UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
Gerald G Grant, Consultant Co-ordinator, COMNET-IT, c/o MTSD, Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK.
It is generally agreed that telematics is an important factor in the development process and that people in developing countries need to get access to telecommunication networks in order to benefit from the opportunities such technology offers. Many organisations and funding agencies have initiated information networking projects in Africa. Some have focused on infrastructure building (RINAF, CABECA, RIO) others on information provision (PADIS, HealthNet), and still others have focused on professional collaboration and information sharing (GOVERNET, ARSONET, NGONet).
While some of these projects have achieved a measure of success, it is quite clear that their impact on improving inter-organisational communication have been marginal. Most telematic implementations still operate on the periphery of local organisations. They have not penetrated existing communication and information infrastructures and processes. It is also equally clear that most organisations have not developed the capacity to implement, manage and sustain telematic applications. The reasons for this low impact and deficient capability are varied and relate to issues ranging from infrastructure to technology to individual user concerns.
This paper will argue that increasing the positive impact of telematic implementations requires a holistic understanding of the issues that promote or constrain successful IT-based information systems in a developing country context. It will also argue that for computer-mediated communications to be effective in the development process it will have to penetrate local organisational communication infrastructures and processes. Using the case of GOVERNET (a project sponsored by the Commonwealth Secretariat), and a framework for understanding the social impact of technology implementation, the paper will illustrate the challenges faced in trying to implement electronic networking projects in Africa and propose remedial steps to be taken to overcome these challenges.
Many international and local development-oriented organisations have become increasingly concerned about the seemingly low level of access to developmental information that is prevalent in many African countries. The feeling among them is that lack of or inadequate access to quality information is a serious hindrance to the economic and social development potential of these countries. The concern has grown increasingly more shrill because of the rapid technological developments occurring in the telematics field. The advent of the micro-chip has transformed the way we live and work. The application of micro-electronic technology to telematics has the potential of creating wide gaps, in technological and social development terms, between those who have the capability to effectively apply the technology and those who do not. The alarming rate at which developed and newly-industrialised countries are applying microelectronics technology makes the apparent lethargy of less-industrialised African countries in taking up the technology very frightening. Will African countries be able to keep up, let alone catch up, with the more technologically developed nations?
To try to stem the widening of the technological gap many organisations concerned with social and economic development have embarked on programmes to bring technology, knowledge and skills to developing countries. Because traditional means of knowledge and skill transfer, such as overseas education and training, has such long gestation periods, other means of bringing the knowledge and skills to people in less industrialised nations are being sought. One exciting option is to use electronic networks. The rapid growth in global electronic networking has made it possible for people in one part of the world to communicate rapidly with people in another part. The usual barriers of time, distance, skills, infrastructure and cost in transferring information has been significantly reduced. Getting a published information from one place in the world to another can be accomplished in minutes as opposed to days or weeks. These rapid advances in global electronic networking hold the promise of revolutionising the way people live, work and learn. It is because of this promise that many development agencies have begun to advocate the use of electronic networking technology to facilitate the rapid transfer of information to those who need it. Since much of the information produced today is stored in electronic form it becomes very easy for it to be duplicated and moved from one location to the next.
This paper will argue, in the first instance, that in order for implementations of electronic networks to be successful sponsors and others must develop an understanding of what factors promote or constrain a networks effective functioning. Secondly we will argue that computer-mediated communications through electronic networks will continue to have only a marginal effect on the way people in Sub-Saharan Africa communicate unless they become integrated into the normal communication infrastructure and processes of organisations. Electronic communication initiatives must move away from the periphery to the centre of organisational communications processes. Those implementing the technology must consider the technological, organisational and cultural factors that promote or hinder the take-up of the technology.
Electronic networking in Africa
Goddard (1994) describes the various computer-based network communication services currently available in Africa. With very few additions these services still prevail. The one major addition is the inauguration of Zamnet in Zambia which is now providing full INTERNET services. The majority of electronic networking services is based on dial- up technology such a Fido or UUCP. The lack of capacity to fund leased lines has restricted the more extensive services possible through internetworking. While most countries have X.25 services in place the current pricing regime has made the cost prohibitive to most users. Most statistical compilations on information technology penetration show Africa lagging far behind most other regions of the world. Whether it is the number of telephones per 100 people or the level of users of electronic services Africa, except the northern and Southern fringes presents an almost vacuous picture. (See Ypsilanti, 1994 as an example).
Recognising the overwhelming lack of computer-based information infrastructure and the resources to provide them, many organisations, including those such as the World Bank, IDRC and UNESCO, have devised programmes and carried out projects to help build infrastructure in countries of Africa. These programmes have focused both on the development of technical infrastructure as well as the skills needed to manage and sustain them. The projects have been beneficial, but are minuscule in scope when compared to the vast infrastructural needs of the continent.
Many of the implementations of computer-mediated communications networks in Africa are simply not achieving the objectives outlined for them by their sponsors and users. Most networks are used regularly by only a few people for electronic mail and file transfer. A majority of the users of the computer networks established in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to be expatriates working with international organisations, including NGOs or a few academics who became involved with the use of electronic communication networks when they studied in universities abroad. Very few indigenous Africans are using electronic networks frequently. While some network services providers have been able to support a few active and dedicated users, the majority of the expected population of users who currently have access to electronic networks have not incorporated computer-based communications as part of their regular routine. The growth of electronic networks in Africa has not been accompanied by a commensurate rise in active use of these networks.
A significant problem faced in many African countries is the general financial and organisational weakness of the electronic network service providers. Most service providers exists as appendages of some other organisation (mostly NGOs). They tend to lack the technical and organisational resources necessary to run a completely professional operation. The majority of service providers can only supply very limited network services such as electronic mail and conferencing.
The precarious nature of most organisational implementations of electronic networking facilities is a cause for concern. A majority of current network connections in Africa have not been well integrated into the regular operations of the organisation. The usual scenario is that of a very keen user (in many cases an expatriate) getting the service installed. While the system is used to carry out business activities, the majority of its use tend to be more personal and peripheral to organisational life.
Providing a Basis for Understanding Electronic Network Implementation in Africa
Many people approach electronic network implementation from a purely technical standpoint. It has to be conceded, however, that the implementation of electronic networking technology is both technical and social process. Communication by its very nature is a social activity. Efforts to implement computer-mediated communication systems, therefore, present both technical and social challenges.
Identifying and explaining the issues of concern
To develop an understanding of any social phenomena there are four levels of concern that demand attention. First there are issues that relate to the macro social environment in which social activity takes place. Here the focus is on the impact of the general environmental context. For example, in trying to understand the problems in electronic networking implementations we might address economic, technological and cultural opportunities or challenges that prevail in the general environment. The second set of issues has to do with the setting in which organised activity takes place. Here the focus is on the type of organisation, its strategy, structure, technology, management processes, skills and culture and the interplay between these. The third level of concern is on the dynamics of interactions that take place in organisations. The focus is on the outcomes of group interactions. What happens when individuals interact with each other and how are the outcomes of interaction affected by the nature of the setting in which it takes place and the individuals engaged in the interaction. For example, how does the installation of computer communication technology affect the patterns of interaction within the organisation. Does it encourage information sharing or hoarding? The fourth set of issues centres on the individual self. How does participation in a certain social activity affect one’s sense of competence, motivation, and confidence. In this case, what are the individual responses to the introduction of computer networking technology into the organisation. Figure 1 presents a framework for understanding the social impact of technology implementation.
Figure 1. Framework for understanding the social impact of technology implementation
Levels of Concern Typical Issues Moderating influences MACRO- ENVIRONMENTAL CONTEXTPolitical & Economic structure Available Technology Social structure Regulatory practices Technical Infrastructure Education and Training Political, economic, techno- logical and cultural environment ORGANISATIONAL SETTINGOrganisational strategy Organisational Structure Management Processes & Policies Technology employed Individual Skills & roles Organisational culture (shared values) Linkages Organisational type, size and cultureGROUP INTERACTIONSGroup influences and interactions Power and Politics Acceptance/Resistance Group status, composition and power relationshipsINDIVIDUAL OUTCOMESEffects and response to social involvement: competence, confidence, motivation, skill & career development, job satisfaction.
Individual personality, values and skills.
The framework appears to present the levels of concern as discrete. This is purely heuristic, however. In reality there is a constant interplay between factors in one level and those in another. Social activity adjusts and change as it moves through time. History therefore plays an important part in the process of understanding social phenomena. For example, the effects of introducing electronic networking into an organisation will change as the organisation matures in its use. As time passes the range of concerns will shift.
Understanding Electronic Networking Implementation in Africa
Using the framework outlined above we now look at a range of issues that arise when implementing electronic networks into the African setting.
The Macro-environmental Context
The economic and political situation in African countries has been well documented. Most countries find themselves in economic difficulty. Many have experienced negative growth in GNP in the past several years. Most are currently undergoing economic structural adjustment which has had an adverse effect on liquidity. Most have a heavy debt burden and a major proportion of their foreign earnings go to meet external debt. Major changes are also taking place in the economic structure. There is a move away from socialist, planned economies to market driven economies. Many countries are experiencing political instability as well. Some are just coming out of long protracted civil wars, others are still embroiled in them. The global move towards democratisation has brought instability in many situations. Given the dire economic and political situation faced by many African countries they cannot afford to spend scarce resources on building up electronic networking infrastructure.
Technological change and local electronic network infrastructure
While African countries are struggling to improve their situation rapid developments are taking place in the world technological environment. These developments are bringing significant changes in the structure of economic relations. A new economic paradigm is being created with the extensive use of information technology. The growth in electronic networking technology is exponential. African countries do not have sufficient knowledge of these developments and do not have the local expertise in sufficient numbers to be able to keep pace with what is going on. This lack of local capacity results in technological dependence on more industrialised countries.
Overall there has been very little development of technical capacity in electronic networking. Most countries depend on outside sources for hardware, software, training. While there are a few pockets of skill and technical capability, their effectiveness is hampered by a lack of resources and organisation. This situation is not confined to Africa only. Other parts of the world find themselves in the same situation. However, when coupled with the prevailing economic, social, political and environmental problems the situation becomes almost intractable.
The prevailing electronic networking infrastructure is dominated by dial-up Fido technology, although some implementations are TCP/IP-based (Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia). Most RIOnet projects use X.25, UUCP or TCP/IP where available. A major problem, however, is that the technology does not really meet the needs of the countries. They tend to be text-based and limited in scope. Distributed, multimedia technology would be more useful to Africa. This however, requires huge investments in telecommunication and other technical infrastructure (including massive investments in skills). This appears an impossible dream at the moment.
Telecommunications regulation and the role of the PTTs
A key constraint the development of electronic networking services in Africa is the monopoly position adopted by the national Post and Telecommunications corporations in the provision of telecommunications services. Telecom services are restricted in most countries. There is very little, if any, provision for private companies to offer value- added services. Most PTTs do not have the resources, skills or inclination to enter into the provision of specialised value-added services. At the same time they have retained the right to veto the setting up of such services. This state of affairs is counterproductive to the exploitation of opportunities that currently exists in the field of information networking.
Technical education and training
The level and quality technical education and training in African countries is increasing every day. However, there are still very few institutions providing high level technical training. Most of these institutions face grave financial and staff resourcing difficulties. The IT curriculum in most institutions tend to focus on traditional computer science themes. Very few of the schools incorporate training in electronic networking. As a consequence the number trained people in the area of electronic networking is very low. This results in the low capability of institutions in Africa to understand the new trends in electronic networking and to effectively incorporate these into organisational practice.
Role of International Aid Agencies and NGOs
An important aspect of the macro-environmental context, as far as electronic networking Africa is concerned, is the role of foreign aid agencies and non-governmental organisations. Since most governments do not have the resources or capacity to develop electronic networking infrastructure most of this work has been taken up by international development agencies and NGOs. It is not surprising therefore that most electronic service providers in Africa are connected in some way to an international agency or NGO and has been funded for hardware, software, and staff training by these organisations. The role of international agencies in electronic network development in Africa is very pivotal and influential. This raises the question of how to ensure that the local needs of the country are being served rather than those of a foreign agency. It brings out the importance of local governments developing the capacity to competently converse with these agencies on issues related to electronic networking.
Information and Culture
A key error made by many when talking about information accumulation, storage or dissemination is to assume that these mean the same things in different cultures. Information is never value free and should not be viewed only in terms of its syntactic and empirical characteristics. Information must be understood within the context in which it is developed and used. The meanings that are conveyed must also be correctly interpreted. African culture tends to be less individualistic or rationalistic as is the case most western cultures. Electronic networking technology brings with it a cultural baggage. Idea that information should be freely accessible to everyone whenever required is new concept in most African settings. The withholding of information has, up to this time, been the dominant mode of maintaining power. The introduction of freely accessible information using electronic networks has significant cultural implications.
Organisations are central to the development and execution of any significant developmental change. Single individuals working alone will only have marginal impact in a society. They are generally unable, by themselves, to muster the resources necessary to carry out major developmental implementations. The synergistic assembling of individuals with complementary skills into organisations makes the achievement of developmental objectives more possible. The organisational components of strategy, structure, technology, management processes, and individual roles and skills must operate in dynamic equilibrium to bring about effective organisational performance. These are supplemented by the maintenance of strong inter and intra-organisational linkages with key partners. To be successful an organisation must take step to inculcate values that are shared by most, if not all, organisational participants.
The importance of strong, competent organisations to the effectiveness of electronic networking initiatives is unquestionably significant. Introducing new technology into organisations that do not have the capacity to institute and manage change will only lead to frustration and disaster. The fact that so many initiatives involving technological innovations have failed, in Africa and elsewhere, is a testimony to the need for organisations to develop both technical and managerial capacity to institute and sustain change. The experience in Africa is that majority of organisations have severe weaknesses either in terms strategy, structure, technology or skills or in terms of management and other organisational processes and linkages.
Group interactions and dynamics
Change in organisations are not accomplished by the strategy, structure or technology. They are accomplished by people. People develop strategy, create structure, apply technology, develop operating procedures and maintain links with others. They usually do this while interacting with each other in organisations. Behaviour in organisations is in many ways shaped by the group a person belongs to. Groups coalesce around shared objectives and values. The way people respond to changes in an organisation depends to a large extent on the group they belong to. Issues of power and politics play an important role in organisations. For example, because the implementation of electronic networking is something that is being dictated by senior management other groups within the organisation may find it necessary to resist this change in the way they work. On the other hand if the new technology serves the objectives of the group, like giving it a higher status relative to others, they might be keen to accept it. This is why many junior technical and operating staff are keen to learn and have access to electronic networks and why some managers are equally keen to restrict access to themselves. Those implementing change in organisations must therefore bear in mind the dynamics of group interaction and response.
No change will be successful if individuals cannot expected to be benefited. The benefit can come in various ways. These include increased competence, career and skill development, more pay, or general increase in job satisfaction. Change is bound to be resisted if they impact negatively on these. For electronic networking initiatives to succeed individuals working with the systems must feel that they can become reasonably competent at using the system to carry out everyday functions. They need to see these systems as contributing not only to the organisations development but to their own development as well. It is generally understood that the introduction of information technology in organisations creates a variety of responses. It cannot be assumed that everyone will immediately accept a new system. Some people eagerly adopt the new systems, others resist. This resistance can come about if people fear loss of competence, power or their jobs.
In the previous sections we presented an overview of the electronic networking situation in Africa. We also presented a framework for understanding the social impact of new technology implementation in organisations and applied the general principles to the African context. In the next section we review the case of GOVERNET. Following this we present a discussion of the findings outlined in the case and their implications for sponsors and organisational hosts of electronic networks.
Implementing Electronic Networks in Africa: The Case of GOVERNET
GOVERNET is an electronic network for senior civil servants, academics, and public sector management specialists representing the key strategists and opinion formers in the public sector who are responsible for implementing public sector administrative and management reform programmes. It is an initiative of the Management and Training Services Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat assisted by the Association of Management Training Institutions of Eastern and Southern Africa (AMTIESA). The main aim of GOVERNET is to facilitate professional collaboration, and provide access to information concerning regional and broader developments in the area of public sector administrative reform. Management development institutions are responsible for civil service training at senior levels. The network is therefore being extended to these institutions to allow the sharing of curriculum and other materials, and to ensure that skill development remains relevant to a changing administrative context. The ultimate aim of the project is to involve senior officials in Commonwealth and other associated countries in using the network to collaborate in planning and project implementation and to share ideas and information regarding various issues with particular emphasis on the area of administrative reform.
GOVERNET, initially, seeks to utilise and add value to the existing electronic networks operating within the Commonwealth countries in Africa. There is considerable activity to advance the development of electronic networks in Africa, in particular the eastern and southern regions. At the moment there are a number of electronic communication networks in various stages of development which operate largely for a particular community of professionals. The existing networks are primarily small with weak inter-connections, operating largely on a regional basis.
While the ultimate target of GOVERNET are the key planners in government across the Commonwealth, it was felt that initial efforts should be put into increasing the use for electronic networks for communication and collaboration in the local context. Management development institutions which are at the forefront of introducing change were viewed as natural allies in the process of bringing about a new paradigm for communication, collaboration and information provision and dissemination in the public sector. Institutions forming the Association of Management Training Institutions of Eastern and Southern Africa provided the first test bed for the project. AMTIESA was chosen because of initiatives already taken by the then General Secretary to get institutions to use electronic networks for communicating with each other. It also had the relevant expertise or access to such expertise in the field of management development and administrative reform and was involved in providing and co- ordinating training in this field.
The first phase of the implementation of GOVERNET involves the provision of electronic networking services to the MDIs. The following electronic networking services are envisaged: electronic mail, bulletin boards, file transfers, discussion lists, electronic conferencing, access to distributed databases, and utilisation of a proposed GOVERNET database. To benefit from these services each institution need to have reliable links to existing electronic networking hosts. To facilitate the connection to the hosts the Commonwealth Secretariat undertook to provide modems, training, and initial set up costs where necessary. Nine MDIs have been issued with modems so far. Three (AMTIESA, NIPA, UMI) already had modems and were connected to a network host. The remaining ones still need to be issued with modems.
The launch the GOVERNET programme, a network training and IT Policy workshop was held in Bombay, India, in April 1994, sponsored by the Commonwealth Secretariat and hosted by the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST). Although the workshop was targeted at a Commonwealth-wide audience, several people from MDIs in Eastern and Southern Africa were able to attend. Those attending turned out to be either the Director or Deputy Director of the institutions. The training programme consisted of a rigorous introduction to electronic networking and included training on how to set up a network node. Participants were issued with a network start up pack, which was developed by NCST for the Commonwealth Secretariat. The pack contained software (shareware) that would allow for connecting to various systems using protocols such as UUCP, Fido and TCP/IP. Participants were not provided with modems at the time.
Figure 2. Management Development Institutions Participating in GOVERNET (March 1995)
Kenya Institute of Management (KIM), Nairobi, KENYA* Kenya Institute of Administration (KIA), Nairobi, KENYA* Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI), Arusha, TANZANIA* Malawi Institute Management (MIM), Lilongwe, MALAWI* National Institute of Public Administration (NIPA), Lusaka, ZAMBIA* Institute of Development Management - BLS (IDM-BLS), Gaborone, BOTSWANA Zimbabwe Institute of Public Administration and Management (ZIPAM), Harare ZIMBABWE* Lesotho Institute of Public Administration (LIPA), LESOTHO* Uganda Management Institute (UMI), Kampala, UGANDA*# AMTIESA, Nairobi, Kenya*# Seychelles Institute of Management (SIM), SEYCHELLES* Mananga Management Centre, SWAZILAND* Institute of Accountancy Arusha (IAA), Arusha, TANZANIA University of Malawi University of Mauritius LEDE, MOZAMBIQUE Ethiopian Management Institute (EMI), Addis Ababa, ETHIOPIA*# * Institutions that have modems # Institutions with a fully functioning network connectionThe Current Situation
Since the seminar efforts have been made to get the institutions connected and using the system. A few institutions have full and ready connection. Most of the others have encountered one problem or another in getting or staying connected. For example, two institutions in different countries have the computer, modems, software, funds and know-how but there are no reliable telephone lines. They are therefore not able to participate in any on-line activities. Another two institutions have difficulty installing the modems. In another case the computer, modems, lines, funds, a well-functioning node are present. However, the institution has been waiting for several months for the technical officer from the service provider to come and install the software and provide some basic training. While the network node in this case in one of the best in the region, it is operated on a part-time basis. They find it difficult supporting users that are not close by. The management development institution happens to be in a rural location.
Other problems stem from the failure of the Commonwealth Secretariat to deliver the modems to the institutions on time. Part of the reason for this is that, in order to keep costs down, it was felt that the modems could be delivered by Comsec officers when they travelled in the field or when people from the institutions came to London. This approach has failed miserably. Somehow itineraries never seem to fit or people already have too many things to carry. While some modems have been delivered this way, they are currently being sent by mail or courier as well.
Another major constraining factor in the development of GOVERNET is the turnover of personnel. One of the primary champions of the GOVERNET programme was the former Secretary General of AMTIESA. The Secretary General was at the core of the development of the strategy for implementing GOVERNET. However, soon after the project started she returned to her own country. A new Secretary General has not yet been appointed. At the Commonwealth Secretariat there were also changes in personnel and shifts in responsibility. The writer only became the Co-ordinator of the project after April , 1994 and the whole management of electronic networking initiatives was shifted from one oficer to another. In several of the MDIs those leading out are only doing so in an acting capacity. They therefore find it difficult to make solid commitments or carry out major organisational change.
Overall GOVERNET is still in its gestation stage. It is set to grow and develop in the next year. There are many problems being encountered. The problems vary from institution to institution and country to country. There is no universal solution. Each one has to be tackled individually.
The GOVERNET case highlights several issues that have an impact on the success and growth of electronic networking in Africa. The issues are infrastructural, technical and organisational. These issues are discussed below.
Electronic Network Infrastructure
During July and August 1994, the writer had opportunity to visit several of the information providers in Eastern and Southern Africa. The visits highlighted the fact that electronic communication service providers were available in most of the the countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. These providers vary in the level and quality of service that they do and can provide. Some systems operators are very experienced while others lack the same level of experience.
A major problem facing service providers is the inability to develop and sustain organisational capability to consistently provide the level of service desired by the users. They all face difficulties in maintaining quality staff and in acquiring the necessary physical and financial resources to keep the systems up and running. Many of the nodes operate on the periphery of their sponsoring organisations. They are expected to be self- sustaining and are tolerated as long as they do not require too much financial or staff time input from the parent organisation. Issues related to the operation of the network service therefore gets second or third priority. This makes it difficult for professionally managed organisations to depend on a system that is not itself professional run.
Another significant difficulty is attributable to factors beyond the control of the service providers. This has to do with the very poor telecommunication infrastructure present in most countries in the region. The inability to depend on rapid and error free communication is widely acknowledged. The level of technical service that a electronic network host can provide is directly dependent on the infrastructure provided by the local PTT. The problems faced by electronic network service providers are compounded by all the associated problems that prevail in telecommunication provision in African countries.
Penetration of Electronic Networking in Organisations
One of the very clear reasons for the low impact of electronic networks is the lack of integration of network services and facilities into the regular communication infrastructure and processes of organisations. The reasons for this is both technological and managerial. In most cases the typical network architecture is a single computer connected over a shared dial-up line to the service provider. Most organisations do not have an integrated local area network over which mail and other services can be distributed throughout the organisation. Even if there is a functioning local area network in place the communication software provided currently might not be easily implemented over a LAN. This is typically the case with Fido software which is the most widely used in Africa at the moment. It was developed primarily for stand-alone dial-up systems. Other software systems (such as those providing TCP/IP) require more extensive and expensive communications infrastructure although dial-up UUCP systems can operate over LANs.
When visiting some GOVERNET sites the writer was shown a computer that was typically located in the Director’s or Deputy Director’s office. It goes without saying that this is probably the worst place to put an organisational communication system. Most directors don’t have the time, skill or inclination to use computer systems effectively and they certainly cannot operate at the centre an organisation’s communication system. The writer recalls, on a visit to a certain organisation, being led to a locked room used by the part-time accountant and being shown the computer dedicated for electronic mail. The only problem is that no one had used electronic mail since the student (expatriate) who set it up had left to go back to Europe. The writer proceeded to show the officer in charge and the secretaries how the system worked. Instructions were printed out and given to them. When the writer returned to the UK he sent an Email message to thank them for their hospitality and to encourage the use of the electronic mail system. After several weeks the mail was returned. It had not been picked up by the organisation.
Electronic networking systems will not function properly if they are simply used as conversation pieces for visiting dignitaries. They have to be made accessible to those who most need to use them. While this presents challenges to organisational political and power relations it is nevertheless an area that must be critically addressed. It can be argued that there are cost implications if the system is allowed to be accessed by all who choose to. However, a system that is not accessible will not be used and a system that is not used brings no organisational benefit.
Electronic networking as an integral part of work processes
Most people in many of the organisations involved in the GOVERNET programme are not motivated to use electronic networks as a means of communication and collaboration because it is not an integral part of the way they do their work. It is quite common place to see people using faxes almost exclusively to communicate with their counterparts in other parts of the world. Yet they are reluctant to use Email for anything other than personal greetings. The problem here is two fold. In the first instance, the people that they may want to communicate with to carry on business might not be properly set up to receive incoming, electronically transmitted documents. This is the case at the Commonwealth Secretariat, for example. While various `islands’ of electronic networking exist at the secretariat, there are none that are integrated into the work practices of the organisation. As a consequence enormous amounts are spent to transmit documents using faxes and courier service. Secondly, the sending organisation may feel more comfortable using faxes because of its ubiquitous nature. Faxes are easy to operate and only require and couple minutes of familiarisation. It also has a `What-You-Send-Is-What-They-Get quality about it. On the other hand the many options provided by electronic networks add to their complexity. At the same time what you send may be what they get in a completely different form.
The role of key personnel
One significant factor hindering growth and development of most electronic networking systems has been the turnover of key or pioneering personnel. Many of the systems were set up by an “expert” (in many cases, an expatriate) who , for any number of reasons, has not been able to transfer the skills to others within the organisation. The problem may have been with the teacher or the students. On two occasions the writer came across a situation where the expert has just left and no one was sure what to do next. The system functioned efficiently when that person was in place because he/she was able to call upon an extended network of contacts for support. When this person left the organisation those tacit elements were also taken away. This problem is not only associated with technical expertise. It is equally applicable when there is a loss of a management “champion”. The loss of the former Secretary General from AMTIESA severely hampered the launch of GOVERNET. The motive force, both in terms of personality, competence and credibility, was no longer there.
Several implications can be drawn from the case and discussion presented above. The implications concern network infrastructure, organisational and personnel issues.
Electronic Network Infrastructure
The is a need for the development of independent, professional electronic network service providing organisations in Africa. Examples of such organisations are already present on the continent. What the author is advocating is typified by an organisation such as SANGONet in Johannesburg, South Africa. The organisation’s sole purpose is information service provision and it works constantly to bring services to its subscribers. Many of the providers now operating in some countries are merely conduits for electronic mail and international discussion lists. The hosts developed in each country must acquire independent capacity to provide the services required by their subscribers. It means then that they must control their own agenda and not be completely dependent on the good graces of some benevolent organisation. They must move from the back rooms to take their own place in the high street.
Some may argue that service providers are operating in the back rooms because of the current restrictive regulatory environments in which they operate. This is where the major international organisations can play a part. They need to use their influence to convince African governments of the essential need to revise current regulations to allow greater flexibility in information service provision. Continued use of prohibitive regulations will be counter- productive to the developmental aims of African countries given the current global technological and economic environment in which they operate. It will also be detrimental in terms of the transfer of available and much needed information necessary for local skill development. Related to this is the need for the improvement of the telecommunications infrastructure in the various countries. This is a long term problem. It needs urgent attention.
Penetration of Electronic Networking in the Organisation
Not every organisation will be able to implement a LAN or other networking configurations. The key technical issue to be addressed is how to get services distributed to people within the organisation. There is a need for the adoption of technical protocols that will make this possible. Those developing communications software must focus more on this issue. Are there new ways of leveraging the benefits of dial-up technology to serve the whole organisation? Possibly there needs to be further development of the very efficient Fido technology to address broader organisational needs. Maybe there are better alternatives available.
The problems with penetration of electronic communication into the organisational fabric is not only technical, however. It is also managerial. For organisations to make effective use of available technology, they must integrate it in the way they carry out their work. Electronic network systems must move out of the director’s offices into the work areas. Just as how faxes are central to most African organisations business and work practices so it might be for computer-based communications. Communicating electronically needs to become part of the way business is done. The onus, however, is not only on the organisations in African countries. It is also on the organisations, such as the major development agencies. which are actively promoting the use of electronic networks. These organisations must themselves integrate electronic networking into their own work practices. Without the two-way flow of information there will be no communication.
The role of key personnel
The loss of key personnel through turnover is a facet of organisational life. To overcome the problems of retaining capability to carry out key organisational functions when individuals leave the organisation, organisational managers must ensure that knowledge is diffused more widely than a single individual. Deliberate steps must be taken to train a number of key staff in the operation of electronic networks. This is especially critical when the key `expert’ is an expatriate worker on short-term contract. The focus of training should not only be on the explicit technical functions. Those passing on knowledge should make every effort to convey the more tacit elements of operating, managing and sustaining the network. The role of a management champion is generally accepted as critical to the success of information technology implementation. The need for a management champion in the implementation of computer-mediated communications in African organisations is even more crucial. With the built-in tendency to resist the new, management must take extra steps to transform the way organisations operate in order to embed the new systems into the organisational culture.
In this paper we have highlighted some of the issues surrounding the narrow diffusion of electronic networking in African countries. There are many other issues that have not been dealt with in any comprehensive way in this paper. Issues relating to information and culture have only been hinted at. The fact that the introduction of computer-mediated communication introduces a new cultural paradigm cannot be totally overlooked. The rationalistic and empirical approach to information taken by many westerners may conflict with the more holistic approach prevalent in African cultures. After all it is not what is said that is important in most settings, it is who has said it.
Our effort has been to try to outline some of the problems associated with electronic network implementation in Africa. We illustrated this with the GOVERNET case. We discovered that successful implementation of electronic network systems in organisations requires a focus on infrastructural, organisational and personnel issues. A simple focus on narrow technical issues will not suffice. To increase the successful adoption of computer- mediated communications, managers must take deliberate steps to integrate it into the normal communication infrastructure and processes of organisations.
Layder, D. (1993) New Strategies in Social Research,
|Previous Menu||Home Page||What's New||Search||Country Specific|