Mission Beyond: How businesses can work together to improve social mobility

Cain Ullah, CEO of Red Badger, in an interview with Barry Matthews and Barry Murphy, Co-founders of Employer’s Social Mobility Alliance (ESMA).

Cain Ullah:
Hi Barry, and Barry. Thanks for doing this interview today. This interview is part of Red Badger’s Mission Beyond social initiative and Red Badger have joined forces with the Employers’ Social Mobility Alliance (ESMA) by bringing our digital expertise to the table.

Today we have ESMA co-founders, Barry Matthews and Barry Murphy, to discuss social mobility and the vision for ESMA. Barry Matthews, is SVP General Counsel at Meggit, a FTSE 250 aero defence company and Co-founder of ESMA as well as a registered charity Social Mobility Business Partnership. His work has helped more than 700 Year 12 Students from across the UK from Bristol to Belfast and beyond to see for themselves what the future might look like if they put in work and effort. The SMBP was awarded the 2018 UK Social Mobility Leadership award in its first year of existence. He’s a proud dad of three and a music fan as you can see in the background.

Barry Murphy is a senior partner at PwC advising clients on tax, financing, innovation and international development for the last 25 years. He's also a co-founder of the Employers’ Social Mobility Alliance and has recently taken 6 months sabbatical to focus on ESMA. Barry is also a member of the Fellows Future Fund School for Social Entrepreneurs. He is a keen cyclist, motorbiker, loves music, sport, and has an insatiable curiosity to learn about people's individual stories and how we share this world in a positive way. 

Welcome both and let’s get straight into questions to learn more about ESMA.

Barry Matthews: Is that a polite way of saying that he’s bloody nosy?

Barry Murphy: That could be, Barry. It’s all perspective.

Cain Ullah: I think the biker thing comes hand in hand with the beards, right? But thank you both for your time today. Let's get straight into the questions.

Can you give us a short overview of what ESMA is, why you set it up, and what you want to achieve with it?

Barry Matthews: Thanks for taking the time, Cain and big thanks to Red Badger for supporting us with ESMA.

So, ESMA will never ever be a thing. It’s not going to be a legal entity or is it going to be a collection of people, who are just going to incur cost. ESMA is about getting a common view on what the issue is on social mobility.

When I set up the SMVP back in 2017 it was set up in frustration with the lack of operational resources at my disposal to run the work experience programme with an ITV where I was on the divisional General Counsel. So, the basic premise around this SMVP was, well if I can't do it on my own, I'll reach out to my community of GCs elsewhere. Thankfully, I was supported initially by Viacom, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and also Harlequins Rugby club. We effectively came together and provided the day to day experience for students and that kind of coalition and collaboration has grown as the model, which is now reaching up to 700 kids a year. Because there's a number of people out there who want to do something but ultimately don't have that organisational resource to be able to do it. With that in mind, one of the things we've tried to do everywhere we've gone is work in partnerships. The model itself embodies partnership for businesses and professional sport clubs that come together. But, when we look to source students in each city we look to work with a charity that's already working there. Because why should we be reinventing the wheel and work with what they are doing rather than competing with it.

And through that we've exponentially grown from a standing start to 700 students across 14 cities. But what I've observed is that there are lots of passing ships in the night. There are a number of people doing really good things, but aren't necessarily doing it in a coordinated fashion. This is really frustrating because obviously the impact of what those individuals and organisations can do, could massively increase if they’d actually join forces and work in a coordinated way. Something that’s been gnawing at me for a while: The other Barry had a sabbatical which he kindly donated to the call. We wouldn't be where we are now without him, because of all the time he committed to doing the groundwork on what was effectively an idea. The idea is that there are a number of places you can get an idea of what social mobility is and how it impacts upon individuals ability to achieve their career goals - but it's dotted everywhere. So you've got the Social Mobility Commission site, the Sutton Trust, the DfE will have information embedded into their site. So, unless you've got a good understanding of the various players to get a real, full understanding of what great looks like in the different experiences you've got to navigate yourself around lots of different places where the information is stored. 

Phase one was to create an easy way for people get around the problem, so they can understand it, and identify how they want to help with the issue. Phase two was to just getting a handle on how you can do things better. So taking those principles of Lean and Six Sigma and applying it to a social issue. Phase one is getting hands on the issue, phase two is an operational review. Then the final phase is putting some recommendations together, getting some money together, then pushing that money into organisations and charities that exhibit  best practice. And then, cross-fertilising that best practice across the UK on creative commons' basis. 

All in all, there's a lot of information there. But, it’s probably the best now to go to Mister Murphy because he's the one who's been doing the real work over the last six months.

Cain Ullah: Okay, thank you.

In 2019 The Guardian published an article that states that social mobility in the UK has been stagnant since 2014. Is this a myth? And why is Social Mobility such a complex issue? 

Barry Murphy: The simple answer to the first part is no it's not a myth. And, and that's confirmed by many of the reports from the Social Mobility Commission if you look at the work of the Sutton Trust, if you look at the World Economic Forum, and where the UK ranks in some of its studies on the OECD. So it's, it's not a myth at all. Actually, a lot of the research that the Bridge group that helped us with the ESMA work have brought together, brings to life why it’s not a myth and what’s going on. It is a complex problem, because it partly comes from how our incentives in our current economic system work and you said, Mariana Mazzucato was one of the inspirations for Mission Beyond. And if you look at some of what she talks about in terms of resetting expectations, where value comes from.

We've got some of the same issues going and that means we've got entrenched social mobility, or socio-economic divide issues going on in the UK. The reason why it's complex is that it’s not just about getting bright kids from tough backgrounds into professional jobs. Now, anyone who finds a great opportunity or a great job is a success. But actually, it's a much more deep-seated problem, because even in the first few years of a child's life the research is showing that there could be entrenched disadvantages given where you come from, and your socio-economic background that can get worse by the time you're in the early years of school. It gets worse again as you get on through the GCSE and A-level stages, or further education, wherever you happen to end up. A huge amount of effort goes on. But it’s about how we join up and be able to give a hand in the right place to people right across the timeline in somebody's life: that's working with parents, working with the community, and organisations. Schools and the government have a role there too. Nobody can fix this alone. And we need more of that joining up.

Cain Ullah: Fantastic, thank you. What role do you think tech can play in helping to address social mobility challenges? 

Barry Matthews: I always think of digital as being a facilitator. So you've got to get the core of what you're trying to do right. Technology can help solve that process. So it needs to provide an easy way for individuals and organisations to access the work that we're doing behind the scenes, to surface the issues in a way which enable them to be quickly digested, by either somebody from business state or third sector coming in and getting a purview on what the latest thinking is on those life stages. Equally, how do I navigate what's going on in the UK and how do I therefore best focus my effort? It’s about simply presenting the thought process that has gone in. But for us, we had an idea of how we’re going to approach it in the real world as it were in terms of appointing the bridge group. I have this in my head this timeline which you can navigate.

And equally in the latter stage, a map that you could navigate when you hover over it. What you need is some sort of my  view to come and tell us what the art the possible is. And the beauty of the process we went through with the Red Badger team was that it wasn't as simple as “Right, okay...this is your idea.” This is the kind of mechanistic way that we're going to represent that idea using tools. What we started with was probably the best week of my working life, which was a discovery exercise where we went back to basics. It’s an emotional response that we want the user of the website to have when they interacted with the tools, whether that would be the digital timeline to surface issues, or the interactive map. And actually going back to that  really helped Barry and I to refocus on what our end goals were.

And now even going down to the minutest level of this individual is this particular type in terms of background, and imagining like a virtual avatar of somebody in the third sector, coming on to the site. What were their motivations? What could they get from it? What would actually cause them to say that this resource wasn't delivering on what it should do? How do we manage expectations around it? It was incredible, in terms of that level of detail and thinking about the individual at the end of it rather than the mechanics of the digital space. I think that's what sets it apart for me, working with Red Badger. We’ve had this first, and we then looked how the tools can help us next. Once you've got the emotional response piece sorted you're then more likely to produce something which is going to be engaging and therefore meet your overall aims.

Cain Ullah: Amazing, it’s really about the deep research into behaviour, and the journeys, that was the secret sauce.

Barry Matthews: Yes, absolutely. But we can't tell about the greens or the secret kernels. We’re not going to give it up that easily, my friends.

Cain Ullah: So, what can business leaders do to help address social mobility challenges, and how can they find out what to do, how they can help?

Barry Murphy: Whether it's big business or small and medium-sized businesses, or social enterprise - everyone has a role to play in this. There's a huge amount that can be done. How we connect it up is part of the challenge Barry and I are working on. But, some things that people can do is make a commitment. There are things out there like the Social Mobility Pledge, or applying into the Social Mobility Foundations Index, applying to the Social Mobility awards. We want to make a difference on the Social Mobility agenda and have the activation plan to really shift the dial. For employers that's about widening the gate in terms of the talent pool you are looking to access and give opportunity to. There's plenty of good practice out there, there's some toolkits that people can engage with, there's some good thinking on promoting your own workforce, and use that to prompt real soul-searching and action about asking “Are we representative of the communities that we want to serve in our business?” We see that coming more to the fore at the moment. You can spark up volunteer activity in your own organisation, because there's a wealth of people with skills that others would love to tap into - be at schools or individuals who want to learn how they access the world they want to work in.

As well as doing all of that within your own companies or businesses, this is where Barry and I are really asking employers to join wider alliances and collaborations with local organisations who really understand the issues in a connected way. Leave your brand at the door, bring your skills and your insight and let's make difference  happen. 

We have loads of different schemes programmes and everything else there's no shortage of wonderful intense wonderful people. But let's do it together. That's what I like about the Mission Beyond initiative. It's about creating alliances and stepping into alliances that are already there. But for employers as well. Obviously, once you get to employment age, you're at a certain stage in your life, and a lot of activity focuses on work-ready skills, work experience for people who are probably 16+. But, as I said earlier, the problem of socio-economic disadvantage, or lack of social mobility can start from the day you're born.

As employers, how do we learn more about what we could do for any stage? How do we support families? Maybe some of them work with us. We know that there's about somewhere between six to 9 million people, one pay cheque away in the UK, from poverty or financial distress. That's work by tomorrow's company. So, what can we do to create safer environments for people to help their children to thrive? Before they're even getting into secondary school, whether we can do more to support school leaders and government to make the education system come alive and help everybody access opportunity.

There's a deeper engagement from employers we would love to see. Let's look at this across the lifecycle. What's our role as employers? But have the humility to listen to the community, organisations and government. Look at solutions, rather than assuming we all know the answer. Because, as you said earlier, social mobility has been stagnant. Whatever we are all doing, it's not working enough. It's making a difference, but it's not working enough. So, let's step in and find new ways to do it. That's what I would say to employers. Including us with PwC we've done some of those things, but we're not naive enough to think we've got it all solved. We've got a long way to go. 

Barry Murphy: We know we can do more, but we need help to figure out how to do it. That's our invitation to employers, come on in. Let's make things happen.

Barry Matthew: In relation to ESMA, we are embarking post the launch of the site that Red Badger have helped us create, the second phase. This requires an army of researchers on a voluntary basis to come in and map the organisations. Whether they will be charities, businesses, or initiatives, which are sponsored by government. We need to map the footprint across the UK, and also do a piece of analysis on how those organisations could be more impactful through collaboration. So, this isn't simply just a data entry task. This needs bright people to come in and look at the organisations they map, and come to some view as to what could be done better, in a chassis of operational review model. So here’s the flare up –we need more people.  We've a couple of hundreds already, but we're mapping the UK. It’s bold and ambitious. So, the more people we have within the ESMA Alliance team, the better that map will be and the more effective it will be. So, come all within – I’m about to sing The Mighty Quinn, which will actually really peeve off Mister Murphy, being a big London Irish fan.

Cain Ullah: And, yeah, look forward to seeing where the ESMA Red Badger partnership and bringing in the Mission Beyond the community, can take us to actually have some impact and get action oriented.

Barry Matthews: And also be the last thing as well on Red Badger kindly stepped up and agreed to be a CTO designate for the Alliance going forward, which is brilliant. But we need more developers and more people to bolster that team and assist them, there’s already been a huge amount of work. And t we need developers to put their hand up and help us with drawing that mapping tool for phase two. 

Cain Ullah: Finally - what is one thing you’d want people to do that could help your efforts? 

Barry Matthews: I've just probably stolen my thunder on this question already. But I think the one thing, which generally anybody can do, no matter what your profession is or your discipline within an organisation is, can join the research team for phase two. It doesn't necessarily have to be an organisation that puts its hand up on behalf of their employees. It could be individuals from within an organisation doing it in their private capacity. But don't feel that you've got to get the permission. (Obviously, that's part of your employment contract to get the permission during work time, then please do that.) But don't feel constrained that your organisation hasn't itself put its hand up. You, as an individual, can use your time to make a change, and we really welcome you into the fold.

Barry Murphy: So between that answer and the previous one that’s seven things, Barry. But they’re good recommendations.

But if it was just one given what we’ve been talking about I invite anyone who’s listening to this, please get in touch with us. Share ideas, join the community we're developing and tell us what you can offer but also challenge us as a group, where are we missing things? What should we know about that we don't already? So the real plea is: Get in touch. This is an open community we're trying to bring everybody together. We want to work with you, let us know how It's as simple as that.

Cain Ullah: Brilliant. Thank you both. What you do and have already done is very inspiring and Red Badger is humbled to be involved. We've loved it so far. Thanks for sharing your insights, and we look forward to working with you in the future.

We hope you enjoyed this Q&A with Barry Matthews and Barry Murphy. If you feel inspired and want to take action and become part of Mission Beyond’s community, please get in touch at hello@missionbeyond.co.uk.

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