The EDGE – Who are we here to serve?

October 12, 2010 11:23 am 0 comments

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My say: Who are we here to serve?
Written by Mohd Sidek Hassan 

When the agricultural and industrial revolutions took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, cities in Europe had grown organically from the days of the Roman empire. There was no overt planning in the development of the cities as we have now. Cities grew around the concentration of power. With the emergence of the Silk Route in the East as well as the Industrial Revolution in the West, there was induced migration of people for trade and better living conditions from the rural to urban areas and also across the borders. Cities emerged as a consequence of trade and migration. But the city of London would be different from Paris and Rome from Berlin, for instance, in terms of culture, lifestyle and facilities. Culture and traditions of the rule of power dictated their ambience and lifestyles were distinctly variable.

Fast forward to today and cut across any urban city, whether New York, London, Okinawa or Kuala Lumpur, and you look for air-conditioning on a hot day and heater on a cold day, an international airport, of course, and safe roads and access to reliable public transport. Irrespective of lifestyle and culture, we expect the same facilities, amenities, and utilities and are served the same in any city today.

As a citizen of the 21st century, I expect the same service level at a global bank in New York City as at its branch in Hanoi because it is the same bank. This is no different when it comes to the hallmark McDonald’s service we expect anywhere in the world. I expect the quality of service in a bank in Hanoi to be the same as that in New York or Singapore. I would naturally expect the same level of service when I do business with these governments. Herein lies the heartbreak. Service levels may, and in most instances will, differ across the cities even if the facilities are comparable. Why? Because service is ultimately provided by humans and only assisted by technology and progress.

When the Internet was created in the 1960s, it was done to allow universities and research facilities to communicate and share data. Email, news groups and file transfers were its primary uses. In 1989, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist, created the World Wide Web to enable information to be shared among internationally dispersed teams of researchers at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva, Switzerland. What started out as a tool for specific use and purpose has today become the medium without which most of us would feel lost.

Innovation and ICT and innovation in ICT are untenable in the lives of the general public if they do not deliver meaningful service. This argument is now incontrovertible judging from the many examples of failures we experience through technologies that do not serve a purpose. The latest wizard creation on its own may be all we would want in our collection. But would that serve its purpose to the man who may have travelled 100km to enrol his son in a university? Would easy access to that service have saved him that journey? But can that moment and joy of seeing your son make it to university be replaced by ICT and its innovations?

As practitioners of our respective fields, the challenge is not in choosing what is avant garde or in vogue. The real challenge is in knowing which service has become so cumbersome that it needs to be made simpler by a tool like technology yet which can never replace that “in the moment” human feeling which needs preserving, no matter what the technology or innovation.

In 1992, the artist Thomas Bayrle wrote that one of the greatest mistakes of modernisation, digitisation and innovation was that we confuse memory with storage space. Memory relates to human experience. It relates to human moments. It refers to our mortal emotions and feelings. Storage digitises those moments into some filing system. Bayrle gave an example of a moment during a New Year’s Eve celebration. This moment is today twittered, then uploaded in a Flickr account and stored in our Facebook. But the emotions of those moments are not carried beyond the storage memory of our digitisation. Every emotion and memory is filed, not necessarily reminisced about, today.

As technology graduates to the next more powerful and speedier sphere, service providers like us must evaluate the full outcome, purpose and need for these enablers. Have we the ability and resources to expand with the changing demographic needs? Or will our technology remain static as society matures in its demands? When Google was created in 1995, it was to be a simple search engine. With the emergence of other competing search tools, social media and YouTube, that function and vision needed to change.

In time, if I am googling weather updates in Malta for, say, a week’s business travel, essentially what I am asking the search engine is not what the weather is like but what clothing I need to pack. We moved from information to purpose of information. Some would term this change synthetic to semantic. It is time that we in the public and private sectors view and review technology as a tool to enhance society’s standard of living, not least a more conversant one.

In effect, my daughter could be walking down the streets of Surat in India, where she may never have travelled but her mobile phone could automatically update her on the history of the city, significance of a street she may be walking through and which areas to avoid for her safety. Or as CEO of Google Eric Schmidt said, it will not be long before you can send a text message to a friend who doesn’t speak your language and this message is automatically translated to his language. The ideals of a common lingua franca may no longer be needed in the world of technology communication. You could have associates and friends who may not speak any common language to you and be able to do business with them online.

But with pace and speed come setbacks that need to be managed carefully. With the speed of growth in ICT and now to such terms as cloud computing and social media culture, we are faced with increasing cyber attacks and security concerns. The New York Times reported recently that we no longer need to deploy the military with tanks, missiles, battleships and armour for wars now. Today, this is done simply by sending a virus to disrupt the entire running of a country.

Its government would be in disarray, its economy disrupted and society affected — all through cyberspace. Can there truly be a balance between the integrity of privacy and rapid access to technology? Or has technology redefined the entire meaning of the word “privacy”? Can speed, progress and access only come at the price of security and privacy? These are some fundamental questions that businesses and governments need to start asking as we invest more and more in digitising services, improve access to information and broaden the connectivity of societies and communities.

Technology has been a key factor in improving the public sector in Malaysia. You would have experienced this at the Road Transport Department, immigration offices, Inland Revenue Board and registrar of businesses and in doing business with the local councils, land offices and police force. But I dare say we still have a lot more work to do in optimising our use of technology for optimal service delivery both in the public and private sectors.

We may have in some instances “over-teched” ourselves yet in others, we struggle with dire unnecessary bureaucracy. And so I put it to us again: Who are we here to serve? What do our customers expect? What needs to be made simple, and how? And what needs to be kept and preserved, if any? Where is the human dimension in all of this?

As we deliver new technologies and enjoy remarkable innovation, we must stop to evaluate their impact. How does one measure the returns on innovation, the impact of technology? In the service industry, this does not just hinge on the bottom line. Customer satisfaction is important as well. Profit margins are not a fair measure of innovation if an industry is in an oligarchy or a monopolistic business environment or one where the competition in the market may not be comparable to first-class standards.

Information and technology, once seen as the preserve of a select few, are now deemed necessary in all societies. Some analysts have gone as far as to include IT literacy and access to communications as one of the criteria to define the literacy rate of communities. It is no longer sufficient to read, write and spell in a world that is now leashed to mobile devices. Consequently, ICT is one of the National Key Economic Areas in the 10th Malaysia Plan. It is a vital tool to move Malaysia into developed nation status by 2020.

Having said that, ICT alone will not deliver development. It has to be fundamentally founded on human knowledge of what service is all about and how best ICT can be used to enhance our levels of service to those of a developed nation. Small and medium enterprises with MSC Malaysia-status contributed 28% to revenue generated in the Multimedia Super Corridor in 2009. In addition, intellectual property registered by MSC companies rose by 28% in 2009 to 1,752 compared to 1,369 in 2008.

In his poem The Rock, T S Elliot wrote: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

In our quest for progress, we need to be mindful that we do not displace the essence of knowledge and wisdom or replace the human dimension with service delivery. Excellence in any service ultimately lies in delivering to all doors those ordinary days with extraordinary levels of service delivery. And I hope we all collectively will not fail our stakeholders.

Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan is the chief secretary to the government. This article is excerpted from the speech he gave at the National ICT Conference in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 12.

This article appeared in Forum page of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 830, Nov 1-7, 2010

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