Two Important Issues on Information Technology
Hiroshi OKUDA (Chairman, Japan Federation of Employers' Associations (Nikkeiren) /
Chairman, Toyota Motor Corporation)
Information technology was a subject of debate at a seminar for senior corporate executives that the Japan Federation of Employers' Associations (Nikkeiren) hosted last year. Two important issues arose at the seminar. One was the question of whether information technology is a tool for people to use or an irresistible social force to which we are subservient. The other issue was the problem of the digital divide--the social gulf between people who can assimilate the new technology and their fellow citizens who cannot.
I sense that the debates over information technology have become somewhat less heated this year. But the technology remains a tremendously important factor in our economic and social future. So I want to examine the above two issues in this space.
Tool or Social Revolution?
In my keynote address to the seminar I expressed great hopes for information technology. I emphasized that information technology will blaze new frontiers. I noted that it is a valuable tool for raising productivity and for raising standards of living.
A professor who was participating in the seminar took issue with my characterization. He insisted that information technology is not a tool but rather a self-sustaining social revolution in and of itself. His rebuttal set us off on a debate about the true character of information technology. In suggesting that information technology will blaze new frontiers I was referring to the new technologies, the new products, the new services that it will spawn. I was trying to call attention to its potential for improving the quality of life, for stimulating new industrial growth, for generating employment. In calling information technology a valuable tool for raising productivity I was speaking literally. I was referring to the gains in efficiency that will result from sharing information widely, from conveying and processing information rapidly, and from streamlining logistics through electronic commerce. The question of whether information technology is a tool or a social revolution is more than a question of degree. It's a question of how people deal with the change wrought by the new technology.
In rebutting my remarks at the seminar, the professor asserted that information technology is a social juggernaut. He suggested that the best course for people in general and for corporate executives especially is to give ourselves over to the new technology. The professor's theory, if correct, would seem to negate the potential for manipulating information technology at will. However, we executives at the seminar countered that information technology is not a force for us and our companies to serve but a tool for us to use, to steer, to control. People, we argued, remain in charge as they use information technology to help manage companies and to help accomplish necessary change in the economic and social landscape. Our success in staying atop technological change is a measure of our competence as managers. And the concerns of the executives at the seminar went far beyond information technology as a convenience in raising efficiency. We were more interested in envisioning the new frontier that information technology will render possible. People will remain in charge of technology as long as we keep focused on the future we want to build.
Digital Haves and Have-Nots
Information technology, like epochal technologies of the past, is occasioning a gulf between people who can assimilate the new technology and those who cannot. Only by overcoming the gaping digital divide in society can we fulfill the rich promise of information technology. We need to begin by ensuring universal access to the new technology. That includes, for example, creating and distributing affordable computers and providing them with Internet access. Members of the public and private sectors all have a role to play, and we all need to move quickly.
Next, we need to provide everyone with a basic familiarity with information technology. That familiarity will rise as we put in place an infrastructure for universal access. But we need to promote it by including the basic principles and techniques of information technology in the curricula of compulsory education. We also need to find ways to make the tools of information technology easier to use.
Giving people the opportunity to develop information technology skills in harmony with their individual needs and orientation also is important. Mastering a comprehensive range of skills in the new technology demands a great deal of inherent ability and personal suitability. Expecting the entire populace to accomplish that mastery is unrealistic. Rather, we should help individuals master the skills appropriate to their circumstances.
On-the-job training will be especially valuable in cultivating vocational skills in information technology. Concrete needs in the workplace furnish convincing motivation to master the new skills.
To be sure, the efficiencies of information technology already are making a lot of employees redundant. Measures for dealing with that problem were a subject of discussion at the Nikkeiren seminar. The executives concluded that the best course is to keep people on the payroll and provide in-house training to equip them for new jobs. That conclusion reflects an awareness of executives' responsibility to their employees and companies' responsibility to society. But even more, it reflects a recognition of the importance of adapting skills-development programs efficiently to individual circumstances.
A lot of people in business belittle the notion of keeping redundant employees on the payroll. They suggest that a more socially beneficial approach would be to nurture responsive labor markets and encourage individuals to take responsibility for acquiring new skills. However, only a limited number of superior individuals have the vision to anticipate future needs for skills accurately and to master those skills independently. Those people will end up on the right side of the digital divide without any help. Our concern should be with the majority of people who need a helping hand in coping with the new technology. Those people need a place on the payroll. They need guidance in identifying necessary skills and educational assistance in acquiring those skills. Providing that support is the proper role of corporations.