Darrell J. Parsons & T. Z. Nkgau
University of Botswana
|This paper is a preliminary report on a research project aimed at investigating the use of the Internet to facilitate the dissemination of Information Technology (IT) for development. While IT has long been seen as a crucial enabling technology and after six decades of IT development, key problems in its deployment and effective use still severely restrict the achievement of actual benefits from investment in IT in African countries. While Botswana has many advantages over other African countries, the problems revealed in the Botswana context apply to the sub-Saharan region. Key problems are described, including the general lack of technical knowledge within organizations and within the wider community. Strategies are proposed that aim to leverage limited technical-knowledge resources and deliver information and support in a timely fashion to where it is needed. The research introduced here aims to investigate how to use existing infrastructure and existing distributed (Internet) technologies to facilitate the dissemination of organizational knowledge and the maintenance of organizational memory in a developing context.|
Processing and utilizing information has become the essential activity for economic prosperity in the 20th century and will be the seminal commodity for the 21st century. The "Information Society" was identified in the early 1980s when almost half the workforce in industrialized economies was engaged in the production, manipulation or dissemination of information rather than tangible goods. The information technology industry had grown to more then 6% of the world economy by 1997 and continues to exceed the rate of global economic growth. The importance of IT to development is widely acknowledged. However, taking Botswana as an example, the increasing expenditure on IT is not bringing about significant development results because, even though the rate of adoption is increasing, IT is not being effectively utilized. Lack of technical knowledge, of creative planning to identify relevant application areas, and of effective ways to support IT dissemination has resulted in IT "consumerism" rather than IT investment; more computers but little meaningful computing. The eternal promise of IT has not materialized and if it is to do so after 2000 new approaches must be found. The current (relatively) low cost technology and the informing power of computer networking, such as the Internet, can be used to accelerate information dissemination and leverage limited technical and other expertise. Considerable research has been conducted on the importance of organizational knowledge and memory in an age of growing information dependency and complexity, in terms of global organizational and industrial dynamics. This research proposes IT solutions for the growing problems of losing valuable knowledge, locating needed information and finding the people with the knowledge. These are key problems in development. Practical application of available technologies can improve access to information and specifically, support effective IT dissemination so Africa can participate in the Information Age on an equal footing.
|Is IT the Solution?|
Investment in information technology, computers and data communication networks, should be the path to economic prosperity in the information age. A recent major international industry study of the "Digital Planet" shows that the global IT industry, after growing at a phenomenal rate for 50 years, had reached 6% of the entire world economy by 1997. This supports the widely held views that the IT industry is the most significant single contributor to overall global economic health, that IT spending has key social and economic multiplier effects and that IT is an enabling technology for growth in all sectors. Apart from the important growth potential, economic prosperity depends upon improving production efficiency and organizational effectiveness and IT is the key to achieving this.
As the entire report of the Digital Planet study is not available, the methodology employed in the study is not known. However, as the study was undertaken on behalf of an international consortium of IT trade associations, its optimistic conclusions are to be expected. The benefits cited in the report are realized in developing economies and even there, critical assessment of the actual benefits has always presented serious contradictions. Questions about the benefits achieved from the massive investment in IT have persisted. Empirical studies on the productivity or other economic benefits of IT are few and often yield ambiguous results.
In developing countries, and specifically in Africa, little economic multiplier effect can be anticipated where IT is received but not produced, yielding no primary employment or secondary effects in local suppler industries. In small, poor countries, participation by indigenous companies in the global growth of the IT industry is an unlikely benefit in the short term. The greatest potential impact is from IT dissemination and effective utilization to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of other economic sectors, particularly the extensive government and the private sector. The knowledge and experience acquired in this process may facilitate the establishment of a local IT industry.
IT investment in Africa, like the rest of the world, is growing rapidly, driven by the advent of the personal computer (PC), the subsequent low cost local networking and client/server systems paradigm and IT embedded in other products. While IT is generally widely perceived to be useful and is being acquired, what is it being used for? Is it accelerating the pace of development and closing the gap between rich and poor nations?
While questions about the effectiveness of IT in industrialised countries are important and have not been adequately addressed, in developing countries these questions are crucial. Before the advent of the PC and the age of (relatively) cheap technology, many doubted that IT was an appropriate technology for development. P.P. Streeten questioned the acquisition of technology that is inappropriate to the needs, resources and skill level of some developing countries:
The same might have been said for computers then, and Heeksexpresses similar warnings about current IT expenditures. It is important to be sure IT use is generating benefits to justify the cost.
A great deal more research on technology impact is needed. Unfortunately, most related research is either market potential research by members of the global IT industry or their local representatives, or is conducted by IT professionals or academics, all with a vested interest in promoting IT. Not to suggest current IT growth or those proposing IT use are necessarily wrong, but the potential impact is not well understood. However, as cheap ubiquitous IT is being acquired at a growing rate and one which will continue, we will set aside considerations of whether IT should be used and focus on the question of how to use IT effectively. What benefits can we achieve from increasing investment in IT? Is the potential of existing investment being realized? How can IT best be utilized to further development?
|The Situation in Botswana|
Botswana had the fifth highest African GNP per capita in 1997, is a multi-party democracy, has among the best infrastructure roads, rail, telecommunications, financial services and foreign exchange, access to goods and services, etc. in Africa. However, with the highest rate of GNP growth in Africa over the past 25 years, these advantages are fairly recent. A quarter century ago Botswana was one of the 25 poorest countries in the world. While Botswana is atypical in terms of economic prosperity and potential, it still faces many of the same problems as other developing countries. These problems include: ineffective organizations, low productivity, conflict between traditional and modern cultural norms, an under-qualified workforce, particularly in such technological domains as IT, and conflicts in development priorities. While there are good links to other countries in the region and close access to the larger South African market, the local population and the local market is small, about 1.5 million, and large overseas markets are distant.
There are particular problems with respect to effective dissemination of IT. We will focus on government, which is the largest employer of information workers, where most development decisions are made and the mechanism whereby development initiatives are carried out and managed. Regional government is a distributed organization with the particular information problems of such organizations.
In a 1994 study of computer use in regional government, the level of IT dissemination was found to be very low and the utilization of the available technology even lower . The only widespread application was basic word processing. There was essentially no networking at all and virtually no electronic exchange of information.
The Internet came to Botswana only in 1997. With the emergence of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the Internet in now available in a dial up mode throughout the country. The performance of Internet access is currently problematic and at present would be an impediment to any proposed use of this technology for organizational information exchange. It is likely that this limitation could be overcome. Networked applications are now being introduced and an ISDN service is on the horizon.
A recent 1999 investigation of regional computer use revealed that, in the 5 years since the 1994 study, the level of computerization has increased significantly throughout the country. In particular, more than half the sites visited had local networking, the Internet was available to almost 40% of the people interviewed in the study and almost 40% used email although less than 25% used it frequently. The rapid growth in IT use is indicated by the fact that three quarters of the machines used Window 95, 98, or NT, while the proportion of older machines still using Windows 3.1 or earlier systems was quite small. Another indicator of both a late introduction of desktop computing and increased use is the fact that over half the respondents had used computers for less than three years. This was also the case in the 1994 study. However, despite this growth in IT dissemination, the predominant application remains simple word processing. Technology is being disseminated but meaningful application of this technology is still severely restricted.
While IT is being acquired, what is missing is the identification of effective ways of using it; the subsequent development of information systems based on identified application areas; and focused training on the use of computers for these specific purposes. There is also little progress to date on integrating information systems, use of networks, capture and reuse of development micro-data. The most important issues to address include:
The recently released "Vision 2016" seeks to set Botswana's national goals to be achieved by the 50th anniversary of independence. This wide-ranging visionary document addresses, among many other issues, both the importance of IT and of the need to improve productivity to effect future economic and societal wellbeing. Specifically, the document recognizes the need to enter "the information age on an equal footing". To achieve this Botswana will have "sought and acquired the best available IT and become a regional leader in the production and dissemination of information" and "all schools will have access to a computer and to computer-based communication such as the Internet". There is no evidence in this document of an understanding that merely acquiring IT, including placing it in the schools, will have any significant impact without effective planning and creative dissemination strategies with mechanisms to ensure effective learning and utilization. However, the problem of productivity and motivation is recognized as Vision 2016 urges the "pursuit of excellence through a new culture of hard work and discipline" (emphasis added).
|Organizational Knowledge and IT|
In the modern information society retention, manipulation, distribution and access to information are central activities. There is more information, it is more important to an organization's success, people are valued more for their knowledge and information processing skills than in the more traditional forms of production. Organizational knowledge encompasses all kinds of information acquired over time and through experience, industrial processes, formulae, operational procedures and parameters and all sorts of other "how-to" knowledge. Organizational knowledge can no longer be retained by a few key individuals or efficiently transferred informally. Organizations are too large and complex. Organizational memory systems are necessary to retain vital organizational knowledge and IT is the basis of such systems. There has been increasing research interest in how to categorize and represent this knowledge and use of IT to support the retention and dissemination of organizational knowledge. There are obvious advantages of this approach to distributed organizations and there have been successes using the Internet.
Research into organizational memory and its representation, combined with existing network technologies, can be applied to support distributed organizations, such as local government in developing countries. Important organizational information is hidden in printed operational manuals, minutes of meetings, memos, oral tradition, all situated locally. It would be a simple use of the technology to make these procedures accessible over a temporal and geographical domain. For example, we published the evolving rules for applying for research grants on the University intranet. This allowed for accessibility, immediate location and currency, so long as information is updated as decision rules are changed. The advantages are more pronounced for geographically distributed organizations. This involves trivial publishing technology with no complex systems development or dissemination / implementation.
Knowledge about IT is one kind of organizational knowledge and it is a particularly important one because it is a foundation requirement to allow end-users to realize other benefits from this technology.
|How to Improve IT Dissemination|
There is a need to consider and test new approaches to IT dissemination in the local setting. The basic ideas we propose have been expounded earlier but progress in testing these ideas has been retarded. The essential idea behind the approach is to try to leverage the limited IT expertise that is available by modifying the role of certain key IT personnel and making use of networking technology to help expand the community knowledge base related to IT utilization.
. networking would be used to create a shared domain for discourse on problems
. applications would be disseminated via networks as would subsequent application training and ongoing user support.
Since these ideas were articulated, the networked support system approach has become quite common in such forms as Internet based technology user support systems offered by many IT vendors and technical interest groups, including frequently asked question (FAQ) forums for problem and answer interchange. The "Answer Garden" research project uses similar techniques to facilitate an organization's technical support and information sharing needs. A number of computer augmented help-desk systems are available that primarily involve the use of telephones to put end-users into contact with technical support . It is now accepted that end-users need ongoing support and IT can be used to mediate the interaction between those who know and those who need to know.
We propose to adopt this approach both to introduce organization knowledge support as a useful application of IT and to support knowledge requirements of IT dissemination specifically. Key operational characteristics of such systems:
It would eventually be useful to incorporate expert systems and other artificial intelligence techniques but can be disregarded in place of simpler systems at the start. FAQ systems usually support threaded discussions so that a series of communications on a topic can be accessed in the order they occurred. There may be links to related topics. The range of topics for discussion or support may vary widely depending on the needs of the organization and the perceived usefulness of this type of access for different types of information.
Help-desks consume a lot of technical support capacity and lead to burnout. Using IT to remember and ease recall of past solutions organizational knowledge and casting all participants in the role of both seeker and provider of information can make end-user support more efficient.
We can anticipate a number of serious problems to be overcome for this approach to work:
For a number of reasons, little progress was made after the original conception of this approach in 1994. The main problem was that there was no networking infrastructure until the Internet arrived in 1997. Apart from this, such research is also constrained by the same restraints on development in general:
We are also aware that some of the time spent investigating and developing appropriate technologies is not productive because suitable systems are available elsewhere and could be applied to our research in a short time, if we were aware of them or had meaningful access. As usual, lack of access to technical information and time to pursue this information impedes the progress in employing technology.
While the widespread investment in information technology by developing countries is still controversial, in an information age IT will be acquired. We have shown that IT is expanding in Botswana but few substantial benefits are being realized because the process of dissemination is not effective. Dissemination is restricted by a lack of management of the process of identification of how IT can be used and of IT expertise as well as of motivation in end-users. We have described how distributed IT networks, such as the Internet, can be used to improve access to organizational knowledge and, in particular, knowledge about IT use itself. We believe IT mediated information networks are an important area of development research. We also cite our research as an example illustrating the difficulties of IT dissemination. Conducted in a developing country environment, the research has had very limited success so far due to typical obstacles such as our own lack of technical information and other resources.
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Dr Darrell J. Parsons PhD. is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, University of Botswana. He taught secondary school Mathematics in Botswana in the 1970's, worked in Canadian industry developing automated real-time process control systems in the early 1980s and has been back in Botswana since 1992. He teaches, among others, courses in Economics of Information Technology and Human Computer Interaction. Interests include effective use of Computers for Development, End-User Support, IT Impact Assessment, Distributed Applications and History. His publications include: "Towards Effective Use of IT for Development; with Reference to IT Deployment in Local Government in Botswana", Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Technology and Socio-Economic Development, IFIP WG 9.4, January 09-11, 1995, Cairo, Egypt, 1995, pp. 255-274; "Productivity and Computers in Canadian Banking", the Journal of Productivity Analysis, 4, pp. 95-113. Also University of Toronto, Department of Computer Science Technical Report No. 242, Department of Economics and Inst. for Policy Analysis Working Paper Series No. 9012, 1993 (with C.C. Gotlieb and M. Denny)
Mr. T. Z. Nkgau MSc. is a Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, University of Botswana. He teaches courses in Computer Algorithms, Formal Languages and Automata and Computational Complexity. He has an MSc. in Computer Science from McGill University, Canada and is about to commence study for his Doctorate. His interests lie in the areas of Theory of Computing, Algorithms, Cryptology, Distributed Computing and, Application of Computers for Development. He is currently involved in research investigating how the Internet can be utilized in the Southern African region to advance development and improve organizational effectiveness by facilitating technology transfer, supporting access to and exchange of information and improving education.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century