The term “Digital Divide” is often used to describe the discrepancy in access, usage and skills related to information and communication technology (ICT). Since the advent of the internet, several scholars have studied the digital divide as an important social and economic issue affecting regions, nations, communities, institutions and individuals. Some of my colleagues and I have also examined and developed different approaches to measuring the digital divide and e-government readiness of nations in an attempt to derive policy implications and strategies.
Among the major lessons we have been learning from the COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate significance of proactive preparedness. As the disruptions from COVID-19 were coming one by one affecting our work environments, the various services we receive from institutions, and our children’s schools and programs, it was very important to pause for a moment and ask ourselves if we were taking our way of life and our digital gadgets and services for granted. Indeed, that is both the reality and our reflection as we all have been addressing several challenges at home in recent weeks, including our children’s online courses and communications with their teachers, our contacts with the banks and other critical services, our own work from home, among others.
I recently came across an interesting LinkedIn post that clearly points to this issue for organizations. The post poses a multiple choice question, “Who led the digital transformation of your company?” with three choices. The first choice shows CEO; the second choice shows CTO, referring to the Chief Technology Officer; and the third choice, which is circled in bold and red to imply the correct answer, is COVID-19. Although we all feel that this is not the time to circulate jokes about COVID-19, we have seen many posts of this nature in our social media space as a way of communicating important messages and lessons from what we are going through. In fact, I noticed many of my former business students reacting to this particular LinkedIn post that I re-shared. I am sure it reminds them of some of the case studies and the discussions we have had in my IT management classes.
When I received messages from school principals and teachers, checking if our children were equipped with the required devices and Internet services to continue their studies at home, the first thing that struck my mind was how crucial digital inclusion should be in all aspects of our lives. At the same time, I also wondered if COVID-19 should be the reason and this was the only time we had to make sure our children and citizens are all equipped with these resources without the question of affordability. Digital divide and e-readiness are closely related. E-readiness cannot be achieved globally or even nationally, unless we close the digital gaps in access, usage as well as skills within the various layers of society. While many nations have strived and made significant progress in their national ICT development stages, there are still many internal issues and digital divides among the various segments of the population and the different communities both in urban and rural settings. These observations can be also translated to organizations of all types and sizes because their employees, customers and other stakeholders all come from these segments and communities. While there are noticeable progresses for many nations, there are still challenges on the pricing environments and the issue of affordability for all citizens. The lack of attention and slowness to respond to these needs during normal times will always come back and haunt us all during difficult times, like what we are experiencing during the current pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also reminded me of my classroom discussions and case studies on the role of ICT in organizations and society. It has reminded me of the various viewpoints expressed and the limited attention technology received by some managers and policy makers and the huge prices they had to pay. It may be easy to say that failure and crisis are the best teachers for IT doubters and deniers. Unfortunately, for many nations and organizations, it might probably take a total lockdown and disruptions of this nature to change their views and take investments in IT infrastructure (hardware, software, human talent) as a top priority. Failure and crisis give us the best lens to reflect on our weak links. As we all stay home and work from home, we have been able to assess which processes and activities are digitally enabled in time. We have also been able to assess our digital readiness beyond hardware and software integration with our processes and activities. It clearly extends to our readiness on the skills required of employees, teachers and students, and the general public. We have also recognized the power of information and the value of seamlessly integrating our processes and our links with all stakeholders and related businesses.
On the contrary, we are also witnessing the huge payoffs some organizations are getting from their years of cautious and proactive policies and decisions on the digital readiness. Banks who have paid more attention to their IT investments in recent years are now seeing the payoffs during this crisis. Retailers such as Walmart and Amazon are seeing the return from their proactive and aggressive IT investments in building strong IT-enabled retail supply chains. Schools who have made their IT units and services ready in good times are now seeing the effect during the sudden switch to online environments. Nations who took ICT development as their top national priority are now seeing its payoffs in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In summary, as far as ICT is concerned, the major takeaway from the good and bad experiences of COVID-19 at the national, regional or organizational levels, is to change our IT strategy from a reactive to a proactive one. COVID-19 should give us all the lessons we need to revisit and understand the significant priority of ICT and its related issues at all levels and aspects of our life.
Dr. Anteneh Ayanso is Professor of Information Systems and the founding Director of the Centre for Business Analytics at the Goodman School of Business, Brock University. He teaches Business Analytics, Database Design and Management, Data Mining Techniques & Applications and Management of Information Systems.