The IT community's global economic challenge

One of the oldest and most-discussed issues in IT management is the relationship between IT and “the business” and the role (or lack of a role) that IT leaders play in the boardroom. For a change last week I had the opportunity to take a much broader perspective on the relationship between IT and the rest of the world.

I was invited to chair a panel debate at the Global Economic Symposium 2010 in Istanbul, an annual gathering for business leaders, government types and academics to come together to discuss some of the global challenges we all face – everything from the state of the world economy to climate change to poverty reduction and education. It made an interesting change from the usual IT trade conferences, where it would be unusual to have the chance to sit in on a discussion about the psychology of terrorism, for example, or to talk about cricket with the deputy governor of the state bank of Bangladesh (now that was surreal…)

But there was one glaring aspect of the event that jumped out for me, and also for some of the other delegates I talked to.

Out of 50 topics up for debate at the event, only two had a technology element – one on improving education through emerging technologies, and the other was the session I chaired on cybercrime and cybersecurity, which is essentially a negative topic looking at solving problems caused by IT, not the opportunities IT creates.

Perhaps four per cent of the sessions for technology is not that bad, but more widely there was a distinct lack of technology input into the various topics, and very few delegates from an IT background.

As those of us who work in and around IT would happily say until we are blue in the face, technology can play a role in tackling many of the biggest global challenges – and most of the smaller ones too.

I listened to the other IT-related debate, the one about emerging technologies in education in developing countries. I asked what I thought was a reasonable question about what role e-book readers could play – imagine the benefit to, say, African school children of having their entire curriculum of text books available in one handheld device, and the cost savings too, compared with printing all those paper books.

To my surprise, the panellists looked at each other, nobody said anything, and they moved on to the next question. I was amazed that none of the diverse group of educationalists, development experts and academics had either considered the use of such technology or even had an opinion.

It was symptomatic of the challenge that everyone in IT clearly faces. It’s not only that we need better relationships and more productive conversations with business peers, we need to have a louder and more influential voice at the very highest levels of global economic and social planning – a voice that seems currently not to exist.

The IT community cannot simply sit at its laptop and moan about the fact that nobody is listening to us. We all need to engage and be engaged more widely with the debates taking place about our economic and social future. It’s the business-IT divide on a global scale.

What if we don’t? Probably a future where IT is seen as a hindrance not an enabler, a problem not an opportunity, where IT experts are seen as blockers not innovators.

As IT and communications bring people together from all over the world, the IT people that make that happen need to be part of the conversation. The time for IT to contribute is now, and the opportunity for IT has rarely been greater.