By Andy Coote

With the delivery, in January 2011, of The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) document titled, 'Bigger, Better Business, Helping small firms start, grow and prosper' which points the way forward for Policy on Business Support and Development there maybe opportunities ahead for businesses and business networks to provide more business support.

In the document, with a foreword by Mark Prisk MP, Minister of State for Business and Enterprise, the Department sets out its key principles, develops an outline approach and provides a timetable for implementation.

In the Key Principles section, the Department say —

• We believe that business growth is the main priority. So we will focus our resources on improving small business performance and growth.

• We will support start ups through a tailored package of measures, including the New Enterprise Allowance, to help the unemployed become self employed.

• We will modernise the provision of online information so all businesses can access what they need, when they need it.

• The business community’s view of the existing government-funded regional Business Link services is highly varied and we share its view that the best advice for business comes from other experienced business people.

• We are working with mentoring providers to understand and address the barriers to enterprise for all groups, including women, former service personnel and Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

• Lastly, we recognise that there are now many excellent private providers of business advice as well as business networks both online and offline. Government’s role is not to duplicate this activity, but to intervene only where there is evident market failure.

The Department’s approach will mean that

• The Businesslink.gov web site will be updated, including web 2.0 to make it better to navigate and to personalise the user experience. Target date for relaunch is December, 2011.

• They will create a national contact centre to help users to navigate the web site and to provide information for businesses not yet on the internet. To be in place by September 2011

• As already announced, Regional Business Link advisory and telephone support services are being phased out by the end of November, 2011.

• The previo0usly announced mentoring network is planned to be available from June 2011, though how many of the announced 40,000 mentors will be in place by then is uncertain.

• There will be a ‘start up hub’ as part of the Businesslinkl.gov online service to be ready from December 2011

• Quoting evidence that only about 20% of SME employers grow each year, there will be a business coaching for growth scheme to support them from Jan/Feb 2012

• The mentoring providers are also being asked to provide tailored action to raise low entrepreneurial activity among key parts of our communities, including women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and Service leavers

Taking the principle that “the Government’s role is not to duplicate this activity, but to intervene only where there is evident market failure” there would seem to be an opportunity for the “many excellent private providers of business advice as well as business networks both online and offline” to benefit from this less centralised approach to business growth. Whether this will prove to be an opportunity for small and medium businesses is yet to be seen.

The areas where opportunity appears to exist are face to face business support, training, mentoring and in the provision of information that is more tailored than that on the new Businesslink site.

Of course, the requirements and details are as yet unknown and previous experience of Government Policy may suggest that we should proceed cautiously here, despite the need for services to be in place later this year or early next to replace those that are being withdrawn.

As with all Government Policy, this policy can change, often on a whim. The law of unintended consequences also applies and some government initiatives may still conflict even where there is no evidence of market failure. The development of Local Enterprise Partnerships in England and the administration of European funds in some regions may yet change the scenery altogether.

Governments (even those that claim to be reducing regulation) also have a tendency to create their own barriers to entry. If they choose to apply an 'academic' model route, for example, then qualification frameworks and other regulations may make it more difficult for some businesses to take part. There is much yet to emerge that could change the whole opportunity — or remove large parts of it.

There is much to praise and welcome in this paper. Many businesses, especially smaller ones, prefer to work with other business people who they know, like and trust and through their existing trusted networks. The model of passing experience and skills from business to business, with training based on experiential methods and with coaching and mentoring to the fore, is one that will be familiar and useful to many of the businesses who will need it.

In the next four years, a lot of growth will be needed to counter the job losses and cost increases that we are already experiencing. In my view, and it seems the Government’s, it is better that the brakes are off in terms of allowing businesses to develop and grow. Let us hope it proves to be the case.

Andy Coote is a writer and editor and runs Bizwords providing writing services for businesses and individuals. He has edited the Virtual CEO Newsletter for over 4 years. He has been following the changes being made to business support and development by the Coalition Government since the election in 2010.