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Commissioner Flynn speaks about the Information society

In a recent interview with RTD-News, Mr. Padraig Flynn, Commissioner responsible for employment and social affairs, outlined the mandate of the recently established High Level Group of Experts on the Information Society and examined the role of teleworking in tommorow's Europe...
In a recent interview with RTD-News, Mr. Padraig Flynn, Commissioner responsible for employment and social affairs, outlined the mandate of the recently established High Level Group of Experts on the Information Society and examined the role of teleworking in tommorow's Europe:

- Could you outline the aims, objective and role of the High Level Group of Experts on the Information Society ?

The group has been convened to examine the practical steps which can be taken to make sure that the Information Society is achieved rapidly and in a socially acceptable manner. It will concentrate on the issue of employment, because that remains the main challenge facing Europe today. It will also, however, consider other areas facing major change and upheaval, including the areas of health, regional and social cohesion, and education and training.

It is important to stress that this is an independent group established to help the Commission frame its action on social aspects of the Information Society. The Commission takes an active interest in the Group's on-going work, which we are supporting as much as we can, and we are waiting to receive their advice on these important but very difficult issues.

- How do you expect the Information Society to alter working norms in Europe?

This is one of the major areas in which the High Level Group are active, so I will have to be careful not to preempt their conclusions. There are, however, clear pressures which are effecting the way in which we work. Many of these relate to on-going changes in the economy: the increasing participation of women in the labour force; the growing level of part-time work; the growing importance of self-employment and new forms of work contracts. These changes mean that a full time family wage is no longer on offer for many households. In addition, we are facing industrial change, as traditional manufacturing sectors continue to give way to services, and as these services are increasingly exposed to delocalization.

The Information Society is reinforcing many of these trends. But It also provides many options for positive programmes of action to achieve alternative ways of work, and life, which offer greater hope of higher social standards. The point is that the Information Society offers us choices. Technologies have to be shaped by society, not society shaped by technological forces. Our aim is to identify the best course of action and to follow it through, in order to create a new vision of a European Information Society, not just in the workplace but in life in general.

- Do you see teleworking as an opportunity for all ? How do you see its benefits being applied to the work-force throughout Europe ?

Teleworking is an opportunity, but it also carries risks. It offers greater access to work because it allows more flexibility in the timing and location of jobs. If managed effectively, it could make it possible to provide opportunities to groups who are currently excluded from the labour market. But it is also clear that, in some situations, teleworking can increase worker isolation, reduce the solidarity of workers and lead to a lower quality of working life.

We are looking at the practical steps that can be taken to overcome these potentially negative aspects of telework, whilst reaping the potential benefits. We have launched studies on aspects of work which are likely to change, such as labour law, health and safety and social security. We have a particular interest in the effects on women workers as, currently, many teleworkers are women and telework could improve the labour market position of women workers quite markedly. We have a group examining these issues right now led by the internationally renowned expert on teleworking, Ursula Huws.

- There is currently an awareness of the Information Society resulting in a so-called "two-tier society" which may exclu certain sections of the community from reaping its expected benefits. What do you perceive to be the dangers of the Information Society and how do you see these issues being addressed?

There is, indeed, a real danger of the Information Society becoming a two-tier society. That is one of the reasons why we are actively developing policy responses. It is simply not enough to leave these matters to the market. We have to take steps to support the social fabric of European society during the transition to the Information Society.

Above all else, this means providing people and organizations with the capacity to adapt and to gain control over the processes of change. That involves developing a culture of life-long learning (a learning society) and aiding the transformation of working culture so that people can take charge of their lives at work and beyond.

These are ambitious objectives, and we will have to move swiftly to define a social agenda for change. For instance, in a learning society not everyone is going to be a high technology professional. There will be a big growth in demand for personal and caring services, environmental services and so on. These areas of potential expansion could create jobs, and many of these jobs could be available to people who will not be able to work in the tradable sectors. We need to see how to develop these two areas of potential job growth (the new information society-related 'tradable' jobs and the 'non-tradable' inter-personal or unautomated jobs) can be developed so that they are mutually reinforcing, while achieving increased wealth and quality of life for Europeans.

- What research and initiatives are currently being undertaken at EU level in relation to the Information Society and its influence on society in general?

There is such a broad range of activities on the Information Society supported by the Commission that it is impossible to summarize them all adequately here, so I will just give a flavour of the range of actions underway. In addition to the High Level Expert Group, there is a new Information Society Forum of around 120 participants, from a broad range of social and economic groups, which met for the first time on 13 July 1995. They will work in parallel with the already established Expert Group.

There are colloquia, major conferences and seminars planned for 1996. These include a colloquium, to be held in early 1996, at which the initial findings of the High Level Expert Group will be presented. In addition, there is a major conference planned to take place in January 1996, in Italy, to mark the launch of the European Year of Life Long Learning. Such events will help to stimulate debate on the complex issues of the social and societal aspects of the Information Society. They will also help to ensure that the message gets across that this is a social not just a technological process.

There are a whole range of studies which have been launched on employment and the Information Society. For instance, there is a study on the impact of the liberalization of telecommunications on employment and its implications for policy. There is another major study on the effects of advanced communications on regional cohesion. All these studies, and there are many of them, help us to see more clearly the patterns within the complex social and economic changes leading to the Information Society. They are all being followed with great interest and directly affect our policy thinking.

We are also launching pilot actions, in order to hammer out EU policy in relation to the Information Society. These pilot actions help us to experiment with ways of stimulating innovation in the regions and communities of Europe. For example we are about to launch an initiative to support the development of regional level strategies for the Information Society. Around 80 projects will be supported - mainly in less-favoured regions. This will help local actors to define a grass-roots approach to this major new challenge. In time, we hope, the lessons from these initiatives will filter though into both European-level policy and national policy.

- Do you see the Information Society as an important influence on European integration?

The Information Society is both a reason why we have to achieve European integration more rapidly, and a means of getting there. One of the major features of the Information Society is globalization. Organizations will use advanced communication technology to coordinate their activities at a global level, with less and less regard to the barriers of time and space.

European integration will help to establish Europe as a cohesive region in this emerging global system. We need to make sure that we retain a place at the top table of the global economy by developing a European version of the Information Society very quickly.

To achieve that we need to take active policy steps. Information and communications technologies (ICTs) can help us. We already have, for example, a project which will help develop a European labour market and promote the mobility of Europeans within it. This project involves the development of a computer system called EURES, which links together the employment services in Member States and allows vacancies to be signaled across the territory. There are many similar projects including: projects on sharing library resources, on-line government, the identification of meaningful Euro-qualifications and so on. All these actions will help to make European society more efficient and raise the level of opportunity for Europeans, while at the same time making Europe more competitive.

- How do you perceive the role of information and communication technologies in the workforce of the future?

ICTs are already found in just about every workplace and directly affect most jobs. There is no getting away from them so you may as well take advantage of them. This does not mean that everyone will have to become a computer technician, but we will all have to strive towards some level of computer literacy, especially at work. Most jobs are changing as these new technologies are introduced.

The skills required of workers in the future will depend upon the choices of management about what technologies to introduce and the manner of implementation of these technologies. These things are not necessarily fixed by technology. It should be possible to combine efficient technological change with higher standards of industrial democracy and participation. This will, however, require a high level of management and worker competence. Here I am referring not only to technical and professional skills but also to communication skills, cooperative and team working abilities, decision making abilities and so on. In the Information Society, the workforce will undoubtedly have to be more highly trained than at present. This will require them to develop a broad range of skills as opposed to just narrow technical competence.
DE

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