Society, education and small to medium-sized Irish firms have the most to gain from the digital economy, says Cisco country manager Mary Lou Nolan, who urges the country to develop the right strategies for the challenges of tomorrow.
A recent study by Cisco and the Oxford Said Business School demonstrated how Ireland has succeeded in moving from the fringes of the online world to be ranked out of 72 nations. Download speeds were up 87pc in one year.
However, out of 14 countries that were prepared for the ‘internet applications of tomorrow’, such as high-definition internet TV and high quality video communications services (consumer telepresence) which are expected to become mainstream in just a few years, Ireland wasn’t one of them.
Cisco Ireland country manager Mary Lou Nolan says the time is right to change this and that in tandem with the powerful gathering of technology companies we’ve amassed in Ireland, it is vital that we boost Ireland’s digital infrastructure to ensure local and multinational firms can compete globally.
To do so she believes the Government and the private sector will need to work together to deliver the next generation of network infrastructure.
Cisco employs 200 people here in Ireland, including an R&D division in Galway, which is focused on the workplace applications of the future.
Nolan believes that small and medium-sized businesses in particular have the most to gain through new revolutions in cloud computing.
As a parent she believes technology will also needs to be brought into the heart of the education system to enable teachers to teach through filter of ICT.
“I think everybody appreciates the positive economic impact of super fast broadband in Ireland. Things in Ireland aren’t as bad as people are making out. We do have an infrastructure that delivers a good enough penetration.
“Maybe the quality is an issue. At Cisco we’ve done a study recently recognising you need both high penetration and high quality to have the right super fast broadband infrastructure in the country to have the positive economic impact. Because we’re just about meeting the needs of today’s applications, that means that we’re behind the curve already for tomorrow’s internet applications.
“There are 14 countries out there in the world who are already prepared for these applications. I don’t see the same improvement happening at the same pace in Ireland.”
To emphasise her point Nolan points to predictions that are stating that there’s going to be 12 times more online digital content in the next few years.
“More needs to be done quicker if we’re to make the progress ahead of the increased demand. We’ve seen the initial coming together of industry and the Government with the next generation broadband taskforce, and it’s bringing together the right people – the CEOs of the telcos and the ISPs operating in Ireland.
“I’m just concerned that it’s not happening quickly enough and that we’re not seeing the outcomes. Today we’re seeing a taskforce, but really what we should be seeing are outcomes of a previous taskforce that are executing a previous roadmap.”
I remind Nolan of a time when I saw Cisco CEO John Chambers give a very charismatic speech about how the internet could be one of the world’s greatest levellers in terms of education and social equality. Does she think Ireland is making enough use of the internet technologies to offer better opportunities for its citizens.
“We do need to be making enough use of it. Digital technology is needed to create smarter conversations between governments, citizens and businesses. That gives us a truly joined up nation that will make us a more productive nation.
“I think in Ireland we should be able to achieve this quicker because we’re small. There’s less to connect up.
“Citizens should be able to achieve more online such as applying for jobs, or pay their taxes, and be less likely to have to travel to achieve the same outcomes. Doing things faster with less travel makes us more productive and greener. I think there’s probably some ways to go to have that there across Ireland because we do have a difference in broadband quality and service from an urban and rural perspective. But we’ll all need to join in to improve it, and not just private sector and government.”
As a key provider to businesses of technology from video conferencing and networking to cloud, I ask Nolan if firms are embracing the new capabilities that should put them on an even scale with competitors overseas.
“We’re seeing more and more Irish businesses and customers in Ireland adapting to these newer technologies. I think the gap at the moment is we have a population that is very used to the smartphone and some of the digital devices used at home.
“Now I think the job for us, in industry especially, is to bring all of that usability and familiarity with those home devices into the enterprise and that’s coming out with devices that are secure, enterprise ready, interoperable and that provide the quality of service that’s required. And you’re right, Cisco is part of that and we do have devices that can help customers who are familiar with it in their home life and bring that into the enterprise.”
But surely as a proponent of new technologies, the need to boost our broadband infrastructure must place barriers in the way of uptake. “We haven’t found it as a roadblock, it can take some time and I think it can delay projects so there are customers who are ready to go ahead with a project and by the time we’re ready to go ahead, we realise that the infrastructure needs to be upgraded and that can delay in customer projects. We have seen some delays but it hasn’t completely blocked improvements.”
In terms of the trends impacting businesses, Nolan says that unified communications is going to be a game-changer.
“Being at the coalface and interfacing with those customers when we deliver value every day to their business has made a big impression on me. It’s about being able to improve customers’ productivity which brings better time to market for their product, or improves the productivity of their people through the use of better collaboration tools.
“There’s a number of trends coming down the line and while a lot of people talk about cloud computing, I think cloud is no longer a trend – it is a reality. So one big thing to keep an eye is ‘the internet of things’. Cisco predicts that the number of devices on the internet is going to reach 50 billion by 2020 – that equates to more than six devices for every person on earth and that’s phenomenal.
“Now that the internet of things has been created it’s going to have the ability to sense things, translate, collect, analyse and distribute data on a massive scale. Humanity will have the information it needs not only to survive but to thrive in a world that is changing at a rapid pace.”
Technology in education
I ask Nolan if, as a parent, she’s satisfied that Ireland’s education system is leveraging the opportunity to digitise education and make it more effective and sufficient for the workplace demands of tomorrow.
“I think we need to take ownership of the technology in education. And it needs to be centralised. When you refer to some of the initiatives that were started a few years ago and I guess the lack of impact that’s had at a school level, you’re absolutely correct. From some of the schools that I’ve spoken with they’ve said ‘yeah we got money to improve our ICT infrastructure, but you know what we had a tough winter and the heating was broken and I used the money on that instead’.
“There wasn’t this measurable outcome for the funding that was given to improve the ICT infrastructure in schools and therefore we have a total mismatch across the country of standards of ICT infrastructure.”
Nolan believes a clear-cut strategy with clear and measurable outcomes needs to be embarked upon. “The way it is today, it can be down to if the principal and board of management are tech savvy it can be at a high level and if they’re not then other priorities take over.
“We saw there recently there was a school in Mayo that announced all its pupils would be learning through iPads and parking the books, and I think that had a bit of a wow factor to it in the press at the time and people said it was a fantastic idea. But that should be the norm across all of our schools. That shouldn’t make the press, being this transformational decision. It should be the norm that our children going to school can both consume technology and therefore make the leap in to being more proactive about creating technology in the future.”
Nolan believes the IT industry should be coming together and raising awareness of the issue rather than individual companies saying it on their own. “There is an opportunity for us to stand together and come up with a way of helping.
“I think criticism is easy, but coming up with potential solutions to help the issue is probably the next step and that’s what we should be focused on. Every technology company here has people on their leadership team with children in the education system. It goes back to your point where if you need to be driven to create something there’s no better emotional driver than making the world a better place for your children.”
Mary Lou Nolan has more than 15 years of experience within the IT industry. She was previously director of sales for Hewlett-Packard Ireland.
Announcing her recent appointment, Cisco said she brings with her "a credible track record of achievement in sales, business management and customer engagement".
She is a member of the Sales Institute of Ireland and a business management graduate from the College of Marketing and Design, Dublin.
Mary Lou Nolan is one of the panelists at The Digital Ireland Forum, a Silicon Republic breakfast event on 30 September 2011.