Consistency and Flexibility are the Foundation of Microsoft’s Community Investments


Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of blog posts reflecting on the evolution and impact of Microsoft’s Community Technology Skills Program you can find links to the previous entries at the end of this post.

If I had to summarize in a few words the most important thing Microsoft has learned over the last eight years running a global community investment program, it is this: to be a catalyst for change, people need more than just an access point for technology. Effective programs target specific socioeconomic issues and provide individuals with the knowledge and skills that help them not only imagine, but realize opportunities in their lives.

This insight has helped us sharpen the focus of our investments in recent years onto programs that increase a person’s ability to enter the workforce or a new industry, advance in the workplace, or start a business. In addition to teaching technology skills, this means providing support in other areas such as career planning, interviewing, and resume writing.

In Latin America for example, we have invested in technology skills training for people with disabilities—a population largely overlooked due to cultural factors. In Asia, a primary emphasis was providing computer skills to help victims of human trafficking find safe, long-term employment.

This change made sense for a number of reasons. It fits with Microsoft’s goal of using its assets and technology expertise to stimulate economic development and job creation in local economies. The employability focus also aligns with the economic development priorities of many regional, national, and local governments.

We have also consolidated our CTSP investments and now award fewer, larger grants—often to partners that run nationwide or regional programs. This has allowed us to extend our impact and help sustain networks of community organizations that serve diverse populations.

In New York state Microsoft works with a single grant partner for our CTSP program—the Advanced Technology Training and Information Networking (ATTAIN) labs operated by the State University of New York—to support 32 local skills training programs. In community centers and public housing complexes from Staten Island to Niagara Falls, the ATTAIN labs provide computer instruction and other workplace skills training to people living in poverty and those with limited education.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Microsoft works with POETA (Partnership in Opportunities for Employment through Technology in the Americas)—an organization that supports 72 community organizations in 20 countries that are providing ICT and other job skills training to thousands of at-risk youth and people with disabilities.

By working through umbrella organizations such as ATTAIN and POETA, Microsoft is able to more effectively deliver training programs through networks of local organizations. This approach also makes it easier for local organizations to share information about best practices.

The Black Country Consortium in the UK is another example. It works to revitalize a region hit hard by the decline of heavy industries such as manufacturing and mining. In the Black Country region, where unemployment has been a major issue for decades, only about 25 percent of adults have basic ICT skills. As part of a three-year partnership, Microsoft and the Black Country Consortium supported dozens of community technology centers that have taught a range of job-related skills to about 35,000 people.

Based in part on the success of the Black Country project, Microsoft in 2009 launched Britain Works, a nationwide program aimed at providing 500,000 people with the technology skills they need to get hired into the kinds of digital jobs that will lead the economic recovery.

In the U.S., as the unemployment rate soared toward 10 percent in 2009, we launched Elevate America—a program that has given hundreds of thousands of people free access to a wide range of ICT skills training courses and certification exams. Built partly on insights gained through the CTSP program, the Elevate America state voucher program is an example of how we are aligning our efforts with key government priorities.  Working with 32 states plus the District of Columbia, we provided nearly 900,000 vouchers for no cost training and certification to support the unemployed, underemployed, and people transitioning careers with the skills training needed to get better jobs.

Building on our work with the states, we continued to sharpen our focus and refine our work, launching the Elevate America veterans initiative and Elevate America community initiative in the spring of 2010. The Elevate America Veterans Initiative was designed to help our country's most recently separated veterans and their spouses acquire the skills and resources that they need to be successful in today's workplace.

We’re working to address these challenges by partnering with public, private, and nonprofit organizations to provide not just technology skills training, but job placement and support services such as childcare, transportation and housing assistance to help U.S. veterans and their spouses succeed in civilian jobs and give them the opportunities they deserve.

Technology is not the cure-all to ending high unemployment. But it is an important ingredient in local, community-based programs that are so desperately needed to provide young people, the underserved, and the unemployed with the skills and opportunities they need to succeed in today’s workplace. I’m personally grateful for the opportunity to lead our community investment efforts and proud of our ability to be consistent, yet adaptable, to reflect what we have learned and what is needed to meet the needs of local communities.

 

Editor’s note:

This is the fourth in a series of posts looking at the lessons and insights Microsoft has learned from eight years of investing in community initiatives around the world:

Comments (1)

  1. Joe Sullivan, Technology & Social Change Group, UW says:

    The insight that access alone cannot catalyze change is crucial for global-scale development interventions. Technology access and training make people feel “current” with respect to 21st century jobs and improve their job prospects, as evidenced in employability study after study after study.

    Even when formal employment doesn’t materialize, the fact that trainees have improved their own skills and made themselves more employable has a significant effect on their psychological wellbeing—an impact that should not be ignored given the burdens that accompany unemployment. Microsoft’s “sharpened” grantmaking to promote employability on a global scale has contributed substantially to the body of knowledge around technology and development. I think we can expect these lessons to be modeled and studied for years to come.

    At the same time, the potential for technology to encourage innovation and to be applied in unanticipated ways makes the range of impact even more interesting. Malcolm Gladwell’s treatment of outliers is an example of this sort of impact. Technology provides tools for individuals to do amazing things—which are unlikely to be replicated at scale because they hinge on the ingenuity of an individual. We know that kids are joining Boys & Girls Clubs in part because of the technology programs. So are kids in community technology centers in Latin America and across the developing world. We know that kids in India enroll in training programs because Microsoft sponsors them. We do not have good social scientific tools to easily track these sorts of impacts over time. But it is not hard to imagine a multiplication of impact via unanticipated impacts by “outliers.”

    For those doing rigorous international development work of course addressing the heart of the issue—typical economic development impact by typical users at the community level—is the best route to predictable, measurable impact. This is the material for scrutinizing return on investment. This is the place where Microsoft’s sharpened focus pays off.

    It will be interesting to see the legacy of employability training and community technology over time.  The fact that Microsoft has brought its corporate prestige and resources to international development at scale is remarkable. The fact that, through trial and error, they have discovered ways to sharpen the focus and orchestrate partnerships for maximum impact is also remarkable.

    Now that the important, hard-won insight that technology alone doesn’t catalyze change seems obvious, I can’t help wondering what’s next? How many years will it take for the next insight to seem obvious? What breakthroughs and missteps will a learning organization have to commit in order to discover this insight?

    (Please note, I submitted this comment previously with embedded links. Sorry if I clogged up the commenting functionality or messed up the commenting queue.)

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