Happy ITers invest their skills in the community

Few of us are immune to those occasional corporate blues when life just seems to be about profit margins and beating the...

Few of us are immune to those occasional corporate blues when life just seems to be about profit margins and beating the competition. So when an IT company claims it has another set of priorities it seems a bit too good to be true, writes Nathalie Towner.

IT training company Happy Computers says, while it wants to be profitable, it is determined to share its success by helping others. The company has already decided that every year 20% of its profits will be spent on helping the local community.

Although the intention is good, ensuring that the donations make a real difference is not an easy task. "We had been donating 4% of our profits in cash to charity but we felt this wasn't having much impact as we are only a small company," explains Happy Computers' chief executive Henry Stewart. "We decided we could do more by offering our skills."

The first project to capitalise on the skills of the company's 43 employees was to make all of the company's Microsoft Office training manuals available online for free download. The time taken to do this came from the firm's Timebank scheme, which is currently set at 100 days a year. To be awarded Timebank days, staff put forward a proposal for a specific project that will, ideally, make good use of their skills, offer clear social benefits and bring some reward to the company.

"If a trainer specialises in Web development and needs to practice his skills it makes more sense for him to create links with the local community and work on a real project that will be of benefit rather than create a fake site here in the office," says Stewart.

Happy Computers has recently gained recognition from the Lord Mayor's Dragon Awards for its work with the homeless. The awards aim to acknowledge businesses that improve community life and employment opportunities in London.

Staff gave project workers who help the homeless a 20-day intensive training programme. Five days were spent on "train the trainer", resulting in Tap (Trainer Activity Profile) certification, and 15 days were spent on Microsoft Office, leading to Mous (Microsoft Office User Specialist) certification.

"We wanted to focus on the homeless and pass on our skills to them but we decided against this as we didn't know about their needs and there were too many issues involved," says Stewart. "Other people have expertise of working with the homeless and we decided it would make more sense to add to their skills base.

"We wanted a homeless person to get the same level of training as a city executive."

IT trainer Maria Warner was one of the staff who worked on the project.

"I love working on projects that have a clear knock-on effect," she says. "Some people have come back with other clients since the course and we have a good relationship with them."

Warner has also been able to benefit from Happy Computer's policy of allowing its staff to spend one day a month fully paid working for a charity of their choice. "I was part of the computer specialist group at a careers day for young afro-caribbeans," she explains.

One of Warner's colleagues has been allocated 20 days from the timebank to go to Nigeria to establish an IT training centre in collaboration with a local community group.
Stewart emphasises the mutual benefits of these projects and highlights his high levels of staff retention. But it takes a brave company to move away from the purely profit-driven business model, and it is a move that should be applauded.

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