An Early Career Researcher’s Journey through 50 Years of ICT Sector Development

After a long educational gap (decades rather than years), I returned to full time education to pursue a Masters in Business by research. The project sponsors had set the research topic and it was the research area that attracted me to apply for the scholarship. The project was to explore the development of the ICT sector in Ireland, from its beginnings, search for drivers and inhibitors for the industry development and to explore the role of government industrial policy and technical education. A broad and ambitious project.

In the frightening vista that is a complete research project, I initially took refuge in attempting the possible and achievable. Reading broadly about the research process itself, checking out referencing software options, gaining familiarity with the locally available library resources kept me busy and productive in the early stages. I read as broadly and generally around the edges of the topic, while struggling to get to grips with units of analysis, various research philosophies, finding and reviewing available literature. I neglected to write and was annoyed with myself that I had to backtrack to find relevant information quite often. This led me to include writing about what I had read as a regular task.

Eventually, however, my research questions had to be addressed. The largest struggle I faced was to find an acceptable method to deal with the length and breadth posed by the research. How long is a piece of string (even worse, multiple pieces of string) that has/have been unravelling for over 50 years? My first efforts centred on seeing if I could find coherent datasets that would allow me to track progress of the industry and ‘put numbers’ on the development.  After much searching, I moved camp and focused on qualitative research methods. The search for drivers was a driver of its own kind and tormented me with questions about causality. Being a novice researcher, I was also completely unsure of whether I was deducting based on hypotheses or inducting and developing theory.  Information overload was another difficulty as I struggled to review data relevant to government policy, technical education and the ICT sector.

However, it was certainly not all doom and gloom. It was refreshing to be back in an educational environment. It was thrilling to discover relevant information during my first visit to the National Archives. It was a privilege to meet individuals who had worked in the early Electronics industry from its outset in the early 1960s – even if I cringe a little when I hear my own voice on the interview recordings. In general, everyone I encountered was helpful and encouraging.  I learned so much from speaking with ‘experiential experts’. A major turning point was the doctoral seminar in Belfast, where I met with other early career researchers and was pointed in the direction of critical realism as a philosophy which lends itself to the study of development and change.

On investigation, critical realism would allow my unit of analysis, the ICT sector in Ireland, to be viewed as an open system where the various agents had their own structure and agency, along with mechanisms which could act (or not act) depending on conditions. I equated these mechanisms to my drivers of the ICT sector. This fitted well with my research questions and confirmed that a critical realist qualitative case study would provide answers.  A draft methodology chapter followed and that was my own personal roadmap for the rest of the project. I was much happier to feel that I at last knew where my project was going and where most of the parts fit.

Over the course of the year-and-a-half I interviewed 15 people, visited the National Archives four or five times and read avidly, transcribed my interviews and carried out a data analysis of the information gathered. The more seasoned researchers will not be impressed, but for me, these were all first research experiences. Having successfully concluded and having graduated, I have a better understanding of the research process, but I am still learning.

And how does all of this relate to entrepreneurship?

It doesn’t.  However, the development of the ICT sector follows and intersects with the rise in the recognition of entrepreneurship within Ireland. Throughout my research project, entrepreneurship featured. Alongside the foreign owned firms, a few indigenous electronics firms were always active, and in increasing numbers with time. (Telectron, System Dynamics in the 1960s, Lake Electronics started in 1979, SMC, Baltimore Technologies in the 1980s, etc.).

Entrepreneurship has been ongoing.  It is visible in the changes in government policy and indeed in the changes in structure of the government support agencies. Initially, the IDA were responsible for both FDI and indigenous industrial development.  In 1978, they had an Enterprise Development Programme to encourage first-time entrepreneurs. However, the IDA were also focused on the policy of foreign direct investment which brought such companies as GE (EI and Ecco in the 1960s; Westinghouse and DEC in the early 1970s; Apple and EMC in the 1980s), generally acknowledged as ‘seed’ companies which trained managers who then developed the next cohort of management for further FDI or who subsequently started or managed indigenous firms.

Around 1993, the government took their first steps to separate support for indigenous industry and this led to the creation of enterprise boards to support microbusiness and, by 1998, led to the creation of Enterprise Ireland, who exclusively support indigenous industry with greater than ten employees.

Investment in the Irish indigenous industry led to a focus on entrepreneurship as a means of industrial development for the ICT sector. Where the Culliton Report, in 1992, named the low level of entrepreneurship as an inhibitor for the economy, by 2004, entrepreneurship was “an essential condition” for sustainable enterprises in Ireland, according to the report “Ahead of the Curve”. Development of a strong indigenous software industry pointed to a change in attitude, around the mid-1990s. Engineers and other business entrepreneurs were more willing to risk investment in a start-up company.

Some of the data I collected, supported a rising awareness of the importance of entrepreneurship.

And then with the whole dot.com stuff there was a huge interest in it.  The support structure that came at the individual level in the start: the incubation centres, the accelerated programmes like the Enterprise Development Programmes. That was one thing that was necessary to help people realise and give them a support structure to start a business.” (Interview 9).

This entrepreneur had grown up in a family business and had always wanted to start his own, which he did in 1994. In the area of IC design, one company took a ‘bootstrapping’ approach to start up. They began by selling design services to large multinationals until they were ready and they:

took on venture capital and everybody went on the product. But at that time, you are doing a better deal with the venture capitalists… you are a real company. You’re really successful. You already have skills. You already have a proven track record in the area so you are doing a much better deal” (Interview 8).

The focus on entrepreneurship appears to have had an effect on the mind-set of people and their willingness to back their business ideas by starting up themselves. Eventually, entrepreneurship moved into the mainstream education in Ireland with the development of incubator companies on campus and access to entrepreneurship modules within other disciplines.

However, entrepreneurship was not seen as a cure-all for the economy. Within the data I collected, two dangers in current entrepreneurship training were mentioned. The first was where the focus was on filling seats as opposed to supporting quality start-up businesses and second, the use of  “the shining stars” as demonstrators or role-models for would-be entrepreneurs  rather than “people [who] can explain what the graft is and are still on the graft,[so] there is a bit more reality to it” (Interview 9).

Business exiting was an area where there were divergent opinions. Some were in favour of selling out successful businesses and felt it was good for the entrepreneur to reap the rewards of their hard work and that this provided encouragement for others to try entrepreneurship and made the entrepreneur available to use his/her skills in the next start up. Others took a diametrically opposite view and felt that entrepreneurs may sell out too early. One business owner felt that good businesses are hard won and a mechanism should be found to keep successful ICT companies in Irish ownership.

A more recent driver was the development of the investment infrastructure and venture capital availability.  Funding was mentioned by the state agency respondents but also by some of the respondents with entrepreneurial experience. In the literature various researchers identified the period around 1998 as a time when venture capital become more available in Ireland. This more entrepreneurial climate, with good start-up companies, was identified as a driver both to drive the domestic economy and as an attractor for foreign investment.

eddy-and-sarah-davis

Author: My name is Sarah Davis and I work on European research projects related to entrepreneurship with the Hincks Centre for Entrepreneurship Excellence in Cork Institute of Technology (sarah.davis@cit.ie). I was fortunate enough to be awarded The José Maria Veciana Best Paper at the RENT XXIX Conference for the research paper based on my Master’s Thesis. This award validated the choices I made to stay true to my research questions and to find the best way to answer the questions, as posed. It meant taking a road less travelled and not narrowing my focus. I did not do it alone. Even though it was a single person research project, I was supported along the way by funding from my sponsors, The Irish-American Partnership, an excellent supervisor, and an external project mentor with a vast store of knowledge, as well as the work of all of the other researchers whose work inspired and informed my own.

 

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