Telling IT Like It Is: Who’s going to Bell the Cat?

Russell Williams

voip.jpgA few weeks ago I read a post from the moderator of a Caribbean IT community forum, where the moderator lambasted the forum’s members for their apparent unwillingness to share information. I responded privately to query if he could justify his literary tongue-lashing or whether there was room to give the benefit of the doubt to these members. He explained that this was not the first occasion where members had been unwilling to contribute to the greater good; “These guys have benefited and just take, take, take from this forum and contribute nothing,” he lamented.

While I can personally empathise with his predicament, I recalled a conversation I had with two other consultants about three years ago. We were in the formative stages of sub-regional IT projects and the question was asked “Why hasn’t the Caribbean region’s IT landscape changed despite several well-funded IT projects?”

Having identified and discussed some of the reasons we felt were holding back development in the Region, someone asked the question, “But ‘who’s going to bell the cat?” If like me you need an explanation of that question, here it is. Mice enjoyed drinking a cat’s milk while it was napping, but occasionally, the cat would wake up and catch one or two of them. After escaping one of the cat’s attacks, one mouse said “We need to put a bell on the cat, that way when he comes to attack us we can hear him coming.” They all agreed, but an older mouse asked the sobering question, “Who is going to bell the cat?”

Now, why should this question be an issue, you might be asking? Those of us who have worked in the Caribbean region know well enough that objective criticism and frankness are not well received, and to be direct or be among the dissenting voices can lead to a very long and lonely walk, one which leads to reprisals.

That said, I’m about to ‘bell the cat!’ Not because I’m a martyr or I dare to tread where others won’t, but because it’s time for the lunacy ‘poppy show’ to stop! The future development of our region is at stake, and while it may be too late for some of us, our children deserve the chance of a better future.

So why hasn’t the Tech landscape changed?

1.      Unwillingness to share and unwillingness or inability to collaborate. The scenario which inspired this article is typical of what is holding us back. Routinely, persons with the information and expertise who can share it without losing any competitive advantage, don’t. Or perhaps they can’t appreciate or can’t use information they have, so they don’t think it could be of use to anyone else. In this regard, a couple of phrases or facts that belie this attitude come to mind:

a.       One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

b.      Money is like manure, it’s only any good if you spread it around; the same is true of information.

2.      Wrong people in place. Quite often there are too many people who hold positions based on their political or social allegiances and not their ability.

3.      Lack of accountability. The Region’s governments are largely responsible for setting and implementing policy. But what are the consequences of poor or no performance from the people they place in leadership or management positions?

4.      Travel trips as perks. Too often overseas workshops, training, and conferences are used as a way to reward the delegate or as an overseas shopping trip. I have seen individuals attend workshops who appear to know little more than a 4th Grade student. They present themselves at these events and one can only hope they take back the pertinent material and pass it on.

This is clearly not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives an adequate backdrop.

Much has been made of the importance of ICT, but the important point is that it’s more than a buzzword or term; the key word here is communication, which is vastly different to just talking.

Since much of the Region has lost its agricultural preferences and we are unable to manufacture on a competitive scale, the only viable asset we now have is intellectual property – IP; the knowledge of our citizens. We must therefore find ways to develop and maximise its use through collaboration with all talented knowledgeable individuals, regardless of their political background or affiliations; whether they’re from a Big Island, a Small Island or Timbuktu!

While we’re still trying to prove ‘the world is flat,’ maintain our personal status as the big fish in the goldfish bowl, or  by perfecting a win at all costs attitude, the rest of the world has long since learned that they can achieve more by working together. Unfortunately, the old rules of ‘for me to win you must loose,’ are still being employed to good effect in our region, but they are only valid here. The rest of the world has already learned that playing the ‘Zero-sum game’ only appeals to the bigger party and that an equitable arrangement which offers something for each party is much more beneficial and likely to leverage the strengths of each.

The only way for the Caribbean region to be effective and competitive is for us to learn to collaborate and work together; putting our mutual strengths and resources to the task. Technology is the tool which can be used to facilitate that goal in a knowledge based economy, but knowledge must first be shared! The informed and “educated” must lead by example, putting aside their petty, personal issues to collaborate, share, and fully develop and utilize their collective, regional expertise.

There are those who have recognised that for much of the Caribbean, the digital divide is not about access to computers or the Internet, it is about whether we are going to migrate from being merely users and consumers to being creators and producers.

Yet there is the incessant call from CARICOM leaders for more bandwidth and lower prices. For what, I ask? If not to collaborate, create, and develop our own content, then we are wasting precious time and resources.

Unless and until we truly embrace not only buzzwords and technology, but also teamwork and collaborative techniques needed to develop a knowledge-based society, we are destined to remain parked on the hard shoulder, or at best, consigned to the crawler lane of the information super highway.

Russell is the Principal at The IT Facility

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