|Online Collaboration Berlin - Converging to the Future
David J. Skyrme
This conference, from June 9-10, 1998, was unique in that it brought together for the first time three complementary strands - Teleworking and Collaboration, Electronic Commerce and Electronic Markets, and Knowledge Management. Supporting strands were on telecentres, virtual organizations and the wider context of key issues for Society, Economy and Business.
The opening keynote Work and Trade in a Changing World by Maarten Botterman from the European Commission (DG XIII) described the challenge for Europe as "developing a society that Europeans want, whilst staying in the game in an ever more global economy". He stressed the need for continual updating of skills in order to remain employable and that skill shortage was an important factor in limiting growth in micro-enterprises (companies of less than 10 employees) that had created twice as more new jobs in the period 1993-7 as did large enterprises. He concluded with an outline and status update of the 5th Framework Programme. A key element was that 'new ways of working' and 'electronic commerce' have been brought together as one key action, whose priority topics are:
Other talks in the plenary session set the scene for the parallel sessions. David Skyrme outlined the growing importance of knowledge as a component of corporate strategy; Scott Welch described factors that help create successful electronic communities, using conferencing software; Sharad Gandhi outlined key technological components for building an e-business; Horace Mitchell stressed the need for active participation in online collaboration to gain the necessary skills, exhorting that Europe needs to "move at a faster pace".
Teleworking and Collaboration
Four sessions in this stream provided a useful mix of research results and case studies. The various sessions indicated the growing sophistication of teleworking. Michael Sonntag, for example, described intelligent agents as 'inevitable tools' for teleworkers in that they could help automate their email, personalize World Wide Web resources, seek out information and carry out transactions online. In the organizational dimension, Paul Jackson outline the growing benefits of virtual organizations in closing the 'innovation gap' and spelt out the issues faced by SMEs and others in making them work. In a separate session on virtual organizations, the various speakers showed how the virtual approach could expand markets and opportunities for their participants. Recurring themes were the need for effective coordination, trust and clarity on contractual matters such as intellectual property rights.
Some interesting research carried out by Fasbian Von Scheele and Kjell Ohlsson at the University of Lund, revealed large perceptual differences about work between office based employees and teleworkers in the same firm (Siemens). Siemens also featured in another presentation given by Herwig Stöckl from their Vienna office. From the experience of teleworkers with a new generation of communications technology, a number of critical success factors emerged, including the design of the work environment, and attention to organizational and social factors.
The session on telecentres and remote offices gave practical insights into the setting up and running of several telecentres, including the 'Roma Nexus' centre in Italy, a new project TELWEB - a transnational telecentre network whose hub is in Germany, and an update on the telecentre scene in Sweden. A common theme was that the social dynamics of working in a telecentre as compared to at home were different, and that success factors included up to date networking and computer technology coupled to good information, marketing and training. However, distinct national differences were apparent in the type of telecentres and their focus, whether business services or rural economic development and employment.
E-Commerce and E-markets
Four separate sessions covered a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from connecting legacy systems to the Internet and the logistics chain, from virtual call centres to online banking. The plethora of topics and viewpoints was aptly illustrated by the comments of Armin Lange who said that "there is not a single best suited approach to electronic commerce that can be universally applied as some popular publications might suggest". Commonly cited benefits were reduced timescales e.g. time from order to delivery, information exchange e.g. better customer information, and lower costs e.g. through customer self service. The biggest change was that of the customer relationship. More pro-active approaches actively engage the customer in dialogue and use technology to match their preferences to the products and services available. Jack Mark reminded the audience that whatever the technology used, it must "deliver solutions to ordinary people"; therefore, he added, "low key but functional applications" were preferable to "impressive technical solutions".
A new theme at this conference, as at many others, was provided by two sessions on knowledge management. These were a mix of technological biased presentations and user experiences. One of the technologies that is making its mark is 'push' technology i.e. the provision of information via Internet 'channels', pushed to the user, either as alerts or in background mode while they are working on other things. Another is intelligent agents, already mentioned in the teleworking context, but for the knowledge worker they discern concepts rather than using simple keyword searches.
The case studies were of organizations who had adopted a structured approach to knowledge management, in one case through mapping key areas in a way that easily lent itself to multilingual use, and another through use of knowledge related performance indicators for a virtual company. Even more so than the electronic commerce theme, this topic seems so new that coherent themes have yet to emerge, with each talk representing a quite distinctive aspect of knowledge management.
Closing Plenary and Review
Just as the audience thought that things were progressing well in Europe, along came Dr Andrew Crilly of the Open Enterprise, Singapore to deliver the closing address Asia: Millions Click into Gear. Using multimedia and video coverage he portrayed vividly how two contrasting Far Eastern countries were determined not to be left behind in the race towards the Information Society.
The case of Singapore is, perhaps, well known, but every time you hear more, it seems that progress continues unabated. Singapore ONE, "the network for everybody", started in June 1997 with 50 broad band services in a trial with 400 users. One year later there were 123 services and 10,000 users, a number that should increase 10-fold by year end. The services include shopping, entertainment, public services, information and learning. You can even look after virtual pets online! Singapore seems well on its way to achieve its aim of being the first totally wired nation on earth.
In contrast, Bangladesh, with less than one phone per 100 inhabitants, has been inspired by the activities of Dr Mahamad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and now branching out into the online world. The bank's micro-loans help village communities fund development in marketing their traditional crafts such as weaving. Modern telecommunications help connect them with the outside world. Even though there is often only one cellphone in a village, and the Internet is coming, the connections are being made and the population wants to be part of the global information society. It is this human element, as Yunus says that is the key: "the opportunity is created by human ingenuity, and that's the excitement of living".
Crilley gave four reasons why Asia could leapfrog Europe in what he calls the next wave: "heralding the Information Society and a new age of reason, one that will be based on knowledge that grows from information":
This was a stimulating final paper to an interesting conference. In his concluding remarks, conference chairman Dick Davies noted that discussion of many of the topics at the conference had moved "beyond the technology", and related to the skills, organizational, social and policy context. He welcomed the new streams and looked forward to greater interaction between the various strands and even more case studies at the next conference.
Note: A version of this conference report will appear in ETHOS/ETD News, September 1998. ETHOS is an information dissemination service of the European Telematics Applications Programme http://www.tagish.co.uk/ethos/. ETD (European Telework Development) is a programme to stimulate the uptake of telework: http://www.eto.org.uk/etd/
The conference was supported by the European Commission, Directorates DGIII (Industry) and DGXIII (Telecommunications, Information Market and Exploitation of Results.
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