Think Outer Hebrides but don't think sheep and desolation. Instead put your mind around the untapped potential of a highly educated, highly motivated workforce looking for a way into the 21st century. Donnie Morrison did and look what he has achieved.
Andrew Eames reports for British Airways Business Life
Someone is doing a PhD on Donnie Morrison. The man himself is rather bemused. He's not met his student yet, but "I've been told to expect his call". This former salesman has become something of a celebrity on his home island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. "People whose names I don't know come up to me in the street and say hello." Jobs are like gold dust in the economically deprived Western Isles, especially the 100-odd jobs of the sort requiring brains, not brawn, that Donnie has conjured up. Moreover, he is undertaking to find another 200 of them by December 2001.
The quietly spoken islander's fame is based on a personal crusade for teleworking, and now he's being invited to advise other fringe communities in the UK and overseas on how to inject new life into their fragile economies, too. Morrison is officially a consultant for the Local Enterprise Company. In effect, though, he is a travelling roadshow for 550 remotely situated but highly qualified people, introducing the cream of the Hebrides to the world. And the fruit of his very first contract, won four years ago is arriving three times a week via BA's flights to Benbecula - from California.
In May 1993, Donnie won a WIE contract for a year's project research and quickly relocated to Lewis, where he set up his ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Advisory Service. He had already decided that if he was to understand the problems of teleworkers, then he should be one himself. So he resisted offers of an office in the Local Enterprise Company headquarters in Stornoway and instead renovated his mother's croft house in Pairc to include an office and his wife Anne set up a guest house.
His first priority was to travel through the islands to recruit his potential work force, putting up notices in village halls and organising community meetings. He knew that the Western Isles had the highest number of graduates per capita in the United Kingdom, but even he was astonished by what he found: top-level academic qualifications, rotting away. "People said they were going mad because they had no access to work. They felt their brains were deteriorating. They even said they would work for nothing if I could find them something to do." The result of that original survey was a database of 160 names. "At the time, we identified this as an IT workforce. We soon discovered that this was wrong; all of our contracts have involved retraining and any computer skills that people have had have proved incidental." The key abilities required are intelligence, flexibility and motivation.
Donnie then set about trying to identify clients that might find a use for this widely dispersed selection of bright individuals. A tip-off led to an American company, who were looking to take business stories from all over the US and crunch them down into a huge, up-to-the-minute, searchable database. He said that his people could do it and the US company believed him. So, just six months after starting, he had his first contract pending but no one to run it. His own interest lay in hunting for new jobs, not running existing ones, so he took a risk in persuading a women's organisation, training weavers of Harris tweed, to take on the contract. He put his head on the block by getting the Enterprise Company to stump up £10,000 for training 18 teleworkers and £28,000 to buy them all suitable computers. Each worker was linked with an e-mail conferencing system so that they could share their problems, deliver completed work and receive feedback from the US.
With this first success, Donnie found it easier to persuade more clients that the sort of skills they needed were secreted away amongst the lochs. Since then, his people have been engaged on work that varied from compiling databases of police forensic records to transferring a music encyclopaedia onto CD-ROM. And while all contracts have been won by him, he sets them to run independently while remaining "in the loop of management". It has not been easy. The islanders are not natural entrepreneurs, being typically self-effacing and self-doubting. They are ill equipped for the modern job interview, which is what makes Donnie's marketing role particularly important. His background means that he has no fear of approaching potential clients at the highest level and travelling to America to do so.
So far he estimates that he has had conversations with 100 possible customers, and maintains regular links with 20, believing that it is only a matter of time before most will be outsourcing work to the islands. Face to face meetings are essential, so he travels regularly. "The only way forward is in discussion," he says. "I don't have a fixed pitch to offer, I just go in there knowing what we have and try to match it with what they need."
His success has attracted the interest of National Geographic, who travelled across the Atlantic with a very fixed idea of the sort of story they wanted. Donnie grimaces with the recollection. While he is happy with clients falling in love with the romantic side of the islands, he's not very keen on the cliché of crofters swapping tweed-weaving looms for computers, "because it makes us seem like amateurs". Typical of his new workforce is Anne MacAulay, who usually does 25 hours telework a week from what she describes as her "monk's cell" upstairs at the family home on Lewis.
Three years ago she had a week's training on the US contract; now she's so good at it that the company lets her choose the articles herself. "I know an awful lot about the economy of Albuquerque," she says. She is less sure about how she would ever sell this ability she never knew she had, if she were left to her own devices.
Donnie himself is already moving on to the next phase of his plan. He is by no means just wedded to widening his network of Anne MacAulays. He now wants to develop teleservice centres, for which he is targeting customers in publishing and software testing. His first success has been the Glenn Seilach Business Park, which was built on spec by WIE and which Donnie committed himself to filling. He has. A call-support centre for the Internet is moving in, creating 70 new jobs, with Donnie advising closely on recruitment. All of this industry is still too new to be bringing startling levels of income to the islands, but the individual teleworkers are earning considerably more than in the other major area of employment on the islands, fish-farming, where the average salary is £8,000 per annum.
Morrison's own budget for the past three years has been £171,000 which covers his own income, his staff costs and travel and marketing expenses. Personally, this represents a two-third cut in his own earnings. Would he eventually return to the world of big incentives? He shakes his head. "I find creating jobs far more satisfying then making sales. Do a big deal in the computer business and the next day it's history. Up here, I'm still meeting people two years after they first started working on one of our contracts and they're still appreciative."
July/August 1998 issue of British Airways Business Life