The CSSA - the Computing Services and Software Association - dubs itself the voice of the UK software and IT services community. 'VNU Newswire' spoke to John Higgins, the director general.
The Association was founded some 30 years ago, has over 600 members, and represents 80 per cent of the UK software and computing services (SCS) industry by turnover. The combined revenues of members were more than #11 billion in 1997.
Speaking of the situation that he inherited from the previous director general, Higgins said he "did a great job of pushing the boundaries of the CSSA and giving us a presence in lots of different places - and in some ways biting above our weight."
Now he needs to build on that. "I want to see that as a legacy of opportunity to be able to pick out the key things that are important to our industry in areas where we can be most effective and focus our energies," he said. "Like all organisations, there is only a limited amount of resource and that's a healthy thing because that means you have to make choices. I want to have absolute clarity about where to focus our energies in a very precise way, and do things that will be important for our members. That's really quite hard to do because lots of our members have different interests."
If he had to pick two priority areas of importance, one would be the skills issue in its broadest sense, Higgins said. "We have to attract people on an equal basis with other professions and demonstrate to those making career choices that a career in IT that it can be intellectually rewarding, satisfying, and pay well - and give lots of opportunity to do different things. At the moment, I think that the industry is seen as teccie and nerdy. I think in this area we really can make a difference."
Higgins said he was not thinking of a professional certification scheme, which would be too difficult and complex in the short term. He advocated starting at a hearts and minds level, to make IT a more attractive profession.
"The key thing about this industry is that rarely do people get the opportunity to be at the forefront of change, with projects that change the way that things are done in really significant ways," he said. "I think that's not sold well enough. What's sold are the computer science aspects, whereas being involved in changing the ways that we do things is where the attraction could lie. So that's one of the things I really would like to concentrate some energies on, and make this industry more attractive to people with intellect and a desire to make the world a better place."
High on Higgins agenda was broadening the intake to the IT profession with more generalists, who could become good managers and good leaders and not just good teccies.
Higgins' second priority is his belief that the industry has a very large part to play in the development of electronic commerce. He sees the CSSA as being at the leading edge in encouraging organisations to use these technologies to make their businesses more effective.
Asked if he accepted US criticism that the UK and Europe were backward in ecommerce, Higgins replied: "Absolutely. In some ways it is very generous of them to highlight it."
If you look at it from the business-to-consumer perspective, the US could become the out of town shopping mall that bankrupts European high streets."
"If you look at it in a business-to-business perspective, what they're doing in the US is highlighting the technology," he added. "We don't have quite the same culture."
Higgins wants the CSSA to be influential in trying to bring about change in the UK, to take advantage of all the opportunities. The CSSA has an Electronic Commerce Group, chaired by Chris Godwin of IBM, and is a member of the Alliance for Electronic Business. The Alliance adopted a definition of electronic business as "exchange of value across networks" using computing and communication technologies.
The other members of the Alliance are the CBI, the Direct Marketing Association, the Electronic Commerce Association and the Federation of the Electronics Industry (FEI).
Governmental pressures to merge trade associations such as the CSSA and FEI have now completely disappeared, Higgins claims. "The FEI is a broad organisation from telecomms to furniture manufacturing, but the software and services industry is becoming probably the most important aspect of the IT scene. We have our own mandate. CSSA members are responsible for a very important and growing part of the economy."
As far as the size of the UK industry is concerned, Higgins said: "There are now round about a million people employed in IT departments and software and computing services (SCS) organisations - more than five per cent of the UK workforce, according to research recently undertaken by Richard Holway and by Keith Telford of IBM Global Services. This had grown from 700,000 in 1993, and is predicted to reach 1.3 million in 2002."
Higgins was heartened that a positive image of the industry could be pushed, rather than the doom and gloom for employment prospects that dogged many other industries. Job creation is the hallmark of the SCS industry, and Higgins claims: "Employment growth in the services sector more than compensates for the alarming job losses in the manufacturing sector. The SCS industry in the UK employs more people than the coal industry employed at any time."
Richard Holway found that the UK SCS growth was faster than in any country in Europe, and forecast high growth well into the new millennium.
The CSSA has reached a critical mass, Higgins said, but for every two companies that join, two seem to merge. Because membership fees are based on the number of employees, the CSSA can find itself with less income if two companies merge because the break points for membership fees may be too coarse at present.
The most fertile recruiting ground for the CSSA at the moment is the Internet, content, new media, and graphic design sector. Pure content producers are not really eligible for membership unless they perhaps sell software or services as well. Prospective full members must be a UK legal entity with two years UK trading history, although there is also an associate membership category.
The CSSA is prepared to throw out members it finds in breach of its code of conduct, and has done so in the past, to protect the good name of the industry. Higgins had "no qualms" about removing members in breach of the code. "The CSSA will not act as a harbour for cowboys," he said.
The Software Business Network, supported by the DTI with an #850,000 grant, is open to all software companies. The primary aim is to encourage the software industry - particularly start-ups - to compete internationally by providing the fundamental building blocks for small software companies. The advice and services offered by the SBN are regionally based and concentrate on money, management and marketing.
Higgins was enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by the SBN. "For the right business, especially one using the SBN conduits, there's more venture capital available than people realise. With the right business model presented in the right way it's not difficult to get money."
Corporate venturing is increasingly being used so that larger companies can develop their own businesses. The CSSA plays a role by introducing potential corporate venturers and funded companies.
The CSSA is very active on behalf of what might be called UK PLC. In a recent analysis of the creative industries - about 30 different industries from orchestras through television to the software industry - SCS accounted for almost half of the exports of all of these creative industries, with over #5 billion of software and services are being exported.
The CSSA helps exporters with Web based exporting schemes, and attending exhibitions. So far as influencing government is concerned, "It is like any selling process," Higgins observed, "except that it is an extremely complex sales process with many players, so it is very difficult."
With respect to relations with the European Commission, Higgins sees the Europe as a regional player, and noted that many of the issues in the industry are global in nature.
Because the industry was growing rapidly, government and others were now paying attention to what the CSSA was saying, perhaps in part because the present government was sensitive to criticism in the media.
The CSSA acts as the industry's housekeeper, collecting key data on the size, growth and employment aspects. A particular concern at the moment is to develop something like an RPI (retail price index) for the industry, which would be used in the pricing of long term outsourcing contracts.
Although the CSSA's promotional literature does not mention change management and facilitation, these appear to epitomise the style that John Higgins has brought to the CSSA. But there is no room for complacency, he observed: "The CSSA has to demonstrate its value, show that it exists, and what its values are. There's always more that we can do."
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