Saturday, 15 December 2012

Research Files: 50 giving gifts

A wise person once said to me that when we give something we are also at high risk of taking something away and that something is a person's dignity. Charities, voluntary services, community groups and social enterprises are very conscious of this in their work with disadvantaged people. It is perhaps not surprising that it is far easier to give money than time, skills or in any way get involved directly when it comes to helping the most vulnerable people in our society but thank goodness people do or we'd be an even bigger pickle than we currently are.

It is the season of giving in many cultures, not just Christian ones, though for me every season ought to be and is. As a consequence I buy as much as I can from charities and from social enterprises which include supermarkets such as Waitrose and the Co-op and as well as from local businesses. It's a personal choice of course, but as I believe giving to the community helps the whole economy to become healthier and more prosperous I am never going to be ashamed or shy away from encouraging others to do the same. After all how often do we hear moans of the world is too commercial, too materialist these days? Frankly I think we are all seduced by the power of good marketing, but there are ways of allowing ourselves to be materialistic that are more ethical than others.

Most things you need are being produced by charities and social enterprises these days and there is an ever increasing range of innovative ideas for gifts from them too. Did you know for example that if you want to buy a theatre ticket for someone, there are not-for-profit theatre companies or a charitable ones? And there are many sources of training from social enterprises and charities.

This then is my research file on a few suggestions of where to look for pressies at any time of the year if you wish to look for ways to give support to communities - from gifts for others to benefit from, to gifts for your own loved ones. Don't forget your local charity shops for your cards as most charities produce them and please feel free to post a link below of your favourite charity or social enterprise gift idea. By helping them, you are also helping others, the economy and therefore supporting yourself too. All rather neat I think. Which to support? Go with what means most to you. They are all worthy of our help.

25 charity links to donate to

25 gift idea links for your loved ones


Finally, if you are a charity or social enterprise you might want to think about advertising what you do for free on sites like or highlighting what you need by way of resources and gifts on or - one never knows and there is certainly no harm in asking and don't forget to look out for newspaper articles and on tweets for even more ideas.

Wishing everyone a healthier and happier future than has ever been possible before. Happy giving.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Founders Thoughts: Double edged swords

When it comes to anything to do with the community, be it volunteering, charities, public services or social enterprises there is always a difficult equation to get right. As the services involved effect us all and are the backbone to our sophisticated society we simply cannot do without them, but funding them is (to some minds at least), akin to shredding money and throwing down the waste disposal unit.

There is no limit to what could be spent to help remedy such issues as poverty, crime, health, education and unemployment, hence any accountant is averse to there not being a cap on spending for them all. What price though should be put on these services when it is in all our interests to make them as effective as possible? I would argue that if we want the best of services we have to invest in them more if we are to ever hope to achieve a healthy, well educated society with no homelessness or unemployment.

Where our taxes get allocated is difficult enough without it being compounded by the knock on effects of a recession. How would you choose between homes, health or education? If you just chose to bankroll those three where would that leave our emergency services who have also suffered from massive cuts to the extent that all three are having to scrabble around for staff and some basic resources in order to function at all e.g. equipment not being replaced when it has reached the point of being unrepairable and there are even rumours of fire and ambulance stations closing.

"Why not make them charities?" said one person to me this week. While the ambulance and fire services could be turned into charities (we have the precedent with mountain rescue, air ambulance and the RNLI), I don't think we should, and especially not when it comes to the police! Even so, the difficulty in financing these services does not go away.

When cuts are necessary, I don't believe it is wise to make them by getting shot of staff and particularly not the front line staff as they are the nuts and bolts of any operation. Far better to reduce hours and enter into job shares so that no one need end up being made redundant. In some ways recessions are good for decision makers as it forces people to spend wisely, of it should do. It neatly highlights what the priorities are and what are the essentials to any operation to enable it to function; hence downsizing to a smaller office and pooling resources through collaborations as well as finding more economical suppliers all help.

Lessons in education

Some sectors are hampered in being able to share resources though due to what I'll call governmental rating systems e.g. education. Ofsted is necessary in order to ensure that standards of education are upheld but recently this has led in some instances to some underhand practises from some educational establishments in order to secure that only the most adept students are taken on so that their Ofsted rating never drops. I heard of some schools going as far as sending out invites to the parents of the most successful GCSE students to get them to switch schools for their A levels. Such practises are not new, but it does highlight the negative side of governmental ratings.

While it is quite common for secondary schools to share some facilities with middle and junior schools it is far less common for them to do the same with other secondary schools and colleges. Who loses out? The students. It's almost unheard of for councils to pool resources and although the health service does try to it's far more complicated when some hospital facilities are so specialised and totally impractical for other hospitals to borrow. You can hardly expect them to be able to loan out an MRI scanner as at any point it might be needed in an emergency.

Loaning facilities and equipment is possibly the only way to survive in these times of austerity while finances remain so limited. I would advise networking like never before to maintain good standards of service. It's something that most charities, volunteer and social enterprises are adept in and accustomed to. What remains concerning though is how they are currently being forced to think more and more about funding streams at the potential risk of neglecting service delivery because of the sheer amount of time it takes up.

in my opinion, overall profit should not be the goal and top priority of any service for the community, services should be. Nothing wrong with aiming to make them all self-sustaining, but let's be honest, if we want to live in a world where we all have full access to any and all the services any of us might come to need most services will need subsidising at some point. If we don't won't we be in danger of losing them and if that were to happen wouldn't the problems merely escalate? We are all participants and customers when it comes to community services. How much poorer our lives would be without them and how much more difficult ordinary life would be.

Most alarmingly I recently saw a report this week about how business sponsorship was stretched to its limit now. As I've said before, the same amount of money must be around somewhere from 10 years ago, it can't simply disappear - unless it was never there to begin with. I can only hope that is not true as we could end up undoing all that has been ethically good that we should be proud of. Our nation has worked extremely hard over the last 100 years to get this far with regard to improving the quality of life for everyone living here, it would be to our eternal shame to let it slip or go to waste as aside from all else it helps make our nation economically stable and well... great!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Article: Skills of the future

In the early 1980s I was involved in typesetting. Back then full colour screens and certainly pictures were not commonly available to most businesses; your business was considered advanced and state of the art if it had green and black screens instead of white and black, but at least floppy discs for storing information had arrived instead of cassette tapes. Mobile phones too were just being introduced and were heavy cumbersome things that few could afford and instead of Internet we had fax and answer phone machines.

It meant that everything that needed to happen had to be done at a much slower pace and in a much more manual fashion. Go back a little further in history and typesetting itself was a process of laboriously physically collecting each individual letter to make up words and sentences to produce a page of text - it was called hot metal as that's what the letters were usually made from. The skills required to run any operation in any industry were extremely diverse.

As technological advancement changes so skill requirements to enable businesses to function and survive do. Take as another example weaving and textiles; in the 19th century it was done by people working at home before the industrial revolution brought about mechanised processes. Whole ways of making, producing and functioning periodically change with the result that many manual skills get lost and forgotten. A wholly handmade pair of shoes made by a master cobbler is today regarded as an artisan product and the prices of them reflect the time and craftsmanship as well as the rarity of them in our use for five minutes and throw away modern world. They stand out as being different from what is commonly available precisely because they are not mass produced.

The question that crosses my mind is that by focusing on being able to produce things en mass and do things with ease are we in danger of losing out on many of the pleasurable things in life that enhance the quality of our existence? To just press a button to make things happen is hardly stimulating work and it can lead to all manner of problems if that button doesn't work as the mechanised process grinds to a halt and that then impacts on profits etc. In addition we might well be in danger of failing to develop a myriad of skills by becoming fixated with technology alone.

Today few people have knowledge of what is actually happen when a switch, lever or button is operated; they take it for granted that it will just work and that if it doesn't someone else will fix it. With many modern systems though there are no cogs to align, no wheels to grease, it is mostly down to knowledge of computers, electronics and electrics to kick start things again. 

The inherent problem with such sophisticated systems is that the more complex they are, the more points of failure they will have. It is hardly surprising that those who are particularly adept in computers, programmes and electronics are among the most highly regarded professionals of all due to their sheer usefulness in ensuring things work in our modern world. Certainly if you are involved in technology of any form you are unlikely to find yourself long-term unemployed compared to other aptitudes of skills. What though, does the future hold for those who are not computer orientated and what will the future hold for their skills?

There are of course many other areas which will never become industries of the past; from health care to education, from farming to construction and from plumbers to law enforcement. However the way in which they all work is becoming much more technologically reliant and that could prove to be a problem because if we do not equally value the non-technically orientated we could (and I would argue already are) missing out on the development of many other areas of skill which are not so heavily reliant on technology. 

A person can be taught things without the aid of computers, a better yield from crops can be achieve without them and as yet there is no substitute for the a person knowing by  through experience whether a person is ill or if they are trying to cover up a crime. There is great value from learning how to achieve things via different means, but in our push-button world we will soon not know how to?

Could we function if we had no technology now? Without any clear and viable alternatives to current energy sources which are finite, if the plug were pulled out so we had no electricity supply how would we be able to function at all? Such is the major pitfall of becoming so push-button reliant. That reliance even extends to our spare time and is already throwing up new problems with people simply not knowing how to socialise because they are continually plugged into a computer.

Technology at is best should always aid us, but it should never govern who we are, how we choose to function or what we do next. We should be commanding it and not be dictated by how it operates.

I recently read that children as young as 9 have 'better' (i.e. more advanced) phones than their parents and knew how to use every facility on them. I found that rather sad to reflect on because if the pace at which we work continues to increase, what time will they have to enjoy the planet that sustains their existence and what experiences could they be missing out on? New prejudices are already set to develop against those who are not interested in technology. Are we as a species about to embark on a split between one half of us becoming technophiles while the other half are manual workers. Many would argue we already are and it's certainly been a recurring theme of many a sci-fi story. Historically such differences in aptitudes have fed into the conflicts and been the basis for class systems. So in the future will it matter less how you are educated but matter more what you are educated in for you to make your way in the world?

The fact remains we need both brains and brawn in order to survive and progress, but my concern is that while I see plenty of hype and praise of all things technological, I see little by way of support for other skill bases which are the bare essentials to all of us being able to function at all. There are a lot of non-technical skills which are responsible for maintaining the real infrastructure by which we can have our wonderfully diverse structure. For this reason, while I am a fan of technology myself, I think we would be wise to invest more in ensuring we have future generations to still, farm, build, install electrics, look after our water supply, heal the ill and educate us all. To be blunt in my opinion, we cannot afford not to. 


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Research File: Seeking, searching and sourcing information

It seems a bit strange to me now that I haven't covered this topic already given I try to regularly run a Research File on here! Yes, you've got it the theme this time is research, but research for what - for facts, opinions and information - anything that helps us to make educated decisions. Decision making is always vastly improved by relevant research beforehand and here even opinion and the assumptions of others can prove very useful to know. What follows are hints, tips and suggestions about how to go about your research. 

There are two main categories of information which are useful to anyone, regardless of whether you are running and enterprise, a member of staff or looking for work which are: factual general information and opinions. 

Factual Information

Factual information can include financial details about a company you are thinking of trading with, some of which the company itself is happy to divulge through annual reports, but some records are also held by Company's House for some legal structures which will also conveniently highlight how many directors a organisation has had and how often they have changed. If they change regularly one has to start asking why as it can be an early indicator of possible ongoing problems and instability or it might be part of it's policy to make such changes. 

Golden rule - try in as far as possible to avoid making assumptions when fact finding. 

Other sources of information can come from following the leads from their own websites. Check out their recommendations, check their 'satisfied customer' list and if it's a local company with no website, ask  the local community and ask for them to refer you to 3-5 happy clients of theirs if need be. Then assess those contacts and their connection with the company.

Facts are actually quite slippery things as few things in life are categorically provable with absolutely no shadow of doubt. The more independent the source of information is, the better. Remember just as you will need to be adept in presenting your facts in a favourable light to win over people, so too do others! Facts are always subject to interpretation and a clever accountant can easily disguise the bear bones of what is actually happening so - buyer beware.

General facts are fairly easy to find, especially if you happen to be a person that people like to talk to. All manner of interesting information can be gathered via private conversations and the name of the game is to get people to be straight with you preferably by supplying you with written evidence where possible. Social media can help you to nail down information that you require via news stories and all manner of articles but remember they are all marketing tools in themselves designed to engage with you to follow them. This blog site is just such an example - no point lying about it!

Most important of all is to be clear about what is a fact and what is hearsay and opinion. A bank statement has factual information, a person telling you they've made significant profits this fiscal year is not.


Opinions give you the 'feel' for what will go down well. Aside from just asking individuals direct, you can gather information via surveys either conducted by yourself or by reading those run by others and published. However, be aware of who participants of surveys are and how big they are. Most surveys are limited to a few hundred people taking part in them so they might not be ideal or give a accurate picture of what you wish to know. Anyone who has conducted a survey will tell you that there is seldom a 100% return i.e. not everyone asked will take part. Surveys also vary in structure, some are detailed and ask for opinions while others are just a series of tick boxes so you will never accurately know the figures for people who dither between two options if the choices available are restricted. Remember too that certain personality types love doing surveys while other loathe them so I recommend that you take them largely with a pinch of salt unless they are asking directly for the participants to voice their views in their own words.

The opinions of others matters most when it comes to customers, clients and service users.  The best way to get that information will always be through normal channels of communication in written and verbal form. Don't forget though that colleagues and connections throughout the industry sector you are involved in are also extremely important, particularly when it comes to planning and development and in reaction to outside influences e.g. changes in the law.

Information research options

Most people in business are familiar with using computers these days and with browsing the Internet for things of interest to them, but how do you get the best results?
TOP TIP: Be clear about what you are searching for at the outset for the best results.

Suppose you want to look for a list of dentists. If you hook up to any search engine and type in the word 'dentist' you will find a mishmash of results from definitions of the word to dentist practices and job descriptions. It highlights the need for accuracy. The clearer the parameters for your search the better, the more detail for those parameters the better too. 

So if you want dentist practices in your area tap in 'dentist practices' followed by your county or town. Simple. However in business, you might want a full list with all the contact details of all those practices and that can take up a lot of man hours. This is why there are dedicated businesses who do nothing but research and will charge you a fee for supplying you with that information. It can be worth it too when their database records have contact details numbering thousands.

Hang on though, there is almost bound to be a directory of some things such as dentists in the UK somewhere... guess what you type! 
Alternatively you could also try some business and other advisory services e.g. Business Link as some of their database records might be free because it is public information. Regulatory bodies can also be helpful to approach. Remember though that some information is protected under the Data Protection Act 1998.

When it comes to products and suppliers, the number of price comparison sites springing up can make life easy but not all enterprises subscribe to them for a multitude of reasons, so be aware that you might be missing out on the best deal if you only rely on those sites. For some purchases that might not matter, but for others it could make a huge difference.

Be it suppliers, materials, contacts or customers the information is usually out there for you to find but weigh up how much you really need that information to be able to function with how much time (and money) it will take you to obtain it. When it comes to finding information be smart and think first about where it is most likely to be lurking and why it's in the public domain at all.

Never be fooled by what appears at the top of the list when using search engines. For many searches the first few listings are adverts because those companies are good at things called meta tags and other weird and wonderful back end Internet stuff. The largest organisations will always have the upper hand in investing to ensure they top of any search engine list that is relevant to them. They might be your top choice too, but then again they might not be. Handy to know if you are researching who does invest in such things!

Searching is one thing, finding exactly what you want is quite another. Best to write down your objective before you start if you want to avoid getting sidetracked or seduced into things which are not strictly relevant to your needs and  goals. Research is a process, from which careful decisions should be made, so it's best not to let the research results make the decisions for you. Spend time doing some analysis to use the information found to help guide you, not command you.  

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Operations File: Budgetary basics

Back in the early 1980s I indulged in a course on budget planning for business, and the single most important message I took from that course was never to spend unless you have to. The principle may seem obvious but I've found it's seldom adhered to as much as it used to be. 

What is essential to remember is how to prioritise. Depending on the type of business you are involved in priorities will vary and handling a budget is not the exclusive domain of company directors, CEOs or finance managers as departmental heads and project managers also have such responsibilities.

Thirty years ago the advice was (as an ideal) never to buy new equipment unless and until your current equipment is being used 24/7. The maxim was not so much "if it works, don't fix it", more "if it works, why replace it?" It is not necessary to have the newest gadget in order to deliver a good if not impressive service that will secure business. I personally think it particularly unwise to be swayed into such purchases just because a competitor may have invested in such a way. What competitors have by way of equipment, facilities or staff is no proof at all of a better service. 

However with modern technologies it can be difficult to keep pace with demand if machinery and devices are ten years out of date. Perhaps the most prudent way of approaching purchasing of any kind is to think about how you could continue without that purchase i.e. can you still function/operate? If so the next question to ask is why is this purchase being considered at all? Not that I'm mean, but it is all too tempting to be seduced into thinking you can have everything you want that's on your wish list. A wish list is should always be of lower priority to a needs list. Wish list items should only be considered if you have managed to come in under budget with your needs list. Even then wish list items should be prioritised according to business development needs, not according to what you personally happen to fancy playing with!

Important questions to ask include:

  • Is it really going to be useful?
  • Is it going to increase efficiency?
  • Is it going to help increase profits?
  • Is it going to save time? 
  • If it's a replacement item, what's it's projected useful life span? (e.g. Spreadsheets are often more enduring for their ease of use and common understanding than many a more sophisticated programme which are constantly evolving). 

Operational finances

Licenses, insurances, building costs, utilities, communications and staffing (to name but a few) have to be covered, but so too are the basics of any business e.g. stationery, refuse collection and something in the kitty for marketing one would hope. Start-up companies are keenly aware of these expenses, sadly once a business is established it is not uncommon for some things to get taken for granted and forgotten such as an increase in utility bills, or rent when it comes to projecting financial figures. Do not assume anything will reduce in price, instead always assume it will increase by between 10-20% every year as that way you should be covered for most contingencies. All this is before you begin to look at the figures for staff and training (usually the first casualty of lean times), materials for production and departmental budgets (if applicable).

It can get confusing if you are not careful about who is responsible for which bit of finance and can lead to both things being duplicated and/or vital costs being missed completely. This is why ensuring you have a contingency pot on the side is a wise precaution. Such an allocation of funds should not just be seen as for emergencies and lean times, but also for such errors as like it or not, they happen from time to time.

Finance departments have a responsibility to ensure that all figures are clear and accurate at all times. In their communications it is essential that those they are communicating with comprehensively understand what information is being imparted. I say this because I have come across finance departments that haven't been heeded by managing directors when they have been trying to warn them that finances are extremely precarious. The moral of the tale being that both parties need to agree on how finances are presented so that those who need to know can understand them. Sounds obvious, and that's precisely the point - it needs to be. 

Even when 'sub' budgets to departments heads or project managers are concerned this applys. Budget holders at this level may not be privy to the whole of the company's finances but, they will need to know their limits and ideally not go over them. All too often the assumption is that if they push hard enough, funds will miraculously be found only to find themselves with a rude awakening, if not a dismissal!

The money that's in the kitty should always be changing, hopefully in your favour because of new and profitable business, but awareness of when funds are running low or are likely to (e.g. the pay day), all helps to manage the finances as a whole. 

We assume we all know how to budget effectively and efficiently, until we hit the unforeseen. Perhaps the best people to manage finances (and negotiate with creditors) are those who have been unemployed and on benefits simply because with limited funds they somehow have to be able to juggle everything that many workers take for granted. On average they have £65 per week to pay bills, feed and clothe themselves and that's before you consider communication necessities such as postage, phone and internet connection, if not travel to interviews to secure work. It only takes a repair to their home to throw all their budgets out. Such an example I hope illustrates and drives home the importance of contingency funds where at all possible and those contingencies also apply when it comes to project management.

Another examples is a capital funded project that I was involved in. I was given a set figure to work to, did my research for best value and not only managed to fulfil the remit but saw the whole thing through under that budget and on time. Unfortunately though the contingency fund was required because another department had to also sign off the work and thereby had to charge our department for their involvement in the project. News to my boss at the time! Something obviously went awry in the communication chain for this not have been apparent at the outset. Check and re-check with everyone if you are working in a large organisation!

Project costs

Many people first learn about budgeting in the workplace through managing a project and then move onto managing a department etc. The principles are the same, all that happens is the items on the list that need to be accounted for really. Do it well and you will earn praise, respect and admiration from those around you. Get it wrong and it hurts - or so I've heard! 

I have always started with the brief and constantly remind myself of that brief so that I don't veer off track. The brief should immediately point you in the direction of your top priorities, from there all other elements slot into that. So here's three simple examples exercises of how that works - note pricing comes after research in all cases.

Exercise 1: 

The brief is you have £100 to provide food for 50 VIPs for a launch event. 

You might be lucky and already have bar or coffee facilities already provided at the venue, or you might not, so the first thing is to check. Never assume another essential requirement is already met, so also check back that you are definitely not expected to cover the costs of drinks too.

  • Check who is on the VIP list, they might not be people you've heard of and you need to get a feel for the type of people that are invited.
  • Check they are all attending and adjust accordingly nearer to the time - if only half will be attending it means more food possibilities!
  • Check their dietary requirements, are there any allergies, vegetarians of religious requirements that need to be included or avoided. Remember that under Equality Law 2010 it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on grounds of health, religion etc
  • Compare and research the possibilities of self catering or hiring a catering firm. Remember if you are thinking about catering 'in-house' you have to be already be geared up and have met the Food Safety Act and all associated legislation by law, e.g. Food Hygiene Regulations
  • Consider what these VIPs might have been subjected to before and what time of day the launch is to be held
  • Compare best value for price

Exercise 2:
The brief is to supply some literature for 50 VIPs at a launch event for £100.

Check what else is already being sent out and that will be there at the event. You need more detail if this is all you get as a brief. Literature to accompany a video presentation, to highlight key points from the launch about the product or service... what? Let's assume it is the latter.
  • Get the list of VIPs and get information about how they like to be communicated with
  • Consider options for making the take-away literature memorable and desirable to avoid the high change of it just being thrown away
  • Make sure it does not say anything that isn't true, accurate and that relates to the product or service
  • Ensure it includes the right contact details for orders!
  • Ensure it is thoroughly proof-read before delivery!
  • Research professional services for ideas as well as price
  • Compare options for producing something in-house against getting it done by a professional service, there may be avenues to tag this onto another print job, but as we're talking VIPs scope of personalisation seems to be pretty important here. Check that though.

Exercise 3:
Your organisation wants to economise on postage costs so is looking to invest in in-house postal systems. The brief is to find the best value for your small operation as an alternative to buying stamps in the post office. 

You don't always get a set figure budget to budget to sometimes finances are about exploring possibilities first prior to deciding on the amount of money to be allocated. The savings here are more to do with staff time and when and where mail sent in the post is essential. 

  • Enquire if there is going to be a change in marketing strategy to develop on-line resources as that could easily help reduce postage costs
  • Check how much time staff use for all mail-out related activities including physically going to the post office.
  • Check what is usually spent on postage every week, month and year. Are there times of the year when postage costs go up - if so, why and can they be reduced?
  • Options could include one drop deliveries for promotional literature at suitable sites so long as you are convinced they won't just be dropped in the bin as soon as you leave the premises
  • Check what the priorities for postage are
  • Research on-line what other people do and whether or not it has helped reduce costs by talking to the service users direct NOT the companies offering products. Discussion groups in LinkedIn can help with this sort of thing or just talk to your suppliers and business clients if appropriate
  • Compare options against actual known usage e.g. franking machines v Smart stamp - including printer and a set of extremely accurate scales
These exercises may seem too simple, but more complicated project and financial planning is merely a case of doing many such simple exercises for all the individual elements that are required to make up the whole plan and to keep to budget. Figures should be constantly adjusted in the light of new information throughout.

The most important point of all to remember is to never deviate from the priority aims and objectives originally set for your budgetary requirements. If they change, then abandon what you've done and forget it to start afresh with what should after all be a new brief and set of objectives.  

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Founders Thoughts: Voluntary and apprenticeship magic

The trouble with anything purporting to be magical is that magic comes in two forms - good and evil, so whether you are interested in signing up for voluntary or apprentice schemes is best to be aware of what should be the benefits and how to reduce the risk of the pitfalls. That applies to candidates as much as enterprises and organisations. 

Voluntary vehicles

With voluntary positions, the aim is to for the enterprise to gain an extra pair of hands and for the volunteer to gain from having a new experience. Unlike apprenticeships there is no formal training requirement and there are no wages whatsoever, although some expenses (e.g. travel, meals and where applicable accommodation) are sometimes offered. Expenses are not compulsory for enterprises to pay, but it is advisable if you wish to retain good volunteers to secure their continued interest and loyalty.

The whole area of the voluntary sector is riddled with challenges to overcome and grey areas such as how do you run a voluntary organisation when you cannot hold people to a contract when they are volunteering for you? How can you maintain consistency of service and/or product delivery with a high turnover of staff that continually need induction training of some kind and who can say, "I'm sorry I can't (or won't) do that task." The answer is to employ key personnel and pay them a wage, but that is not always possible. The Citizens Advice Bureau for example is a charity that is staffed almost entirely by volunteers from all walks of life.

Volunteers though can become dissatisfied because of the lack for formal training, a structure to their expected duties and opportunities for qualifications which the organisation may simply not have a budget for. However, to gain an insight to new job roles; to hone or gain new skills or confidence or to simply make new friends it can be an invaluable and profoundly rewarding experience.

Local Community Volunteer Services (CVS) can play an important role in helping to match interest from prospective volunteers with the skill needs of the enterprise. However, it remains the responsibility of the organisation to be clear and adhere to what they can offer and be diligent in ensuring that they are organised when it comes to making contact, with volunteers and keeping them them informed.

My own experiences echo this for as a former manager who helped to develop volunteers I recognised the importance of listening to their interests for development so that it became a exercise in negotiation to ensure a happy mix of something for them, and something from them for the company. However, as former volunteer I have had a couple of negative experiences due to expectations that I would go beyond what I had offered for free with no pay, but mainly due to the length of time it takes for some organisations to get back to me as to whether they needed me or not. Not good, fortunately though the majority of organisations offering volunteer work do not behave that way. Most of the time I am happy to report no such problems whenever I have taken on voluntary work.

Who uses volunteers?

Voluntary positions can be on offer from just about any type of industry regardless of it's legal structure these days. If you are an employer please be aware that as much time and effort in terms of pre-planning and monitoring is required to be in place for volunteers as much as any paid member of staff. If you doubt that, ask any social firm. Social firms specialise in offering as many opportunities as they can to disadvantaged people. Do not confuse them with social enterprises who may or may not do the same.

The motivation behind why an individual wants to volunteer is extremely varied and so you'd be wise to tailor duties to those requirements. I personally frown on any organisation that uses volunteers (and/or apprentices) as a cheap source of labour not least because it can all too easily lead to a devaluing of their contributions to the whole operation and to society. Without such people many organisations simply wouldn't be able to exist, function or survive including some rescue services such as mountain rescue, RNLI and Air Ambulance.

Recommendations for Volunteers

If interested in volunteering I recommend you do a bit of research on the organisations you are interested in beforehand. Organisations can range from charities, social enterprises, councils and as well as many private enterprises. If you don't know if an organisation welcomes volunteers, phone up and ask and quiz them about what they can offer as standard to volunteers; what benefits they could offer specifically for the role(s) they want volunteers for and what level of regular commitment is required in terms of your time.

Most organisations have websites for your to contact them direct (ideally by email so that you get things in writing), but many of them these days will only take volunteers via a CVS, the VSO (Voluntary Service Organisation) or similar organisation. The aim of these organisations is to encourage volunteering, but also to ensure that both parties are a match where at all possible and all are only too willing to help.

The sorcery of apprenticeships

In common with volunteers, sadly there are some rather nasty employers who view apprentices as a source of cheap labour whereas the intention is to provide people with formal training via apprenticeship schemes. Originally apprenticeships consisted of being paid a living wage and several years of training. It could be argued that for some professions they have never stopped, e.g. medical, legal and financial professions whereby it can take seven years before one is fully qualified.

Modern apprenticeships differ as they are geared toward training people for a shorter period of time and combining it with qualifications which it is hoped will always be an asset to the individual to help them to secure a living wage. Though apprentices get an income, it is not enough for them to live independently unless supported by other means e.g. benefits. 

Most schemes run in conjunction with colleges or universities so that the theory and some practical experience is covered by the college leaving on-the-job training to the employer. While there are some rules and some forms of assessment regarding the employer's part in training, they are not generally geared to be as measurable as educational establishments, which is how employers who have no intention of offering even a useful work experience can take advantage.

While schemes run by education providers will ensure there is an employer already signed up offering work experience, they can only do so much to ensure that experience is to a high standard. Employers, may or may not have affiliations with a particular college, much depends on the nature of the apprenticeship itself. Qualifications may be deferred to later on in the apprenticeship e.g. after company induction training has been completed. Both training providers should have clearly defined structures, aims and objectives and should adhere to and deliver them.

Assuming that all goes well for the duration of the apprenticeship, by far the biggest pitfall for apprentices themselves is whether or not there is a job offer at the end of it at the going rate with the company they have worked with. Perhaps that should be incorporated as a mandatory requirement for all apprenticeship schemes so that at the end of the training process a secure job of at least one year is offered upon successful completion which could either be part or full time. I believe apprenticeships should be looked upon as in depth and intensive probationary periods for new paid employees, after all is that not original intent behind all such schemes?

True magic

Voluntary and apprenticeship experiences can be wonderfully magical and rewarding for all concerned. Regrettable isn't it, how the few can mar even the best of schemes to ruin the good works and dedication of so many. That's not to say there is dishonour in companies who offer apprenticeships every year and who seldom employ afterwards, but the hope is that some of those apprentices are securing employment from them afterwards. Candidates should be bold and ask what percentage of people secure related paid work upon completion before deciding upon which scheme to sign up for.

In theory if the employer's enterprise is viable it should be progressing and therefore recruiting new staff from their apprenticeship programmes as for them it is a sensible way to ensure that new staff are moulded to their way of working while benefiting from essential training at reduced costs. 
Intelligent employers should be factoring in contingencies for hard times well in advance in their projected forecasts which should always be taking into account trends as well as the overall economy; therefore they should be able to say with confidence that a job would be on offer if the apprentice performs well enough i.e. passes.

Whether you are an employer or a candidate interested in these opportunities, it pays to do your planning and research first. All work relationships that are effective are based on a mutual agreement that not just should, but
will benefit both if handled correctly.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Article: Are grown up politics on the agenda?

I was reminded this week of a well documented and reported case of Institutional Neglect where an estimated 1,200 died due to (as the investigation found) cost cutting measures taken in order to meet government targets. The cost cuts were made to staffing levels and in training and the industry in which this happened was health care - Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust 2005-8. I believe it's since improved enormously due to additional support from government. Does that mean deaths have to occur again before government will assist?

Alarming to think how recent that was, and alarming to think what might be happening right now as a result of so many cuts to community and public services. A different government it maybe but the same high risks are there. The same questions have arisen over the Winterbourne View abuses in August of this year.

The cuts have also hit charities, advice services, benefits, councils (who provide a vast range of community services from refuse collection to housing as well as being involved in the provision of educational and social services), and all three of the emergency services - fire, police and ambulance. Don't be surprised if rescue services cannot attend in time when cuts have meant a reduction in equipment and resources all three services want to attend fully equipped, but... If you are contemplating riots though, think again. The police are not the hardest hit, the ambulance service is so if you get injured... good luck.

Meanwhile financial services seem to have found the money to continue to advertise the latest 'must have' products and services such as personalised credit and debit cards and extortionate rates of lending for short term loans e.g. 3-4000% APR interest rates among other things (that means for borrowing £1 you could end up paying £4001.00 unless of course you can pay back early). They strike me as insensitive at best but mostly out of touch with the majority of their consumers - the latter example seems hell bent on profiting from other people's misfortune. I have never fathomed how usury could be legal, but apparently it is; nor can I fathom how it can be legal to have such advertisements on television in an age when ads for smoking is quite rightly banned as detrimental to well-being.

While Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust will undoubtedly have no choice but to learn from it's mistakes, it seem less likely that big business ever will. The drive for consumerism has reached obsessive levels it seems regardless of whatever suffering maybe happening in the world outside of the commercial world. It's almost as if there is a growing belief that any and all hardship are just nasty myths to spoil commercialism's fun.+
Perhaps what is even more alarming is the charting of government responses to serious issues such as child abuse cases, discrimination and equality as it's only really in the last decade or so that much has been done, but boy, what a flurry of activity there's been. Here's just a few examples...

  • No Secrets Guidance 2000
  • Every Child Matters Initiative 2002-3
  • European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003
  • Children Act 2004
  • Mental Capacity Act 2005
  • Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006
  • Mental Health 2007
  • Health and Social Care Act 2008
  • Common Assessment Framework for Children & Young People 2009
  • Working Together to Safeguard Children Guide 2010
  • Health and Social Care Bill 2010-11
  • Equality Act 2010
  • Protection of Freedoms Act 2012

It's as if our governments (for they've changed in the last 10 years) are on a catch-up spree with what has been widely reported and known by professionals and communities for years. I'm not complaining that it is at last happening though. these laws apply to every single individual working within any and all sectors involved with the provision of services for others. It's a serious commitment and yet the wages for the average person working in these sectors remains below the national average. By contrast if you are a business, Employment Laws, particularly the Equality Act 2010 and Health and Safety Laws are the minimum you need to know about. Perhaps governments in the future will eventually also get round to penalising and amending laws to reduce bad practises in businesses as vigorously as they do social and health care and come to understand what the majority of honourable businesses need to be able to function.

I've noticed on twitter that ethics are rapidly becoming a 'must be considered factor' in governmental policy making now. Disgusting that it should have taken this long to get to be on the agenda if that's the case. Perhaps if it had been factored in earlier we might have averted another global economic crisis. Maybe in this decade, new laws will not only finally catch up with what is required to protect the vulnerable, disadvantaged and basic human rights, but also aid businesses and encourage an increase in ethical practises there too.

Most significant of all would be a change from governments that instead of catching up with the rest of us, are ahead of us in anticipating what we will need so that instances of institutional negligence and financial crashes become less likely due to laws being brought into effect in time to prevent such things ever escalating to such woeful proportions. One can but hope, but there's a snag with all this.

While different parties continue to concentrate their efforts on bickering and slating each other I fear we will continue to get no where useful fast. In addition, while some legislation such as the above is undoubtedly beneficial, other edicts have proved counter productive and led not only to people feeling their can't or shouldn't do things for themselves but that they are safer in legal terms not to do so. A simple example: Some organisations will sack staff if they use a fire extinguisher to put out a small fire in a bin as having a building burn down is less damaging to their reputation than risking staff injury. It's as if we are heading for an age whereby none of us will do anything unless under license from the government. Costs can be recouped for a burnt building through insurance in a lot of cases after all.

More or less legislation?

For me, it is not a question of whether we have more or less legislation, but a question of whether or not the legislation is of value. Sensible legislation that empowers rather than debilitates us all from being able to function and develop regardless of which sector we work or are involved in is, in my opinion wiser than legislating on every issue that arises. We should amend and create laws that help protect, secure and safeguard our goals to work, live and co-exist in harmony and safety, but not have laws that restrict or discourage our ability to work things out for ourselves as it can all too easily prevent and prohibit progress.

Sooner or later, (though probably not in my lifetime), I would like to think that politics and democracy itself will have a major overhaul for as it stands, changes of government seem to invariably lead to more confusion, u-turns in approaches of the management of vital services when they should of course just be evolving and developing for the benefit of all.

It is why whoever is in power these days invests in independent think tanks. However, given that each political party employs different 'independent' thinkers one cannot help but question if they are independent at all. Is anyone devoid of political bias? Does the party in power actually follow their recommendations or only as and when it suits their own political agenda? In short I feel we need more agreement from our all our politicians these days rather than discord. Why is it that our focus is continually on our differences instead of what we all have in common as human beings?

Having think tanks in place now, begs the question... shouldn't we be electing the think tankers rather than politicians? Perhaps we should be thinking about dispensing with political parties in order to force them to collaborate for the common good. Would it not be better to elect individuals according to their expertise and comprehensive knowledge as even within political parties there is disagreement.

For most people politics has become a mix of who has the most convincing rhetoric at any given point over any issue or a question of which personality appeals; but is that how it should be? Policies, when they are revealed, never seem to go into detail about how they are to be implemented. Is that what we want to be voting for in the future?

Just a pondering - I have not reached any firm conclusions myself yet. Collectively though I believe we could do better than what I have witnessed so far during my lifetime and, so long as our emotions and private agendas don't cloud what could be fairer for all regardless of whether we are rich, poor; healthy, ill; working or not, I believe it should and could be possible.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Research File: For your safety and health

People often live in fear of Health and Safety (H&S) regulations quite unnecessarily. The reason it becomes such a confusing issue is not due to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) who I have found only too happy to help with any queries you may have. Confusion is due to the policies and edicts of employers in the workplace and their misunderstanding of the whole issue of Health and Safety. There are fewer laws under H&S than your might imagine, but the HSE quite rightly  are very firm about the ones they will enforce. They even have a 'Myth Busters Challenge Panel' to help clarify matters for all parties on their website.

Each work environment has it's own risks, so dependent upon the nature of the business you may find the number of laws that apply may differ from another type of business e.g. the construction industry has much more stringent regulations than an office environment; health care and catering facilities will be different again. It is very much a case of what you do that will determine which areas you will need to be aware of. This accounts for the different versions of the Health and Safety Law poster which all work premises should have on display and adhere to. The alternative to this is to issue ALL staff with copies of the same.

It states quite clearly that although employers are responsible for ensuring that the workplace is safe for staff to work in, staff are to do their bit too. In theory an employee who is the direct cause of their own accident could be sued for it, but I doubt an employer would do so for the sake of their own reputation. Employers have a responsibility to train their staff and to disallow workers undertaking duties which they feel they are not safe doing. Staff have a responsibility to work safely once they have completed training and at all times to report anything which they consider to be a risk or hazard, from slip and trip hazards through to inappropriate use of chemicals, unsafe equipment and faulty electrics to name but a few examples.

Ten essentials for health and safety 

1. Risk Assessment
Regular risk assessments should take place to take into account any changes in your work environment and procedures. It is far easier to monitor and review once a month than to have to do a major assessment once a year and I'd strongly recommended you do so no matter how large or small your enterprise is. 

Assessing the risks in your workplace:
  • Identify the hazards and risks
  • Decide who might be harmed and how
  • Evaluate how dangerous the hazards and risks are and decide on precautions
  • Record your findings and implement plans that result in reducing the risks
  • Review your assessment and update if and when necessary

As outlined below it is best to get thorough training in risk assessment to avoid any costly or dangerous mistakes.

"Using a matrix can be helpful for prioritising your actions to control a risk. It is suitable for many assessments but in particular to more complex situations. However, it does require expertise and experience to judge the likelihood of harm accurately.  Getting this wrong could result in applying unnecessary control measures or failing to take important ones."
risk matrix


2. COSHH - Control of Substances Hazardous to Health
Many substances can be hazardous to health e.g. cleaning products, and some require special measures and training for storage and use. All such substances should at least be locked away to avoid misuse and spillages, but further guidance comes from the labels on the products, risk assessment, from training and from information from the HSE.

3. Electrical Safety, including Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) 
As an employer you are obliged to ensure that all electrical equipment is used safely and that permanent electrical installations are well maintained and that they are provided and serviced by an accredited and qualified supplier. Regular inspections are mandatory as is the testing of any and all electrical items that are portable, from cables to table lamps, projectors to microwaves; from curling tongs to laboratory incubators.

4. Gas Safety 
As above for electrical safety - reputable accredited service provider, safe use and regular maintenance regime.

5. Water
The main concern with water is that it is a clean supply and one of the greatest risks is of Legionella so due precautions need to be taken if you have a water supply to your premises at all, especially if you have a water tank on site. Fortunately most precautions are very easy to minimise risks.

6. Fire safety
Your local Fire and Rescue Authority is responsible for enforcing fire safety in the workplace. Fines, closures and imprisonment are all possible and likely for breaches in compliance to fire safety. A separate Fire Safety Risk Assessment is required and it should look for out for sources of ignition, fuel and oxygen supply. Suitable fire extinguishers, evacuation procedures and fire routes properly sign-posted are all mandatory. See for further information.

7. First Aid at Work
Depending on the size of the company and the nature of the work carried out the requirements for first aid at work can vary from first aid kits to fully qualified and appointed first aid staff. All details should be made readily available by the employer for all members of staff. Clarity of information and procedures is essential for this as much as for evacuation procedures.

8. PUWER - Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998
Work equipment and machinery has to be fit for purpose particularly if it has been made to do a specific job for example in a production line. Whether you are using, purchasing, installing such equipment or making it, it is best to be aware of these regulations as prosecutions are not uncommon.

9. Maintenance
Maintaining your premises, equipment and resources properly can safe you a lot of time and money, but maintenance work itself comes with additional risks regardless of whether it is done by a contractor or your own staff. Best to be aware.

10. RIDDOR - Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995
I hope you never have cause to report any such thing but be aware that serious workplace accidents and dangerous incidents by law have to be reported. To avoid confusion over what is a RIDDOR incident and what isn't either purchase or download the guide from the HSE. Accident books are good to run as they can help you with your overall Risk Assessment.

This is by no means the full list of things that the HSE cover and you really SHOULD check out what is relevant to you and your organisation regardless of whether you are a member of staff or an employer as both parties have responsibilities.

I would personally advocate every worker being trained in Risk Assessment and every employer being trained in assessing staff for competence - if only budgets and time would allow - there are plenty of companies and consultants that offer Risk Assessment training, just do a google search and pick one! I would strongly recommend you get trained if it is your own enterprise as it could save you a lot of time and money and it really isn't as complicated or difficult as it might sound.

Panic, stress and worry are all risks to health and safety so if in doubt ask the people who know - HSE.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Operations File: Customers training you

We are all customers and therefore we all at times get frustrated when services and products fail. It annoys  us precisely because of the waste of time and money that could be more productively spent.

An extract of an email I sent to a customer service team regarding an IT product:

"I would assume the answer is yes, but clarification would be appreciated. Naturally I will test drive this theory of mine with or without you responding, but I can hardly recommend a company or it's services if it doesn't understand the needs of it's customers.

I happen to have worked with hundreds of programmes, so it is always incredibly frustrating for the user to have to explore how each system works. Know the feeling? I point blank refuse to use any that expect me to be trained to fit how it operates when it becomes too much of a hassle. Programmes and systems are supposed to be useful tools whereby we control them, NOT the other way around.

If your company wishes to continue to be successful it would be wise to bear that in mind as the rate of progress is such that one of your competitors will respond more quickly, understand more easily and thereby take your customers away from you. Fair warning I feel ..."

Feel free to take a similar stance to chivvy things along if you don't already do so. Start-ups tend to be more afraid to do so than larger enterprises which have the benefit of experience of wording things to ensure they get the service they expect and pay for. But what of the effect on the customer service departments and their staff?

The role of customer services

It is only right for customers to complain when services are below par regardless of whether it is a business or a community service. Without that information how can any organisation fix the problems? In my tweets I have let complained at politicians because I am a customer. Not only that, I am one of their employers as my taxes pay their salaries. In effect, we are all their bosses. The same principle applies even to government departments. The point is we are always customers ourselves and should always be aware of how we all prefer to be treated.

It should therefore become abundantly apparent as to what the role of customer service staff is. They have to have extraordinary abilities in tact, diplomacy and empathy to be of any use. Added to which they need to be resilient to the point of being thick-skinned at times and, preferably unafraid to kick their bosses to respond to serious complaints promptly which could otherwise bring that enterprise into disrepute and thereby loose the trust of their clients and customers.

It is also essential that customer services work closely with marketing teams as the last thing you need is the latter going off on some spurious tangent of their own just because there's an opportunity for marketing before things are firmly in place to deliver things. Large companies which take the attitude that they don't need to bother with small fry are quite frankly, foolish, because among those smaller concerns (including individuals) you never know who they know or may come to know and people always, always, always talk when it comes to bad experiences.

I stated exactly that on being told that if I didn't want the freelance work offered (which didn't even cover the travel expenses to get to it), there were plenty of others what would. The result of my saying that was an offer of a meeting with the management of the company which I declined as in the interim I'd heard rumours that 'pay' was subsidised by illegal drugs. Not wishing to become a drug addict, the company was of zero interest to me. I believe it no longer trades which is rather pleasing to know. So even as an employee we can shop for the best service (employer) we are able to afford.

Employers be warned as you'd be amazed at what your workers can learn from just what they witness. I've perhaps gleaned more than most from working in administration, operations and at many a corporate event as a technician. It pays dividends to communicate and be inclusive of staff at all times as that in itself will enhance your customer's experience by ensuring that whoever a client talks to is genuinely upbeat about your organisation for the right reasons.

TOP TIP: Trust people for what they do, not what they say and look for consistency of effort.

Great oaks

Great oaks only grow from small acorns and if you work hard on networking opportunities you will eventually lead to a good return for that investment in some way. It undoubtedly pays to be polite as much as possible, but one should never be afraid to stand up to any form of bullying or stupidity. Customer service staff should be trained, and trained well to deal with instances of exasperated customers. If they are not, then you only have yourselves to blame for the consequences.

In a recession of course there is more safety in numbers than in putting all your eggs in one basket. My first stint of entrepreneurship came when I was production manager of a typesetting company in the 1980s recession. I wasn't a director of the company but I was responsible for production, credit control, invoicing and jointly responsible for customer services when I was still in my early twenties.

While our competitors chased after big contracts, we had a healthier balance of small, medium and large customers as our client base. While our competitors charged more and only supplied proof-reading as an additional fee, we did not. While our competitors in effect bullied their customers into thinking that they were only tolerated if they matched their standards (snobbery tactics), we did not. The result was that we secured overspill work from multinationals including Loctite UK and EMI on a subcontract basis and our competitors went under.

It was still viable when I resigned with only one month's salary to move on with. I chose to turn freelance to gain a broader experience. Eventually the company folded after I left but I cannot comment as to why as I wasn't privy to anything that happened after my departure one way or another. Perhaps it was one customer too many that didn't pay their bill or one investment too many - who knows. I don't.

This highlights another role of customer service professionals - they need to be kept informed about bad debts and agreement as to how to handle customers who have not paid their bills, if only in who they should pass that customer onto when they make contact. It is surprising how many businesses fail to do so with the result that the customer feels they are in favour with one department, but not with another... trust me they will milk that for all it's worth. 

Symbiotic relations

The way in which the best customer service professionals work is very much through building relationships rather than by dictating rules. They should be informing operational managers and company directors of what clients are interested in for the future but also enticing customers into being interested in everything that the company is providing. They are your front line PR team and should always be highlighting products and services that customers might wish to explore as a means of developing themselves. There is little point trying to sell conference facilities to children's entertainers, but the same facilities might be of interest to host parties to both the entertainers and their customers. Talk to both.

Clients who run seminars might also wish to run awards and require some form of entertainment which in turn may lead to you needing to hire entertainers, thereby building not only business but relationships between your own clients which will encourage them all to make use of your services more. And it is your customer service team who are the usually the first point of contact to raise such possibilities simply because their role entails that they should know your clients best. Every conversation they have could lead to new opportunities and ways in which to improve and develop your business. In effect customer service teams are also part sales reps and marketing professionals too.

As people we tend to be most interested in others when they show an interest in us first. Therefore there is no point employing people who do not like conversation and who do not listen properly in a customer service role. The best way of all to gain respect, gratitude, loyalty and trust from your customers is to be honest and be genuine. Faking such things is luckily quite hard as most of us have strong instincts about when we are being lied to.

In essence our relations will always benefit from being honest even to the point of us saying when we cannot deliver something as promised. We know ourselves that we would rather have prior warning of something that is going to be cancelled, late or postponed than to be told at the last minute. So why I wonder do people bother lying when furious responses are the most likely outcome?

TOP TIP: Focus on the content of your client's communication, not the how or who.

The same complaint might come from several sources or only one, but every complaint should be considered to be valid. Dismissing a person or the manner in which they communicate to you could lead to you missing out on a pitfall that could affect many. Don't do it.

Customers should always be training us through informing us about what works for them and what doesn't, without them, none of us would have jobs and no business can evolve, develop and grow. The customer may not always be right, but they will never fail to tell you when you are which I always think is helpful. Remember that usually when we are wrong it's because we haven't done enough to inform people about what we can or cannot provide. With considered communication customers can be brought to a level of understanding of why you work the way you do. After that it is very much up to them as to whether or not they wish to stick with you.

Never try to emulate exactly what competitors do as your client has to have a reason of some kind to prefer and choose you. Identify and be consistent about your Unique Selling Point (USP). Yes you may lose some clients because of it, but hopefully not the ones you wish to attract. (See Operations file on marketing).

Finally, I had profuse apologies over that IT service with the result that the company in question is now on probation while I test drive it's products. Best they don't let me down again, as there are always other service providers out there aren't there? In common with 99% of major companies their USP isn't down to customer service, nor should it be, nevertheless it still matters and will always be a vital element to determine their and your continued success or potential for failure.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Founders Thoughts: Fibonacci, mugglism and other riddles

Despite having a punishing time of it myself recently I invariably find that what doesn't kill me will, sooner or later make me stronger and more determined. The prospects for the next 12 months for everyone still look decidedly grim with the threat of more cuts and more hardships on the way. Why though, when the answer I feel remains in our own hands?

Either the same amount of money is still milling around somewhere so all that needs to really happen is for it to start circulating again, or people lied about the amount of money there was in the world. To me that's the long and short of it. Why complicate it further? Why panic?

That, to many I know sounds crass and naive, but the truth often does. Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) is I think a useful maxim to help us all whittle things down to the bear essentials to ensure that functioning in our highly complex world can continue. There are occasional glimmers of hope here and there, but perhaps the greatest cruelty of all is to give hope only to snatch it away again from those in most need.

Economists will no doubt argue that due to inflation and the complexity of modern financial systems of trading etc that things are not that simple. Track back to the Dark Ages and we find similar mumbo jumbo gobbledegook to try to distract us from the truth - the implication being that ordinary mortals are stupid. Yes, there is more money about than in the Dark Ages but it is proportionate to the increase in global population and our concepts about wealth along with other silly ideas that have cursed our beautiful planet since the year dot. Don't get me wrong, I don't think money is the root of all evil, but what we do with it can be.

Economists I feel are rather like doctors and solicitors, it's not that they are all bad many are honourable trustworthy people, but some are... shall we say... slightly less ethical than others simply by not being entirely straight with us. Sometimes that is for our own good, sometimes they assume that covering up is wise when it is emphatically not. Privately most such professionals would agree with me - publicly few would as they would rather not end up unemployed themselves.

Facts do have an unavoidable pitfall, namely our individual interpretation of them - most so called stats are usually edited to suit a particular argument. Too late not to educate the general population on such things I'm afraid - they already know. It rather begs the question of why so many try so hard to continue to bamboozle ordinary folk. Yep, I own that I am guilty of it too, but I at least attempt to see both sides of any argument.

I also confess to being mischievious, glib and challenging to prompt reaction in order to hopefully help people to think beyond their lot in life and relate it to the whole. Everyone's action or non-reaction has a bearing on the rest of us to a greater or lesser extent. If others take that the wrong way, well that tends to say more about them than it ever could about me.

A curve ball thought

What would happen if all banks throughout the world suddenly went on strike? Or if all multinationals did? Would human life suddenly cease? No, it would not but not for the reasons that many would suppose. A voucher system is money by another name. Barter systems are not viable as the crew that builds your home only has to do it once while you might have to spend a lifetime working to feed them in exchange with little time for much else. Like it or not money as a system for trading remains the only system that is viable but we need not be as reliant on it as we think.

We're lumbered with this inanimate crazy substance and its quirky system, but we don't have to be lumbered with how it is used. Now steady on, don't get excited, I don't advocate violent revolutions here, quite the opposite. In the most democratic of nations of recent times we have neatly avoided those by using protests, voting, lobbying, petitions with the occasional strike and riot thrown in for good measure. Shame about the latter two, but at least we haven't resorted to civil wars for a while so it's progress... of sorts. Long may it continue that way but preferably without with strikes and riots - not being a deity I'm afraid I have no control of that.

The root of the difficulty is not money, but our own addiction to it's potential to provide power. However, through working for many years in the world of theatre and events I can assure you that not many reach positions of fame and fortune and survive it well as I'm sure former inmates of both the Priory and the Betty Ford Clinic would testify. In short, money isn't life or death in itself, what we do or choose not to do with it can be, but it remains a matter of personal choice and that is something that has never changed throughout human social history and will not change unless we collectively agree to change how we use it.

Muggles and mugglism

I've referred to us all being as muggles (JK Rowlings' term for not very bright humans or non magical types), and following on from that I had a conversation with someone who works with victims of domestic violence on the hypothesis that we are as children no matter how old we are. They commented that we are brought up with fairytales of good triumphing over evil precisely because as adults it's what we perceive to be facing every day. It's a way of preparing our children for that world. I say perceive as we often mistake one for the other because as humans we are all endowed with a degree of fallibility. I am no exception at all as on occasions I have allowed my passions to get the better or me - hence the moralising, hence the at times appallingly phrased tweets at times for which I most humbly apologise. Who of us has never been guilty of mistakes and therefore mugglisms?

In the business world we tend to be less forgiving of such things, yet expect the slack to be cut for us whenever we blunder. So are we all muggles and hypocrites? I would say so, but we also all have the potential to be the most magical creatures of all and to do all manner of wondrous things.

Fibonacci sequence

Unlike a male friend of mine, I don't happen to be a whizz at the sciences or mathematics as being at school in the 1970s and female I got streamed and encouraged into the arts despite having an equal aptitude for both. I used to mind, now I don't. The arts and humanities are far from the easier option given employment challenges that ensue which is part of the reason I like both - I usually rise to challenges even when most come in unwelcome form. Interestingly organisations like NESTA have recognised that there is much to be gained by challenging the arts and sciences to work collaboratively.

With regard to the sciences, I remain for the most part like a window shopper peering in enviously at what's on display. It doesn't mean to say I don't understand concepts though - when time permits I read up on things. For those who are not acquainted with the Fibonacci sequence it's in essence a mathematical equation that 'seems' to be behind the structure of about 80% of life on Earth. Nearly every tree, plant, animal or insect can be analysed and identified as having something about its structure or formation that matches up to the Fibonacci sequence. I doubt anyone has quite worked out why yet. The question "why" is an infinite one as any parent will tell you when their child first starts getting the hang of using it. "Yes, but why does it do that? Okay... but why is that? I don't understand! Why, why, why?"

Mathematics and science always seek the patterns behind things by way of trying to find answers and just like the arts, science too has it's trends. The laws of gravity were at one point in question when Einstein came up with his theory of relativity only to have those 'laws' brought into question when science embarked on the world of quantum physics. Just as in the world of business, science makes educated guesses based on what information is available and sets about exploring them by trying to prove or disprove theories. We all use what we know to capitalise on that knowledge and use it to our best advantage. We take a gamble - well you've got to go with something as a starting point. The more information we have the better equipped we become to reduce the risk of getting that gamble wrong.

What often happens when there's a conflict or dispute in the world of science is that eventually a kind of negotiation takes place until a compromise is found to make all systems still able to co-exist. So it is with science on gravity, relativity and quantum physics... at the moment. Sooner or later something will come along to throw a spanner in the works again no doubt, but here's where science seem to differ from the world of business and in part even to the world of arts and community services.

Instead of tearing at each others throats trying to win a war by discrediting anyone who disagrees, scientists have a greater tendency to huddle together to resolve the issue more often than not to find an alternative way to look upon things that helps explain things once more so that we can continue to function and, more to the point, develop and progress. Business, community services and the arts tend to diversify instead as a result of differences, but as we're in a recession, where there's a safe common ground to thrash out economic solutions perhaps...

Hence one of my quirky tweets... maybe scientists and mathematics will find the equation to fix the world's troubles once and for all one day. A rather happy thought I think, but yes, idealistic. The question is... Would we listen and act on it such a solution if science did find the answer to such a riddle? I think we have the knowledge, skills and ability to do resolve everything anyway, so just as a child might say, why don't we?

Co-existence of ethics and principles

I personally don't think it's in anyone's interests to prevent people excelling and getting handsomely rewarded for their skills and talents, so long as they truly merit it. We all have strong opinions on that which is why it's such a long standing bone of contention. I don't think it wise to stop people being rich because if we impose a restriction on others as to the level of reward that can be achieved we will deny such opportunities for ourselves. The wish to be rewarded for our efforts is a natural, normal, healthy human desire.

However, I think some public service salaries should be capped so that it deters corruption to a degree. Earning a big salary and gaining bonuses just doesn't fit with what should be the motivation behind those who choose such careers however much those who serve and often do merit the highest salaries of all. A trainee nurse could be saving someone's life from their very first day for example, so I'd rather see their salaries increase before directors of services do.

We should be realistic about who can reach the very top. No, it's not always the wealthy and well placed as programmes like the X Factor show. You just need to be particularly good at something and get lucky enough to be spotted and encouraged be it business, sport, arts or community services. You can even get ahead through personality alone. Who'd have believed someone who can stay in the same house for a few weeks and watched on TV 24/7 could end up famous? A far cry from that male friend of mine who could have been another John Nash (see the film A Beautiful Mind), had he been luckier early in his life, and had he been born at a later point in history. Who else have we missed out on I wonder, and why?

Do not expect a level playing field because life isn't fair as we will never all be born equal, but DO try to level out the bit you are playing in and if possible grab the whizzing goalposts when they least expect it and cement them in once and for all. That would just leave the rules of play to contend with.

TOP TIP: silly rules you can always use against the originators of them, but you mustn't break them even when others do. Two wrongs have never made a right even though in the English language a double negative makes a positive and how it can in science which could explain a few financial figures. The concept I believe is termed 'a negative profit situation' and I've heard some organisations and politicians have gone for this in BIG way!

Reality Check

The real truth is, no society will be able to function if we have just leaders and no workers. Lucky then that we have so many different interests and preferences for our working lives. How fortunate that we have diversity as far from it diminishing possibilities, it increases them. A pity though that although an entrepreneurial spirit seems to be the order of the day for the next generation, it still isn't as yet fully embraced or encouraged among ordinary workers who... build our homes, office blocks and factories and man them, install and maintain our utilities, grow and distribute our food, dispose of our waste, look after our health, educate our children, save us from fire and crime, install and operate transport and communications systems, manage our finances etc and hopefully help us with their expertise and advice.

"How to be wise: 1. make mistakes but learn never to repeat them. 2. learn to avoid the mistakes of everyone else." Tweeted by me.

I firmly believe we have great possibilities as a species, but only if we learn to be wise on what we should compromise on so that all can enjoy a quality of life of our own individual choosing. Yes, that's idealistic, but as the maxim goes - "aim high and be prepared to drop."

I believe we will always find what we seek so long as we are dedicated enough to keep looking. The trick is to spend the bulk of our time seeking possibilities to overcome the barriers in our way and to be flexible enough to adapt. For example I never thought I would suit care work or that it would suit me. I was wrong. It doesn't mean I will stop doing other things I enjoy just as much. Enjoyment it seems can come from the most unexpected directions, better to be open to that possibility than fixated with what happens to be the latest fad, especially if you want to excel and be unique.

My final thought is a question for scientists... are you absolutely sure the Fibonacci sequence only applies to 80% of life structure on Earth and/or beyond? What explains the other 20%?

Hoping my readers enjoy my musings and take them in the spirit they are meant - always.