Bernardo M. Villegas
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Digital Natives

           Last November 29, 2012, I addressed  top executives of call centers from the Asia Pacific region when they gathered at the Marriott Hotel, Newport City Complex, in the annual conference of the Asia Pacific Contact Centre Association Leaders (APPCAL).  I talked about the "Geopolitical Issues Confronting the Call Center Industry in Asia-Pacific Region."  One of the main points I raised was the contrast between the demographic profiles of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia (especially Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines).  Countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even China are already suffering from the rapid aging of their populations, with the consequent shortage of workers for their call center industries.  In contrast, most of the Southeast Asian countries, with the exception of  Singapore and Thailand, are still enjoying the "sweet spot" or demographic dividend that confers on them a rising and young population that results in the best of both worlds:  they have very attractive consumer markets for investors and abundant manpower for contact centers, catering to both domestic and foreign markets.  The Philippines is especially attractive to call centers directed towards foreign markets because of the high level of English proficiency among its young population.

          What struck me, however, was the speech of Mr. Maulik Parekh, President and Chief Executive Officer of Spi Global, a leading KPO and Customer Interaction Solutions company with more than 15,000 employees across 14 facilities in the US, Europe, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam.  At the beginning of his speech he referred to the burgeoning segment among the young population, especially the yuppies, that can be named the "digital natives."  These are the youth who in the last twenty years  were born, not with a silver spoon, but with a mouse in the computer.  He warned the audience that they cannot rely on voice-oriented call centers forever because this generation of "digital natives"  will no longer use the telephone (landline or mobile) to get information or to order goods and services.  They will go digital.

          Coincidentally, just five days before the APPCAL conference, I was in Seoul delivering another paper on modern Korean economic history.  There I met Dr. Kim Jin Hyun, former Minister of Science and Technology of the Government of the Republic of South Korea.  He shared with me a briefing paper he wrote on the "New Global Media and Global Peace Building."  He confirmed what is now a well-known fact about South Korea, the most highly educated and most networked country in the world.   The South Koreans are the leading "digital natives" in the world.  In the US, as Mr. Parekh pointed out in his speech, only 20 percent can be considered digital natives.  In South Korea, the figure is at least double that.  Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, in an article that appeared in the Korean publication Chosun Ilbo said:  "Consumer electronics have been experiencing a global transition, and Korea is leading the way into what I see as the third wave of consumer electronics.  Surveys show Korean consumers use their smart phones with a real intensity:  in the home, on the street, in almost any situation.  Korea's adoption of smart phones happened with unprecedented speed.  In 2009, no smart phones.  In 2011, when Korea had 30% smart phone penetration, that was exciting and we were talking about a mobile revolution.  Now, more than 60% of Koreans own one.  By contrast, it took 10 years for 50% of Americans to get an Internet connection in their home.  In just three years, Koreans have come to expect the Internet to be relevant to every decision and every moment."

          While we are proud about the Philippines being a "texting capital" of the world, our internet penetration is still extremely low at less than 5% of the population.   It is possible that the presence of hundreds of thousands of Koreans in our country can help to accelerate the growth of "digital natives" almost by osmosis.  Of course, this means that the State and the private sector must collaborate very closely to improve further the state of our telecommunications systems.  Our leaders can look at South Korea as a model to try to replicate.  Just consider what Dr. Kim Jin Hyun wrote in his briefing paper:  "In Korea, you can use internet free of charge in a wifi zone, and there are passionate game developers including com2us which won a great success in its development of games for smart phones.  As of the end of 2011, Korea records the penetration rate of high-speed wireless internet exceeding 100 percent (100.6 percent) and becomes the first OECD member which has the number of high-speed wireless internet users outweighing the population.  Korea also has Psy (Park Jae Sang) whose 'Gangnam Style' ranked No. 2 of the Billboard Single Chart just two months after appearing in SNS and Youtube without a single performance overseas.  The chief executive of SMS, a promotion company which won a great success of K-pop through SNS and Youtube,  said 'the age of national sovereignty  has waned and the age of cultural solidarity has waxed'..."  We have to make sure that in the coming decade or so, our educational, business and government sectors are ready for the rising number of digital natives in the Philippines.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.