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Colin Campbell - Assist Social Capital

The future of human resources?…

Colin Campbell - Assist Social Capital

The future of human resources?

Developing software to understand how groups such as disabled people living in Glasgow interact with each other and the wider community may have profound implications for the corporate world, helping multinationals unlock the potential of their workforce and improve productivity – if Colin Campbell and his team have got their sums right...

Maybe social enterprises are becoming more “businesslike”, or the corporate world is becoming more “social,” but Colin Campbell would argue that both sectors have much in common and can certainly learn from each other.

The social enterprise sector is also a significant and fast-expanding part of the economy, as well as doing lots of good for the community. According to the European Commission, not-for-profit organisations now account for about 10% of businesses in Europe, with two million social enterprises employing an estimated 11 million people or 6% of the workforce. And according to Campbell, the Founder and Executive Director of Assist Social Capital (ASC), a new cloud-based analytical tool developed by his company which measures “social capital” in not-for-profit organisations, could have a similar impact in the profit-driven world of multinational business, transforming their corporate structures and how employees work with each other in increasingly collaborative networks.

After 14 years establishing his company in Edinburgh and then developing the software, Campbell is now on the verge of a new phase of business, seeking investment to translate the work he’s been doing in the voluntary sector to the corporate sector. In the process, he also wants to help social enterprises, charities and environmentalists to sharpen their “competitive edge” – articulating what they are trying to do, measuring their impact, raising funds and lobbying for policy changes.

Campbell has always had an interest in the third sector, and when he returned to Scotland after eight years in Spain, where he taught business English, he spent eight years working at Senscot (the Social Entrepreneurs Network Scotland), setting up and supporting peer-support networks for active social entrepreneurs across Scotland. At one time, says Colin, he was probably the “most-connected” person in the sector, active in 23 social enterprise networks (SENs), run by social enterprises for social enterprises, meeting every 6–8 weeks to exchange ideas and learn from each other. Each SEN was conceived as a “chamber of commerce,” based on geography or sector – e.g., health, sport and tourism – and Campbell learned along the way that the main challenge faced by the organisations involved was to demonstrate impact, and that meant gathering and analysing data to make sense of the very different activities of different groups. In simple terms, potential funders want to know why you need money, how you will spend it and whether it was well spent, and if you can evaluate your impact, your story has greater appeal.

As a graduate in chemistry, biology and business management with a passion for progressive social causes and a personal experience of developing social networks, Campbell felt that he had something different to offer the sector – and also recognised the need to take advantage of technology. “A lot of charities and social enterprises were doing brilliant work, but many of the people behind them were just burning out,” he explains, “because of a shortage of funding and human resources.” Having been a fund raiser prior to working for Senscot, Campbell also had first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by these organisations when it came to demonstrating their impact. “There’s an art to raising funds,” adds Campbell, “but technology also has a major role to play.”

What was needed, says Campbell, was a new benchmarking methodology, based on the principles of understanding social capital (see box). He also recognised the need to translate academic research into practical, easy-to-understand tools which would benefit organisations by telling their stories in terms of real impact.

“It’s all about relationships,” Campbell explains. “Without relationships and collaboration, you can't deliver benefits. The challenge is to turn crowds into communities, in the knowledge that people and organisations achieve more via networks than through centralisation, by learning from each other and sharing ideas, as well as joining forces to lobby for policy changes. And the social capital generated by collaborative networks is the operating platform of any community, enabling them to add up to more than the sum of their parts.”

The business

Campbell set up ASC in 2004, but monetising its activities was a challenge at that time and the company initially focused on organising an annual conference called the Social Capital World Forum, working with a partner based in Austria. “I would have gone anywhere in the world to pursue this,” says Campbell. In the early days, he also had support from an organisation called Scotland UnLtd, which funded social entrepreneurs, to develop the methodology. One of the first projects ASC worked on was a report for the Scottish Government, focusing on the “return on investment” of social enterprises supported by Scotland UnLtd, so they could improve their operational efficiency and draw up a long-term future strategy.

“At that time, few people were using the phrase social capital,” Campbell explains, “but when I Googled it, I noticed there were two million hits, so I knew there must be something worth exploring.”

For Campbell, quick to spot an opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship, the first few years were not a walk in the park, but along the way he learned a lot of lessons. Early on, he also saw a chance to build a bridge between academic research and the practical challenges faced by social enterprises.

The technology

The concept behind Campbell's software revolves around what he calls “the six indicators,” which he compares to strands of DNA – all of us have a unique blend of characteristics which makes us individual, just like any organisation.

According to Campbell, social capital is divided into “structural social capital” and “cognitive social capital.” The structural aspect is all about bonds, links and bridges (see sidebar on previous page), whilst the cognitive aspect is all about trust, reciprocity and shared understanding. And when you analyse these characteristics, you gain insights into any situation where people collaborate as part of networks.

By analysing the Social Enterprise Networks1, to “make the intangible visible,” ASC has also found that roughly 55% of social capital comes from the bonds between peer groups, 29% from the bridges with outside organisations and 16% from the links formed with policy makers and funders. And by being part of an SEN, individual organisations have opportunities to increase their connectivity by up to 900%, says Campbell – and this is how they leverage their social capital.

Campbell is quick to point out what the ultimate aim is: “We don't change what they do, but we do provide evidence which they can use to benefit the organisation – e.g., to raise funds or argue for policy changes.” Nowadays, no matter how important you may think your cause is, it’s accountants who look at the numbers, says Campbell, but you also have to make your data easy to understand – using visual aids, for example.

The Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA) is a good example of the ASC methodology in action, and a model of how an organisation can change our communities for the better through the power of networks to improve its effectiveness and access new investment. With 3,000 members, the challenge for GDA is to raise funds by explaining its purpose and what it is doing. By studying the GDA network, ASC found that the connections between the disabled people who make up its membership were on a par with most adults in the UK, despite the extra barriers they normally face – with an average of 150 connections for each of the disabled people surveyed, including more than ten close connections. There are strong bonds between people and very high levels of trust, and this has empowered the members to lobby for policy changes, using methods that Campbell describes as “hard-hitting but done with great humour.” When raising funds, he adds, you have to be more innovative than ever, and by joining their forces, the GDA members have come up with brilliant ideas.

Seeking investment

ASC is now at the stage where it’s seeking investment. “We are becoming an investible organisation, with one solution for the social enterprise and corporate sectors,” says Campbell, who believes it is important to remain independent to develop the software, taking advantage of the latest advances in machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. He also wants to work with people who share the company’s interest in using data for good – as well as for profit – to unlock the potential of employees in various sectors. The company structure has also evolved to prepare for its next phase of growth, changing its status from a charitable company to a community interest company (CIC) limited by guarantee, which is now spinning out the intellectual property (IP) for the evaluation platform into a limited company.

“We have proved the methodology works,” says Campbell. “Our challenge is to find innovative leaders in different sectors who want to unlock the potential in their workplaces through the collaborative advantage and agile working culture we can help them harness. We also want to scale up our business.” The company’s development has also been helped by support from Edinburgh Innovation and the recent RSE Enterprise Fellowship which will fund Campbell for the next year. “The human capital sector is currently worth about $30 billion,” says Campbell, “and also growing 10% a year. That is where we see our long-term future.”

Social capital is growing in importance as a way to analyse workforce performance and help create collaborative networks, and Campbell agrees with the idea that “without social capital, we can’t explain how the economy works.” One study recently claimed that a bank had improved its performance by 13% by analysing its networks to increase engagement and optimise the way that its employees worked together. In Campbell’s view, it’s all about the quality of networks, and that is where the “DNA” of social capital gives organisations the edge.

In the digital world, the trend is now towards more social, fluid and collaborative practices at work, so if ASC delivers results for the likes of Wester Ross Biosphere and GDA, why can’t it do the same for any multinational business where understanding social capital could be the future of human resources?



What is social capital?

The term 'social capital' has been in use for decades, but has become more popular in recent years. It is defined by the OECD as “networks with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.”

Social capital has also been divided into three main categories:

1   Bonds – connections to people based on a sense of common identity (“people like us”) such as family, close friends or members of the same clubs.

2   Bridges – e.g., connections to more distant friends, colleagues and associates outside
of our immediate circles.

3   Links – vertical connections to people or groups with financial or political influence.


What is a social enterprise?

A social enterprise is “an organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in financial, social and environmental well-being.”

According to Assist Social Capital, they have three fundamental characteristics:

1 They trade goods or services to generate income and reinvest any surplus in the organisation.

2 They have social and/or environmental objectives.

3 They aspire to be self sustaining and create employment opportunities.




"Colin Campbell - Assist Social Capital". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-three)
Printed from on 03/07/20 11:05:16 PM

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