When the rest of the computer industry zigs, Dell Computer Corp. zags. Now Dell is at it again. During this period of economic upheaval, Dell has won new market share in PCs and moved into the enterprise arena. But even Dell has had setbacks: Over the past two and a half years, the company’s stock price has dropped more than 40 percent. Last year, Dell eliminated nearly 6,000 jobs.

A typical response to layoffs is to refocus with even greater intensity on performance. Dell, true to form, has had its own reaction: a first-ever round of intense corporate soul-searching.

Dell’s new question: Beyond pure financial performance, what does it mean to be a great company? The man who is most engaged with this program of introspection is Dell president and COO Kevin Rollins, a former Bain & Co. vice president who came to the company six years ago. We talked to Rollins about the kind of company he’d like Dell to be.

How much is this concern for employee development driven by market conditions?

“When the market environment changed, we said, ‘We’ve got to be more than just a great financial company. We’ve got to be a great company.’ What do great companies have? They have a culture. They have a leadership model. They have a reason or a purpose that attracts people beyond the financial rewards. You need to have more to weather the ups and the downs.”

Are there principles beyond leadership that this program addresses?

“There’s an ethical element. I’ve been using a quote from Solzhenitsyn[’s Harvard commencement address that] roughly says, ‘I’ve lived my life in a society where there was no rule of law. And that’s a terrible existence. But a society where the rule of law is the only standard of ethical behavior is equally bad.’ I thought that was a nice comment on the ethics of companies that say, ‘Well, legally, it was just fine.’ We believe you have to aspire to something higher than what’s legal. Is what you’re doing right?”

And you’ve also been quoting Max Weber, 19th-century German sociologist. Why?

“Weber talked about ethical responsibility. We think that we have had an ethic of blame in business when what we need is an ethic of responsibility. So we’ve got something called a Business Process Improvement. We target cost savings that we can gain by doing things better. But it’s a grassroots program. It says, ‘You have control of what goes on. If there’s stuff that’s broken, and you don’t say anything, it’s your fault. If ethics are violated and you don’t say anything, it’s your fault.’ ”

How does that work in practice?

“On the business-improvement side, anybody can say, ‘I’m going to gather the appropriate people, learn the process, follow through, and see savings.’ On the ethics side, there are hotlines where anyone worldwide can call anonymously and be connected with an ombudsman. The only people who know about the calls are our ethics committee members and me. On the basis of calls to that line, we’ve investigated, we’ve disciplined, we’ve fired, and we’ve fixed issues.”