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Invest in IT and prioritise reform of public sector

WHILE I am based in Ireland, my role driving Dell's commercial business across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) requires me to be out of the country as often as I'm in it.

This travel is an essential part of the job, enabling me to stay in touch with customers and members of the team throughout EMEA -- but it's also invaluable in terms of providing context and perspective to Ireland's current economic situation.

At home, reports about the Troika visits, economic indicators and plans for public expenditure cuts tend to dominate casual banter -- as well as the media airwaves. However, as soon as you leave the country and speak to business leaders about Ireland, you get a different perspective. And I'm glad to report that it is far more positive than what we tend to hear at home.

Across Europe we are being recognised for tackling the economic issues head-on and for adapting and accepting the austerity programme without too much complaint.

In addition, the talent of the workforce, our pro-business environment and growing reputation as an innovation nation and hub for technology investment as well as home-grown development have been referenced to me by senior business leaders on numerous occasions.

These attributes present a good foundation upon which we can build for growth, but on their own will not give us sufficient competitive advantage to help us create a sustainable economy for the future.

When considering specific recommendations to help drive recovery, my mind was continually drawn back to the experience that we have just come through in Dell.

We have been engaged -- at a corporate level and locally -- in a programme of transformation over the past two-and-a-half years. This programme was instigated because we recognised that, while the technology industry had evolved and our customers' needs had changed, we had continued to operate as we had done. Our unique proposition -- the Dell Direct model -- was no longer the answer to everything.

We looked at all aspects of how we did business and were not afraid to reinvent everything to ensure we gave our customers what they wanted and needed. The result is that the company has transformed from a PC vendor to a solutions and services firm. This success was borne out in our recent FY12 financial results. We delivered on our full-year revenue and operating income growth outlook -- in EMEA for example, we had 8 per cent growth year on year in Q4.

There are lessons and experiences from the Dell story which can be applied to the Irish economy -- and to other companies operating here.

So, where did we start?

We started with our customers. We needed to re-evaluate what they wanted and ensure that we were in a position to give it to them. This involved a willingness to engage and flexibility from our team, as well as a commitment from the top down to embrace innovation.

To support this strategy, we invested in our people -- up- skilling, cross-skilling and training to ensure that they had the skills to support the transformation. Where we didn't have the people skills or the IP, we acquired it -- brought it in and integrated it.

We focused on the activities that made sense for us as a business and moved away from those where we could no longer compete. Difficult decisions were made, but the results can be seen in customer satisfaction surveys, our employee surveys and in our financial performance.

So how is this relevant to the Irish economy? There are similarities between where Dell was and where the Irish economy is now, and some of the actions and the approach taken by Dell could be applied to the economy.

Growth and a bright and sustainable future are common objectives of the two. And while the specifics won't be the same, there is an approach that can be applied that will deliver results. This involves putting a strategic approach around innovation, investing in skills development and focusing on activities that make sense for the Irish economy.

Ireland has a stated ambition of being known as an "innovation island". This is a good objective -- a catchy tagline -- but what does it actually mean? What is the plan behind it?

I would recommend that innovation within the public sector is prioritised. There is a focus right now on cutting public expenditure. I understand why and accept it is the right thing to do. However, if we simply look at taking cost out of the bottom line without considering how value can be added and how things can be done differently across the public system, the end result will simply be a reduction in quality of life in Ireland.

There will be no improvement in efficiencies, no positive impact in terms of helping to get Ireland back to growth in the medium- to long-term.

I would encourage ministers and department officials to consider how they could improve things in their departments -- and thus save money. Not the other way around. By bringing innovative thinking to bear, results can be achieved which will have a long-term impact and achieve multiple objectives.

As we experienced in Dell, skills and investment in our workforce is an essential element in enabling transformation. We are a small island country where over 14 per cent of people get social welfare, yet we have a skills shortage in ICT. The Government's IT Skills Programme, which supports conversion courses, is a welcome initiative to close the gap in the short term, but we need to be more creative in the approach taken to ensure that we don't allow this kind of gap to open up again.

There is also an obligation on employers to continue to invest in skills training and upskilling within their own companies. And, as leaders in the technology industry, I believe we have a responsibility to play our part in attracting more students to the sector. In Dell we do this through our 'IT Is Not For Geeks' programme and through involvement in initiatives such as Connecting Women in IT (CWIT), but I accept that -- individually and collectively -- we need to do more.

Just look at how the world is changing. The majority of new investments in Ireland are in the IT or pharmaceutical space, and regardless of your role or the sector that you work in you need to have proficient IT skills.

Initiatives such as Coder Dojo are making things relevant for the young students at primary and second level. Is there an opportunity to scale models such as this?

Parents and teachers can continue to seek to persuade young people about the opportunities that a career in IT presents, but until their peers buy into it and do peer to peer communication amongst the youth community we won't address this issue.

There are opportunities to get youth ambassadors engaged in social networking to communicate the message on behalf of parents, teachers and employers. We should look at how we harness this powerful platform to help encourage more students to make choices that will enable them to have a rewarding career in IT.

Making tough choices about the kinds of jobs and investments that are appropriate for Ireland is also something that the Government and the IDA should continue to do. While there is pressure to deliver new jobs to the country, we should not be tempted to attract jobs for jobs' sake. The kind of work that we create locally and attract in from international investors should be in keeping with the kind of economy that we are now and the one that we aspire to be.

Support should also be given to some companies that are already here but appear more vulnerable. A Transformation Project Template could be developed by one of the government departments or agencies in consultation with industry and rolled out to help companies evolve, helping to ensure that their businesses are sustainable in Ireland.

We are willing to share our experience to help support the roll-out of such a programme. This involves forward planning by government and the companies involved, but it will be an invaluable investment of time, money and resources in the medium term as it will help to protect and retain jobs for the long-term.

If we were to put the principles of innovation and transformation at the heart of policy development, it would really help Ireland get back on the road to recovery.

An innovative culture and a commitment to continual transformation have worked for Dell. We put the customer in the centre and built it from there.

If citizens, the people who live and work and contribute to the economy and to society, are at the heart of our strategies then this can work too, all else will fall into place. We will restore our competitive edge, maintain an eye on the future and earn our reputation as an Innovation Island.

Aongus Hegarty is Dell president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Sunday Indo Business