I never thought I would quote Bill Gates

Dr. Terry Cutler

Originally published: Business Review Weekly20 September 2001

I never thought I would be quoting Bill Gates. But events over the past weeks made me recall a comment by Bill Gates, from several years ago, to the effect:

The danger with the information revolution is that we will overestimate the short term implications, and underestimate the long term impact.

This observation is profoundly important in the context of the present downturn in the technology sector and the aftermath of the dot.com bubble.

Initially, lot's of people reacted with relief to the dot.com debacles. Suddenly the correction provided them with an alibi for ignoring the fundamental processes of economic structural adjustment that we label as the "Information Economy".

The shift from a technology correction to a more pervasive economic downturn raises the ante. The companies now collapsing are very much mainstreet, familiar operations such as insurance, retailers, and airlines.

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the International Advisory Panel for Malaysia's Multimedia Supercorridor. The Panel's composition is a who's who of the global information and communications technology sector. (Last year Sun's legendary Chief Scientist John Gage commented that some US$10 trillion dollars were represented around the table. Although that number dipped significantly this year, it still makes this modest Australian consultant gulp). The point is that this is a serious group which provides an instructive perspective on current technology directions and developments.

This year differed from previous years with much less optimistism about the global scene, reflecting the mounting short term pressures on these global technology leaders. I returned home with five main observations from the meeting.

Some of the regular, hard core, Panel members did not turn up this year. I know from emails from some of these Chief Executives that the simple reason is the continued performance pressures on major global IT companies, and their harsh treatment by stockmarkets. Times are tough.

My second take out is that Asian economies are being hit harder by the flow-ons from the United States economic downturn than appeared to be the case during the previous Asian financial crisis. In part my perception of a different psychology and mood at work may reflect the new experience of vulnerability and exposure. This is particularly the case for economies like Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore with a significant trade exposure in electronic components and assembly and a dependence upon United States demand. In response, I observe a new priority and emphasis on the emerging trade impact of the Chinese and Indian economies - "the new super-tankers on the information highway".

What is unchanged is the resolute commitment of countries like Malaysia to the development of a strong knowledge economy base. There is a profound recognition that "there is no other future", requiring long term and sustained building of new capabilities, especially skill pools. Bill Gates would approve of this endorsement of his warning about not underestimating nor discounting the long term imperatives.

This long term commitment does not mean that shorter term priorities do not change or that programmes do not require regular modification and reassessment. Ironically, financial analysts and press commentators who applaud corporate reviews and revisions to business plans appear not to apply the same criteria to assessments of long-term government programmes, particularly in Asia.

This makes it hard for governments to adjust and correct long term programmes. In some areas, such as the content production initiative know as e-Village, the Multimedia Supercorridor has had investment set backs. The response, properly, has been to re-group.

The new area of attention is, not surprisingly, biotechnology. This is part of the increasing world-wide recognition of the crucial convergence of the life sciences and information technology and the emergence of new disciplines in bioinformatics.

At the Kuala Lumpur meeting I picked up a new book by Panel member Stan Shih, the founder of Taiwan's Acer group. Titled Growing Global, Shih's book arose out of a special class he conducted at Chiaotung University, his alma mater. This book is well worth reading because it addresses an issue that is hugely relevant to Australia. This is the challenge of how companies from small economies can develop successful globalisation strategies.

Shih describes the four basic challenges he faced as:

Does this strike a chord? Shih's response has been described as a "Fourth Way of Globalisation" in contrast to the more familiar United States, European, and Japanese models. There is a lot we can learn from the experiences of companies and the approaches of governments in Asian economies.