“They will be failed states.” Bernadette Lewis, Secretary General of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, says in article posted to 7 News Belize. She is referring to the Caribbean continuing to fall behind the other trading blocs because of a failure to properly implement information and communication technology.
This comment gave me goosebumps. Of course, this is because I am hearing the words I use when I preach to clients, colleagues and other citizens at every opportunity. I touched on this in a blog post last week, “The Boat That’s Pulled Away From The Barbadian Shore”.
Fifteen years ago when I first went online, I saw how this was going to change the Caribbean and immediately started to find ways to get our voices and experiences out there, and to create ways for us to interact with each other.
There are a few people out there who remember The Sunhead Project, my grand idea to put us out on the web, that was forever plagued by a lack of money to properly implement. Since it’s debut in 1996, I’ve seen the web and the way we use it in the Caribbean change, but in essence we’re doing much the same thing.
How are companies in the region really using the technology to adapt to all this global communication and accessibility? The truth is, very little. A lot of old brands that have been with us in the Caribbean for decades are going to die off because of this ostrich-syndrome I am seeing and a failure to innovate and adapt their business models.
Yes, more of us are online and we are everywhere, but big business in this region has decidedly NOT embraced the web. Neither have local governments. So while millions of us are in cyberspace on all the social networking sites, the Caribbean’s actual visible online presence is not improving. Our use of the technology is quite appalling. It can be intimidating, but all they really need to do is hire a company like mine, who would build a website for them, and make sure it is scaleable in case their business grows. They could also hire marketing companies to make sure their content was easily discoverable, so it’s really just a case of setting the ball rolling.
Big business, banks and governments pay lip service to the Digital Revolution and under-develop the potential of the Caribbean to really step into online commerce, or fail to recognise the revolution happening at a consumer level due to the advent of social media. What they’re doing is failing to empower small businesses and innovators, in favour of what? The way we did things sixty or seventy years ago?
While we are online in greater numbers–and SHOPPING online–our voices, our MONEY enriches US, UK and European markets and not our own. I suppose you can count customs duties, but seriously, has anyone even done research into figuring out how much money the CARICOM territories are spending in European and North American markets via online spending? Why can’t we keep some more of that money within the region? Why can’t we get some of those billions of dollars in online spending to be spent on our own local goods and services? Why? Why can’t we expand beyond the limits of our land masses? What is the point in trade mission after trade mission, and e-commerce workshops, when trying to move money from online earnings into the region still prove so difficult for small and micro-entrepreneurs?
The only reason I can see that many of the region-wide household brand names are even surviving today, is because of the Digital Divide, and because–at least in Barbados–the older generation is around and healthy and long livers. The brand familiarity of generations is the only thing keeping them alive.
The control mechanisms for policy and implementation are in their hands, and they don’t make room at the table for innovation or adaptability when it comes to technology, or for people under a certain age to effect this change. So we keep falling behind more and more each year.
How else would it be that the government of Barbados felt the need to implement technology across all the schools on the island that misses the point of such a system so entirely? Because they are not informed enough about the changes taking place, so they jump on whatever looks good or is packaged and sold to them as a ‘solution’. They [the government] can hold it up and say, “Look what we did”, even if it doesn’t work well and doesn’t adequately serve the needs of the population and quite frankly isn’t very user friendly or community oriented. Do we have the kind of disposable income to waste on these things that the US and the UK have? I don’t think so, but we’re WASTING money online with half-hearted attempts at creating web sites.
How else could it be that organisations with $30K to spend on a web site, end up with a mickey mouse solution and a design like it was built in 2002 and with absolutely no functionality worth a damn. But they authorised the money because they HAD to get a good job in the US, or the UK, or Canada?
How else could it be, that an organisation willing to commit to ongoing development and management of a web site, fail to see that their web site is a cut above everything else, is an affordable, sustainable solution, but equate their use of facebook and ‘understanding’ how facebook works, with the way their own site works, without understanding that facebook has teams of developers working on their site, and not merely one consultant. Or for that matter, that facebook breaks all the time.
And I am not telling you something MY client told me, although I have heard things like this too, I am relating something a colleague told me about their experiences. But here’s the thing, I hear that all the time from people working in this field.
I am consistently shocked by the levels of ignorance people display about the Internet in 2009. It’s not just people you would think are suffering from generational gap. It’s people across demographics, social backgrounds and levels of personal power. Oh, people are surfing the web and checking their email, but in terms of what it takes to make a web site, there is a lot of glassed over looks.
I’m not saying everyone is this way. Of course not. But all those hordes online? The bulk of them are sharing content and chattering. Very few are creating content. And of the handful that do, very few are making money creating content. Very few of those email checkers, and facebookers are not using the Internet to gape.
Where is the funding coming from to fuel INNOVATION. Maybe that would get people moving. A prize for the best e-business idea? A special fund or grant that people can apply to to really build a service, a full online business site accepting CARIFS debit cards, and any major credit card issued? Where are our tax breaks for building e-commerce web sites? Where is our Central Bank relax on online payment processing? Where, where, where? And why, why, why?
Not only that, the real resistance to BEST practise by DEVELOPERS and DESIGNERS who are still caught up in old, antiquated ways of working, and feel comfortable charging people ridiculous sums of money to build stuff that well, doesn’t measure up is killing business regionally. Why are clients so willing to hold on to a six year old web site, instead of aggressively pursuing their business using this new medium correctly?
INSTEAD, the idea that that expertise can only be found in the US and the UK, often leads to $30K websites not worth the file structure on the server. If a developer in the US or UK sees what we are doing on the web right now, they can pass off their sloppiest or laziest or most non-imaginative work on us. And we buy it like we buy FDA rejected drugs.
We still think small, because we believe we are still small and that the changes happening in communication and dissemination do not really effect us. At least this is the pervasive attitude you get from people in business here. Clearly these people don’t like money the way I like money, honey.
In the case of the traditional media, everyone is horrified by blogging and bloggers, BFP and BU in particular, and fear the dialog blogging encourages. They fail to embrace their online presence fully, because to engage in a dialog with the public they’re required to help protect and enable their voices, is scary.
THIS is at the root of what is going on. We have a generation of people in control who are intimidated by these changes, and would rather the Caribbean go to hell in a damn handbasket, gripping their entrenched markets to their bosoms and breasts, than actually do anything to produce a real change.
We NEED full, affordable e-commerce for businesses of all sizes from micro to group companies. At a governmental policy level, it means we need to find a way to link our banking system to PayPal and other major credit/debit card processing systems. This is how young lawyers, doctors and MBA’s who can’t find a damn job anywhere are going to help keep us afloat. We need to stop thinking that a computer science degree is sufficient to understand all aspects of technology. Honest, a computer science degree is largely worthless unless you’re brilliant and specialised. Knowing how to network computers is NOT enough to guide your online presence. It’s not NEARLY enough.
We NEED to either get rid of Cable & Wireless, or force them to stop sucking our region dry and under-developing the technological potential of the place with half-assed, old-ass, barely working technology. I know I am bordering on ‘stuck record’ but there is no SINGLE force doing more to hold us back technologically than Cable & Wireless.
Want to help close the Digital Divide? Ban C&W. Dey mek dey money… send dem back. We need to buy back the rights, revoke them, break up that behemoth, charge them with unfair practises, me doh care. Get rid of them.
We need to create a culture of where ideas USING the Internet become easier to fund, easier to support. Because hear what, in 20 years if Caribbean is not fully enabled for ecommerce and using communication and information technology with hungry aplomb, the Caribbean will suffer. And we are already very far behind. Very, very far behind, and hear what, THAT scares me.
In the Caribbean it needs to be that ANY business can create full and rich user experiences online and be well practised in their ability to process orders and manage supply. In this, the former 809, we need to use the Internet to improve customer service, and consumer dialog or we will never ‘develop’ and remain ‘developing’. Because those emailers and facebookers and twitterers, we have a lot of voice power. And eventually, there will be no holding it back. We can just choose to jump forward a little faster.
Bernadette Lewis says on the 7NewsBelize web site, “If you are just going to give them access so they could just look and see what the film stars in North America are doing, that doesn’t help them. You want it to beneficial use of the technology. One of the things we are actively promoting is a need for fundamental change in mindsets. All those processes we have used for the last hundred years, they cannot be applied to the technology and you get the benefit of the technology. It calls for a different kind of thinking, new approaches and if you continue trying to do things the way you’ve been doing it for the last hundred years with the new technology, you’re not going to see the benefits.”
Amen sister, the choir here is singing with you.
Think different people.