IT was kind of fortunate that IBM chairman Louis Gerstner's recent visit to Hong Kong was on the eve of his second anniversary as boss of the world's largest computer company. It seemed to make him more reflective than he might have been, and certainly entertaining, as he took the AmCham luncheon crowd through the pitfalls of leading a major information technology vendor. Even as the content of Mr Gerstner's speech suggests, being head of a big computing company has little to do with actual computing. His speech certainly was not about computing. Rather, it was about information delivery. Helping clients solve information delivery problems. And he had plenty to say about that. I suspect that this was a subject Mr Gerstner may have discussed a few times before. But in a speech that truly represented the bluest of blue-chip corporate America, Mr Gerstner displayed his candour in calling a spade a spade. The biggest obstacle the IT industry faced, he said, was the ego-centric nature of the industry itself. In the most remarkable of ways, the information industry has for decades been able to dictate to customers precisely how work would get done, how problems would be solved. Customers had little say in the shape of their IT environments, they simply got what they were given - and if they did not like it, well, there was not a whole lot they could do about it. IBM, as has been well documented, was probably more guilty of this backward thinking than any single company. For Mr Gerstner, who at various times has been at the helm of different consumer products giants, this was clearly an unusual way to do business. 'Well I want to tell you,' an exasperated Mr Gerstner told AmCham in Hong Kong, 'I have never in my life seen such an egocentric industry as this one. I mean, I have worked in a lot of industries, but this industry is just so involved with its technology, it really thinks you ought to just embrace it as it embraces itself.' Clearly there is an advantage in coming into a failing company from the outside. It gives you the luxury of being able to say what you want about a discarded management without feeling like a hypocrite. Which is a lucky thing, since much of his vitriol about the industry egos appears to be directed at IBM itself. Mr Gerstner clearly wants attitudes at IBM to change, to change fast, and to change radically. He laments that of the eight computer systems he has in his conference room in New York, every one of them turns on differently, boots up differently, takes data differently, and then adds for good measure, 'and that's just the IBM stuff'. He is quite right, of course. The gradual convergence of computing and communications industries has boosted the importance of the communications and data exchange standards. The strategic importance of the industry makes it imperative not only that the various communications standards be worked out, but the industry must force maturity on itself, and fast. Mr Gerstner talks about the druids and the high priests of information technology - these are the propellor-heads who really do not want you to understand how their systems work - because it gives them 'a proprietariness or specialness'. The more complicated it is, the more important they feel, and less likely they will talk about it. The central theme of Mr Gerstner address was simply that in an age of corporate re-engineering, information technology has assumed a new level of strategic importance. That means it is more important than ever for senior executives to ask the tough questions of their IT executives, to understand the strategic importance of their information systems and to understand how they can best be leveraged. Leave it to the biggest IT executive around to come up with the coolest metaphor that describes the growth of the IT industry. If the airline industry was on the same technology development trajectory as the IT industry today, a 747 aircraft would be able to circle the world on a single tank of fuel. 'There would be one slight problem beyond fuel efficiency, and that is, it would be hard to put 460 passengers into a 10-centimetre airplane,' Mr Gerstner said.