Tech’s mixed message

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The old sports adage says there’s no “I” in “team.” But for the information technology industry, there’s no “team” in “IT.”

Unlike most major industries, high tech has no all-encompassing trade association to push its agenda at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Instead, about two dozen groups represent all or parts of the industry, with enough acronyms for a heaping bowl of alphabet soup: AeA, BSA, CCIA, CEA, EIA, SIA, SIIA, ITAA, ITIC and USIIA, to list some.

“When it comes to lobbying, everyone else is Snow White and we’re the Seven Dwarfs,” said Phillip J. Bond, president of the Information Technology Assn. of America (not to be confused with the Information Technology Industry Council).

He should know. Before Bond took the job this year, he served four years at the Commerce Department as undersecretary for technology. When he worked on digital copyright issues, it took one call to the Motion Picture Assn. of America to get the views of the major movie studios and one call to the Recording Industry Assn. of America to get the views of the big record companies.

With the tech industry, Bond has to dial up 12 different groups."I cannot blame people on the Hill or in the administration for not really grasping the subtleties of all the issues because there’s so many people claiming to be the voice of IT,” Bond said. “It’s now gotten to the point where I think it’s counterproductive and perhaps even silly.”

The proliferation of technology trade associations has led to calls for mergers from Bond and others who say the industry can’t deliver its message as effectively as the phone companies, broadcasters and pharmaceutical makers.

In Washington, where businesses battle to make their case to legislators and regulators on such issues as tax breaks and trade policy, a choir can be drowned out by a single powerful soloist. That reality can be more jarring for the technology industry because its trade groups don’t always take the same positions, as was demonstrated recently on the issue of “toll lanes” for faster content delivery on the Internet.

“It definitely would help if they’d all be singing from the same song sheet,” said a congressional aide, who requested anonymity to avoid a backlash from the associations. “They could be a lot more united in their message.”

David M. Hart, an associate public policy professor at George Mason University, agreed. In a 2003 study, he found that the proliferation of tech trade groups had mirrored the industry’s dramatic rise in recent decades -- from 10 groups in 1980 to 28 by 2000.

Some were created to address new issues. The dot-com boom, for instance, fueled several Internet-focused associations. Some groups were started as part of intra-industry battles.

The Computer and Communications Industry Assn. was created in the early 1970s by competitors of IBM Corp., then the dominant computer company. When Microsoft Corp. supplanted IBM as the industry’s top dog, the association became an outspoken supporter of the government’s antitrust case against the software giant.

To counter that voice, Microsoft in 1998 helped fund a new group, the Assn. for Competitive Technology, which opposed the antitrust case. It has grown to more than 3,000 members worldwide.

In 2004, Microsoft embraced the older organization as part of an agreement under which the group promised not to appeal the software giant’s antitrust settlement.

Most large companies belong to many tech associations, but they have closer relationships with some than with others, complicating potential mergers. And the associations have found ways to differentiate themselves -- selling health insurance, producing industry indexes or rating members of Congress on technology issues.

Although some executives grumble about the dues their companies pay -- each membership can cost five or six figures a year -- they haven’t tried to force mergers by threatening to cut off funding.

“So far, the companies have shown no inclination to vote with their pocketbooks,” said John Palafoutas, the top lobbyist for AeA, formerly the American Electronics Assn.

Former IBM Chief Executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr. noted the fragmentation in his 2002 autobiography."A cynical person might conclude that values like teamwork, common causes and mutual respect are not in the industry’s DNA,” he wrote in “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround.”

In most cases, the various technology trade groups work together well, forming coalitions to press for legislation."I think having a lot of different voices saying basically the same thing is not bad,” Palafoutas said.But it can make for confused lawmakers and crowded news conferences -- four association chiefs headlined a Nov. 14 event to push Congress to pass a research tax break. The large number of groups also can deplete the energies of company lobbyists, whose calendars fill up with association meetings, said Jennifer Greeson, a spokeswoman for chip giant Intel Corp. in Washington.

“It takes more time and it takes more resources away from the Hill, the shoe-leather lobbying the industry could do more of,” she said. But Greeson said the lack of a single association hadn’t significantly hurt the industry politically.

Even consolidation advocates agree that the technology industry is too broad and diverse to have a single trade association. High-tech encompasses such players as semiconductor equipment suppliers, consumer electronics makers, Web search engines and e-commerce companies -- from start-ups to behemoths such as Microsoft and Intel.

The industry’s diversity was evident in the recent battle over an issue called network neutrality. Prominent Internet companies, including Google Inc., Inc. and Yahoo Inc., wanted Congress to prohibit network providers from charging for faster content delivery.

But many tech companies, such as Cisco Systems Inc., sell network equipment and want a free hand, so only two major trade associations, AeA and TechNet, waded into the fight. They sided with the Internet companies.

The Web firms formed their own coalition, dubbed It’s Our Net, that some expect to morph into yet another trade group. But they faced lobbying firepower from the major network providers -- large phone and cable television companies. Their groups helped keep restrictions on tiered pricing out of major telecommunications legislation this year.

Although tech’s diversity would naturally spawn more than one trade association, there’s wide agreement that the crowded field could use some winnowing.

Bond of the Information Technology Assn. of America is among those calling for consolidation.Before the association hired him, it considered combining with the Electronics Industry Alliance. A deal couldn’t be worked out. Bond joined in June with an unusual proviso: He would be “forward-leaning” about mergers.

“If that means I lose my job, that’s OK,” Bond said. “I think it really is a question of what’s best for the industry."In Bond’s view, that’s being a team player.