Wednesday, July 26, 2017

the best national business support policy may be no policy at all...?


I recently found myself on an 'expert panel' at a forum convened by ISBE (the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship) on the future of business support policy in the UK, as part of their ongoing conversation into informing and shaping what a new national policy should be.







(OK - to clarify, I was technically there as Leigh Sear of SFEDI and the IOEE, but as he'd been called away overseas, he asked me to fill in for him, hence the confusion of my having 2 names at the forum.)



And while I shared various stories and approaches to business support with those present, I thought it might also be useful to capture here some of the other speakers' arguments and discussions with those in the room that stuck with me, as well as some of what I took away that I'm still mulling over, and that will likely also inform my own ongoing activity in this field:






The definitions debate
With the almost fetishism of high growth in business support policy, it seems that the definition of what constitutes 'high growth' may be too exclusive in excluding many businesses who are seeing significant increases in revenues, but aren't matching this with creating lots of direct employment opportunities (such as software firms, and something that will be be increasingly the norm with the rise of the 'gig economy').
As a result, many businesses who have the potential to contribute greatly to our economy are being sidelined and overlooked - surely to our cost...?

Not a 'bottomless well' (of growth)
It also seems that business growth isn't something that can be sustained - various data sets shared by the ERC(https://www.enterpriseresearch.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/ERC-InsightPap-HartDanes.pdf) all indicate that firms can only experience grow for about their first 5 years, and then all mature and plateau; so if policy is to prioritise support for growth, we need to be more open and honest in recognising that businesses are only able to do so for a time limited period.

Measures of success
There seemed to be a general consensus that we need to use more that just financial measures to consider success in business growth - and that these should reflect the aspirations and motivations of the entrepreneurs and owners behind the businesses.
However, I've an idea that whatever these measures are should share the same characteristics as metrics in financial accounts: that they can be bench-marked externally to help us better consider how we compare and contrast with others to fully appreciate just how successful we really are, and that they can be aggregated to form data sets and evidence bases to allow us to better represent and lobby on their behalf.

Whose benefit is policy actually for?
Discussions around the different players active in the business support arena raised a question about who business support should be for, and who should be paying for it. Public policy should take a utilitarian approach, facilitating and enabling the most benefit for the most people, and in the real world, this means that the State can't appease everyone, or provide for all business types and needs (hence it's prioritising of high growth over sole traders as it believes this will create the most impact for more people).
However, we're seeing private firms starting to offer accelerator and incubator programmes, and also sponsor others' enterprise development and growth initiatives. So rather than try and create a single public policy that will encompass everyone, should we rather be taking an approach that uses simpler policy frameworks around different themes and types of enterprise/entrepreneur; better recognising that in some instances the private sector is better placed, and should be leading on elements of support?

The rationale (and risks) for enterprise education to be a recognised part of business support
There seemed to be agreement that any role Universities hold in delivering any policy around business support needs to include elements of enterprise education, and while there are good reasons for this, there are also some risks too - 
  • teaching and encouraging entrepreneurship amongst students increases their future employability by developing skills that employers value
  • degree apprenticeships creates opportunities for universities to capitalise on their role as a provider of learning, but there's no clear models for how Universities might best harness this new model (yet...)
  • there's a risk that in some universities having linked their offer of enterprise support to that of national policy, many student startups are being 'lost' or 'fail to launch' as the University is too focused on encouraging high growth and Intellectual Property-based ventures
  • with the rise of corporates taking active roles in offering business support (including where there may not be an immediately obvious business case for them to do so), there's a need for Universities to better co-ordinate their offer with these to capitalise on knowledge and expertise that both are developing - but tellingly, there was no presence from any such corporates at the Forum...

The holy grail: creating a pipeline of support for startup to high growth
Within any national policy that emerges, there will need be a recognition that encouraging new startups is just as important as supporting growth in existing businesses - but that its also difficult to ensure that this progression is smooth or able to be well managed. This is largely because of not only the sheer diversity of different business types and motivations, but also the plethora of support available to them at different stages and in different sectors.
In theory, Local Economic Partnerships should be well placed to better co-ordinate these support offers to maximise their potential for wider benefit, but the experience of many seems to be that owing to the governance models of LEPs not being inclusive or transparent enough, that such knowledge and co-ordination which could unlock the potential of many firms, isn't happening.


If we can only do one thing...

As a closing to the panel debate, a few straw polls were taken of people in the room, asking for shows of hands to gauge what the focus of national policy should be if it could only focus on one thing: more start-ups, or more scale-ups.

(Personally, I'm in favour of more start-ups: they create and encourage more diversity and choice in an ever-changing society; help us develop more resilience; and research shows that the larger firms tend not to stick around that long anyway - the FTSE100 has a churn rate of about 10% each year!)


Overwhelming the room voted in favour of more start-ups.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

social value - more impact or more talk? (reflections from Social Value 17)

Part of my approach to my CPD is to tweet from events I attend to capture my thoughts and reflections from them, and then subsequently turn to my blog to try and crystallise my learning from them, and what difference it will subsequently make in how I support clients in the future - and my attending Social Value 17 is no exception...

The conference is one of a series of events that Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humber stage throughout the year, in response to interests expressed by its member social enterprises in the region. It was designed to look at how social value is being introduced into the sector and public commissioning, and subsequently, how social enterprises might better approach identifying and reporting their impact to aid in their winning public sector contracts.
And against that agenda, I personally found it to be something of a mixed bag (as anyone who was following my tweets on the day would have likely already surmised...)

Having now 'slept on it', I think my overall impressions remain what I left with on the day:

  • probably a bit too much of being 'talked at', rather than sharing stories and facilitated networking (if you do a picture search on twitter for the events' hashtag, all the images are of people holding a microphone and standing in front of a powerpoint screen)
  • there wasn't really much given by way of reason as to why as a sector we should be getting more serious about reporting our impact, beyond the fact that some public sector commissioners are starting to write it into their tender specifications - but in my experience, this is usually the weakest (and least relevant for most) reason...
  • given that the main focus of the event was on how social value strengthens the commissioning of public services, a conspicuous absence of anyone from any health bodies
  • a lot of gaps with regards to practicalities for attending enterprises and charities to be able to follow up on to support themselves with identifying and starting to report their social impact (Social Value UK's free webinar series, the Global Value Exchange set of standardised outcome indicators, and the Inspiring Impact self-help resources to name but 3 that no one made any references to...)
but there were also some moments that were encouraging:
  • the open recognition that most private companies are shaming the sector in being able to better report impact than many local social enterprises and charities can
  • in the workshop, hearing local commissioners share some of their frustrations and hopes for social value commissioning, (and being open to learning from previous strategies and directives from the last 15 years that I shared with them)
What I also noticed is that despite this being an event about social value, there were very few examples of impact reports on show (with the exception of the 3 social investment bodies present - Key Fund, Charity Bank, and Unity Bank) - but I also took a handful of copies of mine and left out on the tables, and all of which were taken with interest and enthusiasm when people realised what they were...


So - overall, a disappointing day in terms of being able to learn anything new that I didn't already know (and in fact, it turning out that I knew more than some of the keynote speakers during opportunities for questions I put to them, and the number of people subsequently approaching me after the formal event to the conference...), but also encouraging to see that commissioners are becoming more open and wanting to progress the debate and discussion. And also useful in helping me better understand the messages that clients I work with are being exposed to, in being able to better structure and direct my support for their future benefit.

What I also took away from the day was that there's also more appetite to be open in taking about when we make mistakes, recognising that there's great value in the learning we can all benefit from through such openness (however embarrassing and fearful we might feel in admitting it...)




Sunday, July 9, 2017

another example of how the private sector continues to stay ahead of the curve (and also ahead of charities and social enterprises...)

A lot of work I do is in support of the wider church of co-ops, social enterprises, charities, and public sector mutuals - but from time to time, I do also with privately owned ('traditional') businesses;

And something that continues to strike me is just how often the social/third sector presents itself as a paragon of virtue and practice in comparison with private business, when in my experience, private businesses are actually doing a better job of being transparent, creating impact, and living the values that social ventures espouse, but seem to struggle to actually do...
Case in point - Mcdonalds, Puma, and City-based pension fund managers to name but a few.

And the latest in this list is the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber of Commerce has recently published the findings of its regular evaluation of its Board. which reflects on how capable its members are in discharging their role, and how well its performs. How many charities or other social sector bodies do you know of who are so transparent in how competent their Board are?

Monday, July 3, 2017

why it's a good thing for some of my clients I don't fully follow the example of Jesus...

As someone who professes a Christian faith, I've always tried to reflect the values and dogma that comes with that in everything I approach (including my work). And over the years, I've started to explore this further in some of the posts here on my blog.

But recently it struck me that as much as many might argue we should follow the example of Jesus in all we do, I don't think I can, at least, not in everything...

I was recently asked as part of a church service to briefly speak about an aspect of my work that I struggle with, and I chose to relate some stories about when and how clients pay me. 
I shared that there's an ongoing balance I need to strike between showing grace in those instances where I know a client may come to struggle to pay me what they owe me owing to changing circumstances, and so I might choose to forgive their debt to me; but that I also need to ensure I'm encouraging people to be accountable and pay what they owe where they can (after all, I too have bills to pay, and commitments to honour).

And it got me thinking about a slogan that was popularised in parts of the Christian church a few years back - "What Would Jesus Do?", and I realised that some of my clients whom I chose to take a more formal line with with regards to payment of my invoices would probably be relieved that I don't fully follow Jesus' example where he came across traders who were being disrespectful...




Friday, June 9, 2017

bank holiday mondays?

time to bust another of the romantic images about freelancers and the self-employed...

some may recall that in some of my previous posts on this blog, I've shared some of the uncomfortable truths about how difficult and challenging it really is to be a 'digital nomad', the pressures being self-employed can place on relationships with family and friends, and such like.

This time, it's the turn of Bank Holidays - you know, those occasional days in the year when everyone seems to be talking about looking forward to taking time off work, having lie ins, spending more time in the pub...

But for many of us who are self-employed/freelance, it's just another day (albeit one where the phone doesn't ring quite so much, and there are a few less emails received in our inboxes). 

Don't believe me? Check out this tweet I posted on the last BH Monday:
https://twitter.com/AdrianAshton2/status/869092338567716864 
It's been one of my more popular tweets, with well in excess of 2,000 impressions, over 50 engagements, and a lot of responses from people sharing that they'd rather not be working either.


Freelancing and self-employment can be very rewarding in lots of ways. It can also be really hard in lots of ways that people don't seem to want to tell you about... I'm not saying you shouldn't do it - just go into it with your eyes wide open...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

compared to what..?

There are lots of reasons banded about why we should try and be capturing and reporting the social impact/value of our enterprises - and that's not just something which is confined to the social enterprise or charity world: the private sector have been pioneering a lot of clever approaches to it to over recent years as well (Puma's environmental Profit & Loss, the international impact accounting standard, and McDonald's own infographics to name but a few...)

However, one of the key questions that any impact or outcomes reporting should answer is "so what?" - what difference has achieving this reduction, or engaging that number of people, made? But within the context of impact reporting, I think the "so what?" question also needs to be extended to be framed as "compared to what?". If an enterprise reports that it's reduced carbon emissions by 10%, is that good or bad? It might compare itself to its performance last year, but that's not really that objective or honest of a measure - it's surely only when we can compare that 10% to what comparable enterprises have been able to achieve that we can fully appreciate if that's a score to be scoffed at, or to be applauded.
And yet, how many social impact reports seek to reference any external benchmarks or comparisons in presenting their findings?

As ever, I'm not one to suggest something without being willing to try it myself - so this year I've sought to source external benchmarks against my own social impact reporting framework.
And I wanted to see what people thought about this before blogging about it, so published the report via twitter, and various LinkedIN groups, sat back, and waited for a week or two, before sitting down to draft this reflection.

And what the wider world seems to think based on engagements and comments to the post about the report is that while my doing an impact report on myself is a good idea, no-one really engaged or picked up on the fact that I'm starting to benchmark it externally to see if what seems to be a 'good' figure is really good, or if its outstanding instead.

For myself, I think that in finding I'm contributing more in taxes than my counterparts in regular employment is an encouraging sign that I'm still sticking to my principles of wanting to support public services, and my investing more in my ongoing CPD to keep myself 'on top my game' should be a great reassurance to clients (as well as all the awards I seem to keep winning...)

And while it's not perfect by any means (kudos to Liam Black for keeping me grounded as ever with it via his latest tweet), it's surely a start in furthering the conversation and encouragements for things like this to become more commonplace and therefore useful in helping us make better informed decisions about how we're approaching trying to make the changes in the community / society / world we seek to? 






Friday, May 19, 2017

not just for a Sunday..?

While I've never been an 'in your face' type of person when it comes to my personal faith and beliefs, I've never made a secret of them (one of my first ever blogs talked about how I try and reflect my faith in how I approach my work with clients).

And its always seemed to me that as a society, we seem to have a cultural norm of handling 'faith' and 'work' as two separate spheres: 99% of all the church sermons and teachings I've exposed myself to over the years have never offered me any direction in helping me reflect on how my faith should inform my work, and various special interest theological journals and groups that I subscribe to seem to take as their starting point that you're a middle-manager or business owner. But an awful lot of us out here are self-employed and freelancers...

However, I was inspired to take this pic of a wall hanging at St Peters Church in Walsden, where I recently attending their service as the guest of my oldest son who attends there regularly. And then I shared it on my various social media channels as it's very rare that I see such examples of an explicit recognition and encouragement of how God is present in all things - not just the Sundays, or in the 'green and pleasant lands'... As such, I wanted to celebrate this, and social media seemed the easiest way to do that.

And I was greatly encouraged by the responses - it's become one of my more popular posts; to date:


Instagram - over 100 impressions
Twitter - nearly 350 impressions
LinkedIn - over 1,000 views (and a dozen likes)

all of which seems to suggest to me that as a community of businesses, entrepreneurs, and freelancers we're also hungry to explore how we better connect our faith and belief with our work.

So in the great tradition of all the best teachers through history, I'm not going to leave you with what we do about this, or try and draw some deep mystical meaning, but instead invite you to continue the discussion below in the comments to this blog, on instagram, twitter, and LinkedIn...