This blog is authored by Dr Mark Gilman, Professor of SME Growth and Development at Birmingham City Business School and Head of the Centre for Enterprise, Innovation and Growth.
I consider myself very lucky. After leaving school and pursuing a great career working in the manufacturing and engineering industries, I was bitten by the adult education bug and decided to go to university to do a degree, followed by a Masters and a PhD. Then I moved into academic research.
I’m fortunate because I got the chance to find out just how vital the two worlds of industry and academia are to one another. However, what this also showed me was that while much of the research from academia is great, it often ends up sitting on library shelves and doesn’t get put to good use. That’s such a waste.
It would be very natural for a SME owner or manager to think that stepping into the world of academia was going to drain their precious time and take their focus off the business. Having come from a very practical background myself, I fully understand these perceptions, and that’s why I have made it my job to focus on research that can be applied to real world business problems and moreover, help specific businesses to grow.
This kind of work is precisely what I spend my time doing at Birmingham City University – an institution fully behind delivering practise-based research that has a real-world business impact, rather than paying lip service to it.
Why are most SMEs challenged by growth?
Growth is on most SME’s agendas, but from my experience, the vast majority don’t feel that they are meeting these aspirations. They have great ideas and their people work extremely hard but after several years they gain a sense that they just aren’t progressing at the pace they’d like. There are a number of key reasons:
- ‘Strategising’ properly and sufficiently – Be honest, strategy can be brushed off as a bit meaningless, but done properly it is extremely powerful. Without it, how does any business know where they are going and how they are going to get there? In truth it’s often “in our heads.” Strategy should be underpinned by research.
- Understanding supply chain positioning – I’ve found that many SMEs don’t appreciate where they sit in an industry’s supply chain and how that position could impact their success. This is critical to understanding upstream and downstream pressures. Research, to take better advantage of this position or what can be done to improve it, is often key to an effective growth strategy.
- Use of performance metrics – ‘Gut feel’ is often relied upon to determine how successful a business is. But sometimes what looks like success on the surface hides issues that go unchecked and in the long term will stifle growth. Productivity, profitability, risks, customer and employee satisfaction are all areas where performance metrics can be used to highlight current issues as well as those on the horizon.
- Developing the right skills – Owner managers are passionate about the products and services that they have developed, but that doesn’t make them good managers or leaders. That’s not to say they never will be, but they may need to invest in acquiring strong business management skills.
Growth is complex and the means of achieving it are specific to each business. Our research helps businesses get to grips with what they have got to fix and put in place today, to see turnover and profit increase in the future.
Overcoming the challenge
While a SME is a microcosm of activity and energy, often an external catalyst is needed to trigger the reactions and changes that make growth happen. This is where applied academic research, such as what we’re delivering to Birmingham and the West Midlands at Birmingham City University, comes into play.
Over the last few years we have been busy collecting data from the region as well as internationally, to understand what can help SMEs grow. This research is openly available to any SME out there keen to engage with our business growth services.
Recently we have been examining the nature of ‘networks’ in their broadest sense and their role in helping a business to develop. Networks have always been important to business people but digital and social media developments mean the opportunities to use networks in different ways are constantly evolving. We want to help businesses take advantage of this.
We’re also in the midst of research into what effects Brexit will have on small businesses in the region and UK. This will hopefully be a vital resource that SMEs can use to not only steer a successful course through this period of major change but also take advantage of it.
How SMEs benefit from working with us
Our research work now also underpins a number of specific Birmingham City University services and interventions that SMEs can easily access. To name a few:
- Growing You – a SME mentoring programme involving five half-day sessions that guide business owners through specific growth-related problems and challenges they face. Areas include how to strategise, better employee engagement and how to exploit your supply chain position.
- Enterprise for Success – another growth focused programme where we work with SMEs to determine a specific intervention where they want or need help, then providing access to relevant resources and workshops.
- Innovation vouchers – a great way for SMEs to apply innovation to their business growth plans through a series of workshops focused on strategy, marketing and finance.
- SME Growth Service – Simply complete our business diagnostic questionnaire for us to help you better understand your SME’s growth challenges and opportunities. Your results will ensure you gain access to the specific support your SME needs, including bespoke business consultancy, funding opportunities, training, workshops and more.
It can be difficult for any SME owner manager to adjust their sights away from the challenges they face each day, but it is essential to do so for long term growth. SMEs working with external support at Birmingham City University have found that the knowledge that our applied research is giving them is delivering both top and bottom line improvements.
Dr Mark Gilman is Professor of SME Growth and Development at Birmingham City Business School and Head of the Centre for Enterprise, Innovation and Growth. He has worked in industry and academia for the last 40 years engaging with businesses of all sizes including Boots plc, Barclays Bank, British Airways and a number of public sector organisations. More recently he has been impacting the growth of over 500 SMEs through research and coaching interventions for ambitious business owners.
Find out how our growth programmes can help you…