What's the future of the UK IT industry?
Developing the Future Developing The Future is an annual report from Microsoft and various industry partners, which looks at the UK software development industry in the context of the UK economy as a whole.
As well as its reports, it has closed workshop sessions which, purportedly, help give practicing government ministers an insight into what's really going on around IT.
The key findings of its latest report include:
- The world is changing and the Knowledge Economy [whatever that is; you can guess, it's what knowledge workers and power users do in areas like financial services and IT services] is expected to contribute 50 per cent of the UK GDP by 2010.
- We're actually rather successful at this, and London is becoming a global entrepreneurial hub, partly on the back of emerging economies such as China and India [For how long, might be the question to ask].
- Private sector investment in "intangible assets" (such as software, R&D and brands) now equals the investment in tangibles such as manufactured products.
- There is a serious IT skills shortage, IT degrees are increasingly unpopular - and only some 20 per cent of the UK IT workforce is female, which means we aren't fully exploiting the resources available to us.
- There is pressure on the UK government to encourage school students to take up IT earlier – by reforming the National Curriculum, of course.
- And, apparently, there is a "clear loud call for the UK government to develop appropriate IP rights for the Digital Age to support innovation". [Well, there probably is, but be careful of what you ask for, you might get it; and this sounds a bit like special pleading by Microsoft to me. Although IP does have a value and its ownership should be protected, I'm just a little worried that this will mean, in practice, bloating my software applications with unreliable DRM code.]
Nothing very surprising in those conclusions then, but the devil is, of course, in the detail and in the debate generated. There was in fact a reasonably healthy debate with the speakers at the launch
Julie Meyer (CEO of Ariadne Capital and founder of First Tuesday) for example, said the time was over for European "feudalism" and the way it limits entrepreneurial freedom (although she has plenty of European credibility, she rather likes the way the US does things and wasn't keen on EU regulation).
"Live free or die", is her cry, which is fine as long as you're given the choice (some of us would take our chance with tyranny if the alternative were a cruise missile through the front door). However, if this means that no future UK prime minister will ride into unwinnable battles at the heels of his feudal liege-lord in the US, then I'm all in favour. Whether you see her low tax, small government, entrepreneurial paradise as utopia or dystopia probably depends on how much money you have access to and whether you have a job and a roof over your head.
Ben Page of Ipsos MORI countered with a realistic view of what the UK is really like. We may have entrepreneurs and service industries, but take up of IT in the general population is levelling out and some people just aren't interested. That's quite a lot of people who aren't going to be members of the globalised entrepreneurial society and just ignoring them may not be a useful approach.
My concern with all this stuff about entrepreneurial investment in intangibles is, how do we actually measure the value of the intellectual property we are accumulating? We can agree on metrics for TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) but if we don't have good generally agreed (or understood) metrics for Total Value of Ownership, surely this investment will be hard to manage and estimates of ROI etc in danger of being seriously skewed? I raised this question and was told that we have really good metrics for brand value, which isn't quite the point. As Meyer also told us that great marketing always trumps great technology, I was left somewhat uneasy about the solidity of the underpinnings of this emerging intangibles economy.
On the other hand, I was impressed by Ian Brinkley, director of the knowledge economy programme at the Eork Foundation, as he based his talk on real metrics.
His message is that the facts don't actually support the messages of doom we sometimes here. For example, job losses due to the (real) rise in "offshoring" services are actually quite small in the bigger scheme of things (around five per cent of job losses in the EU generally).
We're actually doing quite well at "services", which represent over three per cent of GDP here, as opposed to around 0.5 per cent in the USA. The issue is, perhaps, that the losers in globalisation (which this is all part of) are very visible, while the winners, of which there are many (including software developers), are less so.
And Dr Andrew Tuson of City University forecast a fundamental change in what software developers will be expected to develop "dependable socio-technical systems" (i.e. holistic people-oriented systems with underlying automation – that just work) and how they'll do it: not "specify then develop" but "discover requirements and integrate services that satisfy them".
Another high spot for me was Mike Rodd (director - Learned Society & External Relations at the British Computer Society), who closed the conference and talked about Professionalism in IT (a useful complement to earlier speakers on IT Education).
We seem to be the only profession left (outside of the obvious one) with no formal qualifications for entry and no customer protection from "professional" gurus that screw up. In the future, I'd expect an IT professional to have something like "hartered IT Professional" status (which will only have any real meaning when it has to be renewed every few years and can be taken away if you misbehave) and to carry professional indemnity insurance. There'll be things about this change we won't like, but if we want to drive flash cars like the accountants do, there'll soon be dues to pay.
On the women in IT issue, Rodd commented to me after the presentation that there were plenty of women in some of the more exotic and cutting-edge areas of IT. It was just the easy, conventional [but well paid] areas that seemed not to employ women. He mentioned also an IT management course for SMEs with "just enough" IT for BCS accreditation – which managed to attract some 40 per cent wimmin. So there is hope.
Futurology is a funny old game. Adapting something Matthew Locke (commissioning editor for education and new media at Channel 4) said at the launch, if journalism is all about reporting, the visions spun in the air by vendors in the light of what happens in the real world (which is why solid metrics are so important), reporting futurology is all about interpreting these castles in the air in the light of things that haven't happened yet.
However, just as if those that don't know history are condemned to repeat it, it's equally true those that don't contemplate futures often find themselves where they don't want to be – and with no idea of how they got there. There's not enough room to cover this report in detail, but some of it makes thought-provoking reading here (pdf). ®