Last week, the Information Society Commission (ISC) published two surveys that caused few ripples in the general media. With Iraq dominating the news agenda, it is not surprising that research by this low-profile organisation should barely rate a mention, but the reports merit closer scrutiny for two reasons.
The first is that in a market where organisations regularly pass off flaky polls as bona fide research, the ISC studies, conducted by the Market Research Bureau of Ireland, are by contrast highly authoritative. One survey, which looked at business attitudes towards the information society, polled over 500 business leaders in companies of all sizes. The other, which focused on the attitudes of the general public, was based on face-to-face interviews with nearly 1,400 adults around the country.
The second reason is the important and sometimes startling things they have to say about people’s attitudes to a whole range of technology issues, from the internet to computer security, from e-working to e-business.
Some of these things, it should be stressed, are quite positive. For example, the business survey finds that despite the downturn, 67pc of businesses had invested in IT systems in the previous 12 months with 72pc of them declaring a satisfactory return on investment. More than 75pc of businesses, moreover, feel that technology will have a positive impact on their competitiveness over the next two years.
The other survey – which polled the general public – finds that more people than ever have internet access and more of them are using it for purchasing goods and services – up to 40pc from 18pc in 2000. To add to this, the survey showed a significant level of demand for online government services, particularly passport and drivers licence applications and renewals and payment of car tax.
However, the report also revealed a deep ‘digital divide’ between socio-economic groups. For example, just 39pc of the unemployed are familiar with PCs as opposed to 71pc of those in work and 94pc of students. Likewise, just 17pc of those not working have used the internet compared with 56pc of the working population and 76pc of students. These figures, conclude the report, show there is “a significant deficit to be addressed among members of different groups in our society”.
Some of the findings of the business survey were just as worrying. Far from embracing internet technologies, many companies – particularly but not exclusively small ones – seem to be going backwards in this regard. For example only 44pc of small businesses now have websites compared with 86pc in corresponding research conducted in 2000.
The level of enthusiasm for e-business has fallen sharply too, with only 7pc of respondents rating it as important compared with 36pc in 2000. More sophisticated uses of the internet such as online selling and business-to-business transactions, have become rarer since the last survey.
Training and knowledge-sharing activities are also in decline according to the report, which finds that the percentage of businesses with an employee IT training programme in place has fallen sharply, from 52pc in 2000 to 41pc in 2002.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of technology training programmes is more common in very small (80pc) and small businesses (63pc), but a third of medium and large businesses too have no such programmes in place. The proportion of businesses stating that computer and IT skills are essential or very important plummeted from 74pc to 56pc. The much-hyped area of e-learning appeals to a majority of large businesses (68pc), but leaves a third of small to medium-sized enterprises either quite or very uninterested.
More generally, the percentage of businesses aware of the term ‘information society’ fell sharply since the previous survey – down to 44pc from 58pc in 2000.
What are we to make of all this? This was put to Dr Danny O’Hare, chairman of the ISC, whose role is to advise the Government on issues relating to the information society. O’Hare was clearly as puzzled by the findings as everyone else, calling them ‘counter-intuitive’.
He said that the ISC planned to share the findings with key stakeholders such as government departments, employers body IBEC and trade unions while expressing the hope that they would be used as the basis for action by some of these bodies to reverse the unfavourable trends. “The message is that there are good things happening but there are also negative ones and these need to be rectified because this issue that we are dealing with is so fundamental to the long-term well being of the economy,” he said.
He added that it was too early for the ISC to draw its conclusions from the report but that this would be done over the coming weeks.
However, even at this early stage, one conclusion seems unavoidable. The fact that there is falling awareness within the business community of terms like ‘information society’ suggests a serious failure of communications on the Government’s part. This role of awareness raising used to fall within the remit of the previous ISC, but it has never been part of the brief of the current ISC since it was established at the end of 2001. Why this was done is unclear but perhaps the Government felt that now the information society bandwagon had started to roll it, it would generate its own momentum and the ISC’s resources would be better focused elsewhere.
In fact what the ISC research strongly suggests is that, without a firm push from Government, this is a bandwagon that could easily grind to a halt.
By Brian Skelly
Pictured: Minister for the Information Society, Mary Hanafin TD, and Dr Danny O’Hare, chairman of the Information Society Commission