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No Limits for the Outer Isles

Glasgow Herald - 2000-01-02

by Ian Sclater

If you've ever attempted an online transaction and abandoned it before completing the purchase, chances are you gave up because the site was too complex or the process too confusing. To counter this, more and more e-commerce sites are providing live, real-time e-mail dialogue with a customer support person.

With the nature of the Internet, your new pen pal could be located anywhere in the world - say, for example, a converted croft in some remote community in the Western Isles. This is where Donnie Morrison, ex-MicroAge marketing executive, has set up his Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Advisory Service.

Donnie Morrison ALIGN=

Morrison, a son of the Isles, is keen to attract more new media jobs to an area where traditional industries are almost all in decline. His job isn't quite as difficult as it might seem on the surface, for Britain's westernmost inhabited outcrop is already home to some of the country's most progressive new economy companies.

'I'm a facilitator,' Morrison explains. 'My job here is more about marketing and PR than it is about technology.'

ICT is a go-between linking companies and teleworkers (it does not itself enter into contracts with companies), and to date, has helped secure contracts from major commercial and public bodies, including Quantum, Singlepoint, Strategic IT Marketing, Cisco Systems, the Metropolitan Police, and Dundee City Council.

The types of work handled by teleworkers on the ICT database include abstracting and indexing forensic science papers, software development, multi-media programming, computer-aided design, creating graphical representations of chemical reactions, and compiling music encyclopaedias.

Exploiting opportunities arising from the skills shortage in the overheated economy around London and the south-east - a shortage that has spread as far north as Glasgow, where filling Internet jobs has become an issue - Morrison has helped the islands re-invent themselves as both a cost-effective source of workers and a physical base for e-commerce activity.

The Western Isles is one of the most wired parts of the UK, a legacy of the sophisticated communications infrastructure set up by the Ministry of Defence during the Cold War. With the MoD now using less and less of the capacity, and with the University of the Highlands and Islands bringing broad bandwidth to the area, the prospects for increased employment are outstanding.

Last year, ICT received the EC-sponsored European Telework Award for best telework enterprise aimed at SMEs, which Morrison says lent 'a huge credibility' to his efforts.

It also helped attract iomart, the UK's first Internet Service Provide (ISP) to be based on an island. Having recently been listed on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) with a capitalisation of 50m, iomart's Internet support centre staff of 95 in Stornoway is expected to more than double in the next 18 months.

Additional Internet centres are planned in Stornoway, Benbecula and more rural locations. These are conceived as 30-person operations in what Morrison describes as 'more densely populated rural areas'.

The list of companies lured to the Isles by reduced recruitment costs, lower overheads and negligible staff turnover continues to grow. Voicepath, for example, provides digital recording and transcriptions services to London-based barristers and solicitors.

Voice recordings are made direct into digital devices and transferred over the internet as audio files to the Western Isles, where home-based teleworkers download them and using either headphones or external speakers, transcribe the verbiage into a word processing programme. The entire transcription is then e-mailed back to the client.

Another capture is Criticall, which provides telephone-based emergency alert services to blue chip companies in the pharmaceutical, oil, and gas sectors. With a sales operation in London, the actual job of managing the system - which can send out hundreds of targeted messages instantly in a situation that requires an immediate, co-ordinated response - is done in the Western Isles.

The Western Isles is also where the classified property listings and job ads in The Herald are electronically formatted for publication on the Web. Even the mighty Virgin Group has looked to the isles for regular updates of its Virgin Business Network site.

Morrison attributes much of this success to the fact that the Western Isles boasts the highest per capital university education level in Britain.

'We've always valued education here,' he said. 'I suppose it's seen as a way out of the fact that there haven't been that many suitable jobs.'

'People typically are not looking to work on a fish farm or get involved in the Harris Tweed industry, so they've really had to leave.'

'Now for us to attract companies here that will employ graduates with the right kind of skills is quite an exciting prospect.'