Why I wrote A Mind for Business

So my new book, A Mind for Business, has recently been published by Pearson. Beyond the commercial and practical reasons for writing it, this book is actually rather important to me. Though my background over the past decade has been more in innovation and social change than the study of the mind, the subject of how our minds work has fascinated me of late, and has become the cornerstone of both the Mindapples campaign and the changes I want to see in the world.

Put simply, my argument behind this book is as follows: I believe our society is operating with a surprisingly primitive and inaccurate model of how our minds work, and this is causing us a lot of problems. (This is true of the UK in my specific experience, but I suspect the argument applies in many other places too.)

We have quite a good understanding of our bodies , but our minds are still, for the most part, the province of myths and hearsay, from throwaway comments about ‘brain chemistry’ to films about using 100 per cent of our brains. These misconceptions are mostly found in pub conversations and pop culture, but they seep into our everyday discourse to affect every aspect of how we live and work, from job interviews and GP visits to law courts and even public policy.

Some of these inaccurate views – such as the economic assumption of independent, rational choices - are being challenged, but many more – the faith in eye-witness testimony for example, or the persistence of ‘left- and right- brain thinking’ – persist, influencing our choices and shaping our lives.

These beliefs interfere with our ability to work effectively and manage people properly. They prevent us from realising our strengths or forgiving our weaknesses. They prevent us from understanding each other, and interfere with our relationships.

The closest term for this in modern psychology is mentalisation – the ability to accurately assess what is happening in your mind, or in someone else’s mind, and relate that to behaviour. Our ability to understand our own mind and the minds of people around us directly affects the quality of our life and work - and more importantly, it is a skill which can be taught and learnt.

So my purpose in writing this book is to dispel the old, inaccurate views of our minds, and replace them with models that work better. By presenting an overview of the most robust, evidence-based models currently on offer, I hope to help us all understand ourselves and each other better, to work smarter, feel calmer, and get along better. The findings collected have certainly helped me, my colleagues at Mindapples, and the participants in our training sessions, and I hope through the book they will help us collectively as a society too.

Models are never perfect of course, and they are rarely finished. We are a long way from being able to make perfect predictions about human behaviour, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. But we all need models, and we use them unavoidably and habitually to make thousands of assumptions about ourselves and others every day – and so I think we should try to make those assumptions as accurate and useful as possible.

I hope this book can contribute to this process of discovering ourselves and others, and help us all harness our minds more effectively, and improve how we live and work.

Buy now from Amazon

6 Questions every founder should be able to answer

If you start a start-up, lots of people will try to give you advice, but I'm usually more interested in asking questions. If you've founded a new business, I doubt anyone knows more about your vision than you do. The right investor or consultant may know the specific market you are operating in better than you, but they certainly won't know where you want to take your business except from what you tell them. So I think the art of helping the founder of a start-up lies in asking great questions, to tease out exactly what that vision is, and whether it makes sense.

I've been asked hundreds of questions about my start-ups over the years, usually by prospective investors and funders. They range from pithy quips like "what's in it for me then?" through to intensely complicated invitations to explain my theory of change or articulate my five year growth model in 500 words or less. I've been recommended loads of books that claim to have figured out the three/four/six/nine steps for create a compelling business proposition. I have spent several years now feeling incredibly confused about all this.

But there are a handful of questions that I keep coming back to, and the more I focus on these questions, the less confused I seem to get, and the more I am able to tell a good start-up pitch from a bad one. So here are a few questions that I think anyone running a business (large or small) should be able to answer:

1. Who pays you money and why?

Unless you know who you're invoicing and what to write on the invoice, you don't have a business.

2. How much money will they spend with you?

Delivering amazing benefits to a handful of impoverished people won't make a business.

3. How much will this idea cost to make and sell?

If this idea costs more money to make and sell than people have to spend on it, you should expect to lose money.

4. What do you own?

If your business doesn't have anything - great staff, famous brand, key relationships, IP rights, infrastructure - then anyone can do what you're doing and you don't need a business to do it. Build around your core assets and what they make possible.

If you can answer each of these questions in one sentence, and mean it, you just might have a business.

Not everyone is at that stage of course. It can be a little crushing to ask a bright-eyed young entrepreneur all these questions, because most of us start out with a little intuition and a lot of hope. Every business needs to bring benefit to someone - solving a problem, helping them do something, creating an experience - and that's where it all starts, even if we don't have all the answers just yet.

So if you're just starting out with an idea for a start-up, here are the two most important questions you should ask yourself:

5. what incredible benefit can you give your customers?

If you didn't bother doing your business, who would miss out? What wouldn't they be able to do? Why does that matter?

6. Is that benefit worth paying for?

There are many problems to be solved in the world. Most of them are worth solving. Many of them people would like solved. A few, people will invest their own money in getting solved. That last bit is business. Everything else is philanthropy.

If you can answer those two questions positively, you're off to a pretty good start. If not, well...

Clive Sinclair on his C5
Comment

Andy Gibson

Restless improviser, author and entrepreneur. Mainly runs Mindapples and currently writing about the human mind and new ways of working. Also tinkering with a few side projects. Latest book, A Mind for Business, available now published by Pearson.

Four mistakes social entrepreneurs make

This week my increasingly useful Linkedin news feed brought me an interesting article by Scott Annan in Business Insider about the mistakes young entrepreneurs make that waste time and money. I'd summarise Scott's list as:

  1. Sell your product quickly rather than spending ages developing it
  2. Don't worry so much about people stealing your idea
  3. Find out what your customers want rather than assuming they are like you
  4. Don't get distracted from selling things by the endless possibilities of new ideas

It's a nice piece and I think Scott's list is very useful for anyone starting out on an entrepreneurial career. It occured to me that it might be worth writing another list for "social entrepreneurs". The normal lessons of business obviously apply to anyone seeking to use it to improve society, but there are a few particular pitfalls that I have noticed social entrepreneurs seem to fall into more often than their commercial brothers and sisters.

So here are my top four mistakes, in my experience, that first-time social entrepreneurs make.

  1. Looking for funding rather than looking for business. Most social entrepreneurs aren't doing it for the money. Unfortunately that means they often spend far too long trying to win the approval of influential people like funders and journalists when they should be working. If your idea of success is getting investment, no-one should invest in you. If your idea of success is to be self-sufficient so you can put your next plan into action, then you might actually get somewhere.
  2. Thinking you know better than your customer. If commercial entrepreneurs start by identifying something that people want to buy, social entrepreneurs sometimes start with the opposite: a desire to get people to buy something they currently don't. There are far too many "shoulds" in social sales pitches. Remember that if you want to be a business, you need to sell what the customer wants, not what you'd like them to want. Do business in the world as it is, not how you'd like it to be.
  3. Overestimating the market. Most social entrepreneurs think they've spotted a niche that no-one has ever seen before, but in many cases the market they have spotted is either hard to profit from or just not ready yet. A lack of competitors can be a sign that you're missing something. If you are years ahead of your time, be realistic about how much time and money you'll need to reach profitability, and how many new competitors you'll have when the time finally comes.
  4. Taking too long to issue the first invoice. Business is about selling things to people for money. If you aren't doing that, you are just preparing to do business. The quicker someone pays you money for something you've done, the quicker you know what line of business you're really in. Questions of organisational structure, financial planning, marketing and scalability only matter once you have figured out how to make money.

None of this is rocket science. And let's face it, most of us have made these at one time or another. But as a wise man once said, the trick of life isn't to learn from your own mistakes: any idiot can do that. The trick is to learn from other people's.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

New Season, New Sociability

September is here and the leaves are turning brown. As Philip Larkin once wrote, “begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” A time for renewal, perhaps.

Sociability launched in 2007 in a very different environment to 2012. Back then I was part of a small but passionate movement to use “web 2.0” tools to reorganise our social systems, improve public services, connect people together and build the world we want to live in. Now civic responsibility has given way to economic reality, and unfortunately many of those that were leading this charge are now pursuing other strategies to survive in this leaner, meaner world.

But Sociability has persisted, and so too have many of the projects and conversations we were part of five years ago. Being a network has made us more resilient to change, and many of the trends we were part of in 2007 have grown rather than receded.

Three years on from our publication of Social by Social, the Arab Spring, Wikileaks and #Occupy mean everyone is now talking about the role social media is playing in social change. Four years on from starting Mindapples, the Government is now measuring our national wellbeing and there is more talk than ever about the centrality of mental health real venus factor reviews in public health. Two years on from the publication of Local by Social, the Big Society agenda and spending cuts have made collaborating with citizens a key part of the work of local authorities and public service organisations.

Okay, so maybe we didn’t expect the Olympics to be quite as good as they turned out to be - but hey, we can’t get everything right.

So as we enter our sixth year, with a revamped website and a new focus on social business and social technology, we hope that over the coming years we’ll continue to push boundaries and break new ground, and have some interesting conversations along the way.

We hope that our new projects, Lock-in TV and Do a Bit, will turn out to be as prescient as our previous innovations, and that we can continue to help our clients adapt to an increasingly turbulent but also ever-more dynamic new global market.

And most of all, we hope people will keep sharing their ideas with us and helping us learn more about the world we live in, and how to thrive in it.

Expect to see a bit more blogging from me too. I’ve missed blogging.

Happy Autumn everyone.

Andy

The Corporate Society?

This afternoon I was at the Roundhouse in Camden for Business in the Community's "Communities Summit", courtesy of the Big Society Network, listening to Prince Charles and the Prime Minister issue a call-to-arms for British business to step up and take responsibility for the challenges facing the country.

This felt like an important moment in the somewhat chequered history of the "Big Society" policy agenda, and also of the up-and-coming social enterprise movement. Essentially this was David Cameron's most decisive attempt yet to reboot the Big Society as something more tangible, turning it from a rather elusive and abstract policy of community involvement into a clarion call for business to support grassroots action in communities around Britain.

It was useful to hear this new direction, primarily because the greater clarity it brings should finally make it possible for people to take action in support of the "Big Society" project - which, as I have said before, has been hard for many of us to get behind previously.

But this clarity is also helpful because it names something which has often gone unsaid in the Big Society rhetoric, which is that if private funders and volunteers are to play a leading role in delivering our public institutions and improving communities, this will naturally mean private businesses - who are capable of mobilising far more money and manpower than any other sector of society - having a much greater say over the running of our society.

Where I found myself in tune with this thinking was on the importance of businesses stepping up and taking responsibility for the impact they have on society. As David Cameron indicated today, the Government can do a lot to tackle the obesity crisis, but all its public health campaigns and NHS services will fail if corporate interest continues to make it harder to eat healthily than to eat unhealthily. All the nudges the Government can muster will still pale in comparison to the huge efforts spent by consumer brands to push people back the other way.

Prince Charles, who I've always rather liked, bless him, also spoke very passionately about the opportunities that businesses have to make a positive impact on the world, and challenged all of us to do more to use our resources to do good. And he's right. Businesses have so many assets, and so many skills in delivering quality products at scale, that to point all that infrastructure solely at wealth creation seems like a wasted opportunity. Business in the Community's new "business connectors" programme is putting resources from major UK businesses like BT and Greggs on the ground, in communities, doing excellent work joining things up and making things happen.

And this is all good stuff. The PM's call for businesses to take more responsibility is very welcome at a time when there is so much pressure on the private sector to give back to the communities from which it profits, and in which it resides. I was even vaguely in agreement with the Prime Minister when he said:

“In recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that wealth creation is somehow anti-social, that people in business are somehow out for themselves... Business is not just about making money, vital as it is, it is also the most powerful force for social progress that the world has ever known.”

The point at which I felt a little uncomfortable though, was when he attacked what he called:

“the snobbery that says business has no inherent moral worth like the state does, that it isn’t really to be trusted, that it should stay out of social concerns and stick to making the money that pays the taxes.”

Of course there is a value to these corporate-sponsored projects to deliver value to communities and improve society, even if it is mostly felt by the people inside Government who are aware of just how much large-scale public services are starting to cost. But when Mr Cameron spoke out firmly in defence of the value of, for example, great schools run by banks, and workplace education placements delivered by supermarkets, I felt uncomfortable. So I was surprised when he questioned the motives of people, like me, who feel uncomfortable about such things.

I felt it was disingenuous to suggest that anyone who is suspicious of corporate-backed social projects is some kind of snob, acting not in the public interest but according to a misplaced and rather grubby ideology. This attitude seems uncharacteristically dismissive of the natural vigilance that many people display over our civic institutions, always checking that our public institutions are being run in the interests of the people and not private interests, ensuring that democratic processes are followed, and championing the most vulnerable so that they are not left behind.

When talking about the contribution business can make to improving society, we would do well to remember what private businesses are created to do, which is to maximise profits for their shareholders. I am a Director of two for-profit businesses, and that is my job, as laid down by statute: to make money, not for the wider community, but for the few people who are hard-working or fortunate enough to own shares. In some businesses, the beneficiaries are the staff, such as in partnerships or staff-owned co-operatives; in others it is the customers, such as in Industrial and Provident Societies; but for most, the beneficiaries are the shareholders. Not the public. Not society. Just a few private individuals within it.

And that's fine. I'm quite happy to make money for my shareholders, if I can, particularly if they have taken risks with their own money to back businesses which I believe should exist in the world. What isn't fine is to pretend that the company structure we have built to do that work has any other higher purpose, or to criticise people who are suspicious when companies that are legally obliged to maximise profits for their owners claim to be interested in anything else. I can talk all I want about my desire to improve society, but when I go to a Board meeting I am bound by company law to put those considerations to one side and focus instead on growing the profits of the business.

This is not purely a problem that affects for-profit companies. Just in case anyone thinks I am being an anti-business snob at this point, I should add that even non-profit businesses have their own agendas too, whether that's to serve a vulnerable minority or to champion a particular agenda.

There is only one institution in this country that is legally obliged and institutionally accountable to act in the interests of all the people of this country, and that is the State.

That's why we have a State.

I know it is hard to argue with a well-intentioned project that is persuading private businesses pledge £750m over four years to good works in communities, and I don't wish to denigrate the excellent work that is taking place in the Corporate Responsibility world. The more businesses can be involved in the work of improving our society the better, because our businesses are part of our society just like anyone else. Bring it on guys, you are very welcome here.

But I think it is just as important for us to have a strong "Fourth Estate" of journalists, scrutiny bodies and concerned citizens, a proud tradition of so-called "snobs" checking that if our public institutions are to be funded by private interests, they do not end up acting in them.

To do anything less would be an admission that we can no longer afford democracy.

Patchwork: joining up social services

Today I'm at the launch of Patchwork, the new service by Futuregov. Patchwork is a lightweight web app to help social services support people better, by bringing together information from within different services, and from individuals and families, and displaying it in a useful way for social workers. As an Associate of Futuregov, I've been following their progress on this project since the start and it's fantastic to see it finally launched. I've also been lucky enough to be part of the team capturing the learning from the project for NESTA so I thought it worth putting out a few thoughts on the project to explain why I think it really matters. The process has been long and involved, full of the kind of administrative and cultural challenges that I'm all too familiar with from attempting to bring Mindapples into the NHS. What's remarkable is that Futuregov and their dedicated commissioning partners in Litchfield District Council and elsewhere have steered it through without compromising on the initial vision, and all credit to them for managing to create something that works, rather than something that ticks the boxes.

Here's why it's great:

  1. It doesn't look like normal Government IT systems: it feels easy, even pleasurable, to use and navigate, it's relatively frictionless, and design lead Ian Drysdale has worked hard to balance a user-centred design approach with the tight requirements of policy and legislation. Less like SAP, more like Facebook.
  2. The system is social in its architecture, mapping the relationships associated to a case first and making it possible to see the dozens of different agencies and individuals who are often working on each case, and to know who to ask when you want more information (always my preferred approach to knowledge management).
  3. It brings together information from every available source, including service users themselves, creating a much richer picture of people's needs and giving individuals and families a voice in the systems that support them, without requiring busy practitioners to enter data twice.
  4. The technology behind the snazzy design is solid, built using the latest tools of "web 2.0" commercial apps rather than the more rigid and old-fashioned platforms that usually characterise Government supplied systems, and particularly they have spent a long time tackling critical issues like data security and permissions.
  5. The delivery method, as a hosted web app using interoperable standards to draw service data together, is cost effective for councils and (after a little redevelopment work) should be easy for clients to deploy.

Futuregov have been in the "social innovation" space alongside Sociability and many of our little network for a good few years now, and they're really starting to go places. It's tough to say why some businesses grow and thrive over others, but I think the key to Futuregov's success has been that their business model is actually quite traditional: they sell managed web apps to support public service delivery. What gives them the edge over their competitors is that they take a new-style social innovation approach to solve them together - putting out an open call for help at the start, facilitating practitioners and service users to design the tool together, adopting an agile and forward-thinking technical strategy, iterating and testing as they go. The problems they are solving - in this case, helping different divisions of public services to talk to each other - are recognised problems for which their clients have budget, and their innovative approach allows them to solve problems which their competitors cannot, and deliver products which are far than their often slow and complacent competitors in the public sector IT market. Put simply, they innovate in their own products and processes, but not in their business model. Clever people.

Today, Futuregov have announced £280,000 in start-up funding to take the Patchwork forward and develop it for scale. Congratulations to Futuregov on this fantastic achievement, and also to Litchfield District Council, NESTA and all the other many people and organisations who have backed them from early on. It's great to see such a practical and passionate project making real headway towards improving public services and, hopefully, saving lives.

5 #bigsociety ideas

Recently I posted 5 Big Society questions which I felt needed answering if I could endorse the project wholeheartedly. Yesterday the Times ran a front-page story about how the movement is in crisis because of lack of definition and popular and third sector support, and I'm afraid I now agree with Matthew Taylor's analysis here that "If the Big Society debate doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea." I think this would be a great shame, since the Big Society project is creating a powerful space for new thinking to emerge and giving local government in particular a mandate for positive change and greater community engagement, all of which are good things. But to echo Matthew's sentiments, there is far to much unsupported assertion going on and not enough evidence or testable hypotheses, and I am further troubled by the regular dismissal of issues and counter-evidence as "naysaying" or "negativity", which is stifling debate in this area as many participants (including myself) try to act positive in the hope of being on the right side of funding decisions in the future.

I agree that we must be positive and collaborative about coming up with the answers together. I also agree that most if not all of the new infrastructure to run the Big Society must come from entrepreneurial solutions rather than government (such as this interesting new crowdfunding platform). But when I hear people who are not social entrepreneurs telling me how the social enterprise sector works, or politicians making bold claims about how the obstacles which currently exist will magically disappear without any explanation of how this will happen or acknowledgement of the value in the existing systems, then I can't help feel we're heading for a political trainwreck.

Last night I attended the RSA lecture with the generally impressive Sir Ronald Cohen, and asked him how we can ensure social enterprises can compete with commercial interests for lucrative government contracts, rather than picking up only the non-viable markets. His answer was hopeful rather than evidenced. He believes that social enterprises will win tenders because they are culturally better suited and have greater connections with their communities - but there is no evidence of this happening now, nor of a plan to shift the structure and culture of government procurement to make this more likely in the future. It's a nice story, but there was no acknowledgement the lack of capacity for social enterprises to deliver critical national services, the bureaucracy of government procurement which favours those with the money to spend on navigating the process, the innate conservatism and risk-aversion of the public sector, and most of all the difficulty of scaling the kind of community and cultural factors which supposedly give social enterprise the edge. The reality, I'm afraid, is of large organisations bidding for large contracts which small community groups cannot feasibly deliver, social entrepreneurs spending months in negotiations for money which then disappears, commercial, academic and charitable interests mining smaller projects for their ideas, a lack of core funding or capital investment to enable social enterprises to scale up to meet these challenges, and a continual persistence of the attitude that the main advantage of the social sector is that we're really, really cheap. All soluble problems, but what are we going to do about them?

Nick Hurd has issued a 12-page call for ideas from MPs and activists on how to make the Big Society work (or so the Times tells me: I can't actually find it online). So with that in mind, here are five ideas that I believe are needed in order to create a thriving and meaningful "big society":

  1. Fix government procurement Government currently awards large contracts to large corporations on the basis of efficient delivery of often dated and ineffective solutions designed in advance by bureaucrats who are not directly connected to the problem they are trying to solve. Social impact bonds point the way to a public procurement model that is based on outcomes and allows innovative providers to pocket some of the cost-savings for game-changing innovations, and if it works it could be mainlined into all government procurement. But the only way we will create a sustainable social sector is if social organisations are given preferential treatment in procurement, either by forcing all bidders to have a voluntary element to their bid (forcing the Capitas and PWCs of this world immediately into partnership with voluntary groups), or by giving preference in contract awards to recipients of Big Society Bank investments.
  2. Build better corporate structures Current vehicles for social enterprise are not fit for purpose: they don't provide enough rigor to allow the charities commission to provide tax breaks, but also don't provide the equity return for either capital investors or social entrepreneurs. We need a new model which sits in the for-profit sector but with certain conditions, for example a restriction on what proportion of profits can be given as dividends or when they can be withdrawn, a cap on salary distance between best-paid and worst-paid staff, or incorporation of charitable objectives in the responsibilities of Directors. Currently, social enterprises need a non-profit vehicle to own the assets and protect the mission (and in the case of Mindapples, to give proper ownership and accountability to the community), a charity to get the tax-breaks, and a trading arm to offer a return to founders and investors. It's time to create a new integrated social enterprise vehicle that is fit for purpose, and for the government to offer hard financial incentives to philanthropists and investors to put money into the social enterprise sector.
  3. Make private enterprise accountable Banks and other high-yield for-profit entities do not, by their very definition, act in the interests of the whole population, but of the few. Private companies (and I speak as a Director of one) are duty-bound to act in the commercial interests of their shareholders, to the exclusion of wider social considerations. The result is a twofold madness: firstly, businesses prioritise the financial interests of their staff and shareholders over the improvement of the society those individuals live in, making us all richer in a poorer world, insulated from growing social problems by our similarly growing bank balances. Secondly, the full financial impact of businesses do not need to be considered by those taking the key decisions. The wider social impact of business remains an externality to the business transactions, something to be picked up by the government and the social sector in the form of, for example, massive recyling bills for processing excessive supermarket packaging, or social issues caused by low wages and redundancies. We cannot persist with a social model in which the public and third sectors perform palliative care to minimise the social impact of the private sector's actions, and must beg for corporate donations to do it. A gentle solution would be to legislate that all shareholders must vote and publish the social objectives for their organisation, and make Directors legally-bound to fulfil these obligations. This at least would force companies either to be bound by their supposed CSR commitments, or to come out publicly and say they are only interested in profit. A harder approach though is that if social impact bonds can be used to create positive incentives for social providers, they can also be used to create negative penalities for making problems worse. If every time Sainsbury's cost the local council large recyling bills, they were forced to pay a social impact bond that went towards paying public and social sector providers to fix the problem, they would soon think twice about whether their scotch eggs really needed those little trays.
  4. Invest in infrastructure We need to create the support structures and platforms to enable social enterprises to work and scale more effectively, which means we need a new fund (or a refocussing of existing resources) on infrastructure projects. If the government invested in infrastructure that the social sector could use, rather than trying to own systems and procure services not just for itself but for individual units of government, if you quickly give social and community groups the tools to reach considerable impact without needing investment. We need tools for organising volunteering activity, crowdfunding and donations, marketing and communications, accounting and payroll, recruitment, training and collaboration. We need spaces to work, better equipment, business advice, legal support, assistance with social impact (more on that below), CRB checks, accreditations, partnerships, access to capital and loan finance, tax incentives, support taking ideas abroad, and an array of other conditions and environmental factors for growth. All of these things cost money, but all of them are cheaper than the public sector's current tendancy to buy the same services over and over again for itself and refuse to share. Let's invest now in a shared infrastructure for public and voluntary sector partnership and start building this sector properly.
  5. Invest in evaluation and learning Most social enterprises and community groups know they are doing good because their communities tell them so, but they lack the resources to conduct rigorous evaluation or put their learning into a format that government or funders understand. If the Big Society Bank and the public sector generally is looking to the social sector to solve its problems, it needs to support innovative companies to understand what they are good at and where they fit into the government's priorities. It's all very well creating a social impact bond around a set of outcomes (for example, patient health indicators), but many of the most community-led and innovative organisations will simply not be able to prove that they can deliver on these metrics without spending heavily on feasibility studies and evaluation reports. Instead, the public sector should treat the social sector as its R&D department, and invest its own money (perhaps as part of the support infrastructure of the Big Society Bank) in scanning the sector, identifying and evaluating possible innovations, and working with social sector partners to share the IP created and take the best elements to scale. If it is up to bidders to prove why they can deliver on social impact bonds, the people best placed to do that will be Capita, PWC and other major corporate players who have the resources to do their own R&D and invest heavily in their own growth. And you can bet they'll be looking very closely at what they can learn from the social sector.

Most of all, what the Big Society needs is an accountable design process for the project, in which all of us can participate in the debate about what is needed, what can be done, and who is responsible for making it happen. There are many things the government can do to help make the Big Society happen, but they need to listen to all the people involved, both online and via local community networks, and work with us to solve these problems, either by taking action themselves or giving their backing to others to do what is needed. Unless we have an open, critical debate about the practical steps needed, facilitated by democratically-accountable institutions and conducted in a transparent and constructive way, the whole project is in danger of becoming nothing more than a small handful of people sat in closed rooms telling stories about how everything is getting better, while outside things go from bad to worse.

Poor social entrepreneurs

Tonight it's the launch of the RSA Social Entrepreneurs Network, and I'm actually rather looking forward to it. There's been a very interesting discussion on the group forum already about how social enterprise can reward the entrepreneurs behind it. Social enterprise is one of the fastest-growing sectors in our society, and I think it has a lot to teach the policy world, traditional charities and the commercial sector. The problem, as I see it, is this though: social enterprise is good at generating revenue through doing good, by selling products and services, delivering contracts for the public sector and so on. What it isn't so good at though, is looking after the people who make it happen. The sector suffers a lot of burn-outs, and many people who are starting successful social enterprises can only do so because they have made money in the commercial world, or because they are able to live cheaply without overheads like children or sick relatives. The sector is thriving, but at the expense of the people at the heart of it - and without the money from the lucrative public and private sectors, much of it wouldn't exist at all.

I think what's needed is greater liquidity in the social enterprise sector, which starts with making it easier for successful entrepreneurs to set up their next venture. Social capital is great, but it doesn't pay the bills while we work for free for a year raising funds and building brands. We need to make sure the people who have set up organisations with strong social impact get a return on their "sweat equity", or the sector will always be parasitic on the commercial world and dogged by burn-outs and drop-outs.

I think there are two obstacles to allowing this "liquidity" to happen. The first is the psychology around "non-profit": how can I as a social entrepreneur claim my financial reward when my project is based on goodwill and channelling profits back into the community? The second is structural: how can non-profits pay dividends on in-kind investment, in the way they pay a return on cash investments? Time invested for free in building an organisation should always be regarded as a loan, to be recouped with a reasonable return when the venture is successful. I don't want to be a millionnaire, I just don't want all my hard work to go unrewarded. And I think we need new corporate vehicles, and a new culture around money for good causes, to make this possible.

With Mindapples, my second social venture after School of Everything, I'm looking at ways to write in profit-shares and bonuses for founders and volunteers if we build a successful revenue model for our non-profit community organisation. Does anyone know any good examples out there of when this is done well that I could base our model on?

Community Consultancy

I'm looking for a research intern to help me develop Mindapples and other Sociability projects, so I wanted to know where I should post the opportunity to attract a bright, enthusiastic graduate (if you know anyone, please let me know). Rather than trawl the web looking for good sites and hunting out advice in forums and social enterprise communities, I twittered the question to see what my friends and contacts would suggest. Almost immediately, here's what I got back:

tomstafford@gandy mindhacks.com could do you a shout out if you'd like

adamrothwell@gandy W4MP works really rather well for us, even though we're not (err) an MP...

tomnixon@gandy Brighton and Sussex unis would both be v. happy to talk to you and help you find a graduate

noelitoRT @gandy looking for a bright, enthusiastic graduate to be my research intern on @Mindapples and other projects.

And because my Twitter is linked to my Facebook status too, I also got these responses through Facebook:

Aly Ripoarts jobs Imran Khanw4mp? Anthony McCannwww.jobs.ac.uk

Great stuff - thanks to everyone for providing such valuable advice and offering to help, you've solved my problem perfectly.

So what's just happened there? It's the sort of knowledge that isn't quite worth paying a consultant for, but which is still incredibly important when building an organisation. Traditionally you might get it from peers, mentors and other people in similar situations; you could also get it from Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn Q&As or potentially School of Everything. But Twitter is simpler and quicker than talking offline, more personal than the normal online solutions and well-suited to the tiny drip-feed of questions that comes with running a business. It's not a replacement for these other tools, or for mentoring, training or consultancy. It's something new, or rather a scalable version of something old: a peergroup of fellow professional supporting each other.

I have around 500 followers, plus various overlapping Facebook friends - not many in the grand scheme of things but they're generally quality people who know their stuff and with whom I have genuine relationships. They didn't cost me anything to acquire except time in being friendly and creating valuable content, and now they provide me with free consultancy that is worth a huge amount to me and my projects. In return I help people out and the whole 'economy' seems healthy and mutually beneficial.

The point is, there's far more to Twitter (and Facebook) than brand awareness and self-promotion. In engaging with a community of peers, I gain not just a media channel but an educational resource too. Much like a guild or professional association, Twitter allows me to build my own network of specialists with whom I share knowledge and swap industry insights. It allows me to build my own personal "guild" directed entirely to the skills and industries that interest me. They can teach me how to do my job better, whatever my job happens to be today.

So the next question is, how can you put a value on that? And the question after that is, why on earth isn't your business on Twitter?

Webby, Steady, Go!

School of Everything has been selected as an Official Honoree for the Education category in The 13th Annual Webby Awards. Yay! This is what they say: "The Official Honoree distinction is awarded to the top 15% of all work entered that exhibits remarkable achievement. With nearly 10,000 entries received from all 50 states and over 60 countries, this is an outstanding accomplishment."

So well done to our hard-working team and thanks to the Webbys for giving us a well-timed boost of publicity following the launch of our new payment system last week. We'll put the award in our growing trophy cabinet alongside the New Statesman New Media Award and the Catalyst Award we won last year. Onwards and upwards!

#SXSW takeaways

I've been off exploring lately. Those of you who follow me on Twitter etc. will have spotted that I was at '#sxsw' - also known as "South by Southwest". The South by Southwest Festival is held every year in Austin, Texas, and it's a huge international (mainly US of course) festival of Film, Music and Interactive content. The #kebab unpanel - photo by Benjamin Ellis

School of Everything were out in force promoting ourselves internationally, meeting other start-ups and soaking up new ideas. The flavour was very much Silicon Valley though and I was surprised at the lack of cutting edge thinking in the panel discussions. I've come back feeling that the quality of discussion in London is extremely high: hearing apparently cutting-edge panellists repeating ideas which I'd heard two years ago in London made me feel we're really at the heart of something interesting over here.

I enjoyed Steven Johnson's talk about the eco-system of news, not least because I enjoy analogies to ecology to describe business developments. I also enjoyed hearing Bruce Sterling rant about the recession, the human impact of web 2.0 and the importance of bringing your own beer to speaking gigs. And I managed to get myself into an argument with Chris Anderson of Wired about the economics of 'free' culture and the future of publishing, which actually included him shouting "screw the printers!" at me. All rather good fun, and he was nice enough to Twitter me afterwards and continue the discussion over here.

The highlight though was undoubtedly the British invasion of the conference with the now-infamous #kebab session. In the pub with Richard Pope on the Saturday night, we decided that the conference needed stirring up and hence that we should run a Brit-focussed panel about using the web to achieve social aims rather than just "how to monetise Twitter". The next morning, Richard found us an empty room to steal, nagged me into facilitating it, and we somehow persuaded Mike Butcher and others to announce it - until by 2 o'clock we had a room full of people waiting for us to do something interesting.

We ended up running "Not another social media panel" - an improvised 'panel-slam' event where anyone on the panel could instantly replaced by a member of the audience. Be interesting, be knowledgeable, or be replaced by someone who has something better to say. The result was a pleasing array of organised chaos, including user-generated name labels and a live Twitter-stream for the event following (for some reason) the hashtag #kebab. By the end of the session (via some references to monetising waterboarding and assorted US vs. UK banter) the entire panel had been replaced including me, the room was packed and 'kebab' had trended as the fifth most mentioned word on Twitter. There's some video footage kicking around in the Twitter stream, and we also ended up on Techcrunch, the Guardian and even in Wikipedia. Not bad for a little idea we had in the pub.

We're now wondering how we can start a SXSW-style event (with added kebab) here in London and rally some of the cutting edge discussions around the UK start-up scene. Anyone interested in helping out with that, let me know.

The Human Intranet

Here's the presentation I gave at the NCVO Information Management Conference on Monday - now with added Zappa. the ABCD of Organisational Knowledge Management, by Andy Gibson

Look mum, I'm in the Guardian!

Lovely piece about School of Everything in today's Guardian. I particularly like the "Explain your project to my mum" question, which should really be mandatory on all project specifications. (Not quite so sure about my hair in the photo though...) And while we're at it, a nice piece about us from Libby Davy on Authentic Blogging too, and some kind words from my friend Tessy.

I'm feeling the love...

Trampoline FlightDeck

Nice piece about my friends at Trampoline Systems in CRM Magazine this month, also featuring a nice cheesy quote from yours truly about the future of CRM software. You can read the full piece here, and I also highly recommend Trampoline's Enron Explorer - great for fans of network visualisation software and/or massive industrial fraud.

From the frontline... Social Innovation Camp

Long day at SI Camp (particularly long after the opening party last night), but there's some really fascinating stuff being developed here. Lots of great people have turned out to help, and the buzz is fantastic here. I've been dividing my time between Stuffshare, Barcode Wikipedia and Personal Development Reports, working with John Grant and others to help the teams define their propositions, focus their efforts and create compelling ways of explaining what they do. The potential for all three are huge, particularly the barcode guys who have such a simple idea but the potential to completely transform the consumer marketplace. I'm also having a lot of fun thinking up new names for them all.

On the way we've been creating lots of entertaining new buzzwords for what social technology does. I'm enjoying David Wilcox's new "social reporter" meme, and the cheekiness of attempting "market transformation", but my favourite so far is "behavioural publishing" - for when it's not about enabling new behaviours, it's about using technology to show what's already happening and encourage more of it. What behaviours of yours would you like to "publish"? Lots of fun to be had with this one.

Off home to relax now in preparation for another intense day of camping tomorrow. I plan to spend tomorrow morning interrogating each of the teams on their business models and 5-minute pitches, ready for the final show and tell in the afternoon. I wonder who'll win...?

Money for Everything

School of Everything is now officially solvent. We announced the deal yesterday, and it's been picked up quite a bit already:

I'll add more links here as they come in, but see www.schoolofeverything.com/about/media for the best of the coverage.

Now we've just got to build it and make it work...

Reinventing membership

I've just been invited to become a fellow of the RSA, and the work I've been doing with them on reinventing their fellowship networks, combined with some very stimulating ideas from David Wilcox, has got me thinking again about the concept of membership. David's point is an important one: in an increasingly networked and interconnected society, membership organisations must transform themselves if they are to continue to add value to their members. The big question now is how will they need to change? When it is increasingly simple (and usually free) to join new communities and connect with like-minded people, which aspects of existing membership offerings will remain valuable, and which are becoming rapidly out of date?

Clearly the thing which has lost much of its value is access to people. Once upon a time you might pay for membership of a club to meet the people therein. Now, you meet the people first, and then consider joining. In the case of the RSA, I know many of the fellowship already, and I'm active in many of the networks discussions, so the incentive for joining seems somewhat muted. The current question that's vexing us about the RSA Networks platform is how open it should be to non-fellows: if non-fellows can join in, then how are we adding value to fellowship? But if only fellows can join the discussions, can innovation thrive in a closed network?

I like lists, so I thought I would propose the following reasons for joining a (paid-for) membership organisation:

  1. Access to resources: although information is infinitely replicable, access to physical resources is just as restricted as ever. Organisations offering access to physical space, or to events and services offered within physical space, this scarcity of availability can justify the membership fee. In other words, if only a few can get in, it's often worth paying to be one of the few.
  2. Personal prestige: if membership is awarded on some basis of exclusivity or personal merit, then becoming a member can act like a personal brand, a short-hand way of evidencing your quality. Rather like a qualification, but without all the hard work. As it becomes easier to meet new people, discriminating between them becomes more important - so this sort of membership may be a growth area in the future.
  3. Formalising the relationships: you get what you pay for, they say, and so if you really need certain levels of interaction with people in your networks, sometimes it's worth paying for someone to organise them. Organisations that can provide a solid programme of activities, opportunities, ideas and connections can charge for the work they do, and in many cases this can provide excellent value for money.
  4. Pledge support for a cause: this for me is the most interesting one. As my friend Paul Youlten says of social networks, "what's in it for me, and what of me is in it?" Increasingly we seem to be paying money to support the organisations which we've already joined. "Members" and "supporters", at least for charitable societies like the RSA, are becoming more and more blurred. So perhaps membership organisations can increase their value by becoming more open?

There are the beginnings of a very interesting debate here. David has a compementary list on his blog, and check out the comments for follow-up posts and discussions too, as well as in the RSA fellowship networks too. I hope all these locations will provide a useful space for working out some of this stuff.

In the meantime, I shall of course also be considering the RSA's very kind invitation. But as I consider "what's in it for me" in joining the RSA, I'm also noticing how much of me is already "in it". I know many of the fellows, I attend their events, I know many of the staff - and that sense of openness makes me feel much more like joining than if the doors were closed to me. Perhaps this could be an interesting social experiment - I'll let you know how I get on.

Public = private?

It's funny how Facebook is being used for business. I get messages from people I don't really know personally, inviting me to register for their websites or come to their events, and their picture is of them half-naked with their girlfriend at a beach party. Hardly the old world of pin-stripes and formal business presentations, is it? Meanwhile, corporate blogging is making business more human and blurring the personal and the professional even further. On the one hand, I'm glad to see the back of all the false pretensions of old-fashioned business: it's nice to hear people telling the truth for a change. But on the other hand, what are we losing by blurring the boundaries between public and private? What's good for business may be bad for us as individuals. Are we losing ourselves in our work, or just becoming more ourselves in every area of our lives?

Getting real

Sociability Associate and The People Speak co-founder Saul Albert recently pointed me in the direction of this post by Dan McQuillan about the relationship between social networks and social action. Saul and I are currently developing the second phase of the RSA's new networks platform to help their fellowship collaborate on action-based social and civic innovation projects. It's a fascinating project and I'd agree with Dan that this kind of system seems like the next step for social networking. Someone from Yahoo asked me earlier in the year what exactly I do with LinkedIn. Once you've collected all your contacts together, met a few extra people and got to 100% in the "profile complete" stakes, well... it all just sits there, doesn't it? I'm more connected than I've ever been, but so what?

Of course, online knowledge-sharing and relationship building is important for all kinds of activities; the point is, at some point it needs to leave the virtual world and "get real". There are good examples of social technology being harnessed to stimulate action, such as My Society's nifty (and Facebook-enabled) application, Pledgebank, but aside from a few notable exceptions the majority of online tools for social enterprise currently seem to fall into two main camps: raising awareness by joining "campaigns" or supporting "causes"; and donating money so that other people can make things happen with it. Of course, this fits with the two main uses of the internet since day one: exchanging information and exchanging money. But with so many new collaboration tools emerging, how can the internet be harnessed to actually get things done?

One excellent example of networks being harnessed for collaborative action is open source software. A distributed group of people get together using online tools to collaborate in the creation of something tangible the benefits of which are then shared openly with the community. It works, it's more powerful than anything commercial business can come up with, and surely provides some useful models for the third sector. The other, of course, are the activist networks, distributing responsibility for action among a community and sharing information about what's planned and what's happening. The latter are the most interesting to me, because they move between online and offline - between the virtual and "real" worlds.

So what lessons can we learn from these about how social networks can be used to stimulate action? The RSA has built up a big head of steam around a huge range of projects, and the next step is to turn some of them "real". If we can crack this one, we'll really be going places.

Free collaboration tools

With more and more tools available either free or for small sums to help people collaborate and share information, I've been compiling a list of the best ones I've come across. (Thanks to Saul Albert and the School of Everything team for their contributions to this list.)

  • FolderShare: my favourite, a simple application which turns any group of un-networked, web-enabled PCs into a virtual shared drive (backed-up onto all machines, available offline, and it even includes good version control).
  • FilesAnywhere: free tool for sharing documents and files online, including version control and multiple workgroups functionality.
  • Skype: an obvious one, the most common internet telephony service also offers handy chat functions, plus Skype Prime for video conferencing.
  • Wordpress: collaborative blogging can be a powerful way to collaborate and develop a project; Wordpress now allows private blogs accessible only to selected users. (It also produces nifty little websites like this one...)
  • PhpBB: vanilla free bulletin board software, often cited as the open-source standard.
  • Google for Domains: particularly their e-mail and calendar tools for project management.
  • Google Docs: excellent for collaborative concurrent authoring of documentation and project plans.
  • Wikispaces, Wikidot, Stikipad: free wiki tools for recording ideas, meeting notes and decisions collaboratively in a shared space. (See also the neat new Facebook wiki tool, Wikimono.)
  • Del.ico.us: the most well-known bookmark-sharing system is increasingly popular with organisations for sharing useful links
  • Feedburner: the free RSS aggregation and subscription tool, now including e-mail broadcasting (subscribe to this site for a demo)
  • Hiveminder: a simple-to use but powerful task management tool, with support for groups and email integration.
  • 37 Signals: these guys offer some classic project management tools, including Backpack, Tadalist and Basecamp.
  • Zoho: a range of online project and collaboration tools including wiki and task manager.
  • Huddle: yet another new project collaboration engine, but slick and with many features.
  • Openworkbench: basic Gantt and project planning charts, editable and shareable online.
  • MindMeister: powerful collaborative online and offline mindmapping software
  • Gliffy: diagramming and project planning software online.
  • Rememble: social site for timelining and sharing a range of media, from text-messages to photos. Useful if you have too much communication! (Disclosure: my friend Gavin actually runs this, but I was recommending it before I knew him.)
  • Compendium: excellent if rather technical tool from the OU for mapping discussions and capturing decisions.
  • Surveymonkey: simple, free survey tool for basic questionnaires and consultations.
  • Highrise and SugarCRM: cheap and effective contact management tools for managing wider engagement (Highrise is actually provided by 37 Signals).

So, anything I've missed? There are new tools emerging all the time and I make no claims to completeness, so if you've got anything to add please share it in your comments below. Happy collaboration!