In August a committee of MPs reported that universities and small businesses stood to gain from improved, more effective working relationships. To many working in this sector, this was not news. However the report was received as a welcome confirmation of the importance of universities adapting their services to the needs, priorities and culture of independent small to medium enterprises.
In particular, universities are well positioned to support the productivity enhancement and leadership development of SMEs and this takes place in a number of forms: tackling local skills issues through partnerships tailored to needs of the local economy; providing a new market for trading among small and medium-sized businesses; and providing access to key assets such as space for premises, knowledge for research and development, and marketing support.
However, on the face of it, a partnership between a university and a small business may not be the most obvious of pairings. For anyone who has worked in both environments, the contrasts can be quite stark. On the one hand, small businesses are extremely varied and need different things; they are often dependent on the personality of the owner-manager and characteristics of the market in which the business operates. On the other hand, universities are fairly homogeneous and tend to follow a particular, now well-established, organisational model. The workforce is fairly interchangeable, and individuals have less of a bearing on organisational personality or culture.
Another difference is the perception that universities are not particularly flexible or responsive to the changing customer needs that nimble and agile SMEs experience. This perception can be reinforced by a number of factors, whether that is a predominance of heavily academic language or an excessive focus on expert, book-based knowledge rather than the sort of learning-by-doing that is essential to entrepreneurship. Small businesses need to be innovative to survive, universities less so.
However, existing partnerships between universities and SMEs show that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. It is therefore vitally important for universities to continue to find ways to engage with the small business community.
A good example of this in practice is SEC2U (Startup Europe comes to the Universities), an initiative of the European Commission that operates through the Startup Europe University Network (SEUN). This week over 30 universities across Europe are holding events to present and promote the good work being done between universities and small business. This demonstrates the commitment of universities to create a strong culture of entrepreneurship and innovation not just in the UK but across the continent.
Markedly the partners in this initiative are not just universities and small businesses - Europe as a whole stands to gain. For example a SEC2U event at GSM London brought together business start-ups, entrepreneurs, business associations and chambers, university staff and students, incubators, accelerators, innovation hubs, government representatives, and local development corporations.
By bringing this community together it was possible to integrate multiple perspectives on the start-up, rethinking what this might mean from the ground up. Listening to the views and experiences of local start-ups enables the effective re-thinking and re-formulation of policies, services, and environment for small businesses within the local area.
And when the exchange of lessons and findings from all the participating institutions are combined during the SEC2U week, support networks can be strengthened across Europe, enhancing the recognition of how universities, startups and local communities can work more closely together for the benefit of all.
The UK is currently navigating the post-referendum business landscape but I see no reason why this movement towards closer collaboration should not continue. The UK's proposed withdrawal from the European Union will undoubtedly create challenges to facilitating this collaboration over time but, as SEC2U demonstrates, goodwill combined with proactive approaches can bring far-reaching benefits.
So in spite of the jolt of 'Brexit' and the current uncertainties, good momentum towards European collaboration is building. Britain's universities and small businesses should continue to look to partners in Europe to share success, experience and to learn from the innovative entrepreneurial support programmes that already exist.Suggest a correction