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Exclusive Q&A with OneFile Founder Susanna Lawson after Harris acquisition

Susanna Lawson, OneFile Founder & apprenticeship sector specialist

I will keep banging the apprenticeship sector drum, and shouting about the amazing work OneFile does. Exclusive Q&A with OneFile Founder Susanna Lawson after Harris acquires the Apprenticeship e-portfolio provider. The EdTech SaaS founder explains the next stage of OneFile’s growth and her new Ambassador role.

Industry Q&A with Susanna Lawson, OneFile Founder & apprenticeship sector specialist:

What led you to set up OneFile initially?

My path to founding a tech company was definitely not one that I was even aware I was on until it was done! Even in my 20s I have no idea what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up’.

My background had been a carer in nursing homes and support work with adults with learning disabilities which is where I discovered vocational training by having to do an NVQ Level 2 in Care. Having never been exposed to this kind of education before since I went down the conventional A-level/degree route, it opened my eyes to a whole new way of learning and applying your learning immediately in a job.

I wanted to experience more so I did an NVQ Level 3 and went on to become an assessor and Internal Quality Assurer (IQA). After a few years, I left the NHS to work with an independent training provider delivering apprenticeships into nursing homes. I started to see huge inefficiencies in the way they were being delivered on paper: driving long distances to see learners, lack of visibility of work and complete lack of reporting.

When I was promoted to national contracts manager responsible for 1,000 apprenticeships all over the country, I literally had no visibility of how apprenticeships were progressing and their learning activities. I started thinking about how technology could overcome all the issues that were being experienced. Technology could make the delivery far more cost efficient but also increase the quality and support that the apprentices could receive. Not being a techie, I had no idea how such a solution could be built. However, after a chance conversation with my partner Chris Whalley who was building websites and databases at the time, we had the eureka moment in 2004. We had the complimentary skills and knowledge to build such a solution and the idea for OneFile was born!

What are you most proud of?

Having grown an Ed-tech SaaS business from our back bedroom in Manchester from 2 of us, to a team of around 80 with over 1.2m users just blows my mind. I started this journey as a carer in a nursing home and I became CEO of a multi-million-pound Ed-tech business. I don’t think any careers guidance would have prepared me for that!

Key achievements include being awarded the Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2017 and going to Buckingham Palace for a reception with HM Queen Elizabeth and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. Winning the Forward Ladies Outstanding Achievement award. And just earlier this year OneFile being named as one of the Top 100 companies to work for in the medium sized business and North West categories was just incredible. It was so important for me that OneFile was a values driven business and that the team live and breathe those values. The culture at OneFile has not always been what it is now and the journey we have been on is one of the things I am most proud of.

Why Harris?

Harris Computer’s strategy, in line with the parent company Constellation Software is buy businesses for life. Mark Leonard who founded Constellation Software was in the private equity world of buying businesses, growing profitability and then selling in 3-5yr cycles. Mark questioned the strategy recognising that so many businesses were brilliant businesses so why not keep them for longer. With that strategy he founded Constellation in 1996 and its turnover is now over $3billion.

When Harris first approached me, they told me that when they acquire businesses, they keep them for life, and it would run as its own business unit. Keep the OneFile brand, keep the products, own budget and business decisions. The biggest ‘control’ was that you have to honour the Constellation values which  first and foremost included respect the individual. Their values really resounded with me having created the values driven culture at OneFile.

It all sounded too good to be true. But when we spoke to other business units that Harris had acquired, they all reflected the autonomy and the values that had been sold to me.  I knew that was what I wanted for OneFile and the team. It would give them the stability of a long-term home and the support of a values driven organisation with all the expertise and resource that comes with a much larger company.

What is your role going to be moving forward?

Harris gave me the option of staying on and leading OneFile. However, a year ago we recruited Sue Thexton as our Chief Revenue Officer. Sue has an incredible background which includes introducing Adobe in the UK from her kitchen table and growing it to $20m. Subsequently, she joined Macromedia where she grew revenues significantly to $120m as well as managing sales for Telensa (IoT) and Brightcove (video platform). Sue has won the respect of everyone at OneFile since joining, her business acumen is to be envied and leads with integrity, courage and compassion.

Everyone jokes that OneFile is my baby – but it really is. I founded the company, I have nurtured it and spent many, many sleepless nights over it. I shared with the team when I announced what was happening – that a good mother knows when it is time to let go and give their child the independence it needs to flourish. Now is that time. I could stay on and lead OneFile into the next stage, but I would be doing it for the wrong reasons. By handing over the baton to Sue with the support of Harris, I am giving OneFile and the team opportunities that we could only dream of previously.

Sue has asked me to remain as founder/ambassador which I am absolutely honoured to do – to keep shouting about the amazing work OneFile does and keep banging the apprenticeship sector drum.

Why are you so passionate about the apprenticeship sector?

It has never been just about creating software for me.  The apprenticeship sector provides a real, viable, alternative pathway for education and careers. A pathway that was never shared with me at school, yet which would have been a much better option for how I prefer to learn. Even now, decades later, not enough schools share the benefits of apprenticeships, which means parents don’t know about them either. I have friends contacting me to ask me about apprenticeships because their kids’ schools aren’t telling them.

This needs to change.

What are the key developments currently in the Ed-Tech space?

Changing technology means that augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are really gaining ground. These technoloies provide opportunities to experience environments which might be difficult to train in. For example, engineering training whilst at the top of a wind turbine. Without having ever been up that high you don’t know how a student will react. This way it can be experienced without the initial risk.  Artificial intelligence (AI) is also starting to gain traction. Creating a learner journey based on experiences of previous learners and results.

Sometimes, it feels like AI is bandied around as a new buzz word and behind it is not true AI. There should be a stronger understanding of the value it brings and why it is being used. And also, how the ‘intelligence’ has been created. Without diversity of data being used to create the AI then there is a danger that the results are skewed but no one questions it as it is ‘AI’.

An example of this is in recruitment. A recruitment agency was not seeing a diverse workforce being created and wanted to increase diversity of shortlists. They created an AI solution to take the element of human unconscious bias out of the process.  1000s of successful CVs were fed into the AI to identify what a successful CV would look like.  When the AI started to identify individuals for shortlist based on the successful CVs – the shortlists were still white men. When the reasons for why was investigated – it was because all the successful CVs which had been input into the AI were from successful white, male candidates, therefore the AI looked for similar kinds of experiences to identify who to interview.

How has covid effected the industry over the past 18 months?

Although the impact of Covid has been terrible in so many ways, Covid actually accelerated so many businesses’ digital strategy by around 3yrs due to the necessity for the majority of people to study and work from home. This has in effect meant we have seen an increase in adoption of technologies including those supplied by OneFile.  We have seen more companies looking to spend more time training their staff and therefore looking to use technology to support this. Many OneFile customers implemented features that had always been available and will continue with a more blended approach moving forward. In addition, the government has continued to invest in apprentices and training schemes as part of their overall support for the sector.

Where do you see the industry in the next 10 years?

Goodness, look how far we have come in the LAST 10yrs. When we first launched OneFile – one of the biggest obstacles was students didn’t have access to the internet. Now almost everyone has a computer in their back pocket.

I expect to see that AR and VR will play a dominate role in students’ experiences. Being able to virtually walk around environments like a submarine or working at heights without actually having to be there.

As new jobs are created that we don’t even know about yet – education institutions need to move at an accelerated speed to keep up. How do you have enough lecturers and assessors teaching for roles that are new? Teaching and understanding transferable skills is also essential.  I envisage that employers will continue to take the driving seat for their teams of the future. No longer are employers looking only for technical acumen – but they expect employees to have the right values and behaviours for their workplace too.

And of course, OneFile. OneFile will then be a global market leader in learning and development, and I will be able to say – I founded that!

Susanna Lawson, OneFile Founder & apprenticeship sector specialist

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