IBM: Did We Overreact?

In the Hutong
Enjoying the first thunderstorm of the season
1800 hrs

Christopher Cassidy of AsiaBizLaw is an outstanding writer and a calm, informative voice about the issues that face business in this region. So when he takes the time to comment on a post on the Hutong, I listen.

Chris brought up an excellent point in a comment on my post about the IBM/EIU report on the status of the digital divide. I was responding to it in comments, but I think his question/constructive criticism is important enough that it should be brought out.

He notes:

I interpreted the quote regarding a “level playing field” as limited to a comparison between developed countries and urban areas of Indian and China, such as Bangalore and Shanghai. The article seems to support this interpretation. If this is the case, the IBM/Economist report does not seem susceptible to the criticism you are leveling against it. Rather, the IBM executive is celebrating the growth that has occurred, allowing such a limited comparison to be feasible. Doesn’t this seem more likely to be the intention of a firm as sophisticated as IBM (or The Economist, for that matter)?
He has a point – IBM and EIU may want to be celebrating progress. But here’s what bothers me.

One of the things you learn very quickly as a business communicator is how quickly a comment can be taken out of context or just plain misinterpreted. For these reasons, when commenting publicly you have to be very careful about what you say.

Granting that in my frustration with the original article I may not have completely followed that advice myself, the article is still misleading to a casual reader who (I posit in this day of information overload, RSS readers, and the like) make up a majority of your audience. Something else you learn in the communications business – journalists write using the inverted-pyramid structure because the vast majority of readers read a headline and the first 34 paragraphs, and that’s it.

That’s why government and corporate spokespeople are trained before they are allowed in front of the media, and why they craft their messages and talking points carefully.

Given this, my three main issues with the article are:

First, Korsten’s quote was emphatic: “This is the first time we see a level playing field between developed and developing nations in terms of connectivity.”

He did not say: “This is the first time that we have seen a level playing field between developed nations and the more advanced regions of developing nations.”

Nor did he say: “This is the first time we see significant progress toward the creation of a level playing field between developed and developing nations in terms of connectivity.”

Either of those would have been much better. What I would have liked to see him say is: “While we see isolated regions in developing nations reaching parity with developed nations, widespread connectivity in India and China remains a challenge to industry and policy-makers.”

That would have been an accurate statement, would have celebrated the progress appropriately, and still made the core point of the report.

Am I being nit-picky?

The first thing I was taught when writing a business report was “words mean things.” When you are speaking to CNN on behalf of your company and a prestigious research institution, care with what you say is essential.

Second, the phrase “level playing field” carries with it a great deal of semantic baggage – it’s one of those catch-phrases that the brain likes to glom onto.

What will most people remember about this report in a week or a month?

“China….India…developed nations…level playing field…”

Given the facts, I think his choice of that phrase was ill-advised.

Third, without getting into the methodology of the report and its metrics, if we assume that Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou have scores of 8 or so on the connectivity index, what must the rest of the country look like to balance out to a 4.02 average? I’d assume it’s 4 or below. As such, the report likely should have noted that China WITHOUT the leading regions (and India without the leading regions) are much closer to Azerbaijan than to the U.S., Europe, or Australia.

(Another reason why average measures applied to China as a whole are meaningless, but I digress.)

Why is this important?

In China and India the problem of the digital divide is a matter of vast differences between regions – often even adjacent regions. The problem of a divide opening WITHIN a country like China or India is the follow-on effects these differences are going to have on incomes. In short, you’re looking at a leading-edge indicator of growing income and opportunity disparities. This is at least as serious a problem as any difference between countries might me, and arguably a far greater danger.

I will grant that IBM and the EIU are smart and respectable institutions who don’t make big mistakes with their reports. I’ll even grant that their numbers are accurate. I’ll grant that their intentions – celebrating progress – were good.

But it is incumbent on these organizations, as credible and prestigious as they are, to convey through their research and their communication about said research a balanced and accurate picture.

Because of their sweeping statements and poorly-chosen phraseology, I submit that only in the case of a careful reader have they succeeded, and that they obscured the nature of the problem that still exists in China.

Thanks, Chris, for your comments. And everyone – when I get worked up about nothing or step out of line, bring it on.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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