Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Digital divide and digital dividend

Mr.Deve Gowda's recent outburst against InfosysTechnologies and its Chairman and ChiefMentor,Mr.N.R.Narayanamurthy indicates that there is aneed for introspection by IT companies regarding theircontribution to society.Deve Gowda has faulted Infosysfor its penchant for owning land and buildings;he isalso not satisfied about employment potential createdby the company.He wonders what can be the worthwhilecontribution from a peripatetic mentor to companies ofwhich he is a director.A dispassionate discussion on(a)how to bridge the digital divide,(b)ways to promotefair distribution of digital dividends among allstakeholders and (c)prevention of degeneration of'overboarding' into 'sinecures' is called for. Digital divide:There is doubtless a politicalagenda behind Gowda's carping criticism.But it is alsoto be recognised that growth of IT industry has notmade any difference to the lives of countless peoplewho feel alienated from the development process.Apartfrom the traditional 3R-s,computer literacy has becomea sine qua non for gainful employment.The haves andthe have-nots have been redefined as thecomputer-literate and the computer-illiterate.Onaccount of higher levels of remuneration in ITindustry,the incidence of relative poverty (thedifferential between the incomes of employed andunemployed)has increased leading to greater socialtension.Apart from the age-old urban-ruraldivide,there is now an intra-urban divide between theIT-savvy and others.With business and communicationturning more and more online every day,thecyber-challenged are becoming increasinglymarginalised.This polarisation is an invitation topoliticians to fish in troubled waters.Therefore,ITcompanies in their own interest and in the greaterinterest of society would do well to provide ITeducation to as many people as possible,be they inurban slums or in the remotest rural areas.Hardwarecompanies can also play a significant role innarrowing the digital divide by introduction ofinexpensive computers and peripherals. Digital divide is defined as the the socialinequity in the access and the opportunities forgaining competencies with information andcommunication technologies.Government and IT companiesought to work together towards amelioration of thisinequity instead of criticising each other. Digital Dividend:Society gains in a variety of wayswhen IT sector grows.Software is a major strength toour economy by virtue of its exportpotential.Employment opportunities are augmentedthanks to outsourcing of IT jobs to India.But equityand even enlightened self-interest of the industrydemand that benefits (dividends)accrue to all sectionsof society.Fair distribution of these dividends is asure way of bridging the digital divide.Instead ofcontinually harping on poor infrastructure,the ITcompanies may make a beginning by helping to construct nearby roads.Corporate socialresponsibility(CSR) is not a fetish.It should beviewed as an essential part of strategy to sustainbusiness growth.N.R.Narayanamurthy rightly points out,"The primary purpose of corporate leadership is tocreate wealth legally and ethically.This translates tobringing a high level of satisfaction to fiveconstituencies--customers,employees,investors,vendorsand the society-at-large.The raison d'etre of everycorporate body is to ensurepredictability,sustainability and profitability ofrevenues year after year."This underscores the factthat society-at-large also is a significantstakeholder in growth of any industry.Sustainedprofitability of IT industry in the long run ispossible only if digital dividend is fairlydistributed.Many IT companies are now admittedlydarlings of the stock market.They need to becomedarlings of society. Though CSR practised by IT industry cannot bebelittled (for example,Infosys contributed Rs.5 croretowards tsunami relief),society expects a lot more.The most prestigious award for excellence in CSR isthe TERI (The Energy and Resource Institute)annualaward established in 2001-02.In the first threeyears,14 Indian companies have qualified for this CSRaward.It is revealing that none of these companies isfrom IT industry.(All Indian registered companies areeligible to apply for this award.) Overboarding:IT industry has produced many capableleaders/managers.Naturally,their service as directorsis desired by many companies.Narayanamurthy'scontribution as chairman of Bangalore InternationalAirport Limited(BIAL) has been questioned by DeveGowda.Gowda's implicit assumption is that such a busyperson cannot devote required time and energy forBoard meetings.While it is likely that a person who isa Board member in several companies may not be able todo justice to all companies,Narayanamurthy's record interms of attendance is good.Albert Brunner,CEO of BIALhas confirmed,"Despite his hecticschedule,Narayanamurthy chaired all the board meetingsof BIAL barring one."Gowda's criticism regarding BIALseems to be misplaced.However,overboarding(thephenomenon of a person serving too many boards hascome to be called as 'overboarding')should be avoidedif the person concerned is not able to perform forwant of time. To sum up,though Deve Gowda's fulmination is undulyharsh,it is a warning signal to IT industry that it isrequired to improve its image as a sociallyresponsible sector.