I recently met Andrés Ortola, the general manager of Microsoft Philippines. Over lunch, we spoke about how he is adjusting to life in the country and his plans for Microsoft. The Philippines is an important market for the software giant given the size of our population and the country’s rapid pace of economic development. Although Microsoft Philippines has an annual turnover that is slightly lower than its Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts, the prospects for growth are higher here given the wave of digital migrations that is underway in government.
Digitization across all units of government was made a national priority by President Rodrigo Duterte when he assumed office in 2016. This is precisely why the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) was created. Without fail, the President has spoken of the need to hasten government’s digital migration in every state of the nation address.
The pandemic underscored the need to accelerate the digitization process. It will be recalled that the lack of shared data, interoperability, and connectivity between the national government and local government units (LGUs) were among the reasons why the anti-virus response was uncoordinated in many parts. Malacañang has since endorsed the largest budget appropriation to fast-track the digitization program.
Back to Andrés, Microsoft’s head honcho is a native Argentine whose experience in IT spans two decades. Prior to his posting in Manila, he led the commercial business unit of Microsoft Singapore. While his career has taken him to many parts of the world, no other place feels more like home than the Philippines, he intimated. Our people (Argentines and Filipinos) have been through so many trials, be it in the form of natural disasters, political unrest, or economic crisis. Each time, we emerge better and wiser. Our people are resilient, creative and generally optimistic. Andrés proudly declares that the human capital of Argentina and the Philippines assures both nations of a place in tomorrow’s world.
Andrés’ deep concern for the Philippines is palpable. He counts Manila as his home and as such, has made a commitment to contribute to nation building. Giving back to the country is one of the three pillars of Microsoft’s corporate mission under Andrés’ leadership. The other pillars include expanding Microsoft’s business footprint in the country and making sure that its employees are well looked after.
Studies show that for every one dollar invested in digitization, eight dollars worth of productivity is generated. To this end, the Microsoft team has been working closely with the government by providing both engineering counsel and software platforms to help it along its digital journey.
At the heart of Microsoft’s collaboration with the state is a program called “Microsoft para sa Bayan” (Microsoft for the Country). The program aims to up-skill some 25 million government workers and stakeholders on the operations of various software platforms. Done in partnership with the DICT, the program is the first step towards achieving interoperability between national government agencies and LGUs. All these are powered by Microsoft’s cloud platform called Azure.
With government database operating through the cloud, access to data across all governmental units will become immediate. For us citizens, it means no more duplicities in applying for passports, drivers licenses, business permits, tax declarations, and other government-issued certifications. For law enforcement and the justice system, it means quick access to records and historical data. For our economic managers, it means real time information on critical numbers such as trades statistics, poverty rates, and the like. The benefits are enormous. Not only will it make overall governance more efficient, it will also cut red tape and contribute to the economy’s competitiveness.
As I write this, Microsoft is already working with the departments of Education, Justice, Science and Technology, and Finance, the Central Bank, the Social Security System, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and nearly 400 cities and municipalities on various digital programs, all of which are powered by Azure.
Azure is used by 95% of Fortune 500 companies and numerous governments around the world. It is the world’s preferred platform since its security features are unparalleled. In fact, various software rating agencies have ranked Azure as superior to its competitors in the realms of security, privacy, and compliance with legal requirements. Even the world’s most secretive agency, the US Department of Defense, uses Azure.
The Philippine government has come to appreciate Azure for its scalability. Government agencies or any private user, for that matter, can subscribe according to their required cloud capacity. This makes it cost efficient, especially for smaller LGUs or startup businesses. Above all, it works beautifully with Microsoft 365, although not exclusively. (For those unaware, Microsoft 365 is the world’s leading collection of software that includes Microsoft Excel, Word and Powerpoint, among others.)
During the quarantine, numerous government agencies were rendered paralyzed since their operations required face to face interaction. Among them was the Department of Education (DepEd). The threat of infections caused the government to cancel classes until such time as a viable remote learning system is put in place, especially in far flung provinces.
Without a formal engagement contract, Microsoft took the initiative to assist DepEd. The company provided Microsoft 365 programs to schools all over the country for which remote learning is now enabled by a program called Microsoft Teams. Teams is a platform where people can chat, meet, share files and work from different locations. Two million children are learning remotely through Teams today.
Andrés’ also noted that court cases were piling-up in the Supreme Court, given the prohibition of mass gatherings. Again, upon Microsoft’s initiative, the company introduced the high tribunal to the idea of conducting remote hearings using Microsoft Teams. The Supreme Court has since embraced remote hearings and its caseload has eased.
Microsoft has also assisted the government in its contact tracing efforts as well the Philippine National Police (PNP) for its COVID-19 response requirements.
Curiously enough, despite having provided the DepEd, the justice department, and the PNP with software and training, it is not clear if Microsoft got paid for it. While Andrés hopes that this will lead to deeper collaboration between his company and the government, the fact remains that Microsoft stepped-up and took the initiative to help when no one asked them to. To Microsoft, it is their way of giving back. It is their way of living up to the pillars of their corporate mission.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist