Could the ICT-BPO industry transform Zamboanga City? PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 June 2013 00:00

I've have been fortunate enough to come from a country that currently experiences great wealth and opportunity. In particular, we have embraced technology, as a tool for social and economic development. This has stimulated our economy in many ways, and is recognized as being a unique industry for accelerated growth. Technology has affected our lives in ways that few other industries have, and as such it has been an incredible catalyst for some global regions to realize unprecedented prosperity. Simply put, it truly has brought communities out of the darkness and into the spotlight.

But first, let me answer this question: what exactly is ICT? The acronym stands for Information and Communications Technology. A good way to think about ICT is to consider all the uses of digital technology that already exist to help people, businesses and other organizations collect, manage and share information. From the traditional desktop computers, ipads and software programs, to our cell phones, GPS devices and video-game consoles, they are all ICT. Facebook, You Tube and Google. Each have found a place in our world, in our work and in our personal lives, and they have been designed as tools to make our world a more connected place. For better or for worse, they are here to stay.

With this in mind, what is Business Process Outsourcing, or BPO? Though this concept is a bit more complicated, it involves the contracting of specific business services to an external (or third-party) provider.  Western companies would normally outsource a service when they feel they don’t have the capacity to efficiently deliver it on their own.

Using a combination of ICT and BPO, they connect countries together and overcome geographic boundaries and distances. In fact, when I called the airline to book my flight to come to the Philippines, I spoke to a travel representative who was based in Manila even though I called from Canada. This means a Philippines-based BPO has been setup to receive the requests of Canadians when they need to buy services such as air travel. The agent was incredibly polite, very knowledgeable and perfectly efficient. In addition, that same day I required advanced technical support to fix some computer problems, and when I called the manufacturer they forwarded my request to a Filipino expert who was able to resolve my issue in a surprisingly short period of time. These are the realities of the global market place.

For the younger generation, the world of ICT and BPO have become as famous as our favourite celebrities, especially in regions such as Silicon Valley, parts of India, and even places such as Cebu and Manila. When measuring growth, in 2013 the Philippine ICT-BPO industry is expected to generate $13B US this year, employing 765,000. That's an impressive figure and unlike many other sectors or industries. And do you know how much of this revenue is directly generated in Zamboanga City? Well, let's just say the numbers are so small that we struggle to even measure the amounts. What we do know is that Zamboangueños are highly-trained graduates, well recognized for their skills in ICT-BPO… and we also know they tend to leave Zamboanga as soon as their studies are finished. However, in all my conversations with Zamboanga graduates, I have yet to meet one person that would not jump at the chance to stay here, given the choice.

So how could this happen? And more importantly, do we have a plan to address this issue? It seems as though most other regions in the Philippines have transformed their ICT-BPO economies, including fairly similar cities such as Bacolod. So what's Zamboanga’s problem?

Many might say that 'Peace and Order' is the real reason for Zamboanga City's lack of development in ICT-BPO. Others might remark that brown-outs are the issue. While I'm far from familiar with two concerns, as a foreigner I see plenty of other industries here, which appear to grow and prosper, and they have been able to adapt to the realities of peace and order and the power problem. And I really don't think this is because Zamboangueños are not entrepreneurial enough. In fact, in my experiences of working in many continents of the world, and in my nine years of working here, I honestly have never met more innovative, adaptive, and creative people.

So allow me to get to the point. If I had one message to share today, it would be this: there is absolutely no reason in the world, that Zamboanga City should not be a world-class centre for ICT-BPO activity. Truly. All the right inputs are here, awaiting a time to incubate and hatch into remarkable success. I've been pleased to see the creation of the Zamboanga ICT council, started in June last year, as it is comprised of a small group of volunteers who represent a variety of different sectors and interests. They've been working tirelessly to build the early stage foundation, and I think they should take credit for some remarkable achievements. The Department of Science and Technology has provided some limited seed funding, at least to get the ball rolling. Other groups in Manila have expressed interest in building relationships and offering small-scale contract opportunities. This is all great news.

But here's the real problem: they need your help to build the future of this industry. They just can't do it alone. No great idea has ever prospered without the collective drive and will of the many. For those who have loved ones living in other regions of Philippines as well as abroad as OFWs, allow me to ask you this: what would you do to keep them here, with their families in Zamboanga? How hard would you be willing to work to encourage them back home? And how long are you willing to let the rest of the country enjoy such unprecedented levels of growth while Zamboanga City gets next to nothing?

Through key partnerships with local government, business, academe and other community-based organizations, the ICT-BPO can succeed, that I have no doubt. But it will take your support and encouragement in order to accelerate development and position Zamboanga in becoming a competitive marketplace for ICT-BPO. There's a variety of contributions required and I'm certain that each and every one of you has something of particular value that could be harnessed for this type of acceleration. There are so many great skills here that are perfectly adaptable to the world of ICT and BPO. Business skills, including management, administration, finance and many others. Contacts, networks and relationships that would be critical fast-track development. Influence, advocacy and wisdom that could help encourage key stakeholders to see our collective vision for the future. So I'm hoping that you'll understand how important you are, and will be, to the creation of successful partnerships for the development of this industry. It won't be easy, will take effort, commitment and courage, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the circumstances couldn't be better, and it's now our time.

By Nicholas Luff