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December 17, 1997


Experts discuss 'teleworking'

Sumati K Sampemane in Bombay

Last week experts gathered at the National Centre for Software Technology here to discuss 'teleworking', the concept of working from home or a remote location while keeping in touch with the office via information technology tools.

Industry leaders, academicians, government officers and scientists attended the daylong seminar and discussion on 'Telework in India: Implications for
Wrong numbers
Sun's subsidiary
ALIT's overseas tie-up
Employment, Trade and Social Equity'. The event was organised by the United Nations University's Institute for Technology, voluntary organisation Bombay First and the National Centre for Software Technology.

Through the proceedings the refrain seemed to be that information technology offers India a rare second chance to seize economic development opportunities by becoming service providers to the world. That is, once the huge pool of untapped skilled manpower in the country begins to telework from wherever they are in the vast nation.

Tata Consultancy Services Deputy Chairman Dr F C Kohli said, "We are at the crossroads of India's economic development. Teleworking gives us a unique opportunity to enter the global networked economy as a world-class player. It is an opportunity we must seize now."

He pointed out that India had missed the bus in the Sixties and Seventies when Hong Kong and Singapore seized the opportunity to make their miraculous fortunes.

The rapid spread of information technology in the country has come with deregulation of the industry and quick upgradation, which followed. This also means that it is now possible to delocalise information-processing work.

The United Nations University's Institute for Information Technology has made a major initiative to investigate international 'teletrade' and 'telecommuting' in the Asian context.

The project is located at the NCST and directed by Professor Swasti Mitter, deputy director, UNU/Intech. Bombay First, a voluntary organisation which concerns itself with the city's development, is supporting the project.

Mitter explains: "Teletrade paves the way for a new type of work environment where the employee, 'the teleworker', can work from home or any other suitably located place and save time and effort spent in commuting to the workplace. For example, if a woman has to drop out of the workforce on account of caring responsibilities she can get the office to her home. Likewise, many skilled but disadvantaged groups such as the physically handicapped can be gainfully employed on account of this 'home-office' phenomenon."

Mitter said that the key advantages India has in telecommerce is "A pool of highly skilled IT specialists, fluency in English, relatively low labour costs and a group of dynamic entrepreneurs who have learned to market their services in a borderless economy."

However, there are drawbacks like poor and expensive telecommunications infrastructure and, in some sectors, a bureaucratic culture, which is hostile to networking organisations, Mitter warned.

Small Industries Corporation of Maharashtra Deputy General Manager A N Desai said the state government is drawing up an IT policy. According to a draft, one of the objectives is to compete with and lead all other states in attracting large-scale investment - local and foreign - in the information technology sector, including infrastructure.

According to Dr Ursula Huws, a teleworking expert from the UK, one in five major companies in the US is outsourcing software development to India. She outlined the recent developments in teleworking in Europe, Japan and US. She pointed out the advantages and drawbacks of the work environment. A survey of 1,000 companies in UK and Japan, stratified by size, industry and region, showed that Japan has a strange reticence as compared to the UK in recruiting teleworkers.

UK companies employ 11 per cent teleworkers and 6 per cent employ "pure teleworkers", whereas in Japan the figures are a mere 3 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. The disparity stems from the Japanese employer's attitude toward teleworking, claims Dr Huws.

A similar reluctance among employers is reflected in the interim findings of a study conducted by the Indian Market Research Bureau.

Based on the response of 90 of the 500 companies selected for the survey, Sunil Sharma of IMRB pointed out that the main reason for not considering teleworking was lack of knowledge and awareness of the concept.

Over three fourths of the establishments facing space and real estate problems agree that teleworking would be a good solution.

Bombay First CEO W J Danait believed "Telecommuting could be the key to solving, to some extent, the traffic problem and contain the escalating cost of employment, as well as in improving productivity and efficiency."

Many companies are leaving Bombay and others are deterred of the location because of the high cost of real estate, poor housing and traffic congestion. The city's greatest strengths are in industries like banking, media and software, which rely most on new technologies, he pointed out.

"Teleworking offers us an ideal opportunity to take a radical look at how we can organise work in this city. Let's seize it before we grind to a complete halt," Danait said.

NCST Director Dr S Ramani emphasised the importance of using IT to link the economies of Bombay and Maharashtra fully. He felt it might be the best strategy to increase employment in the state.

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