Education has the power to improve both individual and community well-being, helping regions become more competitive economically, reduce poverty, and support democratic activities. Yet even though the UN has identified universal primary education as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, approximately 61 million school-age children are not enrolled. An additional 71 million are not enrolled in secondary school.
Western Union has 510,000 agent locations in 200 countries and territories, reaching tens of millions of customers worldwide. Many are un-/under-banked and live in the communities where education is a particular challenge. Western Union asked BSR to help design and facilitate a process that would allow the company to engage with external experts to identify solutions for educational needs that also could potentially grow its business.
To gain an understanding of the education challenges and identify opportunities for Western Union to fill the gap through its products, services, and global reach, BSR facilitated a strategy summit that gathered external education experts and key Western Union leaders.
Based on our original research and drawing on BSR’s deep experience in stakeholder engagement, we identified external thought leaders and designed a workshop that allowed for open dialogue, rapid knowledge sharing, innovative brainstorming, and the prioritization of new business ideas that could be translated into action immediately after the workshop.
The workshop brought together 10 Western Union senior executives, who had direct leadership of key business lines or regions, with nine external stakeholders from global NGOs, development organizations, and other companies. The preparation and structure allowed for business representatives to learn from the external participants about education challenges, and for the external representatives to share their expertise with Western Union, a company that remains positioned to make a difference.
This innovative format allowed Western Union to identify and evaluate new business ideas, and the participation of senior executives ensured that the new ideas could be implemented. The format also helped Western Union engage external thought leaders in a strategic way—a rare example of a company bringing in issue experts as part of product development.
The summit generated 20 new product and services ideas—including direct payment of teachers, restricted-use money transfers for school fees, and adult education via new mobile products. The company began to partner with a third-party organization to test its first priority concept in key markets less than five months after the workshop. Just 10 months after the summit, Western Union shifted its cause marketing focus toward this issue. In September 2012, Western Union’s “Education for Better” program was announced on the floor of the United Nations.
The event also confirmed the value of this type of engagement for Western Union. It improved the company’s reputation among stakeholders who were impressed with the company’s commitment and transparency. And, by generating tangible new business ideas, the process also demonstrated the business benefits of this approach to senior company leaders.
As Thor Hauge, Vice President, Business Development, Western Union Ventures put it, “I’ve been to many brainstorming sessions that have lasted weeks. We accomplished more in eight hours than any of those sessions.”
Western Union is now planning a second event of this kind to explore this model for future product development.
Too often, stakeholder engagement focuses solely on gathering feedback. But this innovative model—which included clear objectives for tangible outcomes and involvement of senior leaders from key geographies and business units—allowed Western Union to co-create solutions with stakeholders. Additionally, by starting with a social need, the company was able to identify new opportunities that had not surfaced through traditional models of product development.
The risks Western Union takes in being more transparent, and engaging with external experts, pay off with opportunities for creating business value and directly addressing social and environmental needs globally.