In the first of two articles on the information technology revolution, Alison Gulliford summarises the main implications of IT for the socially responsible company. Part two in the next edition will focus on how IT affects management of community programmes.
We are daily bombarded with statistics about the IT revolution and its implications for society and the environment. The death of distance, the digital divide, the paperless office, real time communication: all could impact the socially responsible company’s performance. This article highlights some risks and opportunities, and suggests a framework for tackling them.
Employees – the so-called death of distance enables companies to employ people with young children, with disabilities or living in remote communities. Fewer journeys will cut pollution. Will companies adjust their employment policies? Demand for office space in the US, home of Silicon Valley, was actually higher in 1998 than ever before.
The environment – the paperless office has been slow to emerge. Paper consumption in US offices has doubled since 1975 and laser printers sales have increased 12-fold since 1990. Meanwhile PCs consume energy and have to be disposed of.
Consumers – brand integrity matters more when customers shop over the Internet, can switch allegiance and compare offerings more easily. Watchdog organisations and activists can reach a wider audience. Companies wanting to understand their customers may try to track their movements around the web, violating their privacy. Or they might use the information to develop more sophisticated audience segments, denying fair access to other customers.
Suppliers -provide a vehicle for companies to share their technological know-how, with a knock-on effect for the wider economy. Increasingly this will be in developing markets.
Communities – people can learn without travelling; access is faster to medical consultation and diagnosis. But we could all face serious problems if people are excluded from these opportunities because of their income, race, level of education or geography. This is the ‘digital divide’ – unequal access to IT hardware, skills, content and the benefits flowing from them.
A new ‘weak link ‘ – meanwhile the high tech industry has created a wave of ‘dot.com’ start-ups, some of whose behaviour will feed already incipient ‘anti-corporatism’ (see Naomi Klein’s No Logo reviewed in this issue). ‘Frontier ethics’ encourage dubious accounting methods and small boards packed with insiders. Investors scrambling to take a stake are overlooking traditional safeguards. But who else will these dot.com start-ups drag down with them, when malpractices come to light?
Civil society and freedom of information – the Internet has fostered better organised campaigns by NGOs, greater public scrutiny of corporate behaviour, better sharing of good practices. Companies are disclosing more about their values and operations, more immediately as situations develop, fostering dialogue with their critics and stakeholders.
So how do companies respond?
Companies can respond on three levels:
• core business operations;
• social investments and community contributions;
• fostering wider understanding and debate about the issues.
The core business operations
Numerous business functions will be involved – purchasing, human resources, communications – and operations around the world. The individual charged with the company’s social responsibility needs to work with each to develop a clear company position as a basis for future action. The guiding question is how can we maximise the positive impacts of the company’s operations and minimise the negatives?
The company can use social investments to tackle the digital divide between IT haves and have nots. Governments are worried, both in the US and the UK, making pledges about getting their populations on line and calling for the private sector to play its part. Here are some examples.
AOL ‘s Foundation programme focuses on bridging the digital divide, building the capacity of NGOs, expanding technology use in education and improving access to health information. Examples of projects are:
• PowerUp, a partnership with schools and community centres to provide young people with IT skills and resources;
• seed funding for Interactive Education Initiatives in schools;
• supporting a Digital Divide Clearinghouse to promote dialogue and good practice;
• an awards scheme for initiatives addressing the rural digital divide.
Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have donated an estimated $200 million worth of software to help low-income communities access technology at public libraries. They have established technology centres at youth organisations, and IT infrastructure and training at community education organisations. Microsoft has also donated software worth over $18 million to 20 large, national NGOs.
Cisco Systems has created an international non-profit Networking Academy programme with other businesses, governments and NGOs to teach students to design, build and maintain computer networks. The programme is operational in 60 countries worldwide. Cisco also trains people on community service to pass on basic IT skills through mentoring programmes with schoolchildren.
But all companies have a business interest in this issue – in the ability of future customers and suppliers to work and communicate with them, the growth and prosperity of society. Most companies have equipment, facilities, know-how or funding to contribute.
Finally companies can use their contacts and influence to encourage a wider debate about how IT can shape society positively in future.
In the UK, BT, BP Amoco, Nat West, Sun MicroSystems and Unilever are among companies working on the cross-sector Digital Futures enquiry reported in this issue . BT, EDS, Experian, Halifax, ICL and KPMG are leading a campaign by Business in the Community to help communities use IT effectively. BT has also produced a policy report, A Question of Balance , on issues and opportunities arising from new technologies.
Among myriad initiatives outside the UK, the Global Knowledge Partnership is aiming to help people in the developing world acquire knowledge, share resources and make better use of information technology.
Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 51 – April, 2000