The Business World: For Ways to Bridge the Digital Divide, Look Inside

By McRae, Hamish | The Independent (London, England), October 18, 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Business World: For Ways to Bridge the Digital Divide, Look Inside

McRae, Hamish, The Independent (London, England)

THE DIGITAL divide has become a profound concern in the political and educational establishment but what does it mean for the business community - and more importantly, what, if anything, can ordinary business people do about it?

A new booklet from the OECD, Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide, well sums up the official concerns. The danger is that gaps will widen within, and between, countries.

In theory, the internet and the related technologies are democratising, in the sense that they spread knowledge much more widely at a relatively low cost. So they ought to narrow such differences. In theory.

There is evidence of that. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, e-mail and mobile telephony have made it possible for people to overcome the difficulties created by poor postal and land-line phone services.

But there is also much evidence that, in practice, divisions between Africa and the rest of the world are rising. Most of the rich world is racing ahead, developing and deploying the technologies of the New Economy, while most of the poor world is struggling to catch up.

Within countries, much the same is happening. Though the proportion of people with access to the Net is shooting up, as that proportion rises, those who do not have it are more disadvantaged. So divisions of education, profession and even age seem to be widening.

What about companies? Talk to most business people and the over- riding concern seems to be recruitment. Sure, in some businesses, the crunching down of costs (also profoundly influenced by the Net) is a core worry, and in others it is simply meeting a wall of demand.

But if you ask how senior managers spend their time, at present recruitment often takes up to 40 per cent of it.

This must be partly a function of the long boom and the tight labour market. But it is also a function of the intense specialisation of the labour market: getting the right person for each job. That is why Europe and the US are scouring the world for IT people.

Attracting qualified immigrants is becoming a key competitive issue. Germany, with its good general education and still-high unemployment, is even more short of IT people than the UK or the US, largely because it is perceived as a less attractive place for skilled people to work and because German taxation makes it difficult to pay post-tax competitive salaries.

So the digital divide exists in the labour market in much the same way that it exists in the economy more generally - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say there are lots of digital divides in the business world and the bridging of these is a key matter for comparative advantage in a company, as well as a country. So what can companies do about it? I have five suggestions.

First, avoid credentialism when hiring and focus on talent instead. In the New Economy there are few formal qualifications - there is no Chartered Institute of Web-Page Designers - and where there are qualifications they may not say much about the ability to do the job.

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The Business World: For Ways to Bridge the Digital Divide, Look Inside


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