Business Information and the Internet in the Developing World: A New Outlook
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Business Information and the Internet in the Developing World: A New Outlook by John Abdul Kargbo

The Internet, modern society's cheapest and most effective means of global communication, is gradually spreading to the developing world. In this article the application of the Internet in business information and its implications is examined.

Contents


The Need for Information
Scope of Business Market
Business Information Clientele
Business Information and the Internet
New Outlook
Pitfalls
Conclusion
References

Introduction

Problems of poverty, low productivity, population growth, wide scale unemployment, primary product export dependence, and illiteracy characterise developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Though the picture of life is bleak, many of these are gradually raising basic levels of income, lowering infant mortality, improving educational opportunities, and increasing life expectancy. It is believed that by pursuing appropriate economic and social policies with effective assistance from developed nations, many developing countries will soon realise their development aspirations.

The Need for Information

Developing countries incessantly produce and use information in part because it is perceived as a resource for development. This information may be acquired by a variety of means. The prospective user needs tools to guide him through a flood of information to eventually secure the exact details that he needs.

For most people in business in developing countries, two types of information are needed: current awareness and everyday information in business. To satisfy them, documents of various kinds are often collected and stored, including monographs, business journals, textbooks bulletins, reports, standard specifications, and correspondence. Each of these documents may contain information relevant to business. An organisation has an enormous task of organising this mass of material in such a way so that the right answer can be located when needed. Problems occur when this mass of information may become too large to handle or too difficult to maintain. As a one solution, some businesses in developing countries are beginning to use the Internet as an information resource.

Scope of Business Market

In developing countries the magnitude and complexity of the business market is large and includes a wide range of information-dependent services. Industries needing accurate and up-to-date information embrace the following:

  • manufacturing,
  • wholesale and retail,
  • finance, insurance and real estate,
  • agriculture, forestry and fishing,
  • transport, communication and other public utilities,
  • contract construction,
  • non-business and nonprofit organisations,
  • general services institutions such as hotels and restaurants, banks, hospitals, and
  • government.

The size of these companies varies, too, from one-person operations to the large multinationals.

Business Information Clientele

Business information is used by many different people in developing countries. Business institutions and especially investors, whether small or large, need information about companies and their financial performance as well as reports on political, economic, and market trends. Students of accounting, marketing, commerce, and other business disciplines are heavy users of business information sources. Other potential users include government and civil servants, politicians, teachers, librarians, parents, business information providers and publishers, voters, and concerned citizens. All need business information for many including the following:
  • the operation of the organisations,
  • re-selling to other business users or to customers, and
  • making other goods and services.

By far the most important user of business information is the firm or corporation. Firms generate and use information internally; this information may include production and sales figures, stocks of goods, financial information, labour turnover and absenteeism, and research and development. Senior management needs to understand how their firm is faring amidst growing competition, in order to improve processes and efficiency.

Business Information and the Internet

Monitoring and acquiring information in these multifarious aspects constitutes an enormous task for management, if it is to be done comprehensively. In an increasingly competitive world the need for people in business to have adequate sources of information cannot be disputed. Whether it can be said that this need is adequately met is yet to be proved. In developing countries as in developed ones, the value of business information has long been recognized, even if it is sadly the case that in times of economic stringency information services seem to be regarded as the least essential arm of the organisation. Almost every country in the developing world has access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. For instance with the help of British Department for International Development (formerly the Overseas Development Administration (ODA)), an independent Web site has been established called One World Online which carries up to date information on human rights and development issues. Similarly the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has initiated the Global Trade Point Network (GTPnet), a computerised networking system linking about two million traders worldwide. In Africa the United States' Leland Initiative assistance programme, also known as GII Gateway, is beginning to make headway in creating Internet connections in Africa. In spite of these moves, the million-dollar question is whether developing countries see a need for the Internet in business and whether these nations can meet the infrastructure challenges.

The information implications of this scenario are considerable. First, the magnitude and complexity of the business market in developing countries is largely unknown to the average consumer. Very few businesses have effective machinery to collect and coordinate information from a variety of sources and to apply it towards improving organisational decision-making. In some businesses, there is a preference for informal sources such as employees and professional colleagues, internal memoranda, reports, and personnel. Formal documentary sources come low in their list.

However there is sufficient justification for the application of the Internet as business information source in developing countries. As Talero and Gaudettee (1995) observed the revolutionary advances in IT technology reinforce economic and social changes that are transforming business and society. A new kind of economy - the information economy - is emerging where trade and investment are global. These changes dictate for all countries, developed as well as developing, a major adjustment in the utilisation of information for economic development. Developing countries should therefore not be left behind as these changes occur but should make greater efforts to take advantage of the benefits of these advances.

New Outlook

The explosion of the Internet as a resource for business information in developing countries has become an interesting story. The Internet has made people in business aware of how easily data can be stored in different locations and in different formats. It has made some realise that the market is now demanding more tools to seamlessly integrate diverse data resources. In most businesses in developing countries information is acquired by informal means through trade publications, the radio and television, newspapers, and conversation. The more export-oriented the business, the larger and more structured the organisation, the more likely it is that the business will need access to information on its markets, competition, and prevailing "environmental information." The Internet is now serving as a way to resolve some of these problems.

Business institutions in developing countries are realising that the Internet makes it quite easy to deploy enterprise-wide messages through electronic mail. The Internet, too, is being examined from a marketing perspective thanks to the emergence of Internet life-style magazines such as Wired.

From the publicity angle, many commercial organisations have now set up sites on the World Wide Web to market services and products. For research and development arms of businesses, the Internet permits access to specialised data and encourages collaboration between remote sites within an organisation.

There are great opportunities to improve business productivity with the Internet and to accelerate the growth of new markets in developing countries. Technology-oriented companies are, in their own little way, using the Internet as a source of market research, as a means of communicating with employees, and as a way to interact with customers. The interactive nature of the Internet encourages new opportunities to gather feedback about products.

Businesses are increasingly using the Internet to recruit personnel, saving time and expense. With its world wide scope and role, the Internet permits significant insights into overall market trends and competitive measures. The use of electronic mail minimises a firm's printing and postage costs. Hence many operational chores are accelerated with the Internet.

The Internet provides financial institutions in developing countries with a dynamic array of competitive tools. At some point in the near future, it may be possible for services such as home banking, online commercial cash management, and check reconciliation, and e-mail bill payment to be facilitated. The Internet is increasingly utilised to obtain information on investment opportunities, foreign trade regulations, environmental requirements and standards in international trade. It provides managers with rich and timely information that they require to ensure that their businesses remain profitable.

Pitfalls

In spite of the promising potential, there are pitfalls in the application of the Internet in businesses in the developing world.

Cost

In those areas where the infrastructure has been developed, the Internet may be perceived as an all-round good deal for businesses. But not every business has an opportunity to take advantage of the Internet. The cost in some cases can make access and use of the Internet prohibitive. In addition, the infrastructure may simply not be developed in remote areas, making access at any cost impossible.

Capacity development

In spite of the efforts by many businesses, strategic capacities are lacking. There may be a lack of adequate and sustainable structures and institutional procedures needed to get connected to a computer, modem, and telephone. In addition, certain skills, tools, and information is required when using the Internet. In most developing countries, some of these capacities are scarce due to the weak financial base of most business organisations; this has hampered the development of the Internet.

Visibility and security

Most companies conducting business on the Internet need both a means to advertise their products and a way to secure transactions. To ease some of these problems, some institutions turn to commercial Internet service providers such as America Online, CompuServe, and Global Network Navigator (GNN) to provide basic commercial services on the Internet. These Internet providers have in place technical support mechanisms for electronic payment and security.

Inconsistency of telecommunications access

Throughout the developing world, Internet service providers are in an investment phase, especially in remote areas. Some talk of an Internet showdown in developing countries. Some see the Internet as the central focus for all communication facilities including telephone, fax, data communication, and online electronic commerce. But it is difficult to gauge just how ubiquitous this sort of service will be and when it might occur.

Conclusion

There is no overstating that there is vast potential for businesses in developing countries on the Internet. Businesses need to determine what they want to achieve very specifically via the Internet. Alternatives should be explored; some alternatives may likely prove a more reasonable option given the costs of the Internet in some places in the developing world. As the costs drop for telecommunications technologies and infrastructure, the Internet will develop as a strong resource for information for business and as an appropriate means to disseminate information to other businesses and customers. End of article

The Author

John Abdul Kargbo is in the Institute of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of Sierra Leone. Mail can be sent to him at the Institute, Private Mail Bag, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

References

N. Roberts et al ., 1988. "Business information sources: a consideration of requirements," Education for Information, Volume 6, pp. 27-37.

E. Talero and P. Gaudettee, 1995. "Harnessing information for development: a proposal for a World Bank Group vision and strategy," Information Technology for Development, Volume 6, numbers 3/4, pp. 145-188.

M. L. Tushman and D. A. Naller, 1978. "Information processing as an integrated concept in organisational design," Academy of Management Review, Volume 3, pp. 613-624.


Copyright © 1997, First Monday

Business Information and the Internet in the Developing World: A New Outlook by John Abdul Kargbo.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 9 - 1 September 1997
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/551/472





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