Virtual conferences: a new way to network

The Internet offers new opportunities to join in international discussions without the disadvantages of costly and time-consuming travel.

Small businesses in developing countries now know where to go to bid for supplies at the best price worldwide, and how to avoid some of the commonest pitfalls of e-commerce, thanks to a conference organised by the International Trade Centre (ITC) in Switzerland. Conveniently, they did not have to worry about getting there, since the conference took place by e-mail.

Networking, long recognised as a useful tool for business, is taking on a new lease of life as the virtual world of the Internet offers new opportunities for international discussions without the disadvantages of costly and time-consuming travel.

To organisations like the ITC, e-mail discussions can be particularly useful in providing a low-cost and efficient way of promoting debate between business in developing countries and trade development organisations. A recent series of ITC e-mail discussions on the challenges and opportunities offered to exporters in developing and transition economies by e-commerce attracted nearly 600 participants from 86 countries, some 80% of them from the developing world.

The debates enabled businesses in countries from Nepal to Peru, and Vietnam to Kazakhstan, to share their experiences of e-commerce, from problems such as high telecom costs at home, to useful solutions such as global supply auctions. It also offered ITC a vision of the needs of would-be e-commerce exporters in the developing world, right down to basic questions such as where to start.

The experience proved the usefulness of virtual networking, but also offered a series of lessons in how to ensure that such exercises are successful. In fact, planning, tight organisation and follow-up are just as important in the virtual world as in a conference hall.

Most important is a clear focus for the discussion. In the ITC’s case, the topic on the table was export development and the digital economy. A clearly-defined topic not only ensures that the debate remains on track, but ensures visibility and support from staff and management.

The physical debate, called the Executive Forum on Export Development in the Digital Economy, was co-organised with the Swiss state secretariat for economic affairs, and was held in Montreux. The ITC was determined to share the debate with as many people as possible. But at the same time they wanted to limit numbers at the actual event in order to keep the discussion fruitful.

The solution was a series of three e-mail discussions as a complement to the forum, which enabled interested parties all over the world to follow the debate in Montreux and offer their own comments on e-commerce issues.

The e-mail debates, spread over three months, enabled participants to offer input before the Montreux discussions began and to continue exchanging ideas afterwards. The tight focus of the Montreux meeting was a boon for the virtual debate, ensuring that the e-mail discussion did not wander off into diffuse exchanges of irrelevant messages. So while one participant cautioned that having access to the Internet and creating a web site were not enough in themselves to create a flourishing e-business, another offered the address of a global auction site, and a third suggested how chambers of commerce could be a useful forum to trade experiences and help.

The organisers also took care to target a clearly-defined group of participants to the e-mail discussion, focusing on developing countries.

E-conferences on the web are not that uncommon, but conferences by e-mail are fairly unusual. Yet they have distinct advantages. For instance, participants automatically receive new contributions to the debate in their mailbox, rather than having to keep clicking on a web site – something most people are too busy to do during their working day.

Nonetheless, to ensure that the ideas and suggestions are not lost, discussions from the conference and the e-mail sessions can be posted on a special web site for future reference.

So, what about the conference itself? The first discussion was held in early September, ahead of the main Montreux event. Participants were invited to provide national perspectives on electronic commerce, and share their ideas and experience in areas such as portal sites, e-commerce strategies, community awareness programmes, and training programmes for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Input ranged across the globe, from the United States to India, Peru to Russia, and included upbeat success stories of national e-commerce portals or computer literacy programmes, and cautionary tales about the problems of trying to do e-business in countries where access to telecom services is neither universal nor cheap.

The second e-mail discussion took place during the forum, and linked e-mail participants from around the world to the live discussions in Montreux.

The final session, in November, focused on identifying how to transform these ideas into action and finding private sector partners who might be interested in helping e-commerce development on a national, regional or international level.

©OECD Observer No 224, January 2001

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