UK IT has fallen behind its rivals and action is needed if we have any hope of catching up, says Jon Moulton.
I like to see this country prosper, but IT in the UK is in a long retreat and I don't see a turning point. In hardware we are practically invisible. There is no globally important UK hardware manufacturer. In software writing, we have few UK-controlled companies with sales of more than £100m.
We are pretty good at applying other countries' products with some respectable consulting and integration companies. This is a touch subordinate. We don't make paint but we can still apply it.
It has always been true that lesser skilled jobs head towards the lowest-cost provider. But how did we start off at the front of the computing world 50 years ago and end up with China and India going so much faster?
Not even I can blame ICL for all of the decline.
Searching for an answer I dashed to the Department of Trade & Industry website, pressed "select an industry" and was presented with a menu of 44 choices. Listed there were "fisheries", "footwear" and "horticulture", but nothing like IT.
Then came enlightenment. Clearly, there are more votes in trawling than IT. That will teach the IT boys to live in Conservative seats.
There are IT bits on the DTI website but they are three or four menus down and for the determined browser only. There is however some stuff that is amusing, if startlingly facile.
There is the Information Age Partnership - a group of the great and good from excellent (Japanese-funded) companies such as ICL - which meets twice a year. The IAP area contains helpful and insightful conclusions such as, "Universities should play more of a role but it is hard to see how." There is a wonderful letter from the IAP on increasing the DTI's "resonance" with industry. Make the effort - read it.
As usual, the DTI has many small, ineffective initiatives that are rolling nowhere.
There is a bewildering array of government initiatives: ukonlineforbusiness.com, ukonline.gov.uk, letsallgeton.gov.uk; we have an e-minister, an e-envoy, and a list of similar sub-critical-mass activities. Not many people know anything about any of this lot, nor would it help if they did.
There are some good things done and some good people in the government sector. The Office of Government Commerce works well, for example. But it is not charged with re-energising the IT industry.
So how to improve things?
- Start with education. More emphasis is needed on IT skills (not just learning how to use US products) in schools, colleges and universities. Teach some real technology. Courses in media studies, gender studies etc may have to be reduced but this is probably tolerable
- Foster areas of IT excellence and research. Finance research in quantum computing, advanced data handling, artificial intelligence etc, and expect a long-term payback. This is mostly a government job
- The industry should employ more technically informed people. My miserable knowledge as a part-timer in the trade often exceeds that of the IT "professional". This is probably only possible if these people are generated by better education and training
- Get government to do fewer, bigger and more consistent things
- Just maybe we could do as the US does and use government money in defence to help develop things. (Oops - we've just sold a good chunk of our defence R&D organisation to a US group).
I would love to see this industry getting stronger. The IT sector needs to be doing more to avoid becoming merely a subset of the outsourcing market.
What do you think?
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Jon Moulton is managing partner at venture capital company Alchemy Partners
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