Posted on 19/06/2012, 09:31
According to an old Scottish proverb, open confession is good for the soul. Embracing this thought and with due regard to my Scottish ancestry, I have two confessions to make:
1) I used to work as a Business Adviser within Business Link.
2) I thought at the time, and still do, that the Business Link Business Advisers were of great assistance to small businesses and their owners.
I appreciate that my second confession might raise the odd eyebrow; like Marmite, Business Link was not for some. However please indulge me my opinion and read on.
At this point I would like to share with you two things: a quotation and a personal observation.
First, a quotation from the US author Clifford Stoll: data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding and understanding is not wisdom.
The owner of any successful and profitable business needs all of these; from handling data to mastering understanding and having wisdom.
Secondly, my personal observation: very few business owners are stupid; they are intelligent and sensible people.
Over the last ten years with both Business Link and Pro-actions I must have met with over a thousand small businesses and discussed in detail their plans and activities. Virtually each and every business owner I spoke with during that period had a good overall assessment of their business and the challenges it was facing. What is more, they also had several ideas about of what they should be doing to improve their business. But many of the possible actions were just not being done.
Herein lays the dilemma. Most business owners appear to have a good understanding of their problems and potential solutions but often do not seem to act upon this. Why is this? The answer usually is “stuff happens”. All small business owners are submerged into the day to day activities within their business. They are on the hamster wheel and coping with things that constantly come at them from many angles. They feel that they must spend all their time working in the business and cannot spend time working on the business. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the propensity for proactivity is somewhat muted. Business owners need an antidote to “stuff happens”.
In my opinion the antidote to “stuff happens” is not just a (very good) on-line information portal. The antidote must encompass access to the understanding (leading to the wisdom) that only human contact and interaction produces. I felt that this one to one interaction was the jewel in the crown of the Business Link offering. Despite the fact that in later years most Business Advisers were dealing with large numbers of businesses and the time available per client was too limited, the service always focussed on agreeing an individual action plan. I am sad that this support is no longer available to businesses.
We cannot change the past but we can define and shape the future. So what do I feel that business owners need in the way of advice and support? They certainly do not need a one size fits all, template type approach that tells them what they should be doing each day of the week at a given time. I personally have tended to agree with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Advice is like snow – the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper in sinks into the mind. But I acknowledge that in business time is often of the essence. The right balance is to be gained by having the right approach but also ensuring that the frequency of interaction is sufficient to ensure that results are achieved in a timely manner. In this connection I would chose a line from the Roman poet Lucretius: The drops of rain make a hole in the stone not by violence but by oft falling.
A prescriptive approach out of some generic manual is not what business owners need. I believe that they need a results focussed, critical friend approach. They require an experienced person to join them on their journey from where their business is today to where they want it to get to. There will be a need to define their vision and then put in place the strategy and specific actions that will deliver the vision. If the status quo is not what the business owner desires then maintaining the status quo is not the solution. Only new actions will bring success. But success cannot be ethereal; it must be based on measurable, quantifiable results. The vision can only be attained when specific measureable goals are achieved. This critical friend, this adviser, must therefore be able to hold the business owner to account.
So in conclusion, I think that the business journey from here to success is best taken with the regular support that comes with having a focussed outsider questioning and challenging at every step and helping the business owner put in place the systems and actions that deliver results. This is where the future should lie with regard to business advice for small and medium sized enterprises.
Many business owners never seek and thus never benefit from this type of help. Several business owners seek such assistance when some, often unpleasant, event impacts their business. However the shrewder business owners are proactive; they realise that their business will achieve its potential by engaging the services of a critical friend. They act and gain the advantage. Which type of business owner do you want to be?
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