It’s an unfortunate sign of the times, but why can so few IT companies lay claim to being a good corporate citizen?

Even the term ‘citizenship’ seems anachronistic, harkening back to a time when companies were held accountable not only for financial results, but for the work they did in

the community and their contribution to society.

Peter McMahon, vice-president of sales and marketing for Protek Systems in London, Ont., complains that while the computer industry has always been saddled with do-nothing profit-takers, the situation is getting worse.

For that, McMahon blames the Internet: “”It’s cold, it’s impersonal, and is it any surprise that doing business is starting to feel the same way?

“”And while we would love to do more in the channel, profit margins are often less than five per cent, and the question is ‘How much you can afford to do?’

The way he sees it, most vendors in the IT industry in Canada now do as little as possible to serve their community.

He goes as far as to call them ‘parasites’ and these days, they come in two varieties: Subsidiaries of large U.S.-based multinationals that exist only to sell product and send all the profits back to head office, and dot-coms who sell exclusively online, typically based in Toronto and the surrounding area, but with no commitment to any of the other regions of Canada.

“”They don’t pay local taxes, they don’t belong to the Chamber of Commerce, they don’t give to the local charities,”” he says. “”They don’t care.””

It hasn’t always been this way.

There was a time when IT companies were called on to do a lot more than just serve up products to the Canadian market and suck in the profits.

They had to prove also they were good citizens which meant having:

— a local presence, not just a Web site, with offices across Canada and employees who participated enthusiastically in the industry;

— a unique offering, either gained by carrying on local R&D or by hosting a centre of expertise, which quite often came with a global mandate;

— and a general manager who was active, seen as a leader and who carried memberships in several industry associations.

As it is, there are only a handful of companies here that do citizenship well, with IBM Canada, Hewlett-Packard Canada and Microsoft cited most often.

They are among a small minority of companies that not only support a long list of charities, they go out of their way to make a contribution.

And is it co-incidence that each of these three companies has a president often found commenting on issues of relevance, whether it’s embracing diversity in the workplace, the need for good business ethics or calling for Canada to improve its competitive position? Being a good corporate citizen extends way beyond just making a donation.

The sad fact is that citizenship is given low priority, and with Hewlett-Packard cutting 14,500 jobs worldwide, it begs the question: Is the list of good corporate citizens about to get even shorter?

Regardless, McMahon and the 51 employees of Protek are committed to carrying on.

They have a committee in place raising funds for local charities such as the Ronald McDonald House and the Children Safety Village, and always on the lookout for others.

They seek ways to participate in the community, attending and supporting local trade shows, and playing in or sponsoring up to 40 golf tournaments, many of them in areas completely outside of their business.

The real challenge, then, is for buyers of IT equipment to seek out these types of companies, to support them and to weigh this more carefully into their purchasing decisions.

It’s time to put citizenship back into the equation.

Martin Slofstra is the editor of EDGE, a sister publication to CDN. He can be reached at mslofstra@itbusiness.ca.

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