By Andy Coote

With the demise of the Regional Development Agencies which will be phased out by March 2012 have been persistent rumours of the demise of Business Link, which in some areas is directly funded by the RDA. Real Business , under an exclusive tag, reported Mark Prisk as saying that he intended to phase out Business Link, which would be in line with his reported intentions before the election as reported in the Guardian.

However, things may not be as cut and dried as that would indicate. The Liverpool Daily Post reported on 30th June, a source at the Northwest Development Agency, which funds North West Business Link to the tune of £18m every year, told LDP Business: “This is premature. A report is being done into Business Link over the next four weeks and as far as we are aware no decision has yet been made.”

Real Business quote Mark Prisk as explaining his ‘two pronged approach’ to replace Business Link: “We can deliver a lot more online and make better use of the private providers. The vast majority of private businesses don’t use public services [for advice]. We need a 21st century approach to business support.”

From the reaction to the story in Real Business, Business Link divides the business population into pros and cons, both with very strong views. Those who support the service point to very real help they have received that has helped grow their businesses, whilst those who are against often dismiss the service provision as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘a waste of money’. The truth probably exists between the two positions. For some it works and for others it doesn’t. It may be as much about the advisor/business relationship as anything else.

Business Advice and Support is not a single entity with a single solution. People get into business for a variety of reasons and have some knowledge and skill. Filling that knowledge and skill gap may well be the preserve of an online solution. Standard information — such as business plan templates, business set up requirements, basic Inland Revenue information can be provided by a general online service. If the online service doesn’t provide the answers then a business equivalent of a Citizen’s Advice Bureau is needed. Increasingly this function is provided, often informally, by other businesses in face to face and online networks. Where a group of business people get together many simple queries can be answered quickly.

Specific support and advice is different. As businesses grow and develop, changes that are needed to enable growth of the business and the development of the Directors and team become more complex and specific. It is in this area that private sector solutions will be needed if, indeed, Business Link is to go. There are already many solutions in existence in the form of training courses, workshops, mentoring and coaching schemes and networks. This newsletter is published on behalf of one those — The Academy for Chief Executives — though this article is not sponsored by them or written on their behalf.

When (if) Business Link does close down, there will be advisers looking for a new way to provide their services and existing operations (Serco for instance run several Business Links) will also extend their offer into this arena. Real Business is proposing setting up a new network , “From the autumn, we'll be making our own contribution to the opportunity/vacuum in business support by creating the Real Business Network. We'll be giving readers the chance to join the UK's largest, most influential community of independent-minded businesspeople. You'll continue to receive and, I hope, enjoy your copy of Real Business. You'll be able to join us at a series of focused networking events, targeted directly at what you need as a leader of a growing business.” Business Network, Ecademy (mentioned by Prisk in his interview), will also be seeking to be the resource of choice for small business and there are many other networks who are already offering — or will be offering — business support and advice.

All the signs are that we will have new entrants to the market joining at increasing velocity and trying to outdo each other. In the short term, the market is likely to get noisier and more confusing. In time, of course, it will consolidate and the providers who make the best job of convincing businesses of their capability and long term viability will begin to grow their share of the market. That may be some time in coming, though. In the short and medium term - just the period where the Coalition Government want to transfer growth to the private sector to pull off their Budget aspirations — there will be a confused market in which high quality advice will be competing with advisors who potentially have little or no experience or knowledge to offer. It is the way the private sector works and I have no problems with that.

The Government, however, may do well to heed the wisdom of Hilaire Belloc, in his poem ‘Jim’ — “always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse”
All will be resolved in time, of course, but don’t hold your breath for clarity. It may be some time coming.

Watch a video of the Academy for Chief Executives Speaker Showcase at The Grand Connaught Rooms in 2009, where speakers talked about new ideas.

Andy Coote is a professional writer and co-author of A Friend in Every City (2006), a book about Social Networking and Business. As a commentator on leadership and networking, Andy provides content strategy, writing support and services for a number of Business Leaders. You can reach him at andy@bizwords.co.uk or visit www.bizwords.co.uk

Andy edits the Virtual CEO Newsletter which appears each week on Fresh Business Thinking and showcases the members, leaders and professional speakers whose input forms the resource available to all Academy members. More at www.chiefexecutive.com. This article represents his own views and not those of The Academy.

Join us on