ACS Observer – A Vision for the Future

Not much news this past week or two. Everybody is waiting for the results of the big vote today. I’m hearing different things from different people on how it might go. There’s been a lot going on behind the scenes, but I wouldn’t report on mere scuttlebutt, would I?

You would think that the Managemnet Committee should resign after the vote of no confidence in them. Not a word, so now they must be removed. This needs a two thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, so not so easy. We shall see.

A lots rides on it. I have said a few times this is a battle for the soul of the Australian Computer Society. There are many shades of opinion, with are two main camps other so-called clique within the current Management Committee and Roger Clarke’s Rescue Your ACS movement.

The clique has driven the ACS to a commercial success on the back of certification income, at the expense of moving so far away from being a member-based society that professional membership has dropped by more than half over the last five years. It wants to continue that direction.

The Rescue Your ACS group wants a return to a member based professional society, as the ACS was for many years.

These are two very different visions of the future.

Quite a few people have considered the possibility that neither of them  arenecessarily the best way to go and that the ACS needs to reinvent itself to be more relevant in the modern world.

So this is a little bit of an essay what I believe the issues are and where I believe the ACS should be headed, with a little help from my friends.

First a little bit of personal history, which may help explain why we are where we are today.

Way back in the 1980s I worked for Gareth Powell, a publisher of travel and computer magazines. He was one of the smartest and most dynamic individuals I’ve ever met and I regard him as my publishing and writing mentor. Sadly, he died a few years ago.

In about 1984 Gareth convinced the Australian Computer Society that he should publish a popular monthly magazine for them, quite separate from the existing Australian Computer Journal, the society’s more academic publication. It didn’t work out but we published a couple of editions. Gareth and the ACS’s Bob Rutledge, who was managing the project, just didn’t get on.

Gareth suggested I might try and sell the ads in this new magazine, as I had previously been a computer salesman. I visited ten vendors in two days and sold full-page ads to nine of them on the spot. These companies were keen to reach ACS members.

Ten years later, in 1994, I had my own publishing company, in partnership with two colleagues. Again, we won the contract to publish the ACS monthly magazine. I first we called it Informatics but we changed the name to Information Age after a few editions. It is still called that, though now of course it is online.

We published it for a couple of years but eventually gave up and gave it to IDG, publishers of Computerworld. We just couldn’t make any money on it. Vendors were not nearly so keen on reaching ACS members as they had been a decade earlier.

I have spent the decades since then tracking the industry and doing bit of work for the ACS from time to time. I researched and wrote a cracking report for the ACS on the total electricity consumption of the Australian IT industry in 2013.

But it seemed to me the ACS was declining in relevance. I noticed that very few senior industry people I knew were members, and that computer suppliers, who were my customers when I was a publisher and market researcher, did not join and did not find the organisation of any interest to them.

In recent years the rot has really set in. Professional membership has plummeted. Many senior members have told me they quit because they could see no value in remaining. Perhaps a real mark of how little the ACS means to the industry is how underreported the unfortunate events of the last twelve months have been.

I have virtually been the only person writing about the ACS. James Riley at InnovationAus has written the odd article, but you won’t find many more. Even the IT press finds the ACS irrelevant.

Now, there is a big vote today which will likely determine if the current direction towards commercialisation will continue, or whether there is a chance to reboot the organisation.

I do not believe that the ACS should return to its previous pre-commercial ways. That model was clearly shown to be outmoded even before the recent commercialisation strategy was adopted. There were constant battles over what quaifications you needed to be a member, and the federated branch structure was (and is) outmoded.

There needs to be a serious rethink about what the ACS stands for and where it is headed. For a start, the arcane, opaque, Byzantine, Kafkaesque voting system which was partially responsible for the current situation needs to be jettisoned.

Even many of the traditionalists agree the a new structure, with the ACS reconstituted as a company limited by guarantee, is needed. It was the clique’s ham-fisted attempts to push this through that was the catalyst for the current problems, but the basic intent was sound.

The vote today is a chance for a reset. The current Management Committee is hopelessly divided and seriously needs to be rejuvenated. Ian Oppermann should stay as President and on current form I would say that Rupert Grayston should be confirmed as CEO, though I understand he doesn’t want the job. The old guard is hopelessly compromised, and should have resigned after the Congress’s vote of no confidence in them.

The organisation needs a new Management Committee and a few new people in senior positions. They should then set about the serious task of repositioning the ACS. The organsiation needs a clear vision of what it wants to be.

Under former CEO Andrew Johnson the organisation became very successful commercially. It sold its soul to become so, but at least ACS Redux can start from a position of financial strength. It should spin off its commercial activities into a separate company, wholly owned by the ACS and which can pay it dividends. Hey, they could even invite Andrew Johnson the run it!

Then the ACS should concentrate on wniing back the members it has lost and attracting new ones. If I were marketing manager I would contact the thousands of professional members who have left in recent years and offer them free membership for a year, and commit to demonstrating to them during that time why they should then renew.

To do that the ACS needs to offer a compelling vision of the future. I received a couple of phone calls and emails during the week on this very matter, from some very senior people in the industry. One of them urged me to write about this vision rather than merely report on events. Another outlined what he believed the ACS should be doing. He made some great points, that are worth quoting at length (minor edits by me):

“Like Engineers Australia, ACS is heavily involved with the accreditation of tertiary institution courses on Computer Science and the like. This is a critical element in ensuring the graduating software professionals are of a high calibre, are employable and have contemporary skills.

“These are key ‘Learned Society’ roles and underpin why ACS exists. Without this capability, there is little credibility assignable to the Society. This is the ‘raison detre’ for the organisation and what differentiates it from other industry bodies. This gives the ACS authority in the community and commands respect. In fact this allows the ACS to play a crucial role in advising government, developing policies for tertiary education, R&D and investment.

“Also this ‘raison detre’ must form the basis for why the Constitution of the ACS needs to be recast to reflect the contemporary role it intends to play in our community. In deciding why the ACS exists and what role it plays, should and will lead to creating a platform that allows members of ACS to fulfill these roles.

“My view is that somehow, those with the zeal to rewrite the constitution lost sight of why they were bothering to do so. Maybe they had honourable reasons to start the process but whatever happened, they lost sight of the ultimate goal and were found out.

“There may be well thought out reasons why the ACS should pursue additional activities outside of the Learned Society function. That is for the Congress and Management Committee to decide and then put it to the Members for a vote so ensuring the membership is supportive not antagonistic towards change.

“But these additional activities must be seen as just that – additional. The credibility and authority of the ACS is dependent upon its Learned Society role being demonstrated as underpinning its existence.”

Pretty well said, I must say. The ACS needs to serve its members, fulfil the role of a Learened Society (a very appropriate term), and pursue commercial activities as a secondary function. To do that it needs to reboot.

Congress has the opportunity today to do that.