Opinion: ICT opportunities and challenges in Europe

It's a varied and valuable market, says Charles Ward

Much has been written about the economic crisis in Europe and the austerity measures being taken by governments to deal with the problem. In this climate, there is a common misconception that demand for imported goods and services will slow. However, in some cases the cutbacks are actually providing opportunities for sectors such as ICT that can improve efficiency and performance, especially in the public sector.

The UK government is seen as having set the bar high for spending cuts, yet it has also recognised that investment in technology is a tool that can deliver better quality and better value services. The most obvious way to achieve this is by streamlining inefficient processes and, ideally improving the customer/citizen experience.

The organisation I work for, Intellect UK (an industry group that represents 750 companies in the technology industry), recently gave an award to a project called Connect Digitally, which tackles the hugely inefficient process of applying and re-applying for free school meals, for which more than one million UK children are eligible.

The heavily, paper-based process often took months, a deterrent in itself, whereas with the Connect Digitally online system the process can take less than 24 hours with massive reductions in local authority staff time. UK local authorities are responsible for delivering an estimated 700 services. This represents a huge opportunity for efficiency savings.

Companies here seeking to take advantage of opportunities in the UK public sector need to do their homework thoroughly, particularly in regards to competitive analysis, and be patient.

It is crucial that companies are clear about their unique selling point and why customers, and possibly partners, would find their propositions attractive. They need patience to learn how the market works, as well as allowing time to establish contacts and to achieve some level of visibility.

It is also inevitable that public sector buyers will be looking for more off-the-shelf solutions, rather than bespoke ones. This will favour companies that have existing proven solutions.

One of the perceived downsides of creating efficiencies is that they may lead to a rise in unemployment levels and impact negatively on the reputations of the companies responsible for the efficiency savings.

However, it is clear that reduced public sector employment is a given for the UK economy. The drive in the UK is for better quality and better value public services, with employment opportunities being delivered through a well-balanced economy and private sector growth.

Intellect UK want to see the UK as a strong tech hub – home to a vibrant, internationally-competitive industry that acts as the engine for growth and innovation in the economy and creates high value employment.

The energy sector is one which is going to benefit from innovation by the tech industry. The advent of smart metering and the concept of smart grids are currently stimulating massive interest across the tech industry in the UK.

It is appears from the UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review that it believes it can encourage innovation and stimulate job creation in the private sector, through committing to a green strategy and a modern broadband network — thereby delivering a better balanced and more resilient economy.

Especially in tough economic times, the UK and the rest of Europe need to focus on maintaining their international competitiveness. This will be achieved through innovation and productivity improvements.

Technology is a tool that can deliver these, although it is only part of the solution. It needs to be combined with a commitment to education, support for innovation and continuing investment in modern infrastructure, particularly high-speed broadband, in order to create the conditions for sustainable economic growth.

What is evident is how resilient the tech sector has become over successive recessionary cycles. Businesses are learning how to flex and many realise that knee jerk cuts may deliver short-term savings, but can also damage long-term prospects.

In my experience as a member of the European Beachheads Advisory Board, New Zealand companies typically enjoy the advantages of being agile, have an interesting mix of creativity and pragmatism, and doing business with them is straightforward.

They are, therefore, well placed to take advantage of the opportunities the UK and Europe offer at the present time.

Ward sits on the Europe Beachhead Advisory Board and the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise Board and is COO of Intellect UK

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