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Some cautionary notes about the government's e-vision

By Philip Holt - posted Thursday, 31 August 2000

There's nearly as much balderdash talked about the emerging digital world in the '90s and now the "zeros" as was talked about HiFi in the '70s and '80s – and I'm old enough to remember.

Sure, there's plenty of promise but let's not get breathless with hype. Let's not all fall into the trap of repeating the same buzzwords to one another and nodding sagely, hoping like the dickens that we're not going to be asked a really hard question which would reveal our ignorance, when the truth is that neither of us may really know what we're talking about.

As we all know in our hearts and from bitter experience, the devil is in the detail. He's always been there and he's not been exorcised by the letter "e". While we whip each other into a frenzy of anticipation about "e-this" and "e-that" or, in this case, "e-procurement", let's remember that despite the impressive e-uptake statistics there's still an awful lot of people and businesses who are not "e-people" or "e-businesses". That so-called "regular" usage of the Internet by those who have discovered the letter "e" is still defined in most surveys as one connection a week.


Now, tell me again, what's all this stuff about e-procurement revolutionising supply chains and civilisation as we know it? In truth, I'm ready to admit and acknowledge that the digital world is having a profound effect – on us as individuals, in our businesses and schools, on our culture, on our country and our planet.

Indeed, I suspect that in one respect the hypesters are right – that when the history of this time is written it will be recorded as a revolution no less significant than the industrial revolution that preceded it by 130 years. Much has been said on that analogy and I won't take that theme any further here, except to observe that, just as business was transformed by the earlier revolution, so too will it be transformed by this one.

A hundred years from now it will probably look like this "transformation" happened in a flash and perhaps on that time scale it is happening quickly. But here and now, we're living through it and it's a journey, with its bits of hard slog, its twists and turns, its winners and losers, and a finite amount of elapsed time. The initiatives and changes involving government procurement are, in their way, perhaps an important way, one part of that transformational journey.

Generally I applaud the initiatives. ABL is proud of our very big household name members, but many thousands of members are the little guys. I know that the rhetoric surrounding all this "e" stuff is expansive and inclusive, and we all mean well, but how sure are we that what we're evolving here, and elsewhere in e-business, really is helping the little guy?

So, I'd like to sound some cautionary notes and ask some questions. But firstly, let's get our terminology right. We are hearing a lot about "e-procurement". Are any of us really sure what it encompasses? If we really had to define it, I think we'd finish up in a long discussion that ranged across web sites, email, directories, catalogues and let's not forget that other buzz-phrase "automated supply chains".

Has anyone ever seen an automated supply chain? I reckon that this is a great example of a set of words we all like the feel of on our tongues, and none of us would know one if we fell over it. We seem to think that businesses should be striving to embrace it – we say things like "they should automate their supply chain if they want the benefits of e-commerce". What does that actually mean? That they should get a website? That they should put a catalogue up on their site? That they should interact with their suppliers using email? That they should get access to suppliers' or customers' intranets?


And let's not forget EDI. I'm especially sensitive to EDI because there are lessons to be learned from 20 years of great supply chain re-engineering courtesy of EDI that have had some spectacular pay-offs but it's always been a big boys’ game. The little supplier was nowhere regarding that technology. I would like to think that, mindful of that, we make sure this digital "e-revolution" embraces the small player and provides benefits to them.

I presume that most of you would find that you warmly agree with what I just said – "embrace" the little guy. For most of the remainder of this paper I’m going to explore that theme, and will, in various ways, be raising the question – "is it a deadly embrace?"

There are a number of dimensions to this. A good place to start is with the theme of government procurement – with an emphasis on commonwealth procurement. New processes and procedures are being planned to improve speed and efficiency, reduce administration and improve procurement performance.

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This is an edited extract from a speech given to the Electronic Procurement Conference on 10/8/2000. Please contact Randal Markey for further information about Australian Business Limited.

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About the Author

Philip Holt is managing director of Australian Business Limited.

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