Last week, seven information and technology (IT) companies (five international and two Chinese) met in Beijing as part of a regular BSR working group for IT companies in China established earlier this year. This third meeting focused on how the companies could collaborate to address the digital divide, while still maintaining their competitive edge.

The digital divide is the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all, and in particular, how access to such technology can provide education, health, and livelihood benefits that are currently lacking.These companies clearly understand how addressing the digital divide brings long-term benefits to their companies by increasing their potential customer and employee base, so during this meeting the participants instead focused on how to maximize their resources and increase program impact.

I was struck at how quickly the companies identified opportunities for collaboration. And what was even more striking, was that almost none of these companies had collaborated before, despite being big names with leading corporate responsibility programs. The ease at which they came together demonstrated how companies are willing to overcome branding and competitiveness issues in order to join forces to make their programs more efficient and effective.

Each of the companies had developed customized programs that included assessing suitable locations, finding an NGO or government partner, and providing computers to a community. These programs included setting up IT classrooms, developing curricula to teach IT skills, and creating teacher training courses among others.

While computers were always a key part of every program, our discussion revealed that they were not being utilized to their full potential. They were often used by kids during class time, but locked up in the evenings and on weekends when adults could use them to learn English, find jobs, or access market and health information. Websites, software, and curricula that address these very issues are already available and used by various companies and can easily be provided to the schools.

By the end of a three-hour meeting, five of the participants had identified opportunities to collaborate—and more specifically, develop ways to reduce the costs and increase the number of beneficiaries of their programs—and were already arranging further meetings to flesh out the details.