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The Parabole company in Felletin
Parabole engineers develop specific software and Internet applications in a cooperative way with their clients: while they do the `software part', the `hardware' one is being done simultaneously on their clients' computers.
Parabole as a whole offers a tele-service to its clients, but does not use telework within its own structure as yet. If its rural implantation, allowing reduced expenses and lower salaries, guaranteed a successful start, the game is not over. Low-wages countries could prove hard competitors in the short run and Parabole needs to secure a strong local hard-core before implementing telework internally.
Communication tools are: Transpac, Numeris, phone and fax machines. Visiophonie offers a common blackboard during phone-conferences, all the more since Parabole develops the visual part of Visiophonie's software. E-mail is used extensively. Distance and lack of personal contact being a fact, one might as well take advantage of it and turn it into a method. Conviviality is reinvented in a written form, coffee-breaks come as informal `tele-scription'... but what is written remains and this permits to keep track with work evolution and decision making. Lotus Note is used to organise and save internal communications and will be turned later on into an Intranet. Jean Marc Abel, director of Parabole, insists that e-mail be used instead of a photocopying machine and refuses to read notes that do not have an electronic copy. Such tools do not suppress the need of personal meetings but optimise them through better preparation.
Parabole is now working. Its start has been a long and uneasy one, the hardest part being to discern and discard all kinds of `not so good' good ideas!
But the company remains fragile. Cash-flow is a regular headache and capital investment does not go without problems. Rigour and tenacity are a must.
Internet is an obvious market for teleworking companies. As a fast growing market, it also requires multiple know-how: technical, commercial, graphic, editorial... and it becomes preferable to federate local enterprises on common projects rather than sign on all kinds of professionals.
Parabole catches all market opportunities. It already offers access to Internet, hosts Web sites, offers local industries a show-case on the WWW.
It also faces tough local competition as the Region has decided to embark on the New Information Technologies. Three local enterprises compete with Parabole to develop the Limousin' regional server. At the committee set up by the Conseil Regional (regional council) to encourage and promote new projects, Parabole sits with its competitors: Keops Infocentre and Macorbur.
Michel Pinton also initiated "Cyber en Marche". Run as an association with 50 members so far, the cyber space in Felletin is already a success. A RS600 workstation with 6 interconnected PCs offers an access to Internet. Elderly people from all over Creuse (department) come by bus to be shown this new `window onto the world'. The main goal is to educate and train the local youth. Parabole offers technical support to the association.
"Cyber en Marche" is but the visible part of the Internet Center created for local enterprises and administrations with a 60.000 F fund from the "Conseil General de la Creuse". With Parabole and "Cyber en Marche", Felletin is one of 30 sites classified by the Ministry of Industry under the label "Information Highway".
Another test project in the region, the "Creuse Education Cyber Network" proposes to connect to the Internet network all schools and colleges in the department.
With public funds from the region, 8 city colleges and 12 rural schools are already connected. Undertaken under the authority of the Education Ministry, the project gets full support from local administrative bodies and will later be extended to the whole academic region.
The needs of its clients will determine Parabole's growth, but larger projects require more employees. Today's office, in the heart of Felletin, can accommodate 30 people. Another office 20 km away could accommodate 10 people working on one project, and a possibility already exists for a third office. The ideal working force would be 50. Far away from Paris, employees have no commuting problems, flexible working hours and time to really work. Locally, Parabole really fits within the industrial and administrative tissue. Telework means neither a parachute drop nor extra-territoriality. It is important to be in close contact with local businesses and industries. Growth implies to create and maintain a proximity network and services. It is worth noting that, although in crisis, society invents at the same time telework and proximity services! Both are necessary to develop activities in rural areas.
To work in Felletin means to participate in the regional growth.
People leave big cities for medium-size towns. Ile de France looses 68, 000 people each year who in turn contribute to create a `Greater Paris' reaching as far as Compiègne, Chartres, Vendôme or Orleans. They also leave for Toulouse or Sophia-Antipolis. The population of Limousin is actually growing as cities the size of Limoges attract immigrants. Smaller towns do not profit yet from this transfer of population and some even have to fight against exodus. There still exists an industrial logic that creates larger cities and empties rural districts. Moving into depopulated areas carries the risk of being dragged along in the exodus. It is important to understand the phenomenon to be able to stop it. In that sense, Parabole is a `citizen enterprise'. Like several other local companies it invests to maintain a cultural life in the area (Cyber en Marche).
In Felletin, Parabole creates high value-added jobs for people who come from outside the city. Highly qualified personnel is not available in the region and has to be imported. This does not reduce local unemployment but increases the local activity and population. In turn it will stop the exodus and its negative side effects. In order to create jobs for its population, a small-size city has to grow somehow to foster its needs in services, maintenance, construction, education... As in a network, neighbouring villages can work together to make better use of their investments.
To attract and motivate durably highly qualified engineers, you have to succeed in their integration. A company's growth implies regional development. Jean Marc Abel insists on the local origin of voluntary candidates. They may come from Paris, Grenoble or Nantes, but their family originates from Creuse and it is at times like a home-coming. This is important since providing a job to the spouse is not an easy task and, even if competent, employing one couple at a same working place is not always auspicious. When the spouse holds an administrative job, local authorities try to promote transfers.
An article published in "Courrier Cadres" generated many job applications from the Provence/Cote d'Azur region, but sun and sea lovers will not necessarily become happy "Creusois". A job offer in "La Montagne" could be seen by an engineer originally from Limousin but exiled in Paris or Lyon. For a job offered at Parabole, a whole family has to move to, live, grow, study... and be happy in Felletin. A desire to live in the countryside is a good motivation but not a sufficient one. The mayor of Felletin bewares of workers or investors who would come to his city as they would have gone to any other. It is better to attract people with local roots or a real project to integrate in the region. Although Parabole's capital is mainly private, substantial public funds have been invested in the project. Administrative authorities would not like to see newcomers leave at the first symptoms of homesickness.
Newcomers had to settle down. Half found a house in Felletin itself. A 1/4 went to larger cities nearby (Aubusson, Gueret) and the last 1/4 went to neighbouring villages. The Parabole phenomenon radiates beyond the city limits of Felletin and a much larger area benefits and get involved in the process.
Beautiful stone houses are for sale in the area, but some have been since so long that restoration or improvements are required. City houses are more fitting for office space since newcomers to the country rather have a garden. There is no need to build new houses since many are available but prices are not always in accordance with the market. In French countryside, houses and land are more a symbol than a merchandise.
There are very few houses for rent. This will require organisation and investment on the part of banks, owners and promoters but the local investment capabilities are already stretched.
Schooling and leisure are other imperative needs. The village school can receive the youngest pupils but elder ones need to go to Aubusson, Gueret or even Limoges. Sport-facilities are available (Tennis, Golf, football, skiing, VTT..) as well as many outdoor activities (hunting, fishing, hiking). The city bookstore invites local writers and personalities for conferences and chats... but it still requires driving to get to the nearest movie or stage theatres. Paris is only a 45 minutes flying. Getting up in Felletin at 5 in the morning you'll be there when offices open. After a full day's work you will be back in a quiet environment by 7 pm. whereas a Parisian gone to Grenoble for the day will still be caught in city traffic. Next morning, the church bells will wake you up.
Tele-activity interests politicians in rural areas as well as in Ile de France. In all cases, telecommunications are used to reduce time and cost of transportation, be it people or documents. To this day, telework means little more than to stay at home while still working for your employer: a privilege for a happy few. This will not suffice to promote telework, and a radical change in mentalities will be necessary in all sectors of industry, business and politics. Tele-service companies could close the gap between traditional employers and teleworkers. A tele-service firm that specialises in translation promotes, organises and sells the work of several translators working at home. Born out of the need of large enterprises to externalise part of their activities, tele-service companies need to grow and consolidate their business before further promoting the concept.
Large enterprises wish to externalise some of their activities. Rural areas fight against population exodus. This is a give and take situation where telework is a solution for both.
Telework is nomad. It follows low wages the same way tourism follows devaluation of currencies and runs away from terrorism. To root it down will require a deliberate strategy and will. The economic well-being of a region must take precedence over wage rates and local organisations have a key role to play.
In Limousin, the Conseil Regional has embarked upon a volunteer policy. It encourages the spirit of enterprise, gives incentives and barters for concrete applications of the new information technologies. For their "Projects" and "Ideas" categories, competition is open to anybody (physical or moral) living or ready to settle down in Limousin. Projects involving both universities and industry are very much favoured.
All informations can be found on their web site at: http://www.limousin.net:acticiel
In Ile de France, the Conseil Regional intends to set up Proximity Offices to help new enterprises to emerge. In suburban areas and disadvantaged districts, associations, education and training centres, tele-service companies and teleworkers will regroup within one building to bring and generate activity. As such, Proximity Offices can foster telework and initiate a dynamic movement as tele-service calls upon tele-services trough specification of activities. A company that specialises in software design will entrust its secretarial work and book-keeping to other undertakers. Companies externalise what does not fall into their specific line of creation or field. This will lead to a development in the form of networks when big companies suffer from a too centralised organisation.
But the concrete forms will be different in Paris and in the provinces. Local characteristics have to be considered to match forces and weaknesses. Rural people must give a new definition to their "rurality".
At Echassieres, in Auvergne, the rural centres "Foyers Ruraux d'Allier" will open the first "Point Accueil Service". Designed to address the specific problems of women in rural areas, the so-called "P.A.S" will provide information on employment, training, public institutions and administrative services. Along with it, they will offer cultural activities (libraries, movies...) and communication equipment (Phone, fax, Minitel, computers). 10 such centres are already planed to cater to the needs of women in rather isolated areas and get them acquainted with modern working and communication tools.
This way, the association "Foyers Ruraux d'Allier" will assist them in writing up their resumés which will be published, along with job offers and information, on the web site of "Reseau Européen pour l'Emploi" (European network for employment). Telework will undeniably benefit from the experience.
A deep culture, family roots, partnership in local industries or businesses, real-estate ownership, intermittent occupations(movie actors), artistic or literary activities... these are the characteristics of those returning to the country as can be seen in Normandy, Creuse or Perigord. Thanks to the new technologies of communication and information, "workers of knowledge" will soon join this migratory flow. Given their culture, the nature of their work and the communication tools they master, these "new workers" do not really fear isolation and are prone to move to the country. No need of a bustling environment if and when you can admire Vermeer's paintings on Internet!
In Felletin, the Parabole experience has prompted two companies to invest. An American and a French one, both deal in data-processing or with the acquisition of knowledge.
The trend must now gather momentum to guaranty its survival. At this stage, several independent projects working in a concerted way have probably more chance at success as they will identify better with local enterprises. Bigger projects and sattelite-offices for large industries will follow later.
New occupations are born that offer more flexibility in the organisation of time and work-force. Some consider for instance the creation of "Internet Watcher" occupations, a job that does not require to be part of a company or work within its premises. To navigate through the hyper-documents of the world-wide web will soon require more sophisticated software which in turn will require more complex semantical and linguistic skills. Here again, new high value-added jobs will be created. Small towns and rural areas with cultural and touristic potential should try to attract these new workers.
However, a citizen's dream to return to the country should not mask the real and lasting reasons of rural exodus. To reverse or control this movement, resources that do not belong to the rural world will be needed. New technics and technologies can help, but a real effort in terms of equipment, promotion, culture... is necessary to improve the conditions of rural life itself. In Limousin, a data-bank indexing all touristic and cultural opportunities will be available on Internet and Minitel by the end of 1997.
Administrative bodies need to work together and reinforce their complementarity.
Robert Savy, president of the "Conseil Regional du Limousin" proposes that the Department be the authority in charge of creating and managing all proximity services while the Region would look after everything involved with economic development.
A parish is not a country. A town provides a house to live and a place to work, but it is the culture and tradition of a whole region that will be discovered and relished.
A city strength resides in the short distances. If density facilitates exchanges and concertation, crowding makes it cumbersome and the growing cost of property makes a city sell it at a higher price. Telecommunications offer an alternative and an opportunity for the rural world but concertation will remain the key to success.
The production of material goods creates congested cities and deserted country. The processing of data and knowledge does not need to follow the same logic. If the rural world knows how to invent a new way of working and can provide a network, it will benefit from the reorganisation of large industrial enterprises.
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