The Digital Era


When I left for my first assignment in Africa, almost 38 years ago, my family back home was not sure when they would hear from me next. The only way we used to communicate was by airmail. Yes, there was the possibility to make an international telephone call but that was saved for special occasions or an emergency. It was too expensive to pick up the telephone on a regular base. So, we used to write letters, I mean real letters. It took 3 three weeks for my letter to be delivered in my parent’s mailbox and the same time for their reply to me. Six weeks without a word from either side was normal. Official and personal mail used to come by pouch via the embassy. It included a weekly edition of a Dutch newspaper, especially for expatriates, printed on light paper to keep the airmail costs down. I contained a summary of the main news items of the past week. It was something to look out for, even though the news was old. Sometimes there was a parcel with some niceties from home, not available in the local shops. Then all of a sudden there was the fax. The fax was revolutionary as letters, documents and messages came straight to the office over the telephone line and didn’t have to wait to be posted by mail. It added some sense of urgency to the message. Accompanied by the bleeping sounds of the telephone line, the machine printed out a copy of the original, which was attended to immediately. It was a fax so it had to be urgent (!). Some years later, the fax was replaced by email which quickly became our daily way of communicating and sharing documents. Not in the country side though. Travelling to the remote regions of Ethiopia meant being out of touch. Almost out of touch. In villages and towns without landlines, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation had set up very simple call centers, managed by telephone operators. You gave the number you wanted to dial to the operator and minutes later you were talking to your loved ones, using one of the hand sets, in public. I also remember a small device called pager. I used to tie it to my belt when I was “on call” over the weekend. In case of an urgency or emergency, the pager would bleep and the caller’s number, to be called back from a landline, was displayed. This was before the introduction of the first mobile telephones, which looked like walkie talkies and weighed a ton but brought about another revolution in communication. Today, everybody has one it seems and the mobile telephone systems have quickly opened up remote areas and connected them to the rest of the country and the world.
While technology in the digital era continues to develop at an exponential rate, so do the applications, which make it possible to make the most use of it. We can do more and we can do it faster. There is no time to waste anymore. With it came the social media, first Facebook, and now we all use Whatsapp, Viber, Instagram, etc. to share whatever we feel like sharing to a more intimate group of contacts or a much wider group of “friends”.
Now, what has this all to do with “doing business”? Well, we have all become familiar with the possibilities to use the latest ITC technologies in doing our business, including for marketing, customer relations, human resources management, financial & administrative management, etc. In fact, we cannot do without anymore. How much the Iinternet and social media have become an integral part of doing our business became abundantly clear over the past week or so, during which the internet was closed in Ethiopia. The Iinternet and the latest ITC applications are indeed a blessing in doing business as it allows us to reach out and connect with service providers and customers across the globe, search and obtain all kinds of information almost instantly. Indeed, we can do so much more and we can do it so much faster. It also allows us to do business around the clock, communicating with clients, service providers and business partners who are located in different time zones. But there is also the flipside of the coin. We have arrived in the era of instant information, which pushes us into the all-time urgency mode. Calls and messages on our mobile handset are expected to be answered immediately; emails require instant responses; the social media push us to share impressions all the time. It does not stop and we find ourselves in a constant state of urgency, increasing our stress levels to unhealthy proportions. Meanwhile, communication becomes shallower and we run the risk sending replies and responses that are not well thought over, which may easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Yet, if we don’t reply instantly, the other side may be offended. We can’t win. Or can we? It all comes down again to setting the right priorities and planning our life in a way that allows us to be productive, effective and efficient. This includes the time we spent at work, with our families, our friends, time to learn, time to relax, time to exercise, time to reflect. It also means knowing who to relate with and who to ignore. Some people play an important role, while others play a much less important role in our lives. We should therefore also be careful in investing our time in communicating with others. In other words, setting our priorities right and dividing our time wisely over our priorities will allow us to be effective. Exercising discipline in the way we use all the ITC technology that is available today, will allow us to be efficient. Now we are boosting our productivity without burning out. At the top of this article I mentioned that a letter to my family during my first assignment in Africa took three 3weeks to arrive. Today we communicate online, more frequent, sometimes for a long time and often also much shorter. This is the blessing of today’s technology. Use it wisely and avoid the trap of instant and meaningless communication, adding little to our productivity and robbing us from quality time.