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.

Bifurcation

Bifurcation is one of those excellent words reserved for crosswords and serious conferences. It was being used yesterday to describe a rather depressing phenomenon that will affect millions of people. I was at the Employment Related Services Association annual conference and labour market trends were being discussed. Bifurcation was being used to describe the way the employment market is splitting into well paid and highly skilled jobs and low paid unskilled ones, with the middle being squeezed. Technology and globalisation mean that many of these ‘middle’ roles are disappearing and those that cannot obtain the highly skilled jobs face unemployment or jobs they do not want.

This is a concern for the affected individuals as well as a problem for our country and unfortunately there are no easy answers. Going from unskilled to skilled is not a swift and simple journey and meanwhile our knowledge employers are struggling to find the people they need. The wider the gap between the haves and have nots the more unpleasant society becomes. There are thousands of families for whom the choice is unemployment or low paid work and the forthcoming changes to the benefits system will increasingly make life without work more challenging. I firmly believe that it is better to have a job with the structure and self-respect that this brings however for many the types of job available to them will not make for fulfilling employment.

I don’t believe there are solutions to the bifurcation. The Luddites demonstrated the futility of taking on technology and markets. However go to any UK town and there will be a college offering free training. Meanwhile the quantity and range of online training is vast.

It is easy to stigmatise the unemployed and there are certainly many who abuse the system or make no effort to help themselves. However I believe the majority simply meandered through education and early adult decisions and then found themselves in a position where options were few and employment choices bleak. I don’t want to trivialise the challenges of up-skilling or being different in a community where unemployment is the norm, however the more I think about it the more the solution is with the individual and not society. Government can enable however each person has to make his or her own choice as to what discomfort will be endured in order to bring about personal change or change for one’s children.

I am very busy

The trouble with being an entrepreneur is that there is always something that needs doing. An area that can be improved, a new initiative to be got off the ground or simply a fire to be put out. And then there are the demands of family, from pleasurable activities with spouse and children to the inevitable chores. All in all, finding spare time is challenging.

It was in this context that I attended Silicon Valley Comes to the UK this week (http://www.svc2uk.com). This is an annual week long programme of events around the UK aimed at audiences ranging from university students to established company CEOs. What makes it special is that almost 40 extremely successful US technology entrepreneurs and investors (http://www.svc2uk.com/speakers) gave up their time to spend a week in the UK, freely giving of their experience and advice. Over the week they influenced thousands of people, inspiring them to achieve more and providing invaluable real-world guidance. I am certain that every one of the visitors had many other pressing demands on their time. Despite this they made the trip and enthusiastically participated. All too often one hears of self-interested entrepreneurs and financiers. I wish these critics could see what good this group of businesspeople did in the UK this week. Whilst writing this blog I want to especially thank Sherry Coutu (http://www.svc2uk.com/speakers/61) and Reid Hoffman (http://www.svc2uk.com/speakers/28), the main drivers behind SVC2UK. I really liked Reid’s comment that “Entrepreneurship is important because it is how you invent the future” and I think the future will be better because Reid, Sherry and their network made the time to selflessly share. Certainly my MyWorkSearch to-do list just got longer!

Cabinet Office Innovation Launch Pad

It has been almost two months since I last wrote a blog entry. The summer has flown by and what is normally a quiet time has been anything but. I am not complaining as the alternative is far worse. However a little time to catch my breath would be most appreciated!

A lot is happening this week however the most exciting item is on Tuesday 19th July. Some months ago it was suggested that we apply for the Cabinet Office Innovation Launch Pad. My understanding is that the Government has recognised that SMEs will be the engine of growth for our economy and should be encouraged. However it was pointed out that it is very difficult for most SMEs to do business with the public sector and therefore if the Coalition is to give meaning to its intent it needs to make some changes. The Innovation Launch Pad, run from the Cabinet Office, is a high profile way of doing precisely this.

Any UK SME could submit their ideas on how they could deliver improved value for money for Government. There then followed an in-depth evaluation process including public commenting, expert review, civil service voting and presentations by the short-listed companies. From this nine companies emerged as the ones selected as being most promising and MyWorkSearch is one of them. We put forward two ideas and the one that has been chosen is that every unemployed person in the country should be offered MyWorkSearch free of charge. If we can help just a small proportion find a job slightly faster than they otherwise would, we can save the Government over £250m per year in unemployment benefits and lost tax.

On Tuesday there is an event at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills where the nine selected companies will put forward their ideas. Present will be Government ministers, senior civil servants, business leaders and the media. In the evening there will be a reception in Downing Street.

The nine companies are:

It is a tremendous honour for MyWorkSearch that we have been selected to get this far and I am delighted. What is most exciting are the many conversations and introductions that have already occurred as a result of getting to this stage. I am getting a real sense that there is a commitment from the civil servants I have met to be open to the ideas we offer. The public sector has been risk averse for as long as I can remember and more of the same will not produce the outcomes our country requires. Making it acceptable to take a few risks and potentially have some initiatives fail is exactly what we need. The ideas that work can be scaled and those that don’t can be learnt from.  Meanwhile a generation of entrepreneurs will see that the public sector is open for business and will create solutions, some of which will deliver huge benefits.

I hope that the Innovation Launch Pad is a success. It will be great for MyWorkSearch however it could be superb for the country.

Several buses – all at once!

I was going to start my blog with some comment about how one waits for ages and then several buses come at once.  However I then noticed that it has been a month since my last post so it is me that has been slow to write rather than the pace of news that has been fast! But nevertheless a lot has happened.

In September I wrote about MyWorkSearch being shortlisted in the 2010 e-learning awards.  For a new company to make such a prestigious list is hugely rewarding.  A few weeks ago a colleague and I went to the black tie awards dinner, more to network and learn than in the expectation of success.   We vaguely plotted our route to the stage as they prepared to announce the winners in the ‘most innovative’ category however we were not too disappointed or surprised as the bronze and silver winners were revealed and our name was not called out.  I think I was having a “never mind, perhaps next year” conversation as gold was announced.

It took the person next to me to point out that my colleague and I really should head to the front to collect the top award!  So MyWorkSearch built upon the successes of winning the LinkedIn European Business Award and the Microsoft Bizspark contest to now also receive the accolade of Gold Winner in the most prestigious UK e-learning awards.  As if this wasn’t enough, in the past month we were a finalist in the National Online Recruitment Awards and have been shortlisted in the Learning Technology Solution of the Year category for the 2011 IT Training Awards.  I guess I had better take my black tie to the dry cleaners!

All of this external recognition is extremely satisfying.  We work very hard to do a good job and it is great when others acknowledge this.  However the best bit of good news came last week when we completed the analysis of our user research study.  We wanted to find out how successful MyWorkSearch is in getting people back into work.  Well the answer is:

  • 61% of MyWorkSearch users had within 3 months found a new job.
  • The average time to find a job was 62 days.
  • 92% of successful jobseekers stated that MyWorkSearch contributed to this outcome.
  • Jobseekers who accessed the advice and eLearning on MyWorkSearch are 50% more successful at finding a new job than those who do not.

Now this is a superb Christmas present. As I sign off on what will be my last post for 2010, I wish everyone all the very best for the holiday season.

Thrilled!

I have had a simply superb fortnight.  My colleagues and I work very hard to make MyWorkSearch a success.  We have to get very many things right, from product development to customer service to back office efficiency to revenue generation.  Drop the ball and a relatively new business such as ours can founder.

We submit for industry awards from time to time as it is a good external validation that we are getting things right.  A very important aspect of our service is the way we communicate knowledge to MyWorkSearch users.  It was therefore especially pleasing that we have been shortlisted in ‘The most innovative new product or tool in e-learning’ category in the 2010 e-learning awards.  We will discover in November whether we have won.

We are members of Microsoft BizSpark.  This is a superb programme run by Microsoft to assist technology companies in their first few years through providing a wide range of assistance.  Each year the UK BizSpark team organise a Summit and, as part of this, invite members to submit their business to a Dragon’s Den of experts who pick the best company.  This year 77 companies were entered and 6 were selected to present.  MyWorkSearch was not only one of the six.  We won!

The judges used the G/Score methodology to evaluate the businesses.  This provides a comprehensive framework to assess a business and results in a thorough appraisal of an organisation’s strategy, structure, commercial offering and achievements.

Earlier this year we were selected as the Best Business Startup in the European LinkedIn Business Awards.  It is great to see we are still on track.