Improvising the decision making tool

SHABBIR H. KAZMI, Special Correspondent
Sep 10 - 16, 2007

Pakistan is benefiting from the global Information Technology (IT) boom. However, the country has not exploited its real potential because of the misplaced priorities. The government as well as corporate sector had planned to make their offices paperless but continue to use tons of paper. Storing, updating, retrieving or transmitting data are the tools of paperless environment but often the infrastructure need for these is either missing or inadequate. This is because most of the people responsible for policymaking are not IT savvy.

Discussion is often on a topic like, Is IT a tool or an end product? Ironically most of the people believe that IT is the end product. However, it is a tool because people use microprocessor based equipment in their homes and at their offices to do their jobs in a better manner. The efficient use of any chip-based equipment is dependent on how thoroughly an individual is familiar with the hardware and software.

The simplest example is a cellular phone. The models available in the market offer uncountable options but most of the people do not go beyond receiving/making calls. They even do not use it for receiving/sending brief e-mails or alerts. The reason is poor literacy, which does not allow the users to use this basic and the simplest tool.

There has been loud talk about increasing number of computers and Internet users, running into millions but the growth hardly indicates the number of quality users. The favorite pass time is sending junk mails, downloading songs and movies and chatting. This is not only wastage of time but also waste of national resources.

In order to make people IT savvy the first step is to make computers affordable for the users. At the best Pakistan assembles a very small percentage of hardware. There is a need to impose Import duty on the CBUs to facilitate assembly of computers in Pakistan. However, this would discourage import of used computers. It is a crucial decision which has to be made keeping in view the national objective of improving computer literacy rate to be achieved in the country.

Government has announced IT policy which suffers from anomalies. Policy allowed import of used computers, which opened floodgate and market was flooded with all sorts of computers. The policy planners ignored a fact that computer technology goes obsolete at a much faster rate. For example newer models of microprocessors have been introduced with such quick succession that the units have gone obsolete within couple of years.

One may say that obsolescence means a little for a country like Pakistan where computer literacy is still very low. However, it means a lot for the software companies, preparing programs for the developed markets. In fact they have to base their programs on the hardware to be launched over the next couple of years.

Once state of art hardware is available then there have to be people capable of using it. This means that appropriate curriculum has to be followed by the educational institutions. However, mushroom growth of institution imparting education in software development and hardware technology fail in producing IT savvy graduates.

One of the issues is outdated knowledge of the trainers. Some of the instructors have spent a lot of time on punch card system or mainframes, which are very different from personal computers. Similarly, most of the schools are using computers based on P-I microprocessor of Intel.

Realizing the gravity of the situation Intel has started training of the trainers program. This strategy is based on orientation of the children with the newer technologies as these are launched. To support this Intel has been launching its new products in Pakistan at the same time these are introduced in the most developed markets. It has been implementing its programs with the help of federal and provincial governments.

One of the groups of experts believes that unless attempts are made to boost software export, the local IT scenario could not be changes. Whereas the other group believes that software export cannot be increased without boosting computer literacy and preparing computer savvy people. Both the groups present argument in the support of their respective point of view.

It is believed that one could be taught to use a computer. However, its efficient utilization is dependent on the skills of the users, which cannot be attained without going through formal schooling. Ironically, most of the available software packages are in English and less than one percent of total population can comprehend the instruction manuals.

As against this globally known software marketing companies have prepared software packages in about a dozen regional languages of India. As against this, only a couple of software are available in Urdu.

The glaring example is that Urdu software has helped tremendously in publishing of newspapers and books etc. Not only that the cost has reduced but it also consumes less time. The added advantage is superior quality.

As regards IT education, it can be divided into three key areas, hardware, software and operation. Hardware includes establishment of local area networks and their maintenance. The expertise can also be used in computer assembly, which requires lower level of skill.

Not much work is done in software development. The key area, system analysis faces acute shortage of computer literate as well as relevant skills. For example an analyst cannot develop good accounting package unless he/she has basic education of accounting and auditing requirements.

On top of this, while outsourcing their business, foreign companies often divides the programs into different modules and the only available opportunity is data entry. One of the reasons India's software export runs into billions of dollars is that largest amount pertains to data entry.

This has also opened another door for the establishment of call centres. Pakistan enjoys an edge over India. Pakistani agents usually do not suffer from ethnic accent while it is a common problem in India.