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'India faces huge digital divide problem'

February 21, 2003 15:55 IST
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Don Tapscott, Adjunct Professor, Rotman School of Management, University of TorontoDon Tapscott, Adjunct Professor, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, is a consultant and speaker on business strategy and organisational transformation.

Having authored and co-authored seven widely read books on technology, Tapscott's clients include top executives of many of the world's largest corporations and government leaders from many countries.

In an interview with Senior Correspondent Kanchana Suggu, Tapscott speaks about some problems facing the Indian information technology industry and how India can overcome the growing digital divide.

Excerpts:

You have said that outsourcing is only the tip of the iceberg for the Indian IT industry. Do you think India is exploiting all areas as far as business process outsourcing is concerned?

There are two big issues here. One is that as companies in other countries become unbundled and as they build business webs focussing on what they do best and partnering to do the rest, it would create unlimited opportunities for outsourcing far beyond BPO or systems development in virtually every imaginable area: research and development, marketing, you name it.

But there is a very interesting issue facing India. Which is the country practising what it preaches. I just held a session in India, where I asked people: 'Is India moving away from vertical integration towards a highly focussed company working within a business web?' And I didn't really get a clear picture from the room whether there was a real direction to do that.

Many people said India has very strong vertically integrated companies. But that's a big problem because vertically integrated companies just don't compete and don't create value as well as focussed companies that work within business webs do.

You also spoke about children being a force to reckon with for IT companies. Could you elaborate?

First thing you need to do is to get kids involved in your company. That can be done through reverse mentoring, as Jack Welsh did.

You need to bring teenagers in and spend time with executives and let teenagers mentor executives by showing them about the Internet and how it works and so on. Some industries need to replace their current management with young people.

The music industry is a good example. If we don't get young people to run the music industry, it will be destroyed of the spirit because the current leadership seems pretty much incapable of understanding the fundamental change in their distribution channel and business model.

Kids are very different as consumers. We need to understand that as well. They want choice; choice is like oxygen for them. They want to change their minds; kids have grown up in a world where you can change your mind. They want to be the actors and initiators of a relationship. They want to try before they buy because a demo is deeply ingrained in their culture.

They want to be plugged in wherever they are. It's not that they only want to shop on the Internet. They just process information differently than their parents do. Brands are still important to them and they are very loyal to them.

Several countries around the world have started deploying IT for changing the nature of agriculture. India being an agrarian economy, what does it need to do to exploit IT in this area?

I really don't know enough. I know that there are huge challenges and problems that the country faces in this regard and there are mostly small farmers.

But the larger businesses that are involved in agriculture need to exploit the technology. In modern farms today in many countries, the Internet is at the heart of running operations.

We're going to have huge breakthroughs in food safety for example as a result of this technology. In Japan they have this thing called story pork, where when you buy pork in a supermarket, there's a little chip there that shows the entire history of where this came from like who was the mother of the pig, what it was fed, the distribution channel, et cetera.

How serious is the problem of digital divide facing many countries, including India?

How serious? Huge!

It's a massive problem and it's a very complex problem too. It's not just about people who have access and those that don't, it's not just about haves and have-nots. It's about people becoming knowers and know-nots; and doers and do-nots; those who can communicate with the rest of the world and those that can't.

It is very critical that countries have as a top priority finding a way to close the digital divide. And whose responsibility is it? Every institution in the society needs to get involved.

There's a role for governments in trying to find a way to fund this activity in schools in terms of maybe giving tax credits to lower income families; for creating the regulatory environments whereby a country can move towards building a high speed infrastructure and so on.

There's a role for private companies for example to be giving laptops to employees to take home. That's a big benefit because the kids will learn how to use them and they'll teach their parents and that will cut down their training costs.

Schools too should find a way to get involved. There's a role for trade unions, churches, community groups, et cetera. Everyone needs to create a campaign about the importance of this issue.

This is not giving access to the Internet versus food and shelter and clean water and healthcare and all the rest because if the Internet is becoming the basis for economic and social development, it will be a huge benefit in helping educate, deliver healthcare, create jobs and so on.

This is a huge challenge and we need to find a solution to somehow fix it. The dangers of not doing that are very great.

You create social discord, economic instability and ultimately economic decline because no country can succeed, unless they have a new generation of young people with access to this new medium.

Isn't India still reeling under so many other basic problems?

It's not either or. The two things go hand in hand. Countries will not be able to provide basic necessities in a decade if they don't move to this new infrastructure and new environment for economic and social development.

If you have a dollar and you have a choice between vaccination for your child and software, then obviously you want your child to be vaccinated. But if you have three dollars, then maybe you can start to think of a strategy whereby the two things can go hand in hand.

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