Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
The Internet as a tool for global linking
I am a citizen, not of Athens or of Greece, but of the world (Socrates, 469BC-399BC; quoted in Plutarch, De Exilo, V).
Two thousand years ago communication across the globe was impossible, not least because people were mutually ignorant of each other's existence; even for Socrates, the world was far smaller than the globe. Nowadays, things are not totally different but they have changed. Nearly all of the globe has been physically explored and people are more aware of each other's presence, if not of their histories, cultures and dreams. Moreover, recent technologies enable words to be transmitted between many of these people relatively cheaply and quickly; in this respect the Internet has been hailed as revolutionary. Today the world is both a bigger place than for Socrates and, in part because of the Internet, a potentially smaller place. However, the Internet offers a potential which cannot necessarily be realised either automatically or naturally, rather it is a tool which must be positioned in an appropriate context and used in particular ways. It also comes with dangers and deficiencies; communication is about more than words and citizens of the world certainly require more than electronics, especially if there is to be mutual understanding, respect and advantage.
Some aspects of these points may be illustrated by the use of e-mail and of Web sites in developing the Institute for Industrial Development Policy (l'Institute), a joint venture recently established by the Universities of Birmingham (UK), Ferrara (Italy) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (USA). The aim of l'Institute is to provide a focal point for the pursuit of research and learning in public policy and industrial development. The objective is to undertake and stimulate appropriate activities by catalysing suitable networks amongst scientists, business-people and policy-makers. To achieve this objective the intention is to maintain a lean administrative and organisational structure, and to enable and involve active participation by interested parties throughout the world. Overall co-ordination of l'Institute's activities is the duty of its director and of its academic co-ordinator. They are based at the University of Birmingham and, although necessarily spending significant periods of time in Ferrara and Milwaukee, constantly need to be in effective communication with the others who are intimately involved in l'Institute's programmes. Moreover, l'Institute is active in countries other than Italy and the USA, until now mostly in Europe, but also substantively in Argentina; good communication across all of these countries is a prerequisite for success.
Between the participants in l'Institute, e-mail has become an essential tool for communication. It is being used more and more, not least because of the effect of a learning process in which its advantages are being revealed. The technology is easy to handle and not hard to master. Messages and notes can be sent across countries and continents almost instantaneously for the price of a few seconds on a local phone call, and so too can large documents. This speed enables replies to be received in minutes, if necessary. When the circumstances are less pressing it is nonetheless efficient to be able to e-mail from Europe to the USA while colleagues across the Atlantic are asleep and to receive the reply at breakfast next morning. By contrast, postage and courier services are slow, cumbersome and far more expensive. The UK to Italy typically takes two days by courier. Faxing is more costly, labour intensive and, for many purposes, less effective in delivering a presentable end-product; e-mailed attachments may be printed from a PC, yet fax machines frequently suffer from communication errors and present copy which, while usually readable, may not be suitable for presentation in important circumstances.
Perhaps most surprisingly, as a result of its being a relatively informal and relaxed medium, there are influential ways in which e-mail changes the nature of communication, not simply the speed and cost. The etiquette of the Internet allows for less formality than is often required in other types of communication, both with the words used and the ways in which they are laid out on the page. This has many implications - to give one seemingly trivial example, invitations to formal meetings can often be sent out comparatively simply and without paying attention to rigid protocol - and while in isolation these implications have a small impact, this is not the case when they are taken as a whole. More interestingly, the reduced formality can be especially useful when working across nations, where lack of familiarity with local norms and customs can sometimes be problematic; the etiquette of e-mails tends to transcend that of nations as diverse as Argentina, the UK, Italy and the USA.
What is especially influential is that, in the right context, e-mails can encourage a relaxed exchange of ideas and opinions. Many young people who have grown-up with the Internet make use of e-mail in their personal relationships; it seems that barriers are broken and inhibitions are lost when they attempt to communicate electronically. Presumably, related factors are in play when colleagues communicate with each other about their work. Issues that would rarely, if ever, be mentioned in a letter to be typed and posted by a secretary may be easily raised in an e-mail, which can have the feel of a personal and immediate exchange where it is acceptable to think aloud and raise suggestions without fear of causing offence. This can have a significant impact on ways of doing business and, within l'Iinstitute, has been a powerful stimulant to increased productivity and efficiency.
Crucial to this use of e-mail to facilitate discussion and to make more informed and better decisions, however, is that it is not seen as a replacement for face-to-face contact. Rather, the two should be seen as complementary. One of the dangers of the accessibility of e-mail is that there is a temptation to see physical contact as entirely unnecessary. In that case e-mail turns from tool to master, with disastrous consequences. It is in the nature of at least most human beings to find that isolation behind an electronic screen undermines their productive efficiency. Moreover, understanding the content of electronically transmitted messages requires, in many circumstances, a "feel" for the person sending those messages. Such understanding comes as a result of knowing about the person from face-to-face contact in various situations. This illustrates how there is a reverse side to the benefits of using e-mail. These dangers and deficiencies need to be taken into account if the full potential of the Internet is to be realised. To illustrate further, the speed of communication can be itself problematic. When an urgent e-mail is sent that necessitates a prompt response, there is a strong temptation to check constantly for the arrival of a reply, thereby diverting attention from other activities; to waste energy in the hope that a response from the USA will reach Europe in the late evening rather than at breakfast next day! More general is the risk of working to the timetable set by e-mails; it is easier to order responses to conventional post on a timetable dictated by the needs of a specific project, whereas with e-mail there is a tendency to handle everything in the order that the mail arrives. E-mail can also cause an unproductive increase in activity; ease of access can encourage it to be used wastefully, perhaps causing people to engage in excessive idle gossip, or perhaps causing them to rely on an e-mail to a colleague as against overcoming problems for themselves. Such dependency is certainly in evidence when l'Institute organises its various activities!
Nevertheless, it is not a foregone conclusion that the users of e-mail will become its slaves; choices can be made and, as in myriad other situations, it is up to the users to learn how to make best use of the tool. A similar conclusion may also be reached concerning another facet of the internet: Web sites. Within l'Institute, development of Web sites has not proceeded very quickly and accordingly its experience is less informative on this issue. It is associated with two sites. One is dedicated to the Ferrara Graduate School, an annual event involving students and lecturers from various countries around the world. This is managed by students who have participated in the school; it is their Web site. The second is for l'Institute's activities in general. It is this site which has taken considerable time to develop. Most recently, however, a spur to progress has come from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, no doubt reflecting the fact that the USA is generally far more advanced than Europe in this regard. Indeed, doing business in the USA requires a suitable Web site as prospective colleagues expect to be able to use it as a first point of call for information, much more so than is typically the case in Europe or South America, in l'Institute's experience. A major advantage of having a good Web site is that it can be a low cost and attractive information point that is easily accessible for many people throughout much of the world. That has certainly proved to be the case for the Ferrara Graduate School site, for example.
L'Institute's general Web site is being developed in various languages, increasing accessibility still further, although this adds to the cost and is one of the reasons why the site has been introduced more slowly than would be ideal. The use of various languages also complicates one of the particular problems of Web sites: ensuring that they are kept up-to-date. The need to translate material adds considerable time to loading it on the site. Again much of this is a learning process, and precisely which material needs translating and which does not is something that is currently under constant review. It should also be recognised that there are additional, more commonly encountered difficulties in using Web sites - such as a temptation to become more concerned with technical wizardry than with the business aims - but, armed with awareness, these are again difficulties that can be overcome.
The advantages and disadvantages of using both e-mail and Web sites apply to a diverse range of organisations. As tools for global linking they not only offer fresh opportunities to the giant, hierarchical corporations that have been operating across national borders for decades, but they can also provide exciting prospects to new, smaller firms seeking to initiate international activities. Similarly, there is potential benefit to a vast array of public bodies, including research and learning organisations such as l'Institute, as well as policy agencies and others. In fact, policy agencies need to be especially aware of the potential of the Internet. In part, this is because of the prospect of being able to carry out their existing activities more successfully. It is also because use of the Internet by other actors in an economy may have an adverse social and economic impact, thus necessitating the design and implementation of new forms of policy; for example, giant corporations may use the Internet to further their search for increased market power, to the detriment of consumers.
The precise ways in which the Internet is best employed varies across different types of organisation and, in particular, needs to take into account the organisation's aims and objectives. In the case of l'Institute, this calls for a particular awareness of the necessity to combine use of e-mail and Web sites with physical contact, knowledge and understanding.
L'Institute's networking objective is targeted at the creation and nurturing of networks which are truly multinational. The intention is to link scientists, business people and policy makers from different countries by respecting, drawing on and combining their different experiences and expertise. This is a form of internationalism requiring far more than isolated interaction. It is an internationalism founded on uniting people in common and mutually beneficial endeavours, an internationalism which at this point in time can and must utilise the Internet, but which cannot succeed using electronics alone. There is no doubt that use of the Internet can help people to forget about national borders. When using e-mail, it is possible to send messages over much of the globe from almost any country; it becomes natural to sit in an office in Argentina and communicate with colleagues in Europe and North America while becoming unaware of the office's geographical whereabouts. This makes the Internet an extremely powerful tool. However, global linking based on mutual understanding, respect and advantage requires that the tool is combined with ongoing, face-to-face contact across countries. Otherwise, people may be citizens of a country, but they will never be citizens of the world.
[The author would like to thank Rob Branston and Marcela Valania for comments on an earlier draft.]
Professor Roger SugdenInstitute for Industrial Development Policy, University of Birmingham, UKE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgL'Institute Web site http://institute.economia.unife.itFerrara Graduate School Web site http:/web.bham.ac.uk/J.R.Branston/