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Universities and small businesses have much to offer each other – but can’t always see beyond their own biases - according to a new report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
The report outlines findings from a series of projects supported through the UK Futures Programme, testing how local ‘anchor institutions’, such as universities, can use their expertise and influence to develop leadership and entrepreneurship skills in small businesses.
Researchers found that universities in particular have been put off developing offers for small firms because of a bias that it is a difficult market to serve with varying needs. The writer’s of the report argue that this bias needs to be challenged as anchor organisations, such as universities, stand to benefit greatly by getting involved with SMEs.
- Gaining opportunities to tackle local skills issues and tailoring programmes to meet the needs of the local economy.
- Developing relationships with new partners that support the evolving devolution agenda
- Entering an additional market for trading expertise among small, ambitious businesses.
Elaine Hooker, at Teesside University said “‘Leading Roles’ was our most popular session with the most favourable feedback from businesses. It was a performance masterclass which uses theatre and drama to explore key issues in leadership and management. The group were able to share knowledge and experience in a creative and professionally structured context and expand their range of skills in: emotional intelligence and rapport, effective and inspired communication and self-presentation, handling conflict, sensitive issues and difficult conversations. I think they were surprised that as a university we taught in that way, but universities have long since taken on board that there are many different learning techniques, we need to get that message out more widely.”
On the flip side researchers found that some small businesses have their own biases about universities and are wary of the academic learning styles they believe universities offer. Universities in the commission’s programme fought back by delivering essential management skills through ‘hands-on’ learning methods. Teesside University brought in a range of partners to help deliver their leadership programme to small firms in the area, including the Drama Department.
Graham Hartley, Managing Director, Siemens Power Generation said “The SME community both nationally and locally is key to sustainable economic growth for the region and the UK, and the need to continue to develop the skills base and enhance management skills in this area is vital. As Chair of the Captured steering group, I have seen fantastic benefits for the businesses and managers who have participated. This is something Siemens is keen to support in the long term and we look forward to working with Newcastle University Business School in the future.”
The report highlights a series of characteristics that successful anchor institutions display in order to reach out to small businesses and to successfully develop their leadership skills:
- Partnerships that draw on the strengths of different local organisations, add more to the sum of their parts.
- Projects that were delivered by a range of partnerships, including between Causeway Enterprise Agency, the local Council and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland; and between Newcastle University Business School and large employers with a strong presence in the area. The profile of these organisations usually attracted small firms because they had a good reputation or could offer access to other services, such as Innovation Advisers that were offered in Teesside University’s project.
- Offering a structured but flexible learning programme, responsive to busy small businesses.
The report found that successful partnerships were built on established relationships, mutual interest and time commitment. Where personal relationships already existed, and organisational interests were aligned, partnerships got off to a smoother start.
Julie Kenny CBE, UKCES Commissioner says “It’s great to see so many organisations finding new ways of engaging small businesses and breaking down the barriers. I was encouraged to see different types of organisation come forward to take up our challenge and what they have all shown us is that there is no ‘one size fits all’.” Julie went on to say “I am really excited to share these findings with my Local Enterprise Partnership and more widely. There is a huge potential for anchor institutions to work together, overcome barriers and biases and develop management skills in local small businesses. The report published today highlights that potential and shows how it can be reached.”