Conference Report 2015: Successful engagement with SMEs - what’s the secret?

Gerald Law, Chief Executive of the UK Innovation Forum and Conference Committee member, reports back from the SME engagement session.

The SME engagement session involved lively and stimulating descriptions of three different styles of engagement, from three different sorts of organisation, from three different countries. Aston University's system is strongly embedded into the procedures, with relevant KPIs for all, driven from the top down by a highly motivated, ex-industry, Vice Chancellor.

Using initiatives such as free-to-use coffee lounges, where businesses can work or hold meetings and supported by a full suite of social media campaigns, the university boasts 670 SME engagements on-going, with 600 student interns and a further 300 placements (many through a sandwich element in their course of study). They run a truly impressive 25 different support programmes for the businesses with which they interact.

In a surprising choice, the university only uses a very simple form of CRM, instead running regular meetings for staff members to share information about the companies with which they are working, as they believe that this personal interaction leads to many more fruitful outcomes than simply getting everyone to write things on a software application, that may or may not ever get written. By contrast, the experience in Scotland was that neutrality was essential to winning the trust of SMEs, with the team at Interface taking care not to push university services, but rather seeking to interact with businesses 'likely to be ripe' for support, with all universities given a strict two week period within which to respond to a request for assistance, using standard agreements designed to make life simple for the business. With staff across Scotland working as a single team, they run 180 projects a year, generating £70m of GVA. An interesting example of their linked up way of doing things saw the national ballet being brought together with a university and SME partner to use augmented reality to make for a novel dance experience at the Edinburgh Festival.

Enterprise Ireland had a different approach again. Given the size of the domestic market in Eire, the role of the intermediaries is to help SMEs to take their businesses overseas - to scale up and build the internal capabilities required to manage a business internationally. Using a system of innovation vouchers, they run 500 projects a year with 82% of companies looking to work with academics again. A bigger cash version of this programme are the Innovation Partnerships, running 60 a year, where there is a strong emphasis on embedding the capability in the company. 80% of the academics involved transferring into the companies with which they work. Enterprise Ireland also makes an effort to involve multinational -  or at least much larger - companies in the these Partnerships, as their experience of operating internationally is extremely valuable to the SMEs.

There was a certain amount of debate after the talks but the repeated theme centred on the training of managers in SMEs to help them understand how they could benefit from academic input, as part of a general executive education programme to help SMEs think more ambitiously. The consensus in the room was that leadership training of this sort only works if the course is seen as being in some way prestigious, well-illustrated by the Goldman Sachs programme widely promoted by Aston.