My occasional blog posts are normally business related. I certainly avoid politics. However, the referendum outcome falls into an entirely different category.

We are on the brink of doing somethingLooking into abyss both immensely daft and irreversible. Society has some huge challenges and growing inequality has to be addressed. Demagogues, knaves and some well meaning, but misguided, individuals are taking advantage of this unhappiness and peddling a false dawn. This will affect our lives and our children’s lives.

For many years politicians knew better than to call a referendum on capital punishment because they knew they would get the ‘wrong’ answer. This wasn’t a rejection of democracy, but a recognition that people sometimes do daft things and very few have the time or inclination to immerse themselves in the issues and alternatives. We expect far more engagement, thought and debate from our politicians.

I should have seen the danger and opposed the referendum when it was announced. I should certainly have pushed for something so fundamental and irreversible to require more than a simple majority. I failed on both fronts.

However, I think it incumbent on me and like-minded individuals to do what we can now. This is not whinging because we ‘lost’. This is a response to an existential crisis for our nation. There is time for sanity to prevail and we must persuade our politicians that they can and must stop Brexit. Yes they will be criticised and their careers may also be damaged. But it is their duty to stand tall and do the right thing.

The power of the nudge

It has been a long while since I last added to this site. Much has happened on the business front, including opening in Australia and changing the company name to MWS Technology Ltd. I have also become chair of North Hertfordshire College – a wonderful role where the team and I have the opportunity to improve life options for thousands of people each year.

One of the things I have been giving a lot of thought to is how those who deliver programmes affecting large numbers of people can improve what they do.

It doesn’t matter whether an organisation is selling baked beans or running welfare to work and skills programmes – successful enterprises focNudgeus on results. It would be nice to think there is some performance enhancing magic bullet, however, in reality there are rarely single actions that transform effectiveness. Both baked beans merchandising and welfare to work / vocational training rely upon doing certain basic things well and then looking for small changes that can create incremental improvement.

This is where nudging and technology come in. Given my day job – and as I have reached the limits of my baked beans knowledge – my focus is on the world of welfare to work and skills programmes. Let’s assume that a provider is competent and is doing all the standard things well. They know how many people are on various programmes, who is responsible for each person, the delivery status and success rates. I am interested in how technology can help them drive additional performance.

Hiring better staff is an option. But this is hard to do and in a low margin business potentially counterproductive. A good service delivery model is helpful, however, ensuring it is followed is challenging – and meanwhile one size does not fit all.

Nudging is the art of suggesting small behaviour changes that are relatively easy for a person to make. And so long as the volume of transactions are high – i.e. the number of events where there is an opportunity to nudge – a percentage of successful nudges will add up to a material outcome improvement.

It was this thinking that resulted in our developing the Nudge Engine® several years ago and more recently the Aptem Performance Manager®. We have been working with providers on how to make nudging work and tend to use a five step model:

Not all programme participants are the same. Some are more engaged, some have particular barriers, some have circumstances that positively or negatively affect them. We advise providers to use their experience and knowledge to create some segments they believe are meaningful. Allocate half to two thirds the individuals to the relevant segments and the rest to a control group.

They should then consider each of their segments and how and why modifying their programme for a person in the segment will make a positive difference. They decide upon actions and suggestions for each cohort that they believe will be helpful.

The third step is to code into their platform (such as MWS’s Aptem) workflows,

Nudge iteration process

Nudge iteration process

the nudges that they believe will be beneficial. These may be suggestions for the participant or staff members. It may be delivered content or choices. It may be tasks or rewards. Our advice is to make it small things that should be relatively easy for a person to do or follow.

The provider needs to measure the impact of its nudges and contrast them with the control group, noting which ones work and which ones don’t.

The final step is to use the results to consider which of their segmentations and hypotheses prove correct. The provider drops those that are wrong, tries to improve the ones that seem to be working and creates new ones to trial.

As this process is iteratively repeated the organisation starts seeing improvements. They can swiftly cease actions that have a negative impact and ensure they maintain the ones that work. This type of approach brings several benefits to a provider.

First and foremost, they improve the quality of their programmes, improving the outcomes for the individuals they are here to help. Given that funded delivery is now largely payment by results this has a profound effect on organisational success and sustainability.

As a technology developer, what we are doing is providing a mechanism to determine and then lock in processes that evidently work. We are enabling providers to create know-how in their organisation that can be both protected and ongoing developed.

As a provider develops its bank of proven nudges it also builds up a capability that they can prominently feature in their tenders alongside their superior outcome data, increasing their bid success rate.

It is just over 20 years since Tesco introduced the Clubcard and over the years they have got very good at understanding their customer and how to sell a lot of beans. My view is that this approach is as meaningful in our sector. We are putting considerable resources into researching and implementing the technology that permits those in our sector to pursue similar innovation.

Our fifth anniversary


I started this blog not long after founding MyWorkSearch in 2009. We started product development in February 2009 and provided our online service to our first customers in September 2009. In what seems like a blink of the eye, our portal is now five years old. We have a reasonably large team, numerous customers and are about to expand overseas. Whilst I still consider MyWorkSearch to be in startup mode I often hear others refer to us as an established business and the benchmark in our sector.

Fifth anniversaryThe five-year milestone has resulted in my thinking back to our original plans and how they have evolved over the years. The technology world often refers to business ‘pivoting’. This is a fancy way of describing when a company discovers that its anticipated business model has not worked out and survival necessitates a change of strategy. MyWorkSearch has certainly done its fair share of pivoting and it has only been in the last year or two that we have had a clear sense as to who our target customers are and the value we bring that will result in them paying for our services.

Our original rationale was that most people find job search a challenge. They approach the task in a chaotic and haphazard fashion and this reduces their effectiveness. Having paid consultants/advisors provide job search assistance is in most cases simply too expensive. We believed that technology would provide an effective and affordable alternative and this led to MyWorkSearch. We decided to create a portal that would provide all the resources a jobseeker would find useful as well as the tools to stay organised. We knew that this would increase job search effectiveness and real-life experience has demonstrated this to be the case.

Which brings me back to our business model. We have identified five types of customer. However, our ‘compelling value’ proposition only works well with four of them:

  • Motivated jobseekers see immediate relevance in MyWorkSearch. They access the resources they find useful and recognise the value they have received from their MyWorkSearch account.
  • Providers delivering a programme for the unemployed also appreciate MyWorkSearch. Our portal provides the structure and reporting that both enable effective job search and demonstrate that it is happening. MyWorkSearch ensures that systematic job search takes place and the provider can require that those they are assisting use it. We are a low cost, scalable and efficient way of delivering business performance and we can readily communicate this to our prospects.
  • Employability is important for colleges and vocational training providers and they can see how MyWorkSearch helps them systematically achieve progression. MyWorkSearch is part of how the students’ courses are delivered and they just get on and use it. Study Programmes, Traineeships and employability courses all generate customers for us.
  • Some organisations, such as libraries and job clubs, want to have a range of useful resources available to their users. MyWorkSearch is a readily accessible portal that service users will appreciate and a sector for whom we have a clear proposition.

Our challenge is the fifth type of customer. This is the unemployed individual who lacks job search motivation and is not on a programme where MyWorkSearch usage is mandatory. We know that MyWorkSearch can help this person, however, we also know that there is a high chance that the individual will either fail to open a MyWorkSearch account or quickly give up. As matters stand we don’t have a compelling proposition for these customers as our service cannot benefit them if they won’t use it.

As we look to the future my hope is that we find some solutions for this fifth customer group. How can technology engage with and motivate individuals who have got into the habit of giving up and who are not on mandatory programmes? If we can solve this our next five years will be even more successful.

Motivation Matters

Later this week I am speaking at a conference on digital innovation in job search. As I work on my presentation I cannot help but reflect on some challenging home truths. There is a common perception that some people simply cannot use technology. That it is too complicated for them or they are of a generation that simply does not ‘get it’.

However, it does not take very long to find evidence disproving this. Video-conferenceHow many people who never found use for a computer adopt the technology once their grandchildren are on Skype? Or what about those who discover they can make some ready cash buying and selling on ebay?  Or perhaps their interest in their family history has brought them to the many research tools available online.

The simple truth is that most people will make the effort to learn how to use technology when it suits them to do so. The challenge is helping the person recognise the benefits so they make the effort.

This has particular relevance for job search. Without digital skills it is hard to find anything but the most basic job. From vacancy search to online application forms to simply emailing a CV, technology is ubiquitous.

We developed MyWorkSearch because it seemed obvious that a low cost and readily accessible job search assistance portal would make sense for very large numbers of people. The hundreds of thousands who have benefited from the service demonstrates the merits of the approach. But what about those who find it all just a bit too difficult?

All too often I see those assisting others with job search simply accepting low levels of digital literacy and agreeing that alternative methods of job search are acceptable. The more I think about this the clearer it is to me that we are doing jobseekers a disservice. Very, very few people are genuinely incapable of using technology. We need to make clear to jobseekers a) why technology will benefit them and b) that learning basic IT skills is both essential and within their capabilities. Too many people use ‘technology’ as the barrier that impedes their job search. Those of us who work in the employment sector need to be clear that the training and equipment are available and the only real barrier is motivation.

Catch 22 with British and EU bureaucracy


My blog-silence has been broken by my frustration at some very silly and wasteful EU / British rules that cost us all a lot of money and bring negligible benefit. Let me explain. Those who know of my company, MyWorkSearch, will be aware that we have an online portal that provides a wealth of resources to assist individuals on their job-search journey. We have recently added content and functionality so we can deliver employability courses that are funded by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and European Social Fund (ESF). The payment for an employability course is not that much, however, a technology delivery model makes it viable. To be entitled to the funded course Paperworka person must be unemployed and eligible for benefits in the UK.

Our funding comes via a contract holder, known as a Prime. Our Prime is subject to strict audit rules and should any process or paperwork be incorrect can be required to repay monies they have received. This can be several years down the line and in a low margin sector risk the on-going viability of the Prime. Clearly this creates a risk-averse approach.

So far I am sure that all who read this are nodding their heads and thinking that this is as it should be. Unfortunately, what it has created is a monster of bureaucracy that prevents help being provided to people who need it and adds overheads to providers and government that ultimately we all end up paying for. Meanwhile, the system appears to be designed in a way that stops intelligent change taking place.

The latest example we have run into is with regards to eligibility. In order to provide a short (20 – 30 training hours) employability training course we need to see a copy of a person’s passport or birth certificate. This presents us with two problems. The first is that many people, especially those who find themselves in need of these funded employability courses, don’t have a passport and have long since lost their birth certificate. Getting copies requires time and money. The second is that an employability course can be effectively delivered online, however, demonstrating eligibility and getting a learner signature requires face to face interactions and thus limits who can be assisted and where they are located.

If employability courses don’t make a difference they should not be funded at all. If they are helpful there should not be barriers that prevent their swift provision. What is the point of restricting or delaying assistance that gets people from costly benefits recipients to contributing taxpayers? We have a cumbersome system designed to prevent fraud without anyone stopping to consider how many people are really likely to masquerade as unemployed and entitled to benefits in order to get a free employability course. Nor do they appear to have considered the relative costs of the occasional eligibility mistake versus the bureaucracy overhead that every party bears for every assistance recipient.

Notwithstanding that self-certification would probably be fine, there is a middle-ground solution. Only an eligible person can claim unemployment benefits and Jobcentre Plus could readily issue a confirmation that the checks have been undertaken. Indeed they already have a process for this. The challenge is that the SFA and ESF won’t categorically confirm that a Jobcentre Plus document is sufficient proof. A Prime naturally needs to avoid the risk of clawback so in the absence of a clear SFA statement it insists that its supply chain dots every i and crosses every t.

I regularly speak to other small providers. We all have our examples of how the system has been daftly designed. But what truly adds insult to injury is our inability to get this changed. The SFA only deal with the Primes and smaller providers who are at the mercy of the rules have no route to dialogue or mechanism to obtain clarification. The Primes do not wish to jeopardise their contracts and have to conform to a system where they are informed of the rules they must follow and know that any mistakes can prove very costly. Meanwhile, now that much of the SFA’s funding is mixed with EU monies, there is always the ultimate joker card that trumps all arguments. Brussels makes the rules and we have no choice but to enforce them.

Entrepreneurs tend to be passionate about what their business does and also adept at finding solutions to problems. I really value that our service helps people find employment. We change for the better the lives of many people. I am so frustrated that I work in a system that is so poorly implemented and where there is no route to effect change. I could make it my mission to expose ineptitude and obsessively campaign for improvement. However, doing so would no doubt commercially hurt my business and take time I don’t have. So I just grit my teeth and get on with it, observing considerable waste at a time when we are all told that government expenditure must be cut. How very sad that I and so many others are put in this position. It does not make me proud to be British or European.

May All Your Troubles Last As Long As Your New Year’s Resolutions


I came across Joey Adams’ insightful wish on a friend’s December 31 Facebook update.  It made me laugh but at the same time brought home an area of serious concern. We are in tough economic times and unemployment blights the lives of millions of people. For the past four years my colleagues and I have provided a technology platform that has assisted many tens of thousands of jobseekers. ResolutionWe operate across the spectrum, from experienced professionals to the long-term unemployed and from those close to retirement to teenagers looking for their first job. From the data we see and the conversations we have, a few things are apparent:

Far too many people have a naïvely optimistic approach to job-search. They put insufficient time into planning, quality and action. Getting a job is a competitive activity. For every successful individual there are jobseekers who are not offered an interview as well as those who make it to the shortlist but do not receive an offer. So very often the difference between success and failure is time and commitment.

We have all made life choices that subsequently come back to haunt us. Daydreaming through the boring school lesson, the TV programme instead of homework, the qualification that was just too much effort, the lack of commitment that resulted in someone else getting the promotion at work or perhaps the fun nights out that meant there were no savings available to fund a new business.  All of these decisions have ripple consequences and the challenging economy has amplified this.

As we consider the new year and where we will invest our efforts and what plans we will stick to, I hope that career makes it to the top of the list. Employment vs unemployment and good job vs bad job affect a person each and every day. Some focus and effort can make a real difference. Let’s hope Joey’s cynicism applies just to the smokers and gym-phobic!

Just ask Apple

Over the past nine months I have visited numerous further education colleges and met with a wide range of staff and learners. I have also attended several conferences and listened to politicians and representatives of funding bodies.

Further Education colleges are vitally important. They are responsible for educating millions of young people each year and in many cases they will be the last step before entering the world of work. How they prepare their students directly affects the learners’ lives and also the prosperity of our society.

Unfortunately the sector is experiencing real challenges. Funding is getting cut, targets harder and meanwhile many operating overheads are difficult to reduce. Often properties were designed many years ago and are both expensive to maintain and inflexible. The students they are helping are facing a harsh jobs market where work is scarce and tenure uncertain.

All of these are problems that would tax even the best of managers. But to make matters worse colleges have another major challenge.

Two well known business maxims are “Deliver what the customer wants” and “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. For colleges the customer can be the learner or the employers that hire the college’s students. Meanwhile the paymaster is a bureaucratic government department operating under national policies set by the government of the day.

So college leaders are pushed and pulled between competing interests. In some colleges this is very apparent and their future does not look good. Death by a thousand cuts until a forced merger puts them out of their misery. Other colleges are coping better. Sometimes this is fortunate geography creating opportunity and sometimes it is just a question of better leadership.

I have a simple perspective. The product that really counts is talented students. Produce confident, capable and highly employable students and the college has a viable future. It will have a sought after ‘product’ and when there is strong demand the money normally follows. Just ask Apple.

You can keep your problems

You see, I have enough of my own. Problems can be time-consuming, stressful and challenging. Now I don’t resent my own problems as an absence would suggest there is either nothing much happening in my life or I have no control over it. But just because I recognise the value of taking responsibility for my own life does not mean I welcome other people parking their issues at my doorstep.

And this brings me to one of the aspects of the welfare to work sector that I find most puzzling. People who abrogate responsibility and just expect someone else to find a solution to their difficulties are simply ticking time bombs on the cusp of their next misfortune. Until a person takes personal responsibility s/he just blows in the wind and cannot be relied upon. So why do so many advisors pick up the baton and step in to find a job for a person? They are simply reinforcing the message that the individual is useless and needs everything done for him/her. It won’t be long before something happens and once again the person is unemployed, passively waiting to be assisted again.

This does not mean that jobseekers should be just left to it, somehow knowing what to do and how to do it. But there should be a crystal clear message that the advisor is not taking on the customer’s problems but is simply providing help so the person can find workable solutions. When selling MyWorkSearch I often focus on how technology saves costs and is convenient to access whenever and wherever required. However if I had to pick one attribute that is transformative, it is retaining responsibility with the jobseeker. Because once people cease being dependent they start coping and from this comes confidence and confident people are far more likely to have fulfilled and successful lives.

So I am happy to help people; indeed I delight in it. But don’t ever ask me to own your problems. They are your’s to solve.

Pragmatic pulling


When was the last time you played a computer game? Not some simple exercise on your mobile phone. I mean a complicated multi-player game with numerous controls, options and challenges. Learning how to master the game is hard. There is a lot to learn, from controller/keyboard commands to gameplay options and rules. And yet millions of people do this. Many of whom fail to get formal qualifications or are cajoled and encouraged in order to achieve them. So it is not a question of being unable to learn. It appears to be more about motivation to learn.

What also strikes me is the effort and research that goes into learning how to play a game well. Playing a video gameThe game may arrive with a booklet and have training segments. However the enthusiastic gamer will google for guidance, read forums and find videos showing other players’ tips and tricks. They will do all of this because they are motivated to succeed and know that learning this information is key to their gaming success.

I have spent considerable time in recent months visiting establishments that provide employability assistance to job-seekers. At the end of the course an assessor verifies that the learner has indeed understood what an employer is looking for and what s/he personally needs to do in order to secure and keep a job. What has struck me is how much cost goes into cajoling individuals through that relatively short learning journey and assessment. Pushing this information to learners is an expensive process. It all costs money – from learner recruitment to physical infrastructure to tutor and all the associated delivery resources. Currently the taxpayer, via the Skills Funding Agency, picks up the multi-billion pound bill for this.

So here’s a thought. What if a reasonable proportion of learners could be encouraged to self-learn? They could use technology to pull the learning they need and, when ready, complete the required assessment process. The main barrier is motivation. The person who is willing to invest time and effort mastering a game cannot be bothered to do this when it comes to what s/he perceives as someone else’s course and qualification. In an ideal world people would see how learning this information benefits them and would find the internal motivation to pursue the knowledge. However in the real world it does not happen and we invest a fortune in pushing education.

So what would happen if we made learning resources available online and paid people to achieve qualifications? I imagine that a payment of twenty five percent of the cost of pushing training would be sufficient to motivate many learners.  If half our students could self-learn one third of their training we would save a fortune in delivery costs. Meanwhile training provision could be focused on the harder to help groups that are not able to self-learn.

I can see how this would be politically sensitive. After all, why should ‘we’ bribe people to learn something that will benefit them? The answer in these straitened times could be that it is a pragmatic solution that could save a fortune. If you are not sure it is feasible, invest in a computer game and see how long it takes you to master the game-play!

Much ado about rather a lot

It has, to put it mildly, been an interesting week in the welfare to work sector. I even found myself whisked to BBC TV Centre for a live interview so I could add commentary to the war of words raging across the Internet and media. I don’t know if I bring anything new to the debate, but here goes!

I have worked in the employment market for over twenty years and in the welfare to work sector for three. Much has changed, however, certain themes have not.

Employers may not always select well, however, hiring the best people available to them is always their objective. Some prospective employees don’t have the required skills. Others may not know how to sell what they offer as a candidate. Still others get jobs but do not keep them, as they are ineffective at fitting in within the workplace. And finally there are people who for any of several reasons prefer unemployment to the work opportunities available to them.

Meanwhile, government is always looking at ways to reduce unemployment. They do this because it feels the right thing to do given their electoral mandate and the normally well-meaning intentions of the politicians. They do this because unemployment is socially corrosive; it is also very expensive. And in a democracy governments experiencing high unemployment tend not to get re-elected.

Government can employ civil servants to deliver solutions, or it can outsource. Where a provision is tightly specified a competitively procured contract will normally drive down delivery costs. However, the risk of tight specifications is that the deliverers can be mandated to provide services that are ineffective, and it can take a long while and considerable wasted resource before the government identifies the need for change and makes it. An alternative is to pay by results and not specify how these are to be achieved. Darwinian competition amongst providers will lead to innovation and improve the chances of successful outcomes. This is the model of the current Work Programme. Of course whatever model is chosen, the quality of outcome and value for money will be dependent on the procurement process and the extent to which there is genuine competition. Executed well, providers will generate profits however these should be far less than the additional value obtained by the customer.

The current political furore over work experience is somewhat ironic, as it is the Work Programme itself that is far more coercive than the workfare programme so much in the news. To me it boils down to a very simple question. To what extent do we as a country accept unemployment on benefits as a lifestyle choice? Notwithstanding fraud, a life on benefits is not comfortable. If one believes that it is the right of a citizen to choose this over work, then anything other than opted into training and support will be considered an injustice. If one believes that welfare should be no more than a safety net, enforced job-search and employment will be considered reasonable. If a person’s skills, domestic circumstances or location limit the quality of jobs open to them then so be it.

I have real sympathy for A4e. Human beings make mistakes, some are foolish and some are dishonest. When an organisation has thousands of staff, things will go wrong from time to time. If management step in and deal with the problem in a way that is generally regarded as correct, that should be the end of the matter. A4e have succeeded because over the years they have done a lot of things well. Destroying their business will do nothing to improve welfare to work provision. It will simply ruin one of the more experienced and effective large scale providers and deter talented managers and organisations from working in the sector. I don’t begrudge Emma Harrison her dividends. If procurement has focused on the best provision why should one complain when an organisation has found a way to meet its customer’s demands better than anyone else and also make money. If procurement is flawed or the fraud systemic then there is cause for serious repercussions. As matters stand today this does not seem to be the case.

So what next? I hope that the debate moves from A4e, Emma’s dividend and Tesco to our attitude to skills and employment. Our economy is weak, we have a less skilled population than is ideal and we are facing ever stronger global competition. If we don’t address these problems our employment choices will be the least of our problems.