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Is Volvo a car or a computer?

Is Volvo a car or a computer?

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The Nordic countries are well advanced in the use of the new technology. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are at the forefront of Europe in terms of home PCs, Internet connections, and, not least, ownership of mobile telephones. But the lack of skilled labour can be an obstacle to continued rapid development, warn many experts.

«It’s for everybody» has been and still is a recurrent theme in IT policy in the Nordic countries. It‘s a matter of access to lifelong learning and the use of IT in the service of democracy. These are also some of the reasons for the success of the Nordic countries in this area, maintain several Nordic researchers.

«Nowadays, people who live in the suburbs and beyond have for the first time the same opportunities as others, to seek a ‘second opinion’ when they are ill. Previously, they had to be content with what just one doctor said. Telemedicine means a boost to the quality of life for people who are far away from urban areas,» says radiologist Jan Størmer at the regional hospital in Tromsø.

He has worked with telemedicine ever since it started in Tromsø ten years ago and has for some time witnessed the opportunities the new technology provides for both patients and professionals.

Nowadays, the telemedicine department at the regional hospital in Tromsø is renowned as one of the leading departments of its kind in the world. By using the new communications technology, patients can obtain access to medical expertise and information regardless of where they are geographically situated.

«Previously, a patient might seek help in Lofoten one day, be sent to the district hospital in Bodø on the second day, and not arrive in Tromsø until the third day,» relates Jan Størmer.

Nowadays, X-rays and other information are sent here immediately, something that was previously just a pipe dream. It has also meant more reliable diagnoses and that unnecessary hazardous transportation, in which personnel put their own lives on the line to get patients to hospital as soon as possible, can be avoided.

Patients can remain where they are

«I feel much more comfortable now that I can look at X-rays before I decide to have somebody moved. We have had some serious accidents moving people, after which it turned out that the patient was not seriously ill. I also feel that I am being more useful in a wider context. Other hospitals now use my knowledge more,» says Jan Störmer.

The high level of use of the new technology creates new habits and patterns - for job seekers, for workers, for pupils, for companies, for organisations and, not least, for consumers. The Finnish company Finnmirror has, for instance, developed a completely new business concept with the help of the new technology. Using new computer software, the company markets its goods interactively. Customers wanting to buy a mirror can visit the shop and design the mirror to their own requirements.

Details are then transmitted to the factory, which has been reorganised in order to handle such requirements. The 69 employees have been re-trained and a team organisation has been created so the staff can immediately start working on each customer’s order, which they can access on their own PCs. The staff has much more influence than previously and customer communications have been improved. The Finnmirror example is taken from an evaluation within a larger programme under the aegis of the Ministry of Labour, designed to increase the use of IT in traditional industry.

«The Nordic countries are actually quite similar. IT usage is really at a tremendously high level and we have a level of IT maturity that is unique in our region,» says Robert Limmergård, who deals with financial and political analyses at the Association of the Swedish IT and Telecom Industry.

The way IT is used is governed to a great degree by the state of the economy before the new technology manifested itself, he relates. In Iceland, the use of computers in the fishing industry is being developed and has already become an export product.

Smart Cars

In Sweden, for instance, IT has been developed within the automotive industry. Telia, Ericsson and Scania have joined forces to make cars more and more intelligent – «Smart Cars» that will help the driver with the route, provide weather reports and also give warnings about traffic stoppages. The system can also be used to locate where trucks are - in order to have better management and logistics.

«You can see from the demand that Nordic users have reached IT maturity. The use of IT is on the increase, even among older people. Companies have also made significant investments in new technology,» says Robert Limmergård.

Researchers in all the Nordic countries have been asked why the Nordic countries are so successful in terms of the new technology, with the USA being the only country generally further ahead. One reason is the telephone network, which is the first part of the new IT. As long as a hundred years ago, Stockholm had the greatest density of telephones in the world. Policies for the sparsely populated areas of the Nordic countries have been promoting the creation of a telephone network for everybody.

«We are also very technically minded. Sweden is often used, for instance, by American companies as a ‘guinea pig’ for new products,» says Robert Limmergård.

Joint standards for mobile telephones

Pekka Yleantila at the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy in Helsinki has a similar explanation for the rapid developments that took place at a much greater rate in Finland than perhaps anywhere else. He refers to incomparable structural changes in the Finnish economy during the 90s. The Nordic countries have had a good infrastructure for the new technology. Right at the end of the 70s, the Nordic countries decided on a joint standard for mobile communications, Nordic Mobil Telephone (NMT), which began to be manufactured during the 80s. It was the start of the rapid development of mobile telephones.

«The Nordic countries are also small and new technology can be disseminated rapidly. Many people have a high level of education and there is a democratic tradition that gives importance to everybody being able to participate and benefit from new developments. We live so far apart that communication is more important here,» says Pekka Yleantila adding:

«Finns have always wanted to be modern.

Rolf Jensen, Director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies in Denmark also stresses the significance of the organisation culture.

«We have a company culture with a very flat hierarchy. There are short distances between management and staff. Development is therefore not dependent on one individual at the apex of the company, instead, many employees have the scope to take action. ‘Uncertainty avoidance’ is quite simply eliminated,» he says.

Rolf Jensen believes that this is one reason why the more hierarchically organised companies in southern Europe find it more difficult to keep up with the new technology. He takes himself as an example. He is 58 and can’t keep up with everything his younger colleagues are into. If it had been Italy, he maintains, it would have meant that the entire company had been left behind, but in his company the staff ensure that the company keeps up-to-date.

None of the researchers interviewed are in any doubt that developments are taking place at an alarming rate. At the moment there is a lot of activity around WAP, which will help us to access the Internet via mobile telephones. Wherever we are situated, it should be possible to order tickets and log on via mobile telephones. The matter of extending broadband to allow for rapid connection wherever a user is situated is also high on the agenda.

Cows with chips

«Ordinary Nordic companies are currently using the new technology. Just look at industries like agriculture and fishing. It’s difficult to find a cow that isn’t implanted with a chip containing all the information about it. IT is permeating the whole of society. The technological revolution is here,» says Rolf Jensen.

«IT is just a tool but it affects everything we see and take for granted. Soon, for instance, there will be a pen on the market that can be used normally, but will also record the text digitally. The great challenge now is to create the information society. Individuals are increasingly becoming the carriers of information, which in turn will help to enhance a company’s value. It is therefore vital that people will continue to feel that development is fun and that they are not suffocated by their organisations,» says Robert Limmergård.

New model means many changes

From 1996 Volvo launched the new car model V70. The letter "V" was meant to mean versatility. Compared to the earlier model Volvo 850, 1 800 changes had been made. Photo: IFCAR

The "new" human being

Marx was right. Nowadays, the workers own the actual means of production, maintain the authors Kjell A. Nordström and Jonas Ridderstolpe in the book «Funkybusiness» (reviewed in Nordic Labour Journal 1/2000).

This puts new demands on individuals. To become employable requires lifelong learning – the continual updating of knowledge.

When asked, 96 Swedish personnel directors said that the people most in demand are those who command the new technology, have social skills and show initiative. Many of the personnel directors believe that these

characteristics go together with a thorough education. In job advert after job advert, the call is for the right «mindset» and flexibility.

«The responsibility for in-service training lies with both the individual and the workplace, but everything needs to be based on individual learning,» says Kurt Lundgren, PhD in Economics at the Swedish Institute of Working Life.

«But it is not sufficient to stress that individuals need to adapt to the working life. The actual workplaces must also be improved so that they are attractive to individuals,» stressed Mona Sahlin, Minister in the Swedish government, when the future supply of labour was discussed.


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