|Information Technology in Selected Countries (UNU, 1994, 148 p.)|
|1: Development of information technology in Ireland|
Background to the Report
This study forms the first of a series of country reports commissioned under the auspices of the United Nations University/Trinity College Dublin informatics research project. It was envisaged that the Irish country report would lead to the production of guidelines that could be used in all the other reports.
The selection of Ireland for study was not in order to provide a model for information technology (IT) development. Rather the objective of the study was to investigate what lessons could be learned about the processes of innovation from recent Irish experiences.
In examining the Irish situation it is important to emphasize that no assumptions are being made on the likely effectiveness of any technology transfer. Ireland's membership of the European Community has brought unique advantages that would not be shared by the vast majority of developing countries. This has allowed companies located in Ireland to avail themselves of a potentially large European market, a particular attraction for North American companies. This positive locational advantage has to be balanced against Ireland's peripheral status within Europe, both geographically and economically.
As a relatively late entrant to the process of industrialization, the Irish economy has many features in common with newly industrializing countries. This makes the study of IT adoption and innovation in Ireland an interesting example of some of the range of problems that all developing countries have experienced or will encounter: a shortage of IT skilled manpower, a non-technocratic culture, relatively scarce resources for IT investment, a low level of awareness among managers and public servants regarding IT applications, and a reliance on bought-in technology transfer through multinationals. However, there is no way that Ireland should be seen as a "model" for developing countries. This report draws together the main features of IT innovation that have occurred over the last two decades, and this may provide some insights for developing countries.
Definition of Terms
The term "innovation" is used to indicate both a new object, idea, or practice and the process by which that object, idea, or practice comes to be adopted by an individual, group, or organization. In considering the process of innovation, it is useful to consider it as a continuum:
The invention stage would apply to new types of hardware or potential software tools for information processing that have not been "developed" for any specific procedures and applications. The development phase in IT, as in any other manufacturing process, converts the invention into a marketable product or service to potential users. Diffusion is the spread of a new idea from its source of invention to its ultimate users or adopters. The diffusion process can be passively or actively pursued in that it may rely on market forces or a trickle-down effect to reach users, or it can be actively promoted through political intervention (at national, institutional, or local level).
Research into diffusion of innovations indicates that this is a critical stage and that certain patterns can be discerned.1 In summary:
(1) Plotted over time, adoption of an innovation conforms almost always to an S-shaped curve, indicating a lag period before take-off occurs.
(2) Individuals react differently in terms of response to an innovation, ranging from "innovators," "adopters" through to "laggards."
(3) The usual stages are awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, adoption (or rejection), although not all innovation follows these stages.
(4) Certain characteristics of an innovation that make it more likely to be adopted are:(a) advantage over existing practice;
(b) compatibility with existing values;
(c) low level of complexity as perceived by potential adopters;
(d) degree to which innovation can be tested on a limited basis.
(5) Early adopters are more likely to be younger, perform more specialized functions, respond to impersonal sources of information, and be leaders of opinion.
(6) Personal influence from peers is more important for relatively late adopters.
These patterns are important in considering the probability of adoption of innovation within institutions in Ireland and developing countries. In the context of IT innovation, they are also relevant in relation to decision makers and the formation of IT policy at national and institutional level.
Adoption is defined as the acceptance, over time, of a specific idea or practice, by individuals, groups, or other adopting units, through channels of communication (formal or informal) within a social structure by a system of values or subculture. The importance of values and culture cannot be ignored in considering innovation, in Ireland or in developing countries. The general conclusion is that diffusion and adoption are more likely to occur where there is congruence between the innovation and the dominant values of the social system.
The term "information technology" embodies a convergence of interest between electronics, computing, and communications, all of which are leading to the rapid development of micro-electronics.2 These technologies are being utilized to restructure and reorganize the spheres of production, distribution, and circulation.
According to Wad, it is "the low cost, high-speed and versatile processing and control capacity of the microprocessor and the tremendous information storage capacity of silicon chips that are the significant features of microelectronic technology. "3 Allied to the technological innovations in the semi-conductor and telecommunication industries, there has been a parallel growth in the supply of and demand for information as a major industry in its own right.4 Hence the emphasis on "information technology."
The applications for these technological developments have been grouped into four main areas:
(1) The introduction of computing power into the industrial process, thereby extending the level of automation in sectors such as automobile, chemicals, textiles, and engineering manufacture. New developments in information technology have transformed not only the equipment and machinery of the factory but also the role of human labour in production itself.
(2) The substitution of digital for analogue techniques of message transmission and switching has transformed the telecommunications process. "The speed and capacity of new transmission media (such as satellites at a global, and optical fibres at a local, level) are such that vast amounts of data are capable of being transmitted across the world in seconds." This has given rise to the issue of "transborder data flow," especially in many developing countries.
(3) The development of office automation, to support functions ranging from word processing to highly complex distributed processing systems such as are evident in the banking environment.
(4) Consumer products based on micro-electronics, which relate mainly to the "leisure" industry. These include video games and recorders, videotext services, and personal computer systems.5
These main areas, with a lesser emphasis on those listed in category 4, represent the developments and innovative applications under consideration in this report.
In the next section, innovations in IT are charted for Ireland to establish the milestones and trends in IT development.
Section 3 concentrates on the national and institutional context in which IT policy and developments have occurred. It traces the involvement and responsibilities of key institutions in Ireland.
In sections 4 and 5, major developments in the electronics (hardware) industry and software sector are examined. These will be considered against the expectations and projected growth for the Irish hardware and software industry.
The telecommunications infrastructure is dealt with in section 6, in terms of how it has enhanced developments in IT in Ireland and its potential in promoting the transfer of information.
Applications of IT in manufacturing and services are examined in sections 7 and 8, to trace the degree to which IT has penetrated into these sectors and the future expectations for further applications.
In sections 9 and 10, the human side of IT is reviewed in terms of employment trends in the electronics and IT-related industries and the IT-related education/training programmes and initiatives.
The final section draws some conclusions about Irish experience of innovation in IT to highlight some lessons that could be relevant to developing countries in the 1990s.