Jumping the Digital Divide

The new “haves” and “have-nots” are those who do and don’t possess technology. Is it the responsibility of today’s corporations to help bridge that gap? HP thinks so.
Jumping the Digital Divide

One of the most important missions of corporations, and all organizations with technological capacity, is to address the “digital divide”— that great gulf between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Bess Stephens, the director of philanthropy and education for Hewlett-Packard, headquartered in Palo Alto, California, believes that both businesses and communities can benefit if corporations invest in technological philanthropy, providing computer equipment to those who have yet to benefit from the computer revolution. HP’s pioneering work in philanthropy and education is closely aligned with the company’s vision to make technology and its benefits available to all.

“Historically, education has been the centerpiece of our work in philanthropy,” notes Stephens. “We’re using a two-pronged approach, working to ensure that K–12 education is world-class and contributing to the development of a pipeline of diverse students who will be competitively eligible for higher education.”

For any corporation, taking steps to bridge the divide is not a wholly selfless act: Technology has become so ingrained in the operation of business that tomorrow’s employees must be “digitally literate,” Stephens says. Ignoring the large percentage of people without access to technological innovation threatens everyone’s progress. Moreover, in the future, occupations that do not require computer education will be rare. Even jobs that focus on outside information services, such as those in the retail and food service industries, will require employees to be familiar with computers and other appliances, she stresses.

“These devices and tools are products of the information age. Technology has become all-pervasive, and I don’t anticipate a change in that,” Stephens says. She adds that public and private sectors need to work together to “ensure that the next generation is able to take advantage of the vast array of technology available today and that will be more available tomorrow.”

“My own external scan shows that, increasingly, companies are getting involved, especially in addressing the digital divide. Other companies are doing good work—even if it’s not exactly the same work. One company can’t do it all.” —Bess Stephens, Hewlett-Packard

Wiring the Classrooms

Students who haven’t been exposed to computer use from a very early age stand a poor chance of excelling at the college level— whether they’re studying business or any other field. For that reason, from kindergarten to college, it is important “to use technology to teach,” Stephens emphasizes. “Notice I don’t say that schools actually have to teach technology. They have to use technology to teach, so that information products—including computers, laptops, mobile units, and wireless products—have a presence in the learning process. We’re not only preparing young people for what they will face in the working world; we’re helping them see that the use of tools creates a different paradigm in critical thinking and creative thought.”

Because “underserved” communities are least likely to have access to current technology, Stephens calls for a concentration of efforts in those areas. Such efforts, she promises, pay off for everyone: students, schools, and corporations such as HP.

For instance, in the company’s HP Scholars initiative (described on opposite page), the most obvious benefit is to the students, who get a chance to experience real engineering work, says Stephens. “They’re being taught a work ethic, but they’re also getting to look at what it takes to be effective in a corporate environment, how to use e-mail in a work situation, and how to work in teams, for example. All of these are things they typically would not be exposed to until later.” For HP, the program allows managers a chance to work directly with the students, develop a personal interest in them and, by extension, form a connection to the philanthropy program.

In addition, the program “serves as a kind of feedback loop to colleges and universities,” Stephens says. HP learns what products and programs work well for instructional use, and the schools learn what programs they need to offer students.

The philanthropy programs also have resulted in a push to get disadvantaged schools more involved in the technology race. “The schools are more committed to making the gatekeeper courses—math and particularly algebra—available to the young people who have been historically closed out. They’re given access to those classes at an earlier level,” says Stephens. At the college level, the support helps universities “do a better job of recruitment and retention of underrepresented students.”

Working Toward Change

The digital divide is an especially pressing concern to business leaders precisely because of the globalization of business today. Knowing that their jobs could take them anywhere in the world, management education students spend part of their time studying international business, which means understanding foreign cultures— and the level of technology those countries have achieved.

Corporations need to consider their role in closing the technology gap because that divide is unlikely to close on its own. A report compiled last year by a global panel of experts from the United Nations found that only five percent of people on earth have access even to basic computer equipment. There are more people with computer access in New York City than on the entire African continent, the report noted.

These numbers are so compelling that the panel stated that “the issue is not whether to respond to the challenges brought about by the revolution in ICT (information communications technology), but how to respond and how to ensure that the process becomes truly global and everyone shares the benefits.” The panel thoroughly refutes the claim that poverty should be addressed before technological disadvantage, arguing that technological access has been proven to be a solution to poverty. It calls for the entirety of the world’s population to have Internet access by 2004. (To read more of this report, visit the Web site for the United Nations, www.un.org.)

It is for these very reasons, says Stephens, that educational institutions—at the elementary, high school, or college level— are essential places for corporations to focus their attentions. The donation of equipment allows students to become familiar with technology and allows teachers to integrate technology into the curriculum itself. The result, says Stephens, is that students become more creative in problem-solving. “They might do computer-assisted drawing, they might use a computer to solve a complicated equation. They might design a Web site. These tools enable them to achieve a vision beyond what is possible without technology,” she says.

While Stephens has always found schools and professors eager to receive the new products offered in corporate technological initiatives, she points out that corporations such as HP must have an existing relationship with a university before new products can be successfully introduced. “Such programs are possible because we have a recruiting relationship with these schools, a research relationship, and a training and educational relationship,” she says.

She believes that philanthropy is spreading among corporations. “My own external scan shows that, increasingly, companies are getting involved, especially in addressing the digital divide,” she says. “Other companies are doing good work—even if it’s not exactly the same work. One company can’t do it all.”