Two trends came together in the 1990s to create a force that is today bringing knowledge and technical and business skills to the world’s poorer countries.

As management enthusiasm for corporate social responsibility programmes was growing, it coincided with a United Nations focus on knowledge building in the developing world.

This combination of “doing good”, working in line with UN ambitions, plus tangible business benefits has seen big technology companies investing heavily in creating “knowledge transfer initiatives” for developing nations.

When the UN’s development experts in the 1990s looked at what was holding back some countries, they identified “capacity building” as a major factor. Providing the means by which poor countries could gain the knowledge and skills was necessary for them to make sustainable progress in their societies.

This emphasis on developing human resources fitted well with the increasingly popular CSR and big technology companies responded by creating knowledge transfer initiatives.

Cisco was an early entrant, and focused at first on building technical training academies. Tae Yoo, vice-president of Cisco corporate affairs, says such academies are usually the first point of entry for multinational vendors. “You focus on teaching what you know,” he says.

But Cisco came to realise that access to advanced technology was not the only challenge in developing countries. “We saw another divide emerging – the skills gap. This was a potential problem in the pipeline, so we decided to move down the supply line to secondary and basic education,” explains Ms Yoo.

At the 2003 World Economic Forum, John Chambers, Cisco’s chief executive, called on business leaders to work with governments and non-profit organisations to experiment by creating a focused educational programme in one country. The result was the Jordan Education Initiative, an e-learning project for secondary schools developed with the Kingdom of Jordan and a number of technology companies.

It is a model that has been used in the Indian state of Rajasthan and Egypt is planning to do so later this year.

Alongside this work, Cisco has continued to develop its Cisco Networking Academy Program, having invested more than $250m since 1997. CNAPs provide networking and other ICT training to secondary and university students, to the unemployed and to community-based organisations. So far, more than 10,000 CNAPs have been opened in 152 countries, many in the world’s least developed countries.

In 1999, HP began setting up digital community centres to bring technology and basic skills to countries that now include Senegal, Jordan and Ukraine. But as HP gained field experience it found there was still a gap between making technology available and providing the business skills that would make it productive.

“We absolutely want to create jobs. Training is necessary but the kicker is creating more jobs and possibilities for entrepreneurs,” says Didier Philippe, who heads HP’s corporate responsibility initiatives in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

This resulted in the HP Micro-enterprise Acceleration Program, focused on training entrepreneurs in how to use technology to develop their businesses. Besides providing equipment, HP trains local instructors to teach its specially developed curriculum.

IBM is focusing its efforts on top talent in universities, with an eye to hiring the best performers. The company’s Extreme Blue programme puts teams of students to work on real business challenges. Originally a US project, IBM extended the programme to China and India in 2002, and more recently to Brazil.

Extreme Blue has been fruitful, with more than 40 projects having been folded into IBM solutions and hundreds of patent disclosures resulting. IBM has also hired 275 programme graduates.

Margaret Ashida, director of IBM’s University Talent Program, says Extreme Blue plays an important role in developing local skills. “We attract talent in a country for the Extreme Blue lab in their country. If we make a job offer, it is to work in their country,” she says.

The Accenture Development Partnerships has taken a different approach, making the consultancy’s services available at cost to NGOs that would not normally have access to such services.

“Some NGOs want to bring in the business DNA and learn from the best that the private sector has to offer. So we are offering our core expertise and technology at a fraction of market rates. This is beyond philanthropy; it is a new business model,” says Gib Bulloch, ADP founder and director.

ADP, which operates as a charity, uses Accenture staff who work on the projects for six months at half salary. So far, about 100 consultants have worked on 80 ADP projects in 37 countries.

Besides tapping Accenture’s business and technological know-how, many ADP projects leverage the firm’s expertise in logistics, such as helping relief groups access the Darfur region more effectively or helping the Namibian ministry of education implement its school PC programme.

The Alcatel University, which delivers the company’s internal training as well as courses for customers, also supplies local educational institutions with faculty or with training hardware. In Brazil, the company trained 280 people to become field engineers to help them get a first job.

The vendor is also building up its own educational facilities in emerging economies, such as a new Alcatel University in India.

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