Entries in technology (12)


Culture and the digital workplace

There is a great deal of activity focused on the growing digital environment -- businesses, strategy consultants, technology experts and academics are exploring how to function effectively in this rapidly-evolving landscape. Yet unless your business is a startup, these new strategies, operational processes and technical solutions must be implemented within an established business, meaning that the culture of your organization is an important factor to consider.

Shimrit Janes from the Digital Work Group wrote an informative piece last year that quite succinctly describes the relationship between culture and the digital workplace. In particular, she notes that the success or failure of new collaboration tools and other digital initiatives can vary from one company to the next due to the alignment (or lack thereof) between the new ways of working and the existing culture.

Through the research carried out so far, a truism has emerged: an effective digital workplace is one that mirrors the culture of an organization.”

Interestingly, this end result can be reached via two distinct paths. The first is by taking an approach to the digital workplace that aligns with existing culture, though there are cases where this is just not possible. So, a second viable approach is the counterintuitive one of building a digital culture at odds with the existing culture in order to precipitate a "values crisis" that leads to positive cultural change.

In both cases, the author recommends taking the time to understand your existing culture(s) before embarking on new journeys. With this understanding of existing values and practices, the right digital "interventions" can be planned and executed.

-- Bojan Angelov

Shimrit Janes

The race to connect the next billion, and the business models to get there

Google and Facebook both have a mission – to “connect the next billion,” as Google puts it. This Financial Times article, “Facebook, Google and the race to sign up India,” explores the tech giants’ initiatives that are “bringing internet access to India’s masses as a way of alleviating poverty, improving education and creating jobs.”

Google, in partnership with NGO Tata Trusts, is sending thousands of tech-connected bikes to women in rural Indian villages. (In these regions, women are much less connected than men.) The bikes, loaded with two Android smartphones and two tablets, educate women about using the internet, and these women can then pass their knowledge on to other villages. Google also aims to launch its pilot technology, “Project Loon” later this year, sending balloons into the sky that will provide internet connectivity to remote areas. Additionally, the company, through a partnership with India’s railway ministry, is in the process of rolling out high-speed wifi to a hundred train stations this year.

Facebook, on the other hand, has been heavily focused on its “Free Basics” program. This program, an app that is part of the social network’s initiative, offers users of partner telecoms networks free access to Facebook and a number of other well-known sites (Wikipedia, BBC News, Accuweather, etc.) Since it’s 2004 launch, 38 countries have come on board.

Both companies’ goals are echoing those of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes an aim of universal internet access. What’s notable is that these tech giants aren’t using funds they’ve set aside for corporate social responsibility, rather they’re driving these initiatives with money from their core budgets. This speaks to their belief that connecting the unconnected is more than just a charity effort, rather that there is “solid business logic of investing in connectivity in India and other developing markets,” according to the Financial Times article, and a benefit for both companies to gain a first movers advantage in these regions.

Despite their grandeur and reputation, these companies still face challenges developing business models that incorporate their social impact efforts. Recently, Facebook’s Free Basics app was blocked by India’s telecom regulators, after they ruled that “differential pricing” by internet companies infringes on the principles of net neutrality. While the ban wasn’t targeted specifically at Facebook, it has created a major roadblock for the company. However, the tech giant isn’t ready to wave the white flag allowing Google to take the lead in this race to connectivity just yet, saying it plans to pursue other connectivity projects in the region.

-- Clara Shen


Gates on communication, technology and the future of smallholder farming

Bill Gates is best known for his role in founding Microsoft, but his interests -- and the interests of the Gates Foundation -- include the search for ways to improve the lives of poor, smallholder farmers in Africa. He blogged this month about ways in which he sees technology enabling a better future for agriculture on that continent.

Noting that the rapid spread of mobile technology is revolutionizing financial services for those with smaller incomes, Gates suggests that the same infrastructure can change the face of farming as well.

The key issue is the farmers' lack of ability to communicate with the broader agricultural markets. Without this stream of information, farmers can’t grow crops based on the market’s requirements because they don’t know the specifications.

Further, without a more direct and rapid channel of communication, farmers have no way to learn the agricultural practices that could allow them to vastly improve yields. Instead, they grow mostly what they can eat or trade locally, the way they’ve always grown it.

Gates is hopeful that, with time and effort, mobile technology can bridge the communication gap and transform the African agricultural landscape.

When information can flow easily, when data is democratized, the cost of doing business in agriculture goes way down, just as transaction costs go way down when financial transactions are digital."

I encourage you to read the blog, and check out the associated video.

-- Yan Toh




Looking at smallholder farmers and sustainable productivity

Modern agricultural practices and new technologies in many cases have yet to reach small and very small farmers for various reasons, according to a recent Next Billion blog post. Among other issues, these smallholder farmers are faced with a lack of cash, unpredictable personal circumstances or a lack of safety net, should a harvest fail. There are certain companies and organizations that are making efforts to increase the livelihood of these smallholder farmers, by sourcing produce from them or selling products to them.

A recent study by consulting firm Hystra, “Smallholder Farmers and Business: 15 Pioneering Collaborations for Improved Productivity and Sustainability,” compares the performance of 15 companies and organizations worldwide who are pioneering this movement. Key findings from the report include:

  • Farmers can increase their net yearly incomes by 80% to 140% when they have access to productivity-enhancing technologies, including improved seeds, micro-irrigation systems or improved cow breeds. Notably, other interventions, which focused solely on “fixing” dysfunctional markets and redistributing value in the supply chain, only resulted in a 20% to 60% increase in income for farmers;
  • Smallholder farmers, commonly thought to be risk averse to new practices and technologies, in reality, aren’t. What is important to them is being able to reverse their decision, should they change their mind;
  • Early adopters of such development programs are found within the “enlightened” middle – farmers resilient enough to invest in new advancements, but not prosperous enough to be satisfied with the status quo;
  • Offering a wide range of benefits, becoming essential to farmers’ success allows the organization to become irreplaceable, creating a cycle whereby year after year organizations and farmers alike continue to invest in each other; and
  • The decision to work directly with farmers, rather than through an intermediary, can lead to greater success. While not always the case, some intermediaries can lack control and poor proximity.

Youth, technology, and the future of farming

In a recent article at ICTworks, graduate student Cassiane Cladis asks if information and communication technology (ICT) can generate enthusiasm among youth to be farmers. As Cladis notes, this is a particularly significant question for anyone interested in chocolate because there are fewer cocoa farmers today than there were a decade ago as older farmers are not being replaced by a younger generation.

Technological solutions are being deployed to support farmers in Africa, Asia and South America right now. These initiatives are designed to promote best practices, provide more timely and accurate weather, environmental data, and market information.

Cladis seems most interested in what else ICTs can do, and if they can entice a new generation by educating, connecting and building a community of young farmers who "work smarter and who work together." It's an interesting read, and we hope it encourages you to add your own thoughts on the subject.

Image source: Mars Sustainable Cocoa Initiative

-- Clara Shen