Workers of the World Unite! Make Small (and Medium) Beautiful

As she often does, Merryn Somerset Webb recently gave us some wise words, about dominant companies around the world (Financial Times 18th May 2019, and Quoting a Barclays study from the US, Merryn noted the more powerful firms are “the less they pay, the less they invest and the less dynamic and innovative they appear to become”. That’s bad news, not least for current and future workers at these firms. Over the past decade some of the world’s biggest companies have effectively become “labour monopsonies” – setting the market levels for pay, and setting them low.

But better news could be emerging. The superstar firms of the last few decades “might soon get the beginnings of their comeuppance”. Why? In a number of countries there is talk of increasing the scrutiny of mergers and acquisitions, and introducing better laws to try and prevent anti-competitive behaviour. Regulation around data and infrastructure sharing (including forcing big firms to share the resources that keep them dominant) is being considered. So is a rise in taxation, in an attempt to “remove from big firms the outsize profits they make from the monopsonies”.

For workers, particularly young people entering the jobs market for the first time, this is all very welcome. Their future opportunities to contribute to the sort of economic growth they want (sustainable, equitable, inclusive) may be, with a little assistance from regulators and governments, in new competitors. Big may no longer be beautiful. Instead, young workers might now be attracted to dynamic disruptive small-to medium-sized companies that have a chance of challenging the large ones. These organisations will probably have a more instinctive view of what sustainable future growth looks like, including:

·     Policies that empower women (such as maternity leave)

·     Internships or hands-on training in new skills (including AI, data engineering, wireless technologies, responsible environmental management, software applications for education and medicine)

·     Collaboration with schools, colleges and universities – pushing academics to acquire the practical solution-building knowledge they need to better teach new skills

·     A focus, encouraged by government, on export of both goods and services to the wider world

·     Controls to make sure intellectual property and brand value stays in-house (and isn’t sold off to large companies or business tycoons)

·     An acknowledgement that upskilling new workers, and developing new markets, demands patience and a fair playing field.

There are a number of positive signs. 

The European Commission’s antitrust regulator has recently launched a formal probe into Amazon. The giant online firm is accused of misusing sensitive data from independent retailers (often small and medium-sized) who sell on its marketplace. Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner, will investigate whether Amazon has used the data to give it an unfair market advantage as both a retailer and a marketplace.

In India, a May 2019 Reuters report revealed the antitrust regulator is looking into allegations that Maruti Suzuki, the country’s biggest car maker, resorted to anti-competitive practices by controlling how dealers discounted cars. Maruti, majority-owned by Japan’s Suzuki motor Corp, commands a 51 per cent market share in India, selling 1.73 million passenger vehicles in the year to March 2019. It has nearly 3,000 dealers across the country. The Competition Commissioner of India is looking into allegations that Maruti forces them to limit the discounts they offer, effectively stifling competition and harming consumers (as well as putting off potential new workers looking for a sustainable future).

Less than a year ago, the UK’s Office of Communications fined Royal Mail a whopping £50,000,000 for a serious breach of competition law, after the company abused its dominant position by discriminating against its only major competitor (Whistl). By raising wholesale prices for delivering business letters (known as “bulk mail”) Royal Mail’s actions amounted to anti-competitive discrimination against customers like Whistl looking to expand and compete directly against it. Ofcom said: “Royal Mail broke the law by abusing its dominant position in bulk mail delivery. All companies must play by the rules. Royal Mail’s behaviour was unacceptable, and it denied postal users the potential benefits that come from effective competition.”

Merryn Somerset Webb believes that ten years ago investors might have been smart to buy into the big brands (she includes Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mondelez International, McDonald’s, Nestle and Suntory, and her Barclays reference mentions Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Ford and Johnson & Johnson). It’s not much of a stretch to apply her logic to young workers seeking out the sustainable jobs of the future. Today, they should look for those small but beautiful firms “that, with a little regulatory assistance, will be their new competitors”.


Millennials Are Changing Workplaces For The Better

Rohan Silva is a very smart guy (well worth following on the way), with a track record of making things happen and interesting views about the future. Although his recent article in the London Evening Standard was focussed on young professionals in the UK, many Indian ‘millennials’ (roughly speaking people between the ages of 18 and 34) may well share his point of view.

Rohan believes as more qualified school leavers and graduates enter the workforce, they’re bringing with them the language and attitudes from classroom and campus debates – and changing workplace culture in all kinds of ways.

This is partly due to sheer weight of numbers. According to KPMG, millennials already make up 35% of the UK workforce (in India, the figure is even higher at around 50%). But it’s also to do with a gradual shift in attitudes. “Countless reports and surveys have shown that [UK] millennials are – on average – more socially-engaged, more relaxed about diversity, and more committed to important causes such as gender equality”. In India, a 2018 World Economic Forum/ Observer Research Foundation survey found the influence of family and peers on the career choices of India’s youth is in decline. “Young people are increasingly seeking productive employment opportunities and career paths that reflect their individual aspirations.” Reetu Raina further noted “perhaps no single value exemplifies [Indian millennial’s] expectation from an organization than the persistent and universal demand for equality. They are resolute in their support for equal opportunities and practices and want bold and transparent policies that complement this ethos.” 

In Rohan’s own business Second Home, the youngest employees have pushed the organisation to ban plastics at work, make recycling policies much stricter, and introduce a literacy and work training programme for refugees and asylum seekers at the company’s East London bookshop. In his words, socially engaged young people aren’t just agitating for change, “they’re also putting in the hard yards to start new projects and make them stick”.

It’s a similar story in India. Tamanna Mishra has highlighted thedeep positive impacts on business, society and politics young people are making as “crucial and articulate narrative shapers”. Examples include: job creation and upskilling in Kashmir (Nazir Ahmad Ganaie, Umar Maqbool, Ishfak Ahmad and Shabir Ahmad Ganaie); a social network of trusted donors, hospitals and blood banks (Karthik Naralsetty’s Socialblood site); and Womenite – a youth-led initiative founded by Harshit Gupta that works for women’s empowerment by “fighting the social patriarchal setup”, and has so far reached over 10,000 students.

Organisations are ultimately made up of people working together towards some common goal. So, when the identity and outlook of those people changes, organisations change too.

As workplace cultures start to evolve, the implications for so many important issues – from sustainability to gender equality – can be profound. With new ideas, energy, and an open worldview, millennials can be the breath of fresh air needed to help solve not just immediate organisational problems but wider social and economic challenges too. 

It’s clear a generational shift is happening right now in the UK, and quicker than many people realise. It may well be happening in India too.

Local Education and Tech Partnerships – Best for Students and Parents

Student and parent expectations of education are changing. 

At root, the assumption remains to gain a competitive advantage when leaving education with job-ready qualifications, skills and competencies. But today, often faced with scarce job opportunities and wide inequalities, students and parents are looking for more. They’re also wanting a high quality educational experience that offers personalised support, and seamless ways to plan and track individualpaths to academic success.

Driven by these changing student and parent expectations, many educational institutions are engaging in a process of transformation, leading to a reimagination of the role that digital technology might play in delivering higher quality student outcomes. 

At the same time, technology companies are advancing digital trends and changes that enable new approaches to be offered for virtually anything – from whole “digital architectures” to specialist cloud-based assessment platforms. 

These new approaches promise a generation of great opportunities and outcomes – including innovative teaching and learning methods and improved student success. 

But is all this really good news for students and parents? Can their changing expectations actually be met? The answer to both is potentially Yes.

Some affluent countries, such as the US, are watching age-old models for education being called into question and seeing educational institutions painfully restructuring or closing. In other countries, including the United Arab Emirates and India, these trends have not yet taken hold in the same way. Worldwide, organisations of all different sorts have started proactively working together to invest in digital transformation that will help students, parents and institutions themselves better prepare for the future of education and jobs. 

The most successful educational institutions in the future, wherever they are located, almost certainly won’t see a need to “re-invent the wheel”. Instead, they’ll make progress by drawing on the experiences of successful digital transformation programmes in other sectors.

Specialists in the field, Mark Abell and Roger Bickerstaff, partners at international law firm Bird & Bird,offer two key lessons:

● Firstly, a working technology delivery platform is an absolute must. “Solutions need to be stable, reliable and provide high quality educational content to give any chance of success.” Any unreliability in availability, or difficulties in accessing the service, are likely to result in students and parents looking elsewhere.  

● Secondly, working in partnership with a strong localdelivery partner is also essential. The combination of a well-established institution with a desire to change and a local technology partner who can deliver the solution “on the ground” can be powerful.The role of the local technology partner is not merely to “embed and deliver” education services enabled by new digital solutions – it is also “to build a strong distribution network and provide ongoing support, training and quality auditing.” 

Jisc (a UK-based not-for-profit digital infrastructure and services operator) has reinforced the need forlocalarrangements when successfully delivering digital change. Working in China, Jisc finds many universities choose to use local internet service providers (ISPs) for a range of services, including accessing overseas content. To improve quality of delivery and optimise the student experience still further, Jisc has partnered with two local ISPs to connect to a high-bandwidth network (ORIENTplus) delivering Chinese educational institutions access to UK content providers. 

Two other practitioners (also working in Chinese education), Will Percy and Anne Keeling, have stressed the need for individual educational institutions to develop and keep good relationships with their technology partners. “Who are the people working for the company and do they have shared ideas about student learning?” If they don’t, “it doesn’t matter how great their system is, it won’t work for you”. Having a technology partner that is local can make building (and keeping) these good relationships much quicker and easier.

Some local partners may have particularly useful skills for educational institutions. For example, in the UK a number of digital marketing start-ups have locations near Oxford. This means the University and Oxford University Press can leverage local expertise to build best in class direct publishing distribution models, identifying the most efficient channels to acquire customers and grow. In other countries, India for example, educational institutions could take similar advantage of local software and cloud-computing expertise to deliver stable, reliable and high quality solutions that are also value-for-money.

There’s a range of benefits that local technology partners should be particularly good at delivering:

 ● Gold standard security certifications – to reassure students and parents that their information has the highest possible level of protection available. These will help the educational institution maintain compliance with national and international regulations and further protect data from any possible misuse

● Help for institution staff to truly understand their audiences and the marketing / public relations channels they use. This seems obvious but it involves speaking with people, mapping journeys that span both the digital and traditional spectrum, understanding emotional touchpoints and discovering where (and how) people go to consume and act on information. This is not about intuition or personal perspective – it’s about reaching out and gathering data about how people engage 

● Digital content – additional material to complement the institution’s core offering, including for example mock-exams, question banks, links to other respected institutions’ content and wider perspectives from different sector commentators or specialists

● Student and parent support tools – including for programme comparisons (including suggestions for new or different academic resources and what courses might be considered in the future), online applications, student portal (including self-service tools for conducting student-related business), parent portal

● Training – personalised for students, parents and staff members. Talking face-to-face with people (and supported by how-to videos and web links) on a full range of topics – from log-on and password management to content management, assessment and reporting, data analysis, security, digital marketing

● Ongoing support – especially making software applications, cloud services, databases, security and quality audits all remain stable and reliable

So, can student and parent’s changing expectations actually be met? Potentially Yes. It’s clear that many educational institutions are looking to digitally transform, and along the way develop new business models. It’s also clear new solutions will need to be both well planned and well executed, requiring more than just content and technology. Not many educational institutions have the resources to fully develop digital solutions on their own. Therefore, partnerships with technology providers, especially local ones for “on the ground” delivery and ongoing support, will be key to successfully creating higher quality educational outcomes.

Students and parents will be taking note.