Friday, August 24, 2018

the danger of believing 'official statistics'...

Some of you may recall how I've argued in the past about how we should take the 'encouragements' and direction offered by our sector bodies with more than a generous handful of salt...

And I've based those arguments on where such bodies get their money from, and whom they're trying to curry favour with rather than asking us what their priorities should be; (don't believe me? Think back to the last time a sector body you're in membership of openly asked you what they should be doing on your behalf, openly published the results, and then reported on how far they'd delivered against those).

Some of you also know that I have a habit at looking at published research and data - not as a trained mathematical/economic analyst, but rather as an 'enthusiastic amateur', to see what new (or contradictory) stories they might offer to help us better understand ourselves and the issues we face.

And my latest 'rummaging' concerns the NCVO's Almanac and Social Enterprise UK's 'State of the Sector' survey. And the reason for picking these two august bodies? I'm refreshing some of the training courses and materials I deliver around governance in the sector, and though it might be interesting to see what both sources have to say about latest trends (as they both map legal forms adopted in the sector, and both published their current findings for the same year: 2017).

As with all surveys from different bodies, they've framed and categorised data relating to the same question against a range of different options and headings, but with a bit of rough transposition on my part, what seems to emerge is a picture of some confusion:



Quite some difference.

But so what you might say (and perhaps rightly so) - NCVO is concerned with those organisations who are predominately volunteer dependent (hence the title), whereas SEUK is concerned with enterprises that are trading - so we'd expect to see a difference, right?

Well, here's why I think this is more of an issue for us than we might think it is:

1) Policy makers, funders, and commissioners all group charities and social enterprises together into a single pot (hence the term 'civil society'). 
They don't differentiate in the way that our sector bodies do, so when they come to make policy and pass legislation that will affect us, how can we have confidence they're making the right choices when the data we're presenting them with to do so appears to be so contradictory?

2) Where the data comes from. 
NCVO's Almanac draws upon several external, objective, and credited sources, so should be pretty sound. SEUK's data is largely a collation of the returns they've received to a call for survey responses from groups in the sector - so their data is only as good as the people who fill out the forms. And that could be more of a problem than we'd like to admit: as a result they list sole traders as recognised legal types of social enterprise in their report (not sure anyone else would?), and 6% of all the CICs who responded weren't able to identify or be categorised as to whether they have share capital or not which, when added together with the other 'uncertain' responses, shows that over 10% of all respondents whose data has been collated and published as reflecting the realities of the sector today don't know what their legal form is - so how can we trust that they'll be any more accurate in other data that they give?

Let me put this another way - if we were building a house wouldn't we want to have confidence in the nature of the foundations, and that the way they'd been created would subsequently stand up to scrutiny from a variety of inspectors and other builders to ensure that what we're building doesn't come crashing down around us in the future when the weather gets rough..? 
If the data we use to act as the comparable 'bedrock' in shaping support, interventions, and lobbying for the sector is found to be suspect in the future, isn't there therefore a risk that a lot of efforts now would be wasted, hence why it's important to make sure we test such data today..?

As with any mapping exercise, there will always be ways in which the methodologies used, and the way the analysis on data captured can be criticised. My reason for doing so here isn't to belittle or reduce the efforts of these 2 bodies, but rather encourage us to pause before citing an 'official statistic' about our sector to make sure that we can be confident that it really is accurate, and in everyone's best interests to be using for the reasons we are.



UPDATE - 19 Sept 2018

There's been some new mapping research published today by Social Enterprise UK that seems to have picked up on some of these 'vagaries' I've outlined, and offers a more robust methodology in starting to scope the true shape and size of the social enterprise sector: https://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/the-hidden-revolution

Also, there's been some good debate and rebuttals and cross-rebuttals over on LinkedIn that you may also want to check out (including from the ex-deputy chief exec at Social Enterprise UK!): https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6447793971262418944

Friday, August 3, 2018

what I'm doing to help fix a £14.9bn problem that's killing our economy...

There's a problem in the wider business community that's affecting everyone (and our livelihoods), and it's getting worse every year.

It's a problem that people struggle to feel able to talk about or openly challenge.

And it's a problem that's increasing the risk of pushing us back into recession, and leading to further business closures and job losses than we're already seeing and hearing about in the media.

And it's not red tape or (mental) health - it's money. More specifically, the challenge of late payment: customers who commission us to deliver work and goods for them, and then suddenly get out the big book of excuses when it comes to paying us what was agreed, so that they can hold onto the money that's rightly ours for longer.

It disproportionately hits small businesses and the self employed like me, as we don't have big financial reserves to cash flow the work, or employ finance teams who can chase up the money on our behalf (we have to take time out of earning from other work to do that ourselves). We also can't easily use the courts to chase the money, as that costs more cash and time to pursue, and also risks damaging our public reputation.

Late payment is also stifling the wider economy - most small businesses now don't feel that they can raise the money they need to invest in their growth and maintaining their competitiveness because late payment is causing problems for their cash-flow (which makes it harder to repay any loans), and they're having to take out more time to chase customers, rather than deliver more paying work elsewhere (further reducing their cash in, and profitability). And such declines in economic activity, production, and employment are often cited as causes of recession...

And when the cash runs out for us because we've not been paid the money we're owed - it's game over. Our enterprises fold, and we lose our livelihoods along with anyone we're employing. And for what reason? So that some larger corporate can hold onto the cash (which they already have plenty of) for a little longer.

Sadly it's not just big bad private businesses who are guilty of this. Government and the public sector are amongst amongst the worst offenders for not paying on time; and some of my work with charities and social enterprises has also seen this sector being guilty of not paying when bills fall due as well...

It's currently a £14.9bn problem, with the typical small business owed £11,000 and spending nearly a day a week trying to get the money paid that they're owed.

£14.9bn seems an overwhelming amount that nothing can surely be done about. Government have created a post of late payment commissioner to help change this culture, but they've had little (if any?) impact.


So what can a sole trader like me do about it? Well, I can make a pubic commitment to always and openly paying my suppliers on time (if not early) through being certified as a 'Pay On Time' supporter.
I can constructively challenge customers and clients who start to drag their feet in paying me what they owe me for my efforts on their behalf by using the Late Payment Act legislation (very easy and surprisingly effective!).
And I can do this openly and in a way that hopefully encourages others to start to do the same - and if you're reading this, that that means I'm challenging you to do the same!

Government have shown that they can't fix this problem, but the tools are there for us if we have the conviction, leadership, and resolve to get the job done ourselves. 
Who's with me?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

how people I work with really see me... part 2 of 2

As a quick recap from my last blog post: last month I'd asked people to share some 360-degree feedback with me, sharing an image that to them best conjured up the image of what it was that I do, and how I do it.

Responses included a platypus, shoe, Howard the Duck, and an inflatable Christmas tree amongst others, as well as a gif of me fixing railway tracks while the train is still running on them!

But while those were useful in helping me better understand how people view me and how I approach working with them, they don't help me understand what makes me different to the other consultants, trainers, advisers, and cake-eaters out there. Which is why I also openly asked people:

"Having just been named the UK’s 'niche enterprise support 
consultant of 2018', what do you think my ‘niche’ is?"

The general gist of comments seem to show that my niche isn't as typically definable as it might be for typical consultant-types (i.e. a niche in governance for large organisations; or a specialism for equity crowdfunding; and such like). It seems people see my 'niche' as being more to do with how I can take what appears to be complex and confusing amounts of knowledge, and translate them back into ways that mean others can better get to grips with things that are useful and relevant for them. It seems I also do this in ways that mean people are more confident in being able to work with this new leaning too.

And as with the pictures people shared, I'm encouraged by this - niches are usually defined by a specific type of knowledge or particular skill, yet I've always maintained that any of us can learn any knowledge or skill once we see the point and need for them (I had to resit my maths exam at school but subsequently managed and grew enterprise loan funds; support groups apply for investment; and deliver an accredited course in financial management!). 
For me, it's the relationships we make and work through are more important if we're serious about being inspired and motivated by our values. It's also through the relationships we have that we're able to gather the support and encouragement we need to achieve our aspirations in the way we want to, and ultimately change the world in some way.

In the interests of transparency I've include a full set of the responses below - although despite it being listed on my LinkedIN profile as one of my professional skills people can endorse me for, no-one mentioned my expertise in eating cake...

As a final thought, I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to reply to my open call for suggestions (and for making sure I could repost all your comments without having to edit them for swearing!) - as with lots of other ways I approach how I work, this way of seeking 360-degree feedback as part of my CPD is unusual, but seem far more enjoyable for all of us than the usual questionnaire type forms.



All responses received in response to the question: Adrian's niche is...?

I have always said you are good at promoting yourself. I would definitely say that is a strength. Some people will criticise self-promotion, but relationships are everything if you’re a consultant and this must be an element of maintaining networks and relationships by having a presence and trying to stay in people’s minds?

You use props to get attention, to engage, to play, to make light to make things accessible and it's in a way comedy and fun. but there is so much behind everything you do, the preparation, the observation the analysis. You walk this line between entertainer and ridiculously intelligent and knowledgeable scholar. And I think your niche has always been being so accessible and yet inspiring with awe how much you know and how readily you admit to what you don't. You are you and you empower others to be the same! A rare gem!

The third sector expert

Making complex things simple. Also you are most definitely "The acceptable face of Accounting" 

Your niche: early stage small businesses....especially those who are scared into inaction regarding their accounts and book keeping

You share information, spontaneously and generously / you have a creative approach to what you do / you have strong values and a focus on strengths / you really know your stuff, but wear your 'expert' hat lightly

I would say that your knowledge and understanding of the sector and in particular how to prove the impact we have is the main strength of yours. Your ability to work with a range of people at different levels is also a strength.

Your written blogs and so on which are always valuable and help us learn more and debate things we probably need to get to grips with.

Remarkable ability to raise awareness of the critical issues affecting SMEs and the entrepreneurs and freelancers who run them. You are also good with plastic Christmas Trees and fairy light decorations. You are a super hero of endeavour, with a good sense of humour, and untidy shelves, full of stuff...

how people I work with really see me... - part 1 of 2

Chances are, you're familiar with some of the memes that go around Facebook and the like, where people share how others see what they do vs. what they actually do:


And recently, one of these got me thinking about how others I work with might see me differently to each other (and even to how I view myself). So in the interests of trying to make sure I can build on, and develop better relationships with clients and collaborators, (and continuing to have fun with my CPD framework!), last month I openly asked: 



And people replied with great enthusiasm, as the below montage illustrates:



I even had someone source a GIF!




Now, some of these images may seem a bit obscure... so in the interests of helping make sure their contributors' thinking doesn't get mis-interpreted, here's the list of notes that some people felt they should attach to their responses:

connecting energy’ 

- the platypus (as seen in this old TV adis unconventional and challenging / customer focused / likes to do things differently 

Beer, cake and props: lobbing them all in together because each in their own way demonstrate your down-to-earth, fun, jovial personality

- Apparently in some cultures a clapping of the 'shoe' is a sign of respect. In others the throwing of the 'shoe' is a sign of disdain. (and this contributor also suggested that as the 'Super Hero of Entrepreneurial Endeavour', I'm also a SHoEE!)

- and the GIF = Here’s relentless Adrian, dealing with anything and everything is his way!” 

(others simply felt that the image alone was sufficient explanation).


And as fun as this obviously was as an experiment, I also think that it largely assures me that some of my values and the ways in which I try and approach working with clients, and in project teams with others, are consistent with what I'm trying to achieve.

But as much as pictures can tell a story of a thousand words, they they don't always allow us to convey what we really think about someone, with regards to what differentiates them us others. And my purpose in undertaking these 360 degree-type feedback exercises on myself is to always help me further my role and standing in the marketplaces I work in.

Which is why I also asked an alternate question:

"Having just been named the UK’s 'niche enterprise support consultant of 2018', 
what do you think my ‘niche’ is?"

...and I'll reveal what people said in response to that in part 2 of this mini-series.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

setting goals shouldn't just be something for new year, but take a whole year (and involve the whole world)

Resolutions to be better, or try harder, are things that we all agree are a good idea, and we usually think about at the start of a new year. Or, in the case of organisations, when the latest set of financial accounts are prepared...

But having our attention on them for such a brief moment usually means that we let our commitment to them lapse. But what if we were constantly reminded and encouraged about them over the period of a whole year?

I'd like to think that's the premise behind the UN creating its global 'year of' campaigns - 12 months of dedicated campaigning and lobbying around specific themes and issues of global importance each year.
But strangely, despite the UN having created the 'global goals for sustainable development' framework, there's no designated year yet to help further push for their adoption into the mainstream and public consciousness...


As one of the many people who think that these goals are actually a rather good idea (so much so that I now use them as a frame for my annual impact report on myself), I'm supporting the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) call to the United Nations to create an International Year of Engagement towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and its framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in building more inclusive and engaging societies. I'm happy to support the call to help build awareness and focus attention on other aspects of an enabling environment, build capacity for engagement, and help support the achievement of the SDGs. To this end, I'm proud to be included as a supporting organisation in the IAP2 proposal to the United Nations calling for An International Year of Engagement.

So there - that's my cards on the table, and colours nailed to the mast - what about you..?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

in search of a 'niche'...

As you may know, I take a sometimes unconventional approach to how I do a lot of things as a sole trader, and my CPD is no exception – which is why every few years I like to invite people whom I’ve supported, worked or collaborated with, (or with whom I have some other spurious connection), to tell me what you really think of me… (professionally speaking).

In previous years, I’ve invited people to share with me what they think my ‘superpower’ is (see http://thirdsectorexpert.blogspot.com/2016/06/rebirth-of-super-hero.html), but this time, I thought I’d try a different approach and offer 2 options through which you can share some very brief critical feedback and reflection on me: 1) Is there a picture or an image that you associate with me/what I do/how I do it? 2) Having just been named the UK’s “niche enterprise support consultant of 2018”, what do you think my ‘niche’ is?

(and yes, if you’d like, you can do both!) 

As before, I’m appreciative for any time you might be able to take in helping me with this, and I’ll anonymise and collate all responses and share the outcomes on my blog and social media at the end of July.
By way of recognition and thanks, I’m also happy to offer to help you with any reflective practice you may be thinking of engaging in on your own practices or buying you a slice of cake/coffee/beer the next time we’re in the same place together.
Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments below (if you're happy to be identified publicly with them!), or email me direct at adrian.ashton2@gmail.com 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

oh, the places you'll go...


So many books on doing business and being an entrepreneur are filled with inspiring stories of what other people have achieved, and words of advice from people who haven't lived your life or faced the challenges, hopes and frustrations that you do.

Which is why I think 'oh! the places you'll go!' is the ideal book for any entrepreneur – it's presented from the view of a child: and children think that either everything is possible, or nothing is possible: a common mindset for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and the self-employed. And it’s also brutally honest that sometimes the best laid plans can come to naught despite our best efforts, but that somehow we'll manage to survive those tough times.

There are no complex mantras to remember, complex theories or tools to memorise, and it also comes with lots of fun pictures. For all those reasons and more, this is THE book that anyone launching their own enterprise should have by their bedside.