|Growing Jordan's ICT sector: Lets think outside the box a bit!
|Thinking outside the box seems to be the buzzword of choice these days. We heard it quite a few times during the successful Jordan ICT forum held on 30 September and 1 October.
My problem with buzzwords is that -by virtue of their "buzziness"- their meaning, if they actually have any, get diluted.
They mean everything to everyone. So a definition becomes needed: What is the box out of which we must think ?
Building on a remark I raised during the Jordan ICT forum, please allow me to suggest a definition for one of these boxes, and how it is hurting Jordan's emerging ICT industry, and indeed the region's ICT industry at large.
As a member of a regionally focused research and analysis company, I am in a position to spot the duplication that is happening across the region. Everyone seems to want to be a "telecom hub", an "outsourcing center". Everyone wants to develop an export orientated ICT industry, reverse the brain drain, etc. Be it Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco or the UAE, the initiatives are heartwarmingly (or worryingly?!!) similar.
Similar also are the hurdles facing each of these countries in achieving the goals of their initiatives. Almost all complain of the small current size of the market, and the lack of a "critical mass" (here's another buzzword for you!). Many complain of duplication and fragmentation within the markets.
Companies are too small, and too focused, to be able to sustain a global foot print, industry insiders say. In many cases they waste resources competing rather than consolidating to be viable regional and global players, they add. The problems are real and I agree with them. Which brings me to the box I would like to define. This box is the very borders of our separate countries. While a major problem lies in the "intra country" fragmentation and duplication, I would venture say that the fatal, more serious problem, lies in the very obvious regional fragmentation and duplication.
If we want to have a viable, and globally competitive, ICT sector we need to address these problems head on. A common market is not just a market where trade moves freely, it is also a market where labor moves freely. Our borders are quite porous in front of the low skilled labor (you need only look at the construction and agriculture sectors of Lebanon and Jordan to see the level of regional migration between Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon).
They are however, firmly shut in the faces of the high skilled technology oriented workers. Can a Jordanian company open an office in Lebanon, and send some Jordanian engineers to work there? Can a Lebanese ICT company do the same in Jordan? The answer is no. How then will the companies grow if they face many labor movement hurdles outside their home markets. This is a question conveniently overlooked, because it is politically charged.
To make my point more vivid, I would like to share one very real example. We conducted a study for a client on the call centers in the region. We found more than 23 call centers in around seven Arab markets. Virtually all were seeking regional, not just local, business. Had the investors in these call centers been able to count on easy, not necessarily totally free, labor movement, the number would have been much lower and the chances of success much higher for all.
A call center in Jordan, that aims to cater to the regional market across the Arab world will be better off if it can easily employ Jordanians as well as non-Jordanians to harness the different accents and language skills in the region. The same would apply for a Lebanon-based call center, which may find Syrian and Jordanian employees also helpful for some of its target market. The region is not served by 23 call centers cornered in their home markets and disadvantaged regionally. It will be much better served by 10 larger call centers, well entrenched in the region and are able to expand globally.
Actionable suggestions are always nice. Therefore, I will end with one such suggestion. I think we can start by trying to reach agreements with our neighbors with similar circumstances (in terms of unemployment, GDP levels, etc). These neighbors include Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. These agreement should allow for very smooth movement of labor possessing ICT-friendly skill sets. This will allow companies to plan regional expansion and consolidation and the region will be closer to reaching the hitherto very elusive "critical mass". I started with a buzzword, I might as well end with one! The writer is the President of the Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group which provides research, analysis and forecasts of Arab communications, media and technology markets.
He can be reached at