With Lord Carter's Digital Britain report and the Digital Economy Bill, attention has been focused once again on how to take the UK into a 21st century digital world. Phil Smith, vice-president and CEO, Cisco UK & Ireland, has detected signs of progress around Digital Britain for some time and is trying to encourage the green shoots to flourish.
"To some degree, Digital Britain is happening," says Smith. "Broadband is broadly speaking pervasive compared to 10 years ago. That said, there are countries which are miles ahead of us, even some European countries. Some of those, of course, are funded by public money. In the UK, we are working with an Anglo Saxon model of liberalising the market and keeping the government out of the way.
"That is fine and plays to the idea of a market-based economy, but when you are faced with other economies which are not doing it the same way, you run into issues. Our spending in the UK has left us with some capabilities but not the best. Ultimately you have to have sustainable business models, but on the other hand we need to have the concept of broadband and next-generation communications as a platform for innovation. The internet allows you to have a whole load of things that you could never have justified without the internet. That is absolutely true of next generation broadband."
Telepresence at NHS Scotland
Smith cites as an example of this the work that Cisco is doing in Scotland for the NHS. "We have in Scotland a trial of health service telepresence which provides very high-quality video interaction around the north of Scotland," he says. "It enables individuals to have a conversation with a real person. When you have that sort of reach universally, the cost of providing health care becomes lower.
"There are other possible applications for such technology. You could, for example, have the police and the Crown Prosecution Service talking to one another without people having to travel. If you have a universal platform in place, you build a platform for innovation."
All of which sounds immensely sensible in practice. But there is clearly a huge cultural shift that needs to take place before the UK public sector weans itself off of massive on-premises projects such as the £12.7bn NHS National Programme for IT.
"The difficulty with public sector IT projects is that they become political footballs, and people like to kick footballs," says Smith. "There is also the snag that inevitably there is a focus on public value and that in turn can mean that you get under-investment in comparison with private sectors projects of comparable size or smaller scale, and you lose the element of goodwill.
"From a public sector management point of view, if you squeeze companies badly then you will also lose goodwill. There needs to be a balance between using the best of technology and the capabilities you have. Going forward, there needs to be a balance between public funding and enterprise."
As part of his own efforts to encourage UK enterprise, Smith is a board member of Young Enterprise, an organisation which enables young people to gain experience of how businesses work, based on the principle of "learning by doing".
"I have four kids of my own, the youngest of whom is now 18," he says. "The interesting thing I found when my kids were going through school was that there were kids there who were bright and capable, but when they said they wanted to do business studies, it was viewed as the modern equivalent of doing woodwork. There was an attitude of 'if you can't do something proper, then do business studies'.
"My 21-year-old son has a friend of the same age who has set up lots of businesses already, but at school they did not know how to deal with him. Young Enterprise is a charity which allows schools to run business programmes within schools. The pupils can set up businesses, create their own profits, issue their own shares and so on.
"It is amazing the sort of transformations that you see. You have the young guy at the back of the class who is a bit gobby and he gets involved and engaged. A number of the kids who have been involved then leave school and carry on with the skills they have learned.
"We get some great graduates coming into Cisco, people of amazing quality and with focus and drive. I was nowhere near their level of quality when I started work. The danger is that people often see IT as a bit of nerdy job as opposed to one that presents a whole pile of different opportunities. The whole scheme just puts a lot of visibility on how interesting business can be as well as providing some interesting role models to aspire to.
"If you get someone from Cisco coming into school and saying 'I'm in business, I do PR' then suddenly you get 16-year-old girls who see working for the likes of Cisco from a different perspective."
But can such schemes achieve that elusive goal of coming up with the UK's own version of Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison? Smith agrees there has been a problem in the UK in terms of realising the promise of certain individuals.
"When you go to Silicon Valley you find people who have massive ambitions and who want to do ambitious things," he says. "We do have those people in the UK. There are young kids out there who will be the next Richard Branson if we let them. But our culture does not always recognise how to deal with them. It is not a common ability for someone just to stand up and be naturally risky, but is as much a part of some personalities in the UK as in other countries."
For its part, Cisco is trying to foster a new breed of technology-savvy workers. "We have seen the Cisco Networking Academy spread around the world very quickly," says Smith. "There is often a situation where you have people who help their local school put their IT networks together, but then their kids would leave that school and where would the school be then? So we've invested $300m in the academy to teach networking skills. It is incredibly useful, especially in urban regeneration areas. IT skills are almost universally needed."
Outside of his role at Cisco, Smith sits on the board of the Thames Valley Economic Partnership, which champions the Thames Valley as the growth engine of the UK and the most dynamic business region in Europe.
"Cisco has invested heavily in the West London and Thames Valley areas. We are a big tenant at Thames Valley Park business park so have a lot of interest and investment in infrastructure and skills availability in the area. We have a sort of ambassadorial role at Thames Valley Park and that is something that we may well increase over time," he says.
"We are interested in being represented on bodies such as the Thames Valley Economic Partnership, which is about making our lives better. This year we have ramped up our regional perspective overall. I have asked each of our directors to take a region and to have the parallel task of being a regional director for that area.
"I want to make sure that we are more joined up as a company. If you look at countries like Germany, they have a much more regional approach. A lot of local funding for small service providers comes out of local government, for example."
There is currently an opportunity for a new breed of enterprise entrepreneurs to emerge as the shift to the cloud computing delivery model rolls on. From a technology standpoint it is a move of which Cisco approves as a networking provider that offers a backbone for delivery, but also as a generational shift.
"We cannot set the clock back and say we do not need computers or search engines as they have improved productivity so much. So what we need to say is that since we have such reliance on technology, we need to make sure it is reliable and robust," says Smith.
"Wireless is a good case in point. A young person's perception and reliance on wireless just being there is very different to older people's. When my kid was 13 years old, we went in the car up the motorway and he had his laptop with him. When we got onto the motorway, he could not understand what was wrong with the internet as it was not working with his laptop anymore. Wireless access had become the norm for him, like a God-given right. If you use a computer, you expect to be able to use wireless."
All of this should be good news for Cisco, which has suffered from the downturn in common with all other IT infrastructure providers.
"Over the past five years or so, the underlying infrastructure has become much more important," says Smith. "It is like trying to imagine that there is no internet anymore. You cannot survive without the network. The likes of Google and Facebook just assume that there is network there. So too do all organisations."
This was first published in April 2010