Feature: Digitising the Nation

Joan Mulvihill, CEO of the Irish Internet Association

Joan Mulvihill, CEO of the Irish Internet Association

Through this week’s ‘Digitise The Nation’ event Joan Mulvihill, CEO of the Irish Internet Association (IIA), wants to see every businessperson and consumer make the net a part of their lives. Quite an ambitious pitch for someone less than six months in the job.

Given her role it should be no surprise that Ms Mulvihill is passionate about the opportunities the internet brings. With little effort she is able to cite numerous examples of how businesses can gain efficiencies and customers by embracing the web and how normal people too can enrich their lives by getting computer-savvy.

However her belief that Ireland can do better when it comes to the web is exemplified in perhaps the most unusual of cases, with an example that she says shows how far we have yet to come.

“My target audience is the woman from the Brennan’s bread ad; why should that be funny?,” she says, referring to the intentionally humorous advert where an elderly rural woman rushes back home to bid on eBay for a foot-spa. “The internet is not just for young people from urban areas, it should be seen as something everyone can benefit from in some way.”

To combat this the IIA is turning its annual conference into a week-long event which Ms Mulvihill says will aim to be a Red Nose Day for the online world. Each day of the week will be given a theme and companies are encouraged to use these topics to share information and expertise on their IT-based practices.

The whole thing begins today with a ‘business productivity’ day and continues through to the Friday, taking in the association’s AGM as it goes. One of the main focuses of the week is on SMEs, for many of whom the internet age is still passing them by.

“The SME sector have been in some ways neglected during the years,” says Ms. Mulvihill. “Here we are now in a new wave of economic recovery and growth and we’re hinging it on the tech sector, environment and pharmaceuticals and again I wonder who’s focusing on and looking after [SMEs].

“There is huge potential and opportunity there for embracing technology in the SME sector.”

Many of the IIA’s core members are big multi-nationals like Intel and Microsoft, both of which have contributed heavily to planning. The aim is that these big tech experts will assist other companies during the week and develop relationships and new ideas from there.

A number of other IIA members have also offered to hold events across the country on a variety of topics relating to e-commerce and business technology. It is not only the big players offering a hand either; in Kerry, for example, local businesswoman Lynda Foran is running a free training course for her local business community.

However the ‘Digitise The Nation’ week is not just about businesses; it is also pitched at educating the average person on how the internet can make their lives better.

“We’ve all seen how the internet has been a saviour for a lot of people recently and how it can be used to keep people informed,” says Ms Mulvihill, referring to the travel chaos caused by the recent Icelandic volcano. “It can bring huge social benefits to people and their lives and I think that’s an important message to deliver.”

Some of the other events taking place also reflect this. For example a computer training company in Dublin plans to teach local pensioners how to make Skype calls and send e-mails. Likewise Digital Hub-based animation company Kavaleer will go into a local primary school to show children there how to make their own digital cartoons.

“My dream is that in 15 years time one of those children will be up for an Oscar for the animation they worked on having been inspired on that day in school,” says Ms Mulvihill. “The smart economy belongs to everyone and I think it would be hugely beneficial if we focus our efforts to get everyone to try one thing they’ve never done before online.”

Despite her passion for connectivity IT is not really in Ms Mulvihill’s background, with her having worked in a number of industries and a number of countries over the years. She joined the IIA in November 2009 and quickly made her way into the CEO position after that, however, showing a clear ability to motivate key players at the right time.

She says she was recently asked why she has made such a workload for herself in her first year at the head of the organisation, with some suggesting she give herself time to ease into role first. To her the question is why she would not give herself so much to do:

“Why would I want to make it easy? That’s not why I came into the job. I like the idea of doing something that is beyond making profit and I love that we are not-for-profit as I can now do all the right things for all the right reasons.”

Ideally she says if she does the job right there should be no need for an IIA or its CEO in a decade’s time as the internet will be such a standard part of every businesses’ structure. As she says herself; there is no digital economy, there is just the economy and all of that needs to be digitised.

As the IIA gears up to encourage that idea with its events during May the planning in already beginning to turn this into an annual event. Ms. Mulvihill hopes that as times goes on more companies will see what relevance it has to them and more will get involved in spreading their knowledge around.

“It’s a hugely virtuous circle and we create something that will gather speed around it over time,” she says. “The internet is important so let’s not leave any people behind in this.”

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