I’m back in the UK for a while and, inspired by the tales of the many struggling businesses in my local area, I’m trying to do my thing for SMEs .  I say “trying”, because, as my Granny used to say “You can’t help folks who won’t be helped”.

Most “small businesses” are small because they haven’t got what it takes to be big.  The deficiencies come in many forms and span all areas of business from lack of key skills like financial, operational management and marketing, to just being plain crap at what you do.  In a normal buoyant market there may be hope for even the least capable, but as conditions are now, if you aren’t sharp you won’t get to play.  As I have said before, this is a good thing.  Its the process of natural selection and we should come out of this experience, as a business community, smarter and better equipped.  However, I have my concerns.

Its no disgrace for an SME to lack a few key management skills.  If you are small, you are bound to be wanting in one area or another, its just a matter of where your strengths lie and what you do about your weaknesses that determines your destiny – that’s marketing.  My worries are two-fold.  Firstly, the natural instinct of far too many organisations in recent months has prompted an alarming HR trend and secondly, the support system for SMEs in the UK is failing miserably – and I’m not talking about the banks who seem hell-bent on some wild agenda to bring down the UK SME sector.

The HR trend I refer to is for firms to off-load senior people in pursuit of short-term payroll savings.  Its may seem an obvious quick-fix, but as I thought we all knew already, it brings only very short term benefit and beyond that its nothing more than the beginning of the end.   It affects organisations large and small in the same way, but simply because small businesses are less robust the effect it has on them is more often terminal.  Taking away managers (provided they are worthy of the title) from any organisation is like removing the rudder and the end result is invariably crash and burn.

In a similar way, organisations that think they are being smart by taking the Arsenal FC approach to business – hiring young inexperienced players and attempting to turn them into key strikers – are on a hiding to nothing too.  Inexperienced staff suck up key management time, involving them in micro-management that leaves them unavailable to perform their main leadership and innovation role.  It is also a customer satisfaction and operational efficiency nightmare that in times like these you just can’t afford.

To make matters worse, there’s nowhere for a UK SME that is short of management know-how, to go for help.  Years ago, a UK government initiative saw the foundation of an organisation called Business Link.  Basically, this was a joint-venture between the public and private sectors that was supposed to bring management skills to SMEs through a network of local consultancies.  Now, I have to put my hands up here and say that if I had my way they’d all be closed down and I bet nobody would even notice – apart from the exchequer who would immediately have a shed-load of cash to do something useful with.  Without exception, every SME that I have encountered, that has had any dealing with this bunch have nothing but disdain for them.  From what I have seen and experienced over the years they fail absolutely to operate as a network, they have no understanding of the realities of business and their methods are both outmoded and inflexible.  If ever there was a depository for no-hope graduates, with lots of meaningless qualifications and absolutely no grasp of reality, its Business Link – a typical public sector organisation in fact.  Anyway, rant aside, expecting Business Link to lead your SME out of recession is on a par with expecting Gordon Brown to win a personality contest – It ain’t going to happen!

Against this background I have been trying to get local politicians, government departments and business groups to consider ways of addressing some of these problems.  For example, most of the smart senior managers who have been victims of business cut-backs in recent months are still on the dole.  The managers with the very skills and experience that SMEs need right now are being paid (albeit a pitiful amount) to watch daytime TV and most of them are resigned to this reality for the rest of their lives.  That’s a fact supported by today’s unemployment figures and under-lined by a live phone-in on the BBC’s Radio Five Live this morning.    I approached one of the organisations employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to deliver Back to Work programmes for unemployed managers with the idea of devising a programme that would bring the need and the resource together and taking it to the DWP to seek funding.  It was like trying to raise the dead!  Rather than apply their minds to making something happen their every effort went into thinking of reasons why it wouldn’t work.  Just the kind of positive thinking we need to get us out of this mess!

I asked my local Tory candidate to help me get something going with the DWP and JobCentres, but got no reply.  I even offered free advice to a local trading group and received no reply to that either.  I approached the local paper and an independent employment agency with the idea of running a seminar for local managers of SMEs and neither were interested.

My mailing to a sample one-hundred local businesses offering them a free consultation that could get them thinking in the right direction had no takers and my follow-up calls revealed that they had mostly been approached by Business Link who failed them miserably and once bitten were put off the idea of consultants forever.

Its sad that our SMEs – our commercial future – are stuck like rabbits in a car’s headlights, while Theresa May the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and the Employment Minister Jim Knight, who together have solutions to some of these problems in their gift, bitch about minutia and argue out party politics on national radio.  The inability to run a piss-up in a brewery is endemic in our society and clearly, it goes right to the top!  Maybe we should recruit our next government from the ranks of our unemployed managers?  Now there’s a thought!

Michael Weaver
February 17, 2010

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