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Analogue mindsets delivering digital leadership: Paradise misled!

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Today there is much hype on digitisation and digitalisation, etc. We have excellent ideas on process digitisation and system digitalisations. Many consultants are deep at work prescribing precise pathways and at times they may be surprised to find the simplest of possibilities not even followed despite all the good intentions! 

At times even autonomation crops up. Sri Lanka has ideas firmly fixed on Industry 4.0, Web 5.0, 5G and all related buzz. There is no way of stopping us as it appears unless we do it by ourselves. However, that is what is worrying. All the good words are not translating to many good deeds. There appears to be an awful lot of slips between the cup and the lip. That particular process is a very analogue one.

The world has embraced digital over analogue. The future may even see digital giving way to neural but that is not the point of discussion here. In an analogue setting we may get an idea about a situation by relating a connected phenomena – we measure temperature by way of an expanding length of mercury. A similar length of mercury connected differently may indicate to us the atmospheric pressure and then we will deduce whether the winds are going to be violent or not! 

Digital is new revolution adding nimbleness and information to decision making with all data from any situation represented in two states; a complete new way of doing things. There are much more digital converts and stalwarts in the SL private sector and a few are world class. However, most of the time, their digital savviness may be propping up economies elsewhere; like meeting the just passed out graduate from UOM who is a one with many bright ideas and with a company in China and in UK. Unheard of maybe five years back from an ordinary graduate.

However, his banking dollars will not be in Sri Lanka and may be only keeping sufficient cash to fund the process here. He complains of PayPal not being available and SL Customs taking ages over a delivery. The presence of a battery in a product may mean significant delays and expense and then where is the competitiveness. Though his brain is capable our system is not supportive of the talent at home – we are scared of smartness coming especially from the young! Then we may be having investment roadshows all over the place thinking that it is always the outsider that Sri Lanka would have as its knight in shining armour to the rescue! How wrong our understanding of our own capabilities? 

Of the two sectors Public and Private, it is not possible to have a decent journey when one is backward compared to the other. Thus there is the imperative for our Public sector to change fast for it to be a worthy partner in the digital journey. One can indicate few success stories but the overall impression is created by the processes of the many that are not. Considering the overall impact on the running of an economy it is the public sector that really must come of age. It is what sets the platform and if few private sector organisations are doing very well for themselves only mean that those have been little bit more creative, innovative and enterprising despite the lack of a supportive backdrop.

It may be useful to identify four areas that we really need to work on if we are to transform ourselves to a different economy from the one that we have today – debt ridden, informal labour propped up, commodity centric and perhaps with serious gender injustice. It is not something that we should be happy to have but sadly the economy sticks to you and the way to another is by sheer hard work with a good dose of smartness too. Economies that have transformed themselves lately have the following features – Solid human capital – even if they do not have the required numbers; their history appears to deliver numbers in droves to ensure sufficient fuel. Venture capital – money may not be everything but it still is the king in making of a reality based on an opportunity or an idea. Unless such funds are available you can forget moving forward. 

Traditional banking with their usual collateral is no way forward to a start-up. Supporting the presence of such funds would come from having a progressive tax system. The most recent version appears to have added 200% tax benefit for R&D almost as an afterthought removing the previously available 300% opportunity. It is indeed sad that for errors in practice the tool had been branded as not useful. It is frustrating too to hear from countries where the tax regime gives significant benefits to technology developments and internal growth. 

We appear to think more on calculating the catch and thinking simpler the process, the better that would be. Yes, simplification of anything is not a bad idea at all, however, if your version of simplification involves doing away with creative practices, enabling tools for innovation then that is different. The fourth area is the Intellectual Property regime. IP is least discussed and least understood in Sri Lanka. There are efforts to change this but considering the developments elsewhere Sri Lanka really needs to act and work fast. These four areas really need to be given priority in planning and in executing. It was interesting listening to Minister for Law and Justice and Electronics and IT, Government of India Ravi Shankar Prasad at the recent Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture. His subjects areas and coming from a country like India with over one billion population also indicates something that needs noticing in Sri Lanka as we try to appoint a person by way of democracy for every 5-6 square km of Sri Lanka in multi-layer fashion – local, provincial and national! 

Then a 25% female representation is making the process another spin – a bit of artificial intelligence would have done the lawmakers a world of good if they did some dry runs over possible scenarios – an easy task in the digital world. As the country, which had the world’s first woman Prime Minister we should know and do better. What is worrying has been our serious inability to agree on some basic educational norms – we should stress scientific education more as a basis for eligibility but that is definitely asking way too much! – for those who are going to be decision makers. Our behaviour in that area of policy is even much less than analogue thinking. 

It was instructive to listen to Minister Shankar discussing PM Narendra Modi’s incessant drive to transform India and the attempt to empower ordinary Indians. He is a firm believer in technology and in particular information technology tools – the digital toolkit! His vision for India is nicely given in a simple equation IT + IT = IT (India’s talent + Information Technology = India’s Tomorrow). How nice – so much in so few letters. Also mentioned were the further efforts such as Start-up India, Skill India, Digital India. The economic objectives of Digital India were to realise the trillion dollar economy in the next few years with the growth driven through technology. The lecture was full of insights.

This indicates the imperative to have sound strategies and policies but without taking much time. Under both analogue and digital we will be doing things. However, under the latter the ‘way of doing things’ has a whole new meaning. The question that I have is while the intention is digital the mindset prevalent is very much analogue. We keep the email at bay and will have vehicles plying up and down delivering mail. 

The files too will keep piling up though some may be for procurements sourcing digital devices. Your burst of digital activity may come from jumping to a social media site to pick up some quick gossip and a quick like or two to a Facebook posting. You may forward content even without a second glance – lots of digital activity and consuming bandwidth but with very little progress in the real sense. This type of digital behaviour sans values dumb growth. 

Our public sector so used to time consuming face-to-face meetings and minute taking – practices which are deeply entrenched – seriously has to come to grips with the changes required. We need to understand some of these 30 minute meetings may mean two to three hour travel time with significant expenditure. It must be stated that the Public sector has the ability to change the big picture of the country and a serious re-examination is essential of mindsets and attitudes, which are firmly rooted in the past. 

Simple documents of the future will fail to deliver, as the process has not been successful in inspiring the minds to be different and more responsive. The preoccupation with the analogue behaviour has to come to an end for the digital era to take off so important for our paradise to regain its lustre.

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