The Next Economy: Paul Rellis, Microsoft Ireland

2 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. Paul Rellis (pictured) is the newly appointed managing director of Microsoft Ireland.

What in your opinion have been the key developments of 2007 in terms of industrial and infrastructural progress in Ireland?
At a national level the Government’s National Development Plan announced in January of this year is the development that will have the most significant impact in the years ahead. The commitment to expenditure made by the Government in that plan is unparalleled and will help to drive future industrial and infrastructural development.

From Microsoft’s perspective the opening of the Microsoft/IMI National Productivity Centre was a key milestone. Over the past two years there has been broad acceptance of the role that productivity can play in helping to address Ireland’s competitiveness challenge.

Through our partnership with the IMI we have invested in the development of a centre that provides senior management and decision makers from the public and private sector to help them to find productivity solutions that can address their competitiveness issues. The initial response to the centre has been incredibly positive and we hope that it will continue to play a role in helping to address this challenge in the future.

I should also mention the decision to locate our EMEA Data Centre in Ireland, which highlights how far Ireland has come in terms of infrastructure in recent years and is a testament to the benefit of continued infrastructural investment on a national level. This facility will be central to Microsoft delivering on our ‘software + services’ strategy for the Europe, Middle East and African region and will facilitate the delivery of online services to customers in Ireland across the region.

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?
A continued focus on innovation and a commitment to encouraging research and development is critical if we are to continue growing our knowledge-based industries.

While the recent measures taken in the budget to facilitate continued investment in R&D are welcome, I believe that a working strategy on how to maximise R&D and foster innovation – not just technological but across every business discipline – is essential to ensure our future in this area.

Having the right policies in this space will be very important if Ireland is to continue to be a great location and to provide an environment that supports the emergence of more indigenous companies while remaining a great location for the right kind of foreign direct investment projects.

There’s also an opportunity to increase the connection between education at a primary level right through to fourth level. Significant investments have been made in fourth-level funding in recent years but there are still great opportunities for more investment across the educational system.

In its endeavour to create a knowledge-based economy, where do you think Ireland stands in relation to other nations with a similar agenda?
We have a number of challenges to maintain our competitiveness in the current environment.

Fostering business and technological innovation and a continued focus on facilitating and supporting research and development is critical if we are to differentiate Ireland as a location for great local entrepreneurship as well as an attractive location for companies seeking to engage in R&D.

Obviously, a competitive challenge for Ireland is the rate of productivity growth. With costs continuing to rise we need to increase our productivity. There is a broad acceptance that our continuing economic success is dependent on increasing our productivity to compete with other economies, but the challenge will be to ensure that people understand the role that technology, innovation and management capability can play to help individuals and companies achieve significant productivity gains.

We hope that the National Productivity Centre will help to play a role in this regard but we need to look at how we can get that message out there as broadly as possible.

As already referenced, if we are become a true knowledge economy, the right investments in education must form the foundation. We are increasing funding in science, technology and innovation as announced in the budget with a focus on third-level education but I believe that if we are to develop a truly knowledge-based society, heavy emphasis on technology at primary and secondary level is essential.

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?
The penetration of technology in Ireland trails many developed economies. However, we need to balance the investment in technology with the delivery of skills and knowledge to use that technology.

There’s a great opportunity for an integrated approach to increasing access to PCs amongst children of school-going age – both in the home and in the school – and delivering the skills and knowledge needed to integrate that technology into the education curriculum so our children get the benefit of better learning through technology.

The benefits to society and to the economy from such an integrated approach would be immense.

As an example of how this approach might work is the ‘Schools of the Future’ initiative, which was announced by Bill Gates last January. It’s a model of combining technology with skills to deliver a programme that has a positive impact on learning. Under the programme Dunshaughlin Community College in Co Meath has been selected as one of 12 schools globally.

By John Kennedy