Being part of the ‘John Lewis’ economy

We’re only a couple of weeks into 2012, but the co-operative movement seems to be a hot topic – as it should be in the International Year of the Co-operative. Yesterday, Nick Clegg also added his voice to the debate and lent his support for the ‘John Lewis economy’, launching a campaign for a well-rewarded workforce with more businesses owned by their employees.

At Online Centres Foundation, we’ve always thought of ourselves ahead of the curve and this high profile support for the mutual model seems to prove this, coming hot on the heels of us establishing our very own mutual, now only two months old, which took over the running of the UK online centres service in December.

As you’ll image, we’re quite big fans of the co-operative movement – which mutuals are a part of – and so it was great to hear Nick Clegg shout about all of the things we already know –  that organisations that engage employees experience lower absenteeism,  less staff turnover, lower production costs and in general, higher productivity. Working at UK online centres isn’t always a walk in the park – and the whole team work hard – but there’s usually a good atmosphere in the office and we go home at the end of the day feeling positive about what we’ve done.

Online Centres Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation, so our staff don’t actually make money from having a share in the business, and any surplus we make is reinvested in our social aims, but the fact that employees are encouraged to have their say and are valued means they reap genuine benefits from working here.

Nick Clegg’s speech, and the general interest around the co-operative movement, got me thinking about the benefits of being a mutual and so (you know me!) I’ve dug up some stats which I found really interesting.

  • The largest 300 co-ops in the world have a turnover of $1.6 billion, more than the total economy of Canada
  • The number of co-op members outnumbers the number of shareholders 3 to 1
  • There are over 12 million members of co-ops in the UK alone (including the 30 members of staff here at Online Centres Foundation)
  • UK co-ops outperformed other businesses by 20% in tough economic times of the past four years.

(All of these stats came via the UK Launch of the International Year of the Co-op which you can read more about here)

I know mutuals have their critics, but stats like these showing the real economic benefits the co-op movement can provide seem hard to argue with. I for one am delighted to be part of a worldwide movement that’s growing so quickly, and that puts people, collaboration and innovation at the heart of business. Here’s to 2012, the year of the co-operative!

Walking the ‘digital by default’ walk

At the end of last year, I presented at the Channel Shift Live conference – and had a great reaction to my slide about how much money UK online centres has saved the government by getting 750,000 thousand people online since April 2010. People liked the simple maths, as those 750,000 people have shifted 1.2 million offline contacts online each month, leading to a saving of £117,648,000. That’s a huge amount, and looks like pretty good value for the £30m Government have given us to get 1 million people online by April 2013- a target which we haven’t even reached yet. You can take a look at my slides from the conference here.

So how about our own channel shift metamorphosis? As an organisation, we’ve been talking the ‘digital by default’ (which includes things like eGov, online public services and channel shift) talk for a long time, but I’ll admit we didn’t always walk the walk. A couple of years ago we thought: “We talk about this internet thing a lot – shouldn’t we make more use of it in our business?” As such big advocates of technology we needed to put it at the very heart of everything.

How did we become digital by default? The biggest transformation was customising a clever web-based CRM system that automatically includes all of the performance data about people learning online in their local communities. This CRM allows us to easily communicate with almost 4,000 community partners, managing them effectively and providing the support they need. The whole team can use it, wherever we are. Our CRM system then links to our web centre search which means anyone wanting to get online can find a place nearby to get started. External organisations can also embed this search within their own website with a widget or an API, so we can share even more widely.

What’s more, the system we’ve created means our community partners can see their performance data on a personalised web page, something they say saves them hours of form-filling, as well as providing them, us and funders with accurate data. The counter you can see at the top of our learning website aggregates this data.

About a year ago we moved our funding application processes online, so centres can apply for grants without having to put pen to paper. The claim process also went online, so money can now be claimed without the fiddly process of printing a drawdown form, signing it and faxing it back. Even our contracts with projects are online. These two things have taken thousands of pieces of paper out of our processes. We’ve continued to develop our web-based intranet, making it easily accessible on the move and the natural place for staff to find and share news. And to fit in with our new staff-owned mutual, in December we embraced the Google Apps suite, and now we share all our documents online, in the cloud. By bringing our website development in-house and using cloud based software, we’ve reduced our IT costs by about 75% in the last 12 months.

Do we still have paper? Yes. Do people still bring notepads to meetings? Yes, although they’re now being replaced by laptops and even the odd iPad. Google Docs has made a big difference, and we can now share meeting notes or plans live as a meeting is happening.

What’s the next step for us in our digital by default journey? I’m not quite sure. I don’t think we’ll be getting rid of our printers just yet, but having gone through the challenges of moving all of our own processes and services online I now feel in a better place to preach the ‘digital by default’ message to anyone who’s willing to listen in 2012.