A Sustainable Information Society

or how to achieve Competitiveness with Social Inclusion
by Chris Yapp, Managing Consultant, ICL Lifelong Learning

Home | Community | Internet | Communities Online | Join in | Index

Competitiveness lies at the heart of much of the debate about the emerging Global Information Society. It is argued that globalisation and technological change are changing the basis of competition. Increasing the economic value-added of the UK economy requires us to raise the knowledge and skills of all our workforce.

At the same time we are seeing major changes in the structure of employment in the UK with increased emphasis on Small and Medium Enterprises, SME's as the engine for job creation rather than large organisations. Increases in self-employment, part-time and casual working are all well documented. What this adds up to is a changing lifestyle for individuals, away from a job for life to a search for lifetime employability.

Where as, only a generation ago, a single set of skills acquired by the age of thirty or so would have carried most people through to retirement, the need to retrain to stay employable is recognised at all levels of the workforce. But is 'Lifelong learning for all' merely a slogan, or could we actually achieve it? Furthermore, is it actually desirable and affordable ?

Lifelong learning for all implies a number of issues that need to be addressed: It is here that the technologies of the so-called information superhighway come into the picture. It is quite clear from the macro economic data that scaling up current expenditure on education and training by both public and private sectors using current models will not cope with a need to retrain the whole workforce maybe three or four times through adult life. The promise of the technology is the ability to re-engineer existing expenditure to deliver more effective education and training.

But this leads us to a 'cultural' problem in the UK. Surely, IT is for white male anorak nerds of 25 and under? If you're over 40 you're effectively brain dead and will never adjust. If we take the last two sentences seriously, then we will create a serious problem for all of us.

If we create an environment in which we have information haves and have nots, then the proportion of our adults who will fall below the minimum skills for employability will increase with increased social costs on industry. A situation where fewer and fewer companies become more and more competitive will not create a competitive UK PLC.

But wait! Isn't it also true that SME's are slow to spend on training? Do they find it hard to justify in both costs and time? This may sound quite gloomy! It is very easy to end up in a spiral in which we can't afford to do it and we can't afford not to.

Over two years ago ICL started working with the South Bristol Learning Network on the development of Cyberskills. Over that time we have trained people from 17 to 84 in a variety of technologies including CD-ROMs, the Internet/World Wide Web and Video Conferencing. These people have covered all social and economic classes, abilities and public, private and voluntary sectors. We now have a dozen Cyberskills centres in the UK and our first US export. What is significant is that the materials for the sessions were developed and delivered by previously unemployed people with no experience of IT, some of whom were in their 50's.

What has been a delight is to see some of the debilitating myths that I outlined earlier demolished along with many pleasant surprises on the way. If sensitively handled age, gender, and ability prove to be limited obstacles to the use of new technologies. Furthermore, even in areas of low expectations and attainment we have seen positive outcomes. With school children, even where education is 'uncool' it is OK to be good at sport and IT.

In our educational trials we are seeing many children engage with learning through IT when traditional classroom practise has been unsuccessful. With adults, even if they 'failed' at school, they didn't fail at IT because it wasn't around. We have seen many examples where IT has been a catalyst to re-engage adults with the learning process and raised their perception of their own capabilities. This has led us to an approach that we call "People First, Technology Second".

Our experience to date suggest that there is a great appetite in the UK for learning in all sectors of our society. The goal is to harness this energy for economic and social well-being.

Looking at international comparisons of UK performance in educational and training performance, the general picture is that the UK's top 10-15% of education and training is globally competitive, but what dogs our competitiveness is the bottom quartile in particular. In the Department for Education and Employment's Lifetime learning consultation document there is an estimate that the failure to achieve basic skills costs the UK £5bn. Anecdotal evidence indicates high levels of learning difficulties in the prison population compared to the population as a whole. Industry , government and all of us are paying the costs of under performance.

It is my contention that the way out of the can't afford/not to paradox is to look at the costs we bear as a society already. It then becomes apparent that the purpose of 'educational superhighways' in the UK context should be to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. That is to say, build on our best practice and eliminate the costs of under performance. I am not suggesting that there is a quick fix or that it will be easy. But surely it is in our enlightened self-interest to address our selves to the UK's long-term systemic concerns? Full employability is needed if we are to ever approach full employment.

Social inclusion and competitiveness are often portrayed as incompatible. I believe that globalisation and technical change make this a damaging fallacy. We live in an era where the old rules don't work anymore. Too much of the focus in the debate is around technology and not the people and the society we wish to build. If we use our brains to address the real issues , I have no doubt that British ingenuity is up to the task of building a competitive and more inclusive society .

Chris Yapp c.g.yapp@iclnet.co.uk
Managing Consultant, ICL Lifelong Learning
Success stories from South Bristol Learning Network
The Cyberskills Association
Back to the Guide to Community Internet