Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Africa and Information Technology - Some Solutions

By Kofi Tetteh

In concluding the three-part article on the need for Africa to take up 'informatics' or information technology in the development of the Continent, the writer, a London-based freelance consultant in Micro-systems provides some solutions that may arise out of the adoption of the new technology
Information Technology is not an end in itself. The basic objective of computerisation must be to help us work better, more effectively improve efficiency, enable new and useful productive tasks to be undertaken and finally create a wealthier society. Computers are tools and they must be used. In order therefore to succeed with computerisation and reap the benefits thereof, certain approaches must be pursued.

First and foremost is a CULTURAL CHANGE which is necessary and must be present. For IT to be successfully introduced and used society and industry must have a culture that is highly adaptive to technical innovations. Influences that make impact and bring about the acceleration of the thrust of this change are to be pressed.

It is incumbent upon governments, leaders and professional managers to bring about this change. In the UK though IT had started to appear on the scene, 1982 was set aside as Information Technology Year. A massive campaign was mounted to increase public awareness, knowledge and whet the appetite for IT. By the end of the year 62% of the population were aware of IT as opposed to 17% at the end of 1981. According to IDC (Inter- national Data Corporation) West European Expenditure in 1980 on IT was 1.4% of European GNP - i.e. $48 billion. By 1986, they forecast this sum is expected to grow by 20% per annum.

India's new elected Government has taken the plunge to announce a priority government policy on IT. The policy envisages liberal imports of technology, raw materials, peripherals, design and software at low customs duties. The policy outlines a special role for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and assures all possible assistance for technology and imports of raw materials.

The impact and influence of manufacturers, dealers, OEM's is valuable. By mounting national and international exhibitions they attract attention, increase awareness and literacy and finally meet market needs. One such exhibition was the recent COMPEC '84 EXHIBITION at Olympia, Earl's Court, London.

One of the critical problems in the industry is skill shortage. Again government's role is called for. In the UK, Japan and the US private companies in conjunction with academic institutions are providing the skills which are in the main alleviating some of the problems in the trade. Further, certain possible solutions on lines like Universities and Polytechnics providing short or sandwich courses on a variety of IT subjects would be welcomed. In the UK two Information Technology universities are in progress - Cranfield Institute of Technology and Salford University. An effective rapport is to be established between experts in industry and commerce and the higher centres of education. All these packages will create the necessary culture and change which IT needs.

Like it or not, informatics or information technology is here with us. To succeed we must change and create the society, industry and a continent which is receptive to the new technology industry

In industry, government education, top management and package executives have a cardinal responsibility of seeing to the successful introduction, installation and implementation of a computer system. They have to clearly define terms and references for such a project. The organisation or the business must be thoroughly surveyed, investigated, analysed and the needs clearly identified. It is only when this has been successfully carried out can systems capacities and capabilities out there in the market be sought to match the users needs.

For example, in one of our cases, the client, an electrical wholesaler wanted a system which will provide among other things LINE PROFITABLE and have an instant display on his VDU substitute for items whenever an item is called up and it is out of stock. This need for identification is vital. Failure to do this will lead to purchasing a system to be locked in the cupboard. It is staggering the number of potential users who do not have a clue why they want a microsystem.

A potential client, an off-licence retailer and wholesaler, recently said he wanted a system because everybody was computerising. This kind of NEED, if it is a need at all, is dangerous. The fact that everybody was going 'informatics' (the current nomenclature for IT) does not necessarily mean he should also follow.

Having done the investigation and analysis and identified your needs, you then write your critical system requirements and system specification. A clearly stated needs of the application areas are to be spelt out. Detail all statistics, volume, frequency of any function and if possible the design of format of the form/hard copies of output. It is also advisable to write your organisations/company's profile.

On the assumption that this system installation and implementation is to and be a do-it-yourself, then your proposal -company profile, terms of reference, system requirement and system specification be submitted to a systemhouse/turnkey - would have to systems or manufacturers for tenders. In addition one can attach a questionnaire seeking specific replies. For example, what is the speed of a processor, capability, what is the access time of what is the expansion input/output (I/O) ports, training facilities, warranties, references, and maintenance contracts for both software and hardware?

By all means these questions are not exhaustive. More could be added to about twenty. On receipt of tenders and proposals such a technique can be used as an evaluation criteria, to decide which proposal to go for. A team of top management undertakes this evaluation function. The criteria is categorised into three broad areas.

The first and the most important is the software. Secondly you consider the support and finally the hardware.

Under software you might want to consider among other things the operating system (the resource management of the whole computer system), storage and back-up and the application programmes whether bespoke or tailored. For support consider the general support facilities like training, maintenance contracts. Evaluation of hardware takes into account features like processors whether 8 bit, 16 bit or 32 bit; processor speed whether 4 MHZ or 5MHz; memory size, expansion terminal parts, and printers.

In this comparative system analysis points or marks out of 1-10 are awarded to these features or qualities depending on their strengths and weaknesses. In doing this the system or proposal which comes out tops will be the one to go for. One must be warned strongly against purchasing an over- capacity system. Though a multi-task multi-processor operating system is ideally good, if one's business does not do multi-tasking and multi-processing it makes sense to settle for a single-task single process operating system. Similarly if one's requirement is not for very fast processors, then the rationale is to opt for a 4MHz processor.

Having agreed on a system follow up the references given by the system- house, manufacturer or the turnkey system and see how systems similar to the one you intend installing are operating in other organisations.

Another criteria taken into consideration is cost. Cost benefit analysis can be undertaken. Like any project investment Net present Value technique can also help decide on a system. Having decided and purchased system, top management commitment to computerisation must be seen to be unflinching. In many cases they have been known to be the causes of failure in informatics. They need to be aware and literate in order to make computerisation a success. In the words of Sir George Jefferson, Chairman of British Telecom, "the professional man will need a system he can use and understand and ones which represent a sound use of financial investment."

Put in another Sainsbury, Finance Director of way, David Sainsbury Ltd said "Top management must therefore be convinced that innovation is essential to the survival and prosperity of their business and they must also make certain that everyone in the organisation is aware of the conviction. Secondly, top management must be prepared to invest the necessary resources and where necessary take a long term view."

Management involvement and commitment to IT spells success. Proper allocation of resources will be achieved. The professional manager will be in a position to exploit opportunities. The information necessary for taking the right decision will be readily available. Not only will they be accurate but also precise and easily accessible with the computers.

We must also guard against data corruption and computer fraud. The use of passwords is gaining currency. Only authorised staff can get access to certain files and records. Encryption is also receiving much attention. It has become necessary to encode highly proprietary or personal data so that even if the data is compromised, it is of no use to anyone other than the intended receivers (or possessors of the decryption keys).

The need for informatics on the continent has created a yawning gap which an organisation like ECOWAS can fill. In Europe we find the EEC funding a project which transcend national barriers. The program is on training in software engineering and the Joint contractors on the project are Ferranti (Italy) Imperial College (UK) and IABG (Germany). There are other projects which also transcend national boundaries like the JET project, the Concorde and the AIRBUS. Therefore if member countries in ECOWAS can undertake an informatics projects, it will be one of the lasting solutions to some of the problems in the industry in Africa.

Let me reiterate that we are fortunate in that we do not have to learn bitterly from countries like Japan, UK, US or Germany. The message is on the wall. Either we take heed and succeed or ignore them and court disaster in this chip technology industry.

Like it or not, informatics or information technology is here with us. To succeed we must change and create the society, industry and a continent which is receptive to the new technology. Government policies must be seen to be in this direction. Institutions in conjunction with organisations must help provide the literacy and skill required. Selection and evaluation must be critically done. Top management must be seen to be committed to introduction, installation and implementation. The industry is very volatile. With EFT (electronic fund transfer) POS (point of sale) systems, the cashless society is here. Further with networked systems, the paperless invoice is in sight.

We must therefore be informed.

talking drums 1985-02-04 rawlings under attack from left-wing comrades kojo tsikata shinkafi on shagari and nigeria's 2nd republic