February 11, 2018

Collaboration is key to getting content right

Publishers of digital Arabic content need to work towards collaboration to deliver products that start out right.
A Saudi employee prepares a slideshow at his office in Riyadh.          (Reuters)
Reaching out. A Saudi employee prepares a slideshow at his office in Riyadh. (Reuters)

The “Arab Knowledge Economy Report 2015-2016” said the number of internet users was expected to rise to about 226 million by 2018. Has this come to pass?

Research has shown that we are in the neighbourhood of 160 million internet users in the Arab world today and that the millennial generation (16-24) is its biggest segment.

It is also the fastest growing demographic in the world.

Yet, McKinsey’s “Digital Middle East 2016” report said the Arab region is capturing only a fraction of its digital potential. It takes a whole eco-system to leverage that potential. Here’s the question: How can small stakeholders and start-ups amplify the opportunity?

The digital world has become so competitive that it makes sense for companies to form alliances thrive. Not everyone agrees on this point, however. In a lecture at Stanford, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki deemed partnerships irrelevant.

In the literature on entrepreneurship, there are contradictory theories. Should one seek to solve problems for oneself or for others? I believe that problems need to be solved vertically because a chain of small problems is linked to a bigger one. In the Arab world, companies need to leverage each other’s assets. We must collaborate or perish.

Digital platforms in the Arab world are still in experimental mode, especially in terms of user experience, user interface and back-end Arabic programming. The potential of back-end programming — lines of code that transform into algorithms and artificial intelligence systems that magically know what you like — is yet to be explored for Arabic. Digital publishers can accelerate learning by sharing the process of trial and error and writing up the results — in Arabic.

For some time, the investment in Arabic language technology has come from major universities in the West and in the Middle East. These include Stanford’s Natural Language Processing group, the American University of Beirut’s Engineering Department, New York University Abu Dhabi and the Qatar Computing Research Institute at Hamad bin Khalifa University.

More is needed. “The ArabNet App Trends” report stated that 62% of respondents said they readily download Arabic apps. That figure would be much higher if there were more Arabic apps and if consumers trusted them more. The ArabNet report also said that 12% of respondents said they don’t trust Arabic mobile apps, 16% had a bad experience with them and 30% did not find them of good quality. As a result, they resort to international mobile apps.

In the start-up world, one often hears that a product does not have to be perfect for customers but this does not reflect the opinions of the young Arabs I met. Perhaps a better approach may be that of a practical perfectionist. A product does not have to be the right one for the customer from day one but it does need to be well-presented and function well. It needs to be bug-free, have great design and offer as frictionless a user experience as possible.

Publishers of digital Arabic content need to work towards collaboration to deliver products that start out right. In 2016, Haykal Media launched the Renaissance Partners programme with strategic partners, including GE Capital, for the widely read Harvard Business Review Arabia. This is a good example of collaboration that will empower young Arabs who want to make it in the world of business.

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