at representing the big end of town, and to organise a political and business environment to suit its membership,” he said.

“Unfortunately the bulk of the indigenous ICT industry is not represented.

“SEAWA has made several attempts to work more closely with the AIIA for the benefit of the indigenous industry, however, none has proved successful to date.”

One local AIIA member, however, offered a more sympathetic assessment, saying the organisation had always been criticised on the issue of overseas influence, but this was not necessarily fair, especially given local firms were reasonably well represented at the WA level.

Mr Foxwell, too, rejected the suggestion the AIIA was led by overseas firms, as “completely untrue”.

“Our membership is about 10 per cent multinational through Western Australia, the rest are local companies, many of them small,” he said.

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