By Christoph Schell
November 11, 2021
It goes without saying that companies have immensely changed the way they think about the future of work. The old thinking was dominated by narrow business imperatives and focused largely on delivering for shareholders. The new thinking is much broader and expects businesses to create value for the long-term and for a much wider set of stakeholders.
This new paradigm has motivated business leaders to imagine a future of work that’s not just efficient and productive, but also more fulfilling, healthy, equitable, and sustainable. Increasingly, customers, partners, employees, and investors expect companies to leverage their power as a part of society perceived to be both ethical and competent in order to advance social good.
Today, preparing for the future of work means creating a socially responsible supply chain, a more equitable and inclusive workplace, and a more diverse workforce at every level. This shift in philosophy is welcome and necessary, but it doesn’t go far enough. We – and I’m speaking particularly to my fellow technology leaders –have an opportunity to make a once-in-a-lifetime difference in the workforce. The key: We must work to bridge the digital divide.
The digital divide hinders innovation
Many in the tech industry believe strongly in technology’s potential to create a more just world. I’m one of them. But I must concede that technology inequitably distributed is more likely to reinforce the power imbalance than to correct it. The internet can’t really democratize information when only about 60% of the global population uses it. In some of the poorest countries in the world, that figure drops below 20%.
In the United States, computers are ubiquitous in households earning more than $100,000 a year. But they’re generally absent from the homes of the 41% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year. Or consider the fact that in many countries, the video calls and conferences that have become a necessity in many of our lives are prohibitively expensive. When looking at mobile internet users, the research firm Cable found that a one-hour video call cost about $4 or less on average in the UK, but in Malawi it would be $14. Think of the children who are growing up in these wildly differing households. As tech becomes even more central to every career, which of these children will be more likely to land a job with flexible hours, extended parental leave, and a strong employee development program? It’s self-evident that the future of work can’t be fully transformative until it’s fully inclusive.
There are compelling reasons for tech companies to advance digital equity besides desiring a better world. The tech industry obviously wins when our innovations see wider adoption. Even more importantly, we have much to gain from the existence of a diverse global talent pool. The people who will benefit from expanded digital equity aren’t just would-be consumers; they’re potential innovators. The digital divide robs the disadvantaged of access to education, health care, and opportunity. And it robs everyone of the innovations many of these people would create if given the chance.
Bridging the divide requires a sustained, cooperative effort
To bridge the digital divide, companies need to consider their work for digital equity as part of their business model. We need to recognize it as a goal we must meet together – part of the expanded brief of the modern company. And we must think about expanding tech access for citizens around the world with the same standards we apply to our own workforces. That means prioritizing best-in-class technology, from intuitive hardware to security-enhancing software.
There is no thermodynamic law driving the proliferation of digital access. You can’t gift a school district or an NGO a few thousand laptops and expect a transformed community the next time you drop in. The key is thinking holistically and thinking long-term. Companies committed to bridging the digital divide need to recognize that digital equity is about sustained access to current hardware, software and broadband service – as well as the skills to put those technologies to use.
Throughout these efforts, it’s important to keep the focus on the people whose lives we’re trying to improve. I serve as chief commercial officer for HP, and The HP Foundation tackles the digital divide by offering free IT and business skills training courses in seven languages through the HP LIFE program. The program measures success in learning outcomes that increase employability and foster business creation. Google’s Next Billion Users initiative conducts extensive research on the needs of new internet users around the world, to tailor its product offerings. And, crucially, it shares much of what is known about making technology accessible, relevant and empowering in different parts of the globe.
No single company can be expected to achieve global digital equity all by itself. But making any measurable impact, even in small communities, will require us to work together, making meaningful multiyear commitments to ensure the citizens of the future can access the information they need to live, work and innovate – no matter where in the world they are.
Christoph Schell is the Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) and a member of the Executive Leadership Team of HP Inc.