After 9 years I have completed my term as a NED with Fusion21 Ltd. (though I am continuing as NED and Chair of the CoreHaus Ltd subsidiary). I want to share some brief reflections on that experience, most particularly the learning for the company and me.
I first encountered Fusion21 in 2009 undertaking an Information Strategy review. Seven years old, owned by a group of Merseyside social landlords, Fusion21 was set up to deliver intelligent procurement for the social housing sector. A profitable sociaI enterprise from its first year of trading, the company was experiencing the classic challenges of managing growth – securing its place in a demanding market place with numerous changes and challenges, immature information systems and processes, a conventional structure with many staff having a background in third and public sector organisations. The Executive and the Board all knew that change was required.
The Information Strategy Review brought to light a number of issues from the prosaic requirement to redefine the procurement and operation of the IT hardware platform to the business focused realization that the core capability, activity and competitive edge of Fusion21 Ltd was, and is, its ability to capture, process and utilize information. What it traded in was and is information. It uses information about the needs of its customers (collected and curated through regular engagement events) and about the offers of its suppliers (materials and skilled labour) to synthesise a cost-effective business offer which coupled to value (and values) driven project delivery management is compelling for clients. Any surplus generated from trading activity was and is returned to the customers through social value activity – the early strapline of ‘profits into people not into pockets’ still holding good in 2023.
The realisations emerging from that first engagement led to a series of discussions with the executive about how to systematize the processes, damp (inappropriate) variation in service offers and produce a consistent, coherent and very importantly, collegiate way of running the business. The diagnosis and redesign was strongly informed by the thinking underpinning Beer’s Viable System ModelRef1 and its contemporary interpretation through the idea of Intelligent OrganisationRef2 and Dudley’s TrialogueRef3. Between them these offered a way of conceiving the organisation as an information system, of exploring the how, where and what of decision making enabled by that information system and, critically, a mechanism for embedding organisational reflection and adaptation as the heart of ‘how we do things round here’.
Buying itself out of its initial owning group, creating its own charitable foundation parent (and donating itself to it), investing continuously and generously in the development of all staff members and its information capability, Fusion21 at 21 years old is an exceptional organisation. It has donated more than £10m to its foundation over recent years, enabling and stimulating a range of activities from training and development of young people to refurbishment of social facilities and investment in other social enterprises.
Fusion21 demonstrates the potential for an information led, requisitely bureaucratic (demonstrably compliant without stifling enterprise) organisation delivering consistent high performance even, or perhaps especially during the covid period when the design of the information systems instantly accommodated working from home without loss of productivity. It also shows that profitably delivering value to customers is not a capability achievable only by the private sector, that distributable profit is not a bad thing (as Dave Neilson, CEO suggests ‘in order to be a social enterprise you must first of all be an enterprise!’) and that individuals can be as motivated by the pursuit of a shared social purpose as they are in pursuit of private profit.
For me, I have learned that competently developing and applying the ideas of organisational (or managerial) cybernetics can deliver substantial performance and financial benefits, that it can genuinely support and enable the notion of viability. I have seen that the potential realised in Fusion21 offers scope to private, public and third sector organisations to transform their performance. I have realised that such transformation requires courage and persistence from both the executive and Board of the subject organisation and from those that seek to influence it. I have been fortunate to work with people I now regard as more friends than colleagues, to have been able to articulate (sometimes quite forcefully) the arguments for many of the changes that we have made together over the years (not that I have always been agreed with!) and to have witnessed the growth in capability and influence of the Executive team in particular.
And, more than anything else, it has (mainly) been fun.
Ref 1: Stafford Beer – Diagnosing the System for Organisations Wiley 1985
Ref 2: John Beckford – The Intelligent Organisation Routledge 2020
Ref 3: Peter Dudley in John Beckford -The Intelligent Nation Routledge 2021