Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Africa and the information technology - some problems

By Kofi Tetteh

In the first article published last week, some benefits which Africa could derive from information technology were discussed. In this article, our London-based freelance consultant in micro-systems highlights some of its trailing clouds of worries.
In the industrial world today one is no longer taken aback by the sudden thrust of the importance of IT (Information Technology) and its paraphernalia, Governments, industries and individuals have all got on the bandwagon extolling the great benefits of computers, text processing and tele-communications. In the event the etching on our minds is IT.

In the first article, published last week, some benefits which Africa could derive from IT were discussed. As with any new technology there are problems. So what are some of the problems with computers and the industry in general? This article tries to highlight some of IT's trailing clouds of worries. Further, the article attempts to caution that while we are still romancing with IT, we should avoid making the same mistakes which others have made in order that after the marriage we shall be left with a happy honeymoon and live happily ever after.

The speed of IT, particularly micro-computers into many areas of work and management has led to a multi- plicity of problems, and one of the critical problems is the dawning of the realisation that there is a shortage of relevant skilled personnel. This shortage is very acute in the field of computing, data processing, communi- cations and control engineers. By this shortage we mean those at the level of higher technicians and graduate professional levels.

Allied to this is the problem of computer literacy. As a result many cases have been compounded. There are:

- Missed opportunities

- Inappropriate allocation of resources

- Small users waste up to half of their investment installing too much capability or choosing the wrong system for their particular applications.

In a survey sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry and conducted by A.T. Kearney in the UK (referred to in an earlier article - Africa and Information Technology), they reported among other things that 20% of the total annual IT expenditure of £4-£5 billion goes down the drain. They also noted that sometimes management and top executives are the problem. Lack of professional managers and become one great barrier to the introduction and utility of IT. No wonder one top administrator in a hospital group was heard to have remarked: "I sometimes wish we could get back to pencil and paper - at least things would slow up." (Effective Information Management; The Beaumont Executive Press, 1982).

In the same publication another managing director worries: "We are spending millions, how do I know whether we are taking the right decisions and using our computers and telecommunications properly? Yet we are totally dependent on them now."

The failing to achieve maximum benefits from IT has been due mainly to an unwillingness or lack of ability to analyse the business needs and identify the potentials. For one to successfully use IT one must investigate, analyse the needs and identify the application areas of the organisation concerned. Only by this can one match system capability to the user needs. Top executives and people with mandates to purchase will buy computers whimsically believing all that vendors and manufacturers say. They are often persuaded that vendors/ manufacturers have the same goals as they do, but such an assumption should never be made. It is very expensive if one makes such an assumption.

Another problem is in negotiating the purchase of a computer, while vendors are highly trained and pre- pared as a team and are motivated to complete the transaction, the buyer/user normally has no personal incentive to optimise the transaction and save his company some money. Even where there is personal incentive it is to the benefit of the buyer and not the company (10% commission?).

Manufacturers' contribution to some of the problems in the industry is one not to be dismissed. Increased competition has been the tendency for some manufacturers to rush and dump the market machines which have been properly tested and adequate proven to be efficient. The executive (or the buyer) in his innocence, with his illiterate mind amateurish skill, buys equipment which fails to stand and deliver.

RAIR's supermicro, which was released in June '84, had tape stream that failed to operate and came without an operating system. Instead of the promised CP/M it had MP/M. Sc Apple computers were also found to have a tendency to overheat when loaded with extra boards. The performance of Olivetti's S6000 led some users to prepare legal claims against Olivetti.

Unions and labour groups can also pose serious problems to the introduction of computers into the workplace. Fear of redundancy, change work and work behaviour, hea hazards and demand for increases salaries have all been thorny issues IT. A case in point is the recent str at DHSS in Newcastle in the UK.

Security also poses a major problem. There is the possibility that in network systems across countries information of high value can be obtained by enemies or competitors the risk is particularly acute for governments and defence. In the case of intrusion data may illegally inserted into the system in such a way as to mislead or influence the action of a recipient. Another problem sabotage. This involves disabling the hardware, also known as the "Time Bomb".

Stories also abound of programme being able to break into a bank computer system to divert monies from the banks into private accounts

talking drums 1985-01-21 what hope for Africa's growing millions