A week ago I attended an ICT Forum and Expo. It was organized by ZICTA, the ICT regulator in our country with the active participation of many ICT based companies locally and from the Region. From the exhibits on show, it was eye opening to see what is happening in that sector. Each of the companies was showing what new technologies and gadgetry was available in their specific area. Systems and hardware able to resolve all manner of ICT problems were being demonstrated. It is fair to say that ICT is the most innovative sector and most advances happening in developed markets can be seen locally. Technology, by its nature, is cross cutting whether one is practicing in medicine, engineering, aviation or banking. Technology is at the cutting edge in all these fields. In our neck of the woods, banking and mobile telephones services are first world i.e. are ahead of the game in terms of applications.
While the systems and hardware were on show, the conference in the main hall was going on with presenters from various related fields who were presenting papers answering questions from the audience. The papers were well presented reflecting both the challenges and opportunities available not only in Zambia but across the board; e.g. the challenges of starting up an ICT related company are common to most African countries….except South Africa. For an ICT start-up to succeed, the idea must be crystal clear, show what problem it is going to solve and ensuring that there is scalability and enough demand to sustain the business. More importantly, ensure that a supportive technological framework and policy environment exists for such a company to latch on.
Other problems are country specific. In this regard one can consider the success of introducing technology in a situation where none existed before; or banking services through mobile banking in areas which are too far flung to attract that kind of investment. Limited demand may increase unit cost of services, unit cost of hardware, cost of conversion of systems and training thereby making even basic automation very expensive for consumers. Ultimately, the question becomes one of reconciling the dilemma between speed, safety, and connectivity, transparency and reliability versus cost, market access and consumer satisfaction.
The decision as to whether the time and cost to automate is really commensurate with the expected increase in productivity and revenues is real. Sometimes this decision affects stakeholders outside the organization like labor unions and employers. ICT in our environments is still first generation and addressing lower end problems of efficiency and convenience while ICT in more advanced markets is now bordering more on robotics, ethics and interface between man and machines etc.
The bottom line is that technology or ICT in general is still driven from outside. The hardware is all foreign manufactured, yes, including from China and Korea. Software is also driven from outside including from India and South Africa etc. When one looks closely at what is common with these originating countries, they all have very high levels of education standards with a deliberate bias to sciences. The standards are so jacked up that Asian children are surpassing children in America quite distinctly. For India and China one may argue that they still have many people who are still in rural areas and living in poor conditions. This is true, but things have been changing. Both India and China started off assembling circuits and handsets for the famous brands because of their dexterity at doing such tasks and low salaries, but they have upped their game. China now produces all the hardware and circuit boards for companies like Apple, however, China has also joined the market for gadgets and hardware under their own brands. Huawei is an up-coming brand that will give both Samsung and Apple a good run for their money. With years of assembly and imitation experience China is about to join the fight for market share with the big boys. Korea has Samsung. It has made huge strides as a competitor to Apple in smart phone technology, handset and tablet design and appeal among discerning users with their Samsung brand. These improvements have come about with the desire to be among the best and translating this desire through the education system.
India is another market which is competing quite favourably in systems and software development. They are on the cutting edge of mobile applications driven by local demand. It is worth remembering that India is a nuclear power in its own right and is quite active in space like the developed countries of US and Western Europe.
You can imagine my surprise when, during question time, a young man who is also a student asked the question whether it was necessary to have an education in order to operate in an ICT environment!! Maybe he meant to ask what it would take for someone like himself, in an environment fraught with challenges (no doubt outlined from some of the presentations) to have a go at successfully operating in an ICT environment.
This young man had sat through the presentations by the experts on the podium. He must have heard the speakers articulating the challenges and solutions in more than one way i.e. in a technical, economic, and financial and maybe socio economic twist. Maybe what he was hearing did not resonate with his experience with ICT. Much of this gadgetry comes ready with guide a book for assembly and when correctly followed, it is a breeze. Maybe also he was referring to the easy use of applications. There are plenty out there and one can download just about any app one desires. From that perspective, using ICT is easy and one need not be a genius to navigate through its uses. Maybe this is where he was coming from.
Is it perhaps an indication that we are so into ICT that it has become second nature? Even in rural areas almost everyone has a smartphone these days. We are using mobile phones for price discovery, connecting with the whole world via Facebook and Twitter, sending and receiving money outside of the banking system, sending data and pictures and doing all sorts of fun things… like watching football of our favorite teams in real time. All this is ready made. It’s therefore a no brainer. Why do I need an education?
Learners must demand from the education system what they feel will give them an edge in the ICT environment. There is so much innovation that demands the creativity of young people. This is where the future is and we are depending on you. Competition is the name of the game and education is where it starts, this is where all the tools are gathered and prepared for the battle out there.
The more I reflected on this question I could not rationalize why this young man would think that one did not need an education to operate in an ICT environment. It is therefore a challenge to our education system to set the dominoes straight so that young people can put things in perspective. Learners must demand what they need to know. The environment must enable learners to learn, explore, design and create. They should fall back on a system that will support them and give them all that they need to get on with it.
Needs in our environment are many. The person who may provide a technological solution to the problem is one who has a thorough understanding of systems; one who has the tools to break down the problem to its core components; be able to understand the causal relationships that exist and establish a sequence of operations that take you to the solution. It doesn’t take a genius, but these problems require mathematical and metaphysical skills to define the reality on how things work. I doubt that without an education one can think so deeply and produce the results that are sustainable.
Therefore the answer to the said question is that one definitely needs an education to understand and operate in the ICT environment. No matter how we may rephrase the question, the basis is that without an education things will be that much slower and difficult and puzzling. We will get left behind. If we are to move to the next level in our usage of ICT, (even if it is still manufactured abroad) it must be demand driven and relevant to the community. Usage drives finer applications that may resolve speed issues, cost and inter-connectivity etc. Manufacturers and developers respond to what users want.
I am tempted to keep rephrasing the question and assuming that he meant to say one thing and not another. But suffice is to say that education helps us to understand the full potential of what ICT can do in our businesses and indeed in our own lives. Let’s not take short cuts, let’s not shun education, it has proved to be the best route.