A working party composed of representatives from the ICT industry has cautioned that mandating software quality accreditation can be detrimental to small to medium companies and is pushing instead for continuous software process improvement.

The warning is contained in a report released today by the Software Quality Accreditation Working Party, which also describes the Australian software industry as “world class” and dominating many “high-end niche areas in the mining, financial services, aerospace, defence and e-security sectors”.

It added that Australia has the potential to be competitive worldwide and that the governments have the “capability to accelerate the development of the industry through policy initiatives related to software quality”.

The SQA working party prepared the report over four months, consolidating the experiences of large and small organisations, professional societies, industry associations, software accreditation organisations, industry research reports, and researchers.

“We have found that software process improvement is a key element in the success of the software industry and that at present there is a need for greater awareness, particularly in the SME context, of process improvement and its relationship with process accreditation, and software quality.”

The report, however, warned that one of the common misconceptions regarding SQA is that it will universally help the software industry, similar to how it accredits accountants or doctors. However, the report clarified that the SQA accredits the “process” or the “means” by which software is produced.

“Whilst having software processes are important, having SQA does not guarantee success on the world stage. In context, SQA is not a magic wand and, worse, mandating it inappropriately — by business or government–could be detrimental to the local industry,” the report said.

The working party emphasised that the SQA “should not be seen as an end in itself”.

“Rather it should be viewed as one potential means to implementing software process improvement and from there broader business process improvement.”

“Software quality accreditation should not be seen as some form of panacea for the Australian software sector. However, the process improvement steps that form the basis for software quality accreditation can contribute to overall business improvement if tailored to support overall business objectives and implemented in a committed and sustained manner,” the report said.

According to the report, the SQA is just one of four key considerations for Australia to be able to grow its local software industry and compete on the world market.

Other key considerations include innovation which can be applied in niche areas where Australia has “significant domain experience” and software process improvement (SPI) which is necessary for producing competitive software especially for SME’s who may not have or follow rigorous processes.

Another two components, according to the report’s working party, is the SQA which should be facilitated where it is mandated; and business acumen which needs to be emphasised, including the discipline of Continuous Business Process Improvement.

The working party sees the general lack of formal SPI skills in existing employees and new recruits as being a “potential key inhibitor to the increased uptake of SPI and associated accreditation”.

According to the report, stakeholders said that most new graduates “lack process, systems engineering and systems integration skills”.

The report recommended that ICT tertiary educators “embed SPI as an integral component of software development”. The working party also recommended that the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and Engineers Australia undertake “professional development activities to ensure that members in the software development industry are both capable of implementing and providing leadership roles in SPI/SQA”.

Other recommendations include that the government and industry work towards promoting Australia as a source of high quality innovative software which values continuous software process improvement rather than just accreditation; and that key industry stakeholders –such as the ACS, AIIA, Engineers Australia, NICTA, SEA and SQI– actively endorse, promote and facilitate greater SPI usage, particularly by SMEs.

The working party also recommended that industry stakeholders and government work together to collect data which monitors and benchmarks SPI performance and progress.

Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan, said that the industry, particularly SMEs, need to “reduce the risks for both suppliers and customers when developing and implementing software products”.

“The Software Quality Accreditation Working Party report gives a valuable insight into software process improvement and accreditation in Australia and will assist industry to look to the future competitiveness and sustainability of the Australian software sector,” Coonan said.

“Improving overall organisational quality through improved software processes and other measures such as professional accreditation of employees also has the potential to reduce an organisation’s risk profile and associated insurance requirements,” she added.

Coonan is inviting all interested parties to comment on the report.

Last year, the ACS pushed for the industry adoption of “software quality assurance methodologies and professional standards” to enhance the country’s status in the world market.

ACS president Edward Mandla called on the government to require ICT employees to become members of an “appropriate professional association which ensures they are suitably qualified.”

According to the ACS, only 15 percent of ICT practitioners in Australia are currently members of a professional association.

“A total quality approach to software quality assurance involves ensuring the ICT professionals involved are appropriately skilled. Being subject to the disciplinary process required by membership of a professional association, such as ACS, is a way of achieving this and demonstrates to customers that all ICT practitioners involved in the design, delivery and maintenance of high consequence systems are appropriately skilled and up to the job,” the ACS policy states.

The working party is composed of representatives from the University of NSW, Software Engineering Australia, Australia Information Industry Association, Infosys, GE, Birlasoft, ACS, Computer Associates, Agent Oriented Software, Geometry, ANZIT-IB and Software Quality Institute Griffith University.