The Next Economy: Fiona O’Brien, Lenovo Ireland

7 Jan 2008

Key business leaders in Ireland’s technology and science industries look back on 2007 and highlight what’s needed for Ireland’s emerging knowledge economy in 2008. Fiona O’Brien (pictured) is general manager of Lenovo Ireland.

What, in your opinion, have been the key developments of 2007 in terms of industrial and infrastructural progress in Ireland?

I was delighted to read of the purchase and installation of one of the most powerful computers in Europe by Ireland’s research community, under the leadership of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). This will open up a whole world of advanced research and simulations that was just not possible here before, allowing our best and brightest academics to contribute at the highest level.

In addition, I welcome the Government’s decision to set the base year used to calculate expenditure on R&D at 2003 for a further four years and the confirmation of an additional €12m for higher education research.

What issues have not been addressed and you believe should be a priority if we are to create genuine knowledge-based industries as we go into 2008?

It is clear those countries that achieve long-term competitiveness have high levels of investment in research and world-class research institutions. However, a broader definition of innovation, which extends beyond scientific R&D is required.

We need to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation at all levels, including a focus on the service industry, which currently employs over two thirds of our workforce.

We cannot compete on the world stage against low cost economies unless our companies are innovative in the services they offer their customers. Very few countries are focused on service innovation at national strategy level. This gap offers Ireland a perfect opportunity, if we exploit it correctly.

In its endeavour to create a knowledge-based economy, where do you think Ireland stands in relation to other nations with a similar agenda?

There are still some real challenges we need to overcome, particularly in terms of education of our future workforce. The progression rate to third level education needs to increase significantly (currently at 55pc) and we need to encourage a higher completion rate at Leaving Cert or Vocational Level.

ICT training at primary and secondary level is a must. The level of technology deployment and e-learning in our schools is not advanced enough if we want to create an ‘e-enabled’ workforce.

We need to encourage the development of a digital curriculum and support e-learning initiatives such as the Connected Schools Programme being run by South Dublin County Council. Lenovo is delighted to be involved with a number of schools and third level institutions in providing both the hardware and the access to forums to assist in e-learning programmes.

It has been suggested that as we march towards 2020, Ireland will need to field another one million workers. How urgent is this and can this be achieved?

I am not sure of the validity of that assumption. The workplace today is unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago and with the rapid development which technology enables, it is quite possible that this is an overestimation. What is clear is that the skills and qualification requirements for jobs at all levels are rising and it is essential that we upskill our workforce.

The Towards a National Skills Strategy has identified the skills required for Ireland to make the transition to a competitive, innovation-driven, knowledge-based economy. We need all sectors of the economy, public, private and trade unions to facilitate and commit to the goals laid out in that white paper.

Communications and PC penetration are central to Ireland’s industrial development. Yet league tables suggest we are not at the races. How can these deficits be best addressed?

I was heartened to see the latest CSO figures showing an increase in 2007 on the number of homes with access to broadband, up from 13pc to 31pc for the first quarter. PC penetration at home also continues to grow with a 12pc increase in 2007, bringing the figure to 65pc of homes with PCs.

It is vital this positive trend continues in order to push us higher up the league table. The launch of the Home Computing Initiative (HCI) earlier this year is a step in the right direction. Axia, in partnership with Lenovo, was one of the first companies to bring the HCI programme to market in November 2007.

This scheme made PCs and laptops available through the League of Credit Unions, enabling members to purchase hardware and software at preferential prices. I strongly feel more needs to be done to assist in the provision of technology to economically disadvantaged groups, as it is these groups who suffer most from the digital divide.

The HCI programme needs to be extended to offer some form of financial assistance to these groups. In addition, we need education programmes that demonstrate how technology can benefit the lives of different social groups.

By John Kennedy