If we are to be a truly wired workforce and Net-connected nation, HR
departments must push for Internet access for all – from the post room to the
boardroom, says the Industrial Society’s James Crabtree

Preventing a digital divide at work

Just as the rest of the world falls out of love with technology, the
future-focused British Government launches a series of expensive commercials
extolling the virtues of digital Britain. Wouldn’t it be great, the disembodied
rotating heads featured in the ads ask, if we were the first country in the
world where everyone used the Internet? A wonderful thought, but interesting
for what it conceals – the current drive for universal Internet access ignores
the importance of giving technology to more people at work.

Famously, 80 per cent of the world’s population has never used a phone. Hard
to believe though it may be for Britain’s office e-mail junkies, a similar
proportion of their fellow workers have never sent an e-mail. Indeed, it is
exceptionally difficult to get any accurate figures on the spread of technology
in the British workplace precisely because people don’t seem to view it as
important. What is certain is many more people now access the Internet at home
than at work.

The self-absorbed cult of the wired worker – modelled on heavy Internet
users and propagated by like-minded souls in the media – generally omits to
mention that the vast majority of UK employees make no meaningful use of new
technology at all.

Misguided perceptions

Why does it matter? Because if the digital divide exists at all, it will
manifest itself most obviously at work. The lingering perception remains that
the Internet and networked technology are inappropriate for large sections of
the labour market. This view is misguided for two reasons.

First, employers must realise that universal access at work is the only way
to achieve the promised cost-savings and efficiency gains of the new economy.
As traditional organisations become what sociology guru Manuel Castells
christens the "networked enterprises", all processes will need to
migrate online. All HR functions, from pay slips to maternity advice, will need
to be provided on some sort of corporate intranet. Yet, such processes only
make companies more streamlined and efficient when everyone uses them. Spending
millions on amazing new systems can be worse than useless without universal
access, creating instead two-speed organisations with expensive twin-track
processes. The brave new world of work will be braver and better when everyone
shares in the efficiency gains that networked technology can provide.

Second, the Government should realise that its dream of UKOnline is heavily
based on persuading employers to make their workforces familiar with
technology. The real digital divide is between those 20 per cent who use new
technology intensively as part of their everyday working life, and the 80 per
cent who use it only at home. Ultimately it is at work where intensive and
rigorous use of new programs and applications, accompanied by training, will
continue to keep the average technophobe ahead of the game.

HR must take on the battle and win

What needs to be done? Those worrying about the digital divide should look
again at the importance of pushing for access in the workplace. And HR
professionals must win the battle of providing technology for all, from post
room staff to board members. Ultimately, the future networked enterprise will
be built upon a technologically comfortable, familiar and literate workforce,
and new strategies must be implemented to make this happen. Finally, the
Government should reconsider its slavish rhetoric of home Internet access for
the citizen, and instead think about work access for the employee.

All involved need to grasp that networking is not working, and will not
deliver until more people have access. More importantly, this realisation must
happen before the digital divide, soon to be conquered in the home, migrates to
the office.

James Crabtree runs the iSociety research project at the Industrial
Society (www.indsoc.co.uk/iSociety).

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