Few companies can claim to have experienced as many reinventions and transformations as IBM. The company which is synonymous with cutting edge computing technology actually predates the invention of computers, the transistor and the microchip. It has adapted and innovated its way through successive technological revolutions and is today a very different company than the one which arrived in Ireland first in 1956 or even the one which established its manufacturing campus in north Dublin in 1996.
Bill Kearney, Director of the IBM Ireland Lab, explains that the campus in Mulhuddart started out as a manufacturing site in 1996 but is now almost entirely focused on R&D activities. Today, IBM Ireland Lab is one of the company’s largest R&D Labs outside of the US. The Dublin site is IBM’s largest campus in Europe and home to a broad range of IBM activities. The IBM Ireland Lab employs more than 1,600 software professionals who use innovative technologies to design, build, deploy, test and support solutions for IBM’s global customer base in the company’s core solution areas of cloud, analytics, mobile, social and security. Some 2,500 people work on the Mulhuddart campus.
“IBM has gone from being a hardware company to a software business supporting integrated business sectors such as healthcare, security, and so on”, says Kearney. “Our solutions comprise hardware, software and service components. In recent years we have seen a transition towards digital and we now have a Digital Sales Centre for IBM here in Ireland.”
The flagship Digital Sales Centre features all the latest cutting edge workplace technologies which allow the sales team engage with clients anywhere in the world by phone, email, web, text, instant messaging, video conferencing, and through social networks.
“If you go back to mini computers the value was in the hardware. Now it’s in the software. Where we are trying to innovate now is in vertical segments like healthcare, financial services and so on. There will be differences in geographies. SEPA in Europe for example. And we are developing new analytics to help us define what will be needed in future.”
The innovation culture which has been nurtured in the Lab comes from a number of sources. “There is an interesting dynamic”, says Kearney. “American culture is very much can-do innovative. Here in IBM we have 51 nationalities in the lab alone and 70 plus across IBM Ireland. While the American culture has an influence there are European and Irish influences as well. This can be very useful as it means that a lot of our people here can go back to their home countries to work on projects if that is required. They will bring with them an understanding of their home culture which is very important.
”The young age profile of the workforce is also important. “Younger engineers are very tuned in to what is happening in the mobile world. Our target device used to be a desktop machine, now it’s a mobile device. The platform is increasingly the cloud. As a Lab what we try to do is what our US Labs do. We look at the processes they used to help innovation and brought them here. We also try to get our people to look outwards. You can look internally too much. We understand that we can’t do everything ourselves and that we need to work with other companies. We also try to put an emphasis on our values and that means an emphasis on innovation.”
Measuring innovation can be difficult. If it’s in terms of the number of patents filed the IBM Lab is outstandingly successful, but when it comes to encouraging individuals to be innovative, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. “With patents it’s not so much important to get to your 11th patent as it is to get to your first. That means that you now understand the process and can do it again.”
The company also nurtures innovation at undergraduate level through the Extreme Blue programme, which sees third and fourth year college students work as interns in the company for three months. “We break them into teams of four and give them a task with three months to achieve a result. They listen to IBMers but can go for their own solution if they wish. It’s part of building an innovation culture where new ideas and experimentation are celebrated. The students are recognised regardless of whether they succeed or fail, they all qualify from the programme.”
That brings Kearney to what he perceives as a weakness in the overall culture for innovation in Ireland.
“In Ireland we don’t reward failure”, he laments. “Culturally we see it as a bad thing. But that is changing. The Leaving Cert needs to be more about learning how to use the facts you learn. What you do with the knowledge is the important thing. More experimental and experiential learning is required. The new Junior Cert is very good in that regard. The transition of the education system towards different ways of learning will improve innovation. Education is both formal and informal. Coder Dojo – coding education for kids – can be both, for example. We need to be focused on producing the right skills – not necessarily qualifications. A key skill is being able to present an idea in a few minutes. If the schools did more of that it would be great.”
He believes that innovation has to come from a willingness to question. “The culture may not have been great but it is improving. We are moving in the right direction. It’s hard to define – between what’s happening at the enterprise level and in t he universities. The focus is on the need for innovation. The climate is reasonable. There is a greater realisation, even in the multinationals, that we have to innovate more. Traditionally the technical work was done elsewhere and then moved here. Now more of the technical work is being done here.”
Ireland has succeeded in creating an innovation ecosystem in certain areas. “The software industry and the pharma industry are examples – but each is siloed. With start-ups we haven’t seen much evidence of them creating an ecosystem. We can’t have multi-disciplinary working if we don’t have the disciplines. There are huge opportunities to collaborate between ICT and pharma in areas like connected health and so on. There are big opportunities for Ireland. One is greater synergy between multinationals and SMEs and start-ups. That should make for better innovation.”
Kearney contends that while we have done well in some sectors the country hasn’t done quite as well in cross-sectoral innovation. “It’s a challenge and everyone in industry should look at playing a role in meeting it. At university level there needs to be a greater emphasis on how they are collaborating with enterprise. If there was an easy way to do it then everyone would be doing it. There is no perfect formula. But we have to believe that it can be done.”
Tax incentives help drive the innovation agenda. “If company is at the stage where it is paying tax and if tax influences decision-making then the tax incentives are good. Capability grants are a big incentive. They make possible R&D activity that might not happen otherwise and they reduce the risk involved. The combination of the grants and the credits serves to reduce risk."
What he sees as possibly more interesting in future is how the departments and agencies involved in innovation come together to support innovation. “There are a number of strands to it and you would believe that to promote cross-sectoral activity packaging incentives in some way would help. Also, the incentives for cross-sectoral activity that involves areas such as software R&D need to be delivered quickly. The IDA is best of breed in what it does and we need to ask how we get best of breed in support for cross-sectoral and multinational and indigenous collaboration. The challenge is to be best at that.”
Regardless of any incentives or supports, innovation remains critically dependent on people. The positive is that we are producing more talent”, says Kearney. “The quality is good at the top end of the scale. It has always been good but we are now asking for more, we are asking graduates to lead more. We still need more people who are strong on areas like maths and analytics. It’s great to see more data sciences being taught at undergraduate level. I’d like to think that the move at second level to discovery based learning will continue."
For the future Kearney points out that IBM is now very active in Horizon 2020 programmes as well as with a number of SFI supported research centres. “We try to expose our people to others with different sets of ideas. Who knows where these ideas might lead in the future? Innovation is like fly fishing, you have to cast your fly into the water and see what comes back.”