What will the gig economy do for innovation?

Thanks to Tim Harford, I have recently discovered a blog on creativity by Keith Sawyer from the University of North Carolina. He is the author of Group Genius in which he argues that creativity comes from collaboration rather than from a few brilliant individuals.

[W]e’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changed the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

There is plenty of evidence, he says, to kill off the legend of the brilliant loner:

[T]he myth of the genius is relatively recent: it emerged during the Romantic period. And pretty much all of the people we think of as natural, solitary geniuses were in fact deeply collaborative in their work.

The evidence that collaboration drives creativity is overwhelming.

He links to a number of other writers and academics making similar arguments. This one is particularly interesting. It turns out entrepreneurs aren’t all that creative after all.

[A]ll of the conversation I hear is about how entrepreneurs drive innovation. We keep hearing that small startups identify opportunities that big companies miss. Visionary outsiders come up with radical ideas, that transform entire industries, and make billions of dollars in the process. That’s the story we’re used to hearing…and this new article says just the opposite!

Basically, entrepreneurs have only two choices. Either they can work in ways that are “compatible with existing institutions” or they can “engage in collective action to change the institutional order.” The second option is pretty darned hard, and usually isn’t possible.

[E]ntrepreneurs are even more constrained by these institutional forces than established firms, because they’re just trying to get on their feet and stay alive; and they have to steal away customers from the established players, and those customers are comfortable with the old ways of doing business. “New ventures often adopt the structures of incumbent firms in their industry. Although not very creative, it is a rational choice for entrepreneurs wishing to grow their ventures successfully”

[I]t’s time to get rid of “the heroic image of innovative entrepreneurs that have plagued entrepreneurship research for decades”

This is a similar theme to Ha Joon Chang’s:

Very much influenced by capitalist folklore, with characters such as Thomas Edison and Bill Gates, and by the pioneering work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born Harvard economics professor, our view of entrepreneurship is too much tinged by the individualistic perspective – entrepreneurship is what those heroic individuals with exceptional vision and determination do.

However, if it ever was true, this individualistic view of entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly obsolete. In the course of capitalist development, entrepreneurship has become an increasingly collective endeavour.

If effective entrepreneurship ever was a purely individual thing, it has stopped being so at least for the last century. The collective ability to build and manage effective organizations and institutions is now far more important than the drives or even the talents of a nation’s individual members in determining its prosperity.

That last point is important. Innovation needs organisation. As Wharton’s Ethan Mollick said, in his exquisitely titled study People and Process, Suits and Innovators, it’s the middle managers who make the difference, even in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries.

[V]ariation among middle managers has a particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of those individuals who are assigned innovative roles.

[I]t is the individuals who fill the role of middle managers – the “suits” – rather than the creative innovators that best explain variation in firm performance.

The results also show that middle managers are necessary to facilitate firm performance in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries.

While organisations often put barriers in the way of innovation, at least they have the infrastructure and the collective space to bring people together, allow them to co-create and then turn that creativity into something tangible.

All this got me thinking. If self-employment and the gig economy really are the future of work what does this mean for creativity and innovation? How will an increasingly atomised workforce, doing bits and pieces here an there, create anything new?

Doubtless many will respond by saying that self-employed people collaborate all the time and are, especially in professional occupations, usually very well networked. All of that is true but that’s not the sort of working together that creates things. You can meet people in coffee shops, kick around ideas and even work on the odd project with them but real collaboration means committing to each other and working together over a long period to take an idea through to its conclusion. That’s how we learn and ultimately how e innovate. It’s not impossible to achieve this outside a formal organisation but it’s much more difficult.

This is what the advocates of more self-employment and the gig economy miss. It is organisation that moves the world forward. If more of the workforce is outside formal organisations then it must create other forms of organisation if it is to work to its full potential. That’s what I was getting at when I wrote about the Olympic Torch as a metaphor. Bringing lots of little fires together to make a big one.

Organisation and institutions enable creativity and bring us the prosperity that goes with it. Disorganisation and fragmentation don’t. An fragmented and disconnected workforce will find it much more difficult to harness their group genius. More of us working in this way implies a steady erosion of the country’s human capital. Last month, Institute for Employment Studies Director Nigel Meager remarked that we haven’t even begun to understand the “possible downsides of a world in which more people spend more of their working lives in this form of work”. One of them might be that much of our creative talent never gets chance to bloom.

Update: Recent research from the Centre for Economic Policy Research found that worker productivity is contagious. Peer effects and networks between workers cause a productivity spillover. Team members learn from each other and raise each other’s performance. As the old saying goes, the whole is greater than the same of the parts.

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Thousands held back from their dream of self-employment. Thankfully!

A press release from Citizen’s Advice at the weekend said that 40 percent of the workforce would like to work for themselves but only 15 percent have managed to do so. It warns that red-tape and lack of support is “creating a barrier to people fulfilling their ambition of working for themselves” and “potentially viable businesses are failing unnecessarily for the want of guidance in the early stages”.

The report itself, Going Solo, strikes a slightly different tone. It is an in-depth study of why people go into self-employment and of the difficulties some of them face. The recommendations, more help with skills and support from Jobcentre Plus and, encouraging more peer group support among the self-employed are all good ideas.

I wonder, though, whether there comes a point when the aspiring self-employed have been given enough help and encouragement. Just because 40 percent of the workforce think it would be nice to run their own businesses it doesn’t mean they all should. Lots of people think it would be nice to live in the country too, without ever having thought through the practical implications.

There isn’t much the government could do to remove red-tape from startups because there is precious little of it as it is. It is mind-blowingly easy to start up a business in this country. It’s not even that difficult to start a limited company. A few minutes on the website, a £15 fee and away you go. You don’t even need more than one director now.

According to the OECD, the UK has one of the lowest levels of administrative burden for company startups. For businesses employing only the directors (which fall under the sole proprietor definition on this chart) it is one of the least regulated in the developed world.

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Anecdotally, I hear more complaints from small business owners about corporate red-tape. It’s not so much the government as utilities, banks and phone/broadband providers that mess small firms around. I reckon (again based on anecdotal data) that, over the last ten years,  it has become easier to set up a business but more difficult to get a bank account, as banks now take longer to check people out.

Even this isn’t that onerous though. As for handling tax and accounts, there are good, reasonably priced accountants and software packages that will calculate and submit your VAT returns for around £10 a month.

Business owners like to complain about regulation. There is something almost tribal about this. If you don’t have a moan about administrative aggro, you’re not really a proper business person. Yet it’s really not that much of a big deal, especially if you don’t employ people. Frankly, if people can’t cope with what little administrative burden there is, should they really be in business at all?

The Citizens’ Advice report also looks at finance, or the lack of it, among the self-employed. For the already low paid, which a significant proportion of the self-employed are, illness or just a period of lack of work can quickly become an emergency. As for getting a mortgage, unless you can show stable and regular earnings over a long period, forget it.

At one of the many round-table discussions I have contributed to on self-employment the question of mortgages came up. Should banks and building societies do more to accommodate those with fluctuating incomes? Someone from one of the mortgage providers remarked that it had taken them years to unwind the problems caused by mortgage self-certification and they would resist any pressure to start issuing them again. Who can blame them? With self-employment earnings low and falling the self-employed are a high risk. I keep hearing the ‘just because I’m self-employed they won’t give me a mortgage’ meme. Well, yes, that makes absolute sense. Statistically, self-employed equals low and precarious earnings.

Then, of course, there is the looming problem of Universal Credit and the self-employed. Unlike tax credits, Universal Credit will assume that all recipients earn the minimum wage. The trouble is, around 40 percent of the self-employed don’t. With the hike in the minimum wage over the next few years this could get even worse. It is unlikely that self-employed earnings will rise at the same rate as the minimum wage so more people will see their earnings fall below it. Their benefits will therefore reduce based on an assumed income are not earning.

Against this background, is it really fair to continue the policy of encouraging people to start up their own businesses and become self-employed? It may be the dream of 40 percent of the population but is it realistic? As well as selling the benefits, don’t the government, business organisations, think-tanks and charities have a responsibility to warn people of the pitfalls too? By all means go self-employed but you will probably earn less, you are stuffed if you are sick and you will find it almost impossible to get a mortgage. Over time, unless you set aside some money for training, your skills will gradually become obsolete Oh, and you have to go out and find your own work. Yes, that last one still catches people out.

There is still this widespread assumption that becoming self-employed is inherently a Good Thing, despite overwhelming evidence that the self-employed tend to be poor and countries with lots of self-employed people tend to be poor. If 40 percent of our workforce were self-employed it wouldn’t be much good for most of the people concerned or for the economy as a whole.

Over the past decade and a half we have seen a huge growth in the number of small low-turnover businesses but much less growth in these firms’ share of turnover. For the non-incorporated self-employed, total earnings have shrunk by £8 billion since the recession  despite there being 600,000 more of them. This suggests that a lot of these new businesses are marginal and not doing much more than taking business from other similarly precarious firms. David Storey reckons the government spends £8 billion a year supporting small businesses without any clear benefit. Most small firms simply play their part in the ongoing business churn.

Is it really such a bad thing that so few of the people who want to be self-employed actually end up doing it? The 40 percent who think they want to start their own businesses could do a lot worse than read the Citizens’ Advice report then see if they still fancy it afterwards.   For the truth is that many of them would not be very good at it and most would not make very much money. The barriers that are holding thousands of people back from self-employment are doing most of them a favour. Like the dream of moving to the country, they might get there and find they don’t really like it very much.



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Austerity II: The Devolution

Last week’s spending review took some of the pressure off public service spending. The chancellor now plans to cut much less than he told us he would in March. The difference is so great that, where, until recently, we were expecting deeper cuts than in the last parliament, those announced on Wednesday will be nowhere near as severe. Less will be cut from public services over the next half decade than over the last.

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Source: OBR Economic and fiscal outlook

Some services, like defence and the police, have found themselves inside the ring-fence once reserved for health, schools and international aid. Most of the unprotected departments have now seen the bulk of their cuts, with less to come during the rest of the decade.

The most obvious exception to this is local government. And boy is it an exception.

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According to the IFS, local government funding is due to take the biggest hit overall. It also has more cuts to come in the next five years than the last. This comes after the National Audit Office has already expressed concern about the financial sustainability of more than half of local authorities.

The chancellor’s solution is to allow councils to raise more of their own revenue. He has already reduced the proportion of funding that local authorities get from central government and this trend is set to continue over the rest of the decade. Any shortfall can be made up from council tax and business rates.

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At least, that’s the theory. The problem is, covering rising social care costs would need some big council tax increases. The extra 2 percent probably won’t be enough. Worse still, it may be raised in the wrong places. That’s the trouble with local funding. Rich areas have richer tax bases. Then there are the inevitable fears about postcode lotteries which, despite all the chatter about devolution, the British don’t really like very much.

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But, while local authority leaders may complain that the sums won’t add up, the attraction of this approach for George Osborne is that it outsources much of the remaining austerity to someone else. He knows that there will have to be more tax increases to cover the cost of his deficit reduction. Either that or some serious damage to public services. This way local councils will have to make that call. Unpopular cuts or unpopular tax rises but either way, one step removed from the government.

Or at least for a while. The trouble with public services, though, is that they are part of a system. If things go wrong in one place it has an effect somewhere else. Fewer and less effective interventions by council social services will almost certainly increase pressure on the NHS, which is likely to struggle even with its extra funding. Averting a financial crisis in a local authority by cutting services might simply cause another financial crisis to appear in the local NHS trust.

The three things most likely to scupper George Osborne’s deficit reduction plans are lower than expected tax revenues, a failure to cut welfare costs and an almighty train crash at one of the junctions between the NHS and local authorities. When things like that happen, however much power has been devolved, people usually end up blaming the government.

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The U-turn that wasn’t

George Osborne’s headline-grabbing U-turn on tax credits wasn’t really a U-turn at all. To stretch the analogy, he put the indicator on to make it look as if he was going to pull a u-ey but then he just slowed down and kept going in the same direction.

The clever folk at the Resolution Foundation spotted this within minutes:

By scrapping tax credits but moving people onto universal credit, the overall effect by the end of the decade is pretty much the same.

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 09.05.31As the IFS said, “the reversal of tax credit cuts makes no difference in long run.” The government still plans to cut in-work benefits but not just yet.

In the short-term, therefore, those on low incomes get a reprieve.

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By the end of the decade, though, they are more-or-less where they would have been under the original plan.

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Of course, the chancellor couldn’t possibly have U-turned on cuts to in-work benefits minutes after he had promised that his £12 billion welfare cuts would be “delivered in full“. With most of the other big chunks of benefit spending already off limits it would have been arithmetically impossible.

The social security cuts are even more important now that the chancellor has eased up on cuts to public services. As the OBR’s report shows, welfare forms a much bigger proportion of the planned spending reduction than it did in the last parliament.

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I still can’t see it happening though. Taking £12 billion off the welfare bill, even allowing for pay increases later in the decade, still looks like a tall order. As Matt Whitaker noted, the OBR has slightly downgraded its forecasts for household income and average wage growth since the last budget.

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Even if the National Living Wage boosts incomes for the lowest paid it will be nowhere near enough to offset the benefit cuts.

Cutting £12 billion from welfare will be difficult to do without causing considerable distress to millions of people. At best this will be politically damaging, at worst it could lead to serious social unrest.

But if the government can’t make its welfare savings and it is only taking £10 billion off public service spending, how will it meet its deficit target?

I suspect this is where the real U-turn will occur. More crafty tax increases, some of them outsourced to local government and the new devolved authorities, together with some blarney about why welfare costs didn’t come down, probably blaming employers for not stepping up. If the chancellor has ruled out extra borrowing, is cutting less from public services and then finds he can’t cut welfare, the only option left is to increase tax. For all the hullabaloo, Wednesday’s U-turn wasn’t really a U-turn at all. The tax U-turn will be slower and a lot quieter. More like one of those long gentle bends in the road that you don’t even realise has taken you in a different direction.

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Osborne not the Dick Dastardly of state-shrinkage after all

A year or so ago, some of us got into a discussion about whether or not George Osborne is an ideologically driven state-shrinker. Some people think he is, others, including Chris Dillow and me, think he isn’t. Wednesday’s Autumn Statement must surely have settled that argument.

Firstly there is the extra £27 billion in tax receipts the OBR found down the back of the sofa. What would a small state ideologue have done with an extra £27 billion? Not what the chancellor did, that’s for sure. He spent most of it on public services and welfare.

As Chris Giles points out, the chancellor is also planning to increase taxes:

There are 31 policy measures outlined in the official documents. By 2020-21, all but two of these are the equivalent of tax increases to improve the public finances.
The most significant increases are the implementation of the apprenticeship levy, forcing companies rather than taxpayers to pay for training, at £3bn a year. Other significant revenue raisers are the higher stamp duty rates on additional properties and large rises in council tax bills earmarked to shore up the social care and police budgets. The OBR expects the Autumn Statement directly to increase council tax revenues by £2.2bn a year at the end of the forecast.

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The result of this is that, while the last parliament could reasonably be described as one of state-shrinkage, with most of the deficit reduction load falling on public services, this one will be a lot less so, with tax contributing more to the reduction of the deficit.

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This is still austerity but it is pragmatic austerity. We no longer hear the blood-curdling war cry demanding even more cuts over the next five years than the last. In one year, George Osborne’s plan for public service spending has gone from utterly bonkers to might-just-be-doable.

As Gavin Kelly said yesterday, the chancellor is so pragmatic he will nick ideas from anyone:

[L]ook at the overall reduction in public service cuts and it’s clear: things just got more plausible.

Indeed the plans now look more like what we might have expected to see had Labour won power. Mr Osborne has confirmed in his Summer Budget and then Autumn Statement not just his political pragmatism but also his openness to ideas from a variety of sources: he’ll steal ideas from both Ed Miliband or Ed Balls.

To the surprise of many people, including me, the level of satisfaction with public services hasn’t changed much since 2010. Recent research by IpsosMori found that three-quarters of the population have barely noticed any difference.

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The Local Government Association’s survey found something similar. It noted a slight decline in satisfaction with council services but nowhere near what you might have expected given the level of funding cuts.

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In other words, the government pretty much got away with it last time round. There are signs that people are beginning to get worried about further cuts though. The IpsosMori survey shows that people are less optimistic when asked about the future of specific services.

In general, the voters don’t share politicians’ and think-tankers’ enthusiasm for much smaller government. Opinions may fluctuate on whether spending should increase or stay the same but there has never been much enthusiasm for shrinking the state.


Source: British Social Attitudes Survey

With local government and the NHS likely to struggle over the next five years we may be getting close to the point where the British decide they have had enough state-shrinkage for now. George Osborne, being an astute politician, has probably sensed that.

I’m not sure that the chancellor ever really wanted to shrink the state in the way that some of the people in his party would have liked. The measures in the Autumn Statement are hardly the actions of someone hell-bent on small government. The chancellor was boxed in by his promise to eliminate the deficit by 2019-20. The first chance he got to do so without chopping off parts of the state, he grabbed with both hands. 

I suspect this has much to do with the Conservatives’ unexpected re-election and with it the very real prospect of George Osborne becoming prime minister. With Labour in such a mess, there is also a good chance that he might be prime minister until 2025. Destroying bits of the state doesn’t look like such a good idea when you are the one who is going to have to deal with the consequences.

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Chancellor cock-a-hoop as OBR finds money behind the sofa

There will be some sense of relief in the public sector after yesterday’s Autumn Statement. According to the OBR, the £42 billion real terms cut in day-to-day public service spending (RDEL) it forecast only half a year ago is now down to just over £10 billion.

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In cash terms, the governments plans imply hardly any cuts at all to the total amount. Overall spending on public services is set to rise, albeit not in line with inflation.

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Of course, the effect of protecting some departments means others will still have to make significant cuts but the overall picture is nowhere near as bleak as it looked only a few months ago.

So what has changed?

Effectively, the something that Dave and George hoped would turn up just has. Or, at least, the OBR thinks it will. It expects slightly higher economic growth than it forecast earlier in the year, together with lower welfare costs and significantly higher tax receipts.

The effects of this can be seen in the OBR’s charts on the sources of deficit reduction. Compare March with November.

March 2015

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November 2015

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In yesterday’s forecast, increased tax receipts and reductions in welfare spending take a lot more of the load so the deficit can be eliminated without the swingeing cuts to public service spending predicted in March.

The next chart shows the latest forecast compared with the March one and with what happened in the last parliament. It’s a bit confusing because the two forecasts are on the outside and 2010-15 in the middle.

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The far left column shows how much more reduced welfare (yellow) and higher tax receipts (green) contribute than in the March forecast  (far right). It also shows the difference between both and what happened over the last five years. Six months ago we thought that public services were due for even greater cuts than those seen in the last parliament. Now it looks as though they won’t be anywhere near as deep.

After the cuts public sector organisations have sustained over the past five years and with increasing pressure on the NHS and councils due to ageing and population increase, even a cut of £10.4 billion will make life difficult. Probably not catastrophically so though. The forecast reduction in day-to-day public service spending is £30 billion less than we thought it was going to be in March. The collapse of a major public service by the end of the decade looks much less likely than it did six months ago.

Of course, holding public service spending cuts down to this level is dependent on the tax receipts rolling in and the welfare costs falling as predicted. The chancellor is still promising to reduce social security costs by £12 billion. Even with improved growth and higher wages, it’s still difficult to see how he will manage that.

Then there’s the question of growth. Firstly, with signs of a global slowdown, can our economy be expected to grow as quickly as the OBR predicts? Secondly, even if it does, how much of it will translate into tax receipts? As Mike Bird says, the OBR has tended to be over-optimistic about government revenues in the past. Is an extra £27 billion realistic?

If welfare costs don’t fall and tax receipts don’t rise by as much as the OBR forecasts, we are back to public service cuts as the only means of eliminating the deficit. Yesterday’s figures look more encouraging than anything we have seen in recent years but it does feel a bit like suddenly finding money down the back of the sofa. Perhaps something will turn up to ease the government’s deficit challenge but it hasn’t yet and there are still some very good reasons why it might not.

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Productivity and the National Living Wage

The CIPD and the Resolution Foundation are collaborating on a piece of research into the impact of the National Living Wage (NLW). According to their first study over half of the country’s employers expect to be affected by it. Around a third said they would meet the increased cost by improving productivity and 22 percent said they would take lower profits. Only 15 percent said they would lay off workers or slow down recruitment.

That all sounds promising but, as Matt Whittaker points out, the productivity increase needed to cover the cost of the NLW could be pretty steep. As you might expect, there is a strong relationship between rising minimum wages and rising productivity. Most countries in the OECD have not strayed very far from this line of best fit.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 16.17.15In the absence of any productivity growth, the proposed NLW would move some way from the line (the green circle) by 2016 and quite a long way (the purple circle) by 2020. The arrows indicate the size of the productivity increase that would be needed to get the NLW back to its current distance from the line. The purple arrow implies productivity growth of 6.6 percent per year.

This is far from an exact science. As Matt says, it really is uncharted territory. No-one has tried a minimum wage hike on this scale before. Nevertheless, it gives us a good starting point for estimating the sort of productivity gains that might be needed to cover the NLW.

Now here’s the problem. 6.6 percent per year is a huge amount. Increasing productivity is extremely difficult to do in a single year. Pulling off a 6.6 percent productivity improvement year-on-year for half a decade would probably require some form of sorcery. As Matt says, average productivity growth in the UK between 1991 until the crash was around 2.2 percent per year. Productivity growth is also more difficult in service industries where most of the lower paid jobs are. As this Bank of England report shows, it’s difficult to find many examples of sustained productivity gains much higher than about 3 percent per year. Getting even half way to 6.6 percent looks unlikely.

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Furthermore, many of the employers likely to be most affected by the NLW are small firms. As this Resolution Foundation report shows, small and micro businesses will see the highest rises in their wage bills.


Despite the prime minister’s claim that small businesses are the economy’s magic ingredient, many of these companies took a severe hit during the recession. Britain’s small firms are not in great shape and have, if anything, seen more of a productivity fall than larger businesses. Turnover per worker for firms with under 50 employees has been on the slide for some years.

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Chart by New Policy Institute.

As UKCES reported earlier this year, there is a long tail of poorly managed businesses among Britain’s small employers. It is doubtful that they have the ability or the capacity to make the sort of productivity improvements needed to cover the cost of the NLW.

For the same reason, taking lower profits won’t be an option for many either as they are probably not taking very much out now. People often assume that all business owners are minted but many don’t pay themselves that much more than they pay their workers. The leader of the gang of cleaners I spoke to recently reckoned she took home less. A survey of small shop owners a couple of years ago found that 55 percent of them earned less than the minimum wage.

At around the same time as the NLW comes in, small business owners will have to deal with a tax on dividends and the obligation to enrol their employees in a pension scheme. And all this is before I’ve even considered the specific pressure faced by the care sector, which deserves a post of its own.

In my admittedly mischievous and slightly flippant post a couple of weeks ago, I raised the prospect of the NLW kick-starting a productivity boost and digging the chancellor out of his fiscal hole. In reality, though, this looks very unlikely. It’s difficult to see how the level of productivity increase required could be achieved, particularly by the sort of employers that need it most. As anyone who has tried it will know, talking about productivity improvement is easy. Actually doing it is teeth-grindlingly hard.

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