Telecenter as a Business Development Center
This is a paper presented by the writer during the it@coops – Information Technology in Asian Cooperatives Workshop in Cebu City last February 6, 2006.
The pressure of bringing ICT to the grassroots triggered the establishment of telecenters to rural areas in the country. Telecenters are government, private, or non-government organization provided Internet facilities that allow citizens to access the Internet with no or minimal cost possible.
For cooperatives and SME centers, telecenter services are lumped in the area of business development. This includes:
- Conducting market and product research to see where one’s product line can be promoted, competition analysis, and opportunities probing.
- Consultancy services to assist constituents in their ICT, marketing, and business needs.
- ICT and business training for constituents and stakeholders
- One-stop-shop services (telephone, fax, copier, Internet, computer rental, scanning, printing, courier, desktop publishing)
The above is intended to compliment existing cooperative services such as product development, product certification, business registration, business plan development, business negotiation, loan packaging, coaching and mentoring.
However, not all of them are successful. Consistency and sustainability always remains an issue.
Telecenters are valuable when the following are provided:
- Fast Internet access
Reliable bandwidth must be available in telecenters. They not be extremely fast but reasonable enough to get a transaction done as efficiently as possible. A telecenter with poor bandwidth is often a big disappointment to its visitors. If the situation fails to improve, more often than not, the constituent will not bother returning to it anymore.
- Knowledgeable personnel
A telecenter should have personnel knowledgeable and conversant in Internet, e-government, and e-commerce services that can be of interest to the constituent. The lack of competent personnel unables the telecenter to fulfill its role in helping its clients. Furthermore, it leads to unanswered questions and queries.
- Value-added services
Telecenters should provide more than just access. It is expected to serve as a low-cost ICT training source, trading point, and communications center. Telecenters that offers ICT training, SME assistance in posting products online, VOIP, and other relevant value-added services can also help in creating further relevance to the community.
Telecenters are expected to offer a secured infrastructure. Proper security tools and updates need to be made to ensure that its clients are protected. It is also intended to prevent hackers/crackers using these facilities to commit mischief online.
Challenges in running a telecenter as a business development center
There are many concerns and challenges learned through the years that current project planners should learn from and take note of. These includes:
- Duplication – there are many telecenter efforts today by the academe, non-government organizations, and government. Make sure to check first the existence of these services. If there’s any, find areas where you can collaborate to compliment your respective concerns. Avoid the temptation of building one from scratch especially when resources are very limited.
- Unfair competition – Be careful in setting up telecenters in areas where there are commercial providers and end up competing with them, resulting to market disruption. This is especially so for government funded efforts. Government is the party least expected to compete with the private sector.
- Return on investment and success metrics – Whether it is for public service or profit, return on investment and success metrics are important in determining the effectiveness of telecenters. Go for metrics that are highly relevant. For business development centers, this can be in the form of business generated rather than just number of people trained. Having bottom line driven metrics allows us to focus on what matters most all the time.
- Quality of personnel – Avoid the temptation of allowing your telecenters to be run by people who were just trained on the technologies being taught to them a week or month ago. The role of a telecenter head or business development trainer/consultant requires expertise in business and ICT. If personnel is limited, ensure that they get adequate on the job training exposure so that they can competently do their jobs. Your constituents should be able to feel that they can trust and have confidence to the person who is supposed to help them. Having fellow members as mentors can help in this regard too.
- Responsible and sensitive spending – Telecenter investments must be properly rationalized. For every amount you spent, ensure that the returns are clearly identified. Else, you’ll be like other telecenters where the money allotted was spent for other purposes distorting the accounting of the project itself.
Planning your business development center (telecenter)
- Obtain an understanding of requirements
In principle, every telecenter project must be clearly defined before rollout begins. It must address a problem that the organization and its constituency have. The requirements management and gathering process is a necessary step in order to come up with a solution appropriate for the organization. This is captured in a project charter or vision and scope document.
The business development center project charter or vision and scope document can contain the following, at the minimum:
- Business requirements
- Business objectives
- Success criteria
- Customer or market needs
- Business risks
- Vision of the solution
- Vision statement
- Products and Services
- Scope and limitations
- Initial roll-out
- Subsequent roll-out
- Business context
- Project stakeholders
- Project priorities
- Operating environment
- If available, Initial assumed cost that covers personnel, audit, equipment, and software to be utilized in the project.
- Anticipated returns, whether in terms of profit or savings for the organization.
Note that in the deliberation process of this document, your approved minutes of the meeting must be on hand to back-up your assumptions for the project.
Obtain commitment to requirements
Once the Vision & Scope or Project Charter document is prepared, this gets deliberated for approval. Any confusion or misunderstanding gets corrected at this level as this shall serve as the basis of all work.
Stakeholders are properly oriented as well for their responsibility to project timeline and given accountability for success or failure of the project.
Once commitment from senior management and stakeholders are obtained, a formal project plan shall be developed.
There is always an end
As the popular quote goes, “everything that has a beginning, has an end.” I believe the same is true for telecenters. Leaders must recognize that as ICT becomes more pervasive, more and more of our stakeholders will gain access to it and own it. Our goal should be to build enough confidence for them to be interested to invest in ICT and own it.
As private sector competition is uncontrollable, cooperatives, NGOs, and government initiated telecenters should put in their minds that their telecenters will be phased out as well. Although this is not popular thinking but a hard reality that must be kept in mind.
With enough metrics and a solid plan in place, despite having an end, a telecenter or business development center has much to accomplish.