COVID brings productivity into sharp focus

An article follows which was published by the ICAEW – Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales – it helps explain what the strangely named ‘Be the Business’ organisation is actually doing to improve UK SME productivity levels – after three years of trying, maybe COVID can explain their lack of any quantified success (that they publish) to date

If we can restart the economy with the productivity gap in mind, we can recover stronger, according to Be the Business Director of Programmes, Louise Sunderland.

The UK was already flagging on the productivity front way before COVID struck, and was the primary reason why Be the Business was set up: to deliver training and mentoring in this area.

Sunderland is the Director of Programmes for Be the Business, a charity sponsored by BEIS as an independent organisation to support companies and their boards reach their full potential. She took up the role a matter of weeks before the pandemic struck. Her brief is to oversee all programmes to do with leadership, management and tech adoption, having done something similar for KPMG.

Be the Business was established three years ago off the back of a UK Commission led by Sir Charlie Mayfield, on productivity – which has been in decline in the UK for more than a decade and will now, of course, be severely impacted by COVID.

“Our core focus is all around improving productivity in SMEs,” says Sunderland. “Since COVID, we have refocused our attention to be on recovery and restart for SMEs. There are a number of things we have now put in place to do so, largely around leadership and management capability, and the adoption of technology.”

So, what is the desired outcome for the charity? “At a macro level, there is the desire to enhance productivity and for that GVA [gross value added] and GDP [gross domestic product] are the core measures,” she responds. “But fundamentally, we care about businesses and we are looking for changing behaviour within SMEs with the ultimate aim of improving businesses.”

She continues: “We work very closely with business, both in terms of (our) product development to make sure what we are doing meets clients’ needs, and in terms of creating SME ambassadors who bring the voice of our customers into everything that we do. This helps us keep our programmes relevant and make sure we understand the challenges they are facing on a day-to-day basis.”

In essence, Be the Business looks for improvement within clients’ businesses. “If someone comes onto one of our training courses, or they undertake to make a change within their business, we are looking at the change this brings and at the impact that change has had. We look to see whether it has increased revenue, made a difference to production and perhaps even whether the senior management has been able to spend more time at home,” she says.

Be the Business’s model is based on working in partnership. It has put in place a regional strategy and, through it, works with local support organisations such as Chambers of Commerce and Local Enterprise Partnerships to deliver its programmes. It also works very closely with client companies. “Creating the right network is vital. It gives us reach,” says Sunderland.

Commenting on owner-managed businesses and the myriad imperatives that drive them, Sunderland says: “If you look at it through the government lens, the government has predominantly focused on growth. But many business owners, managers and senior leaders often think that the business is doing OK or they don’t have the aspiration to grow.”

She continues: “But if you look at the situation from the point of view of being more effective and more competitive, that is something else. We try to help businesses understand that by making a small change in their businesses, that can have a fundamental impact on their turnover, but it has little impact on them as individuals in terms of committing more time and resources.”

Be the Business’s Rebuild platform is an example of the help that is on offer in the COVID environment, but there are all sorts of offers to suit different circumstances. “We have a portfolio of offers for both the individuals and the businesses,” she says.

“The right offer depends on the maturity of the businesses. In terms of leadership and management training, we go from providing peer-to-peer networks, to action learning sets, to a master class, to a mini MBA,” she says. “We also signpost to wider resources available from elsewhere.”

Clearly, face-to-face activity has receded in the light of COVID and training/mentoring is being delivered online. A reasonable online presence prior to COVID has certainly assisted the transition. The organisation’s recently rebuilt site is a case in point but there has also been a Facebook campaign amongst other resources.

“People access information in different ways, so we have created multi-media assets for a lot of the programmes being delivered so we serve up support differently to different clients to make sure it is accessible for all,” she says.

Largely, Be the Business is sector agnostic but there are some specific sectors that have come into focus such as technology, construction and hospitality – especially in the light of recent events. Leisure and retail will also be on the radar going forward.

When Sunderland came into this role, the issue was very much productivity. Now, lots of companies are focused on survival, but the productivity challenge has not gone away, she says. The crisis has given Be the Business the opportunity to focus further on the issues. Sunderland points out that technology has been brought further into business processes, innovation is being forced and decisions are having to be made because of the crisis.

“People are needing support more than ever,” she says. “They are truly accessing support service. The appetite is there.”

She continues: “If we can restart the economy with the productivity gap in mind, we can recover stronger, with better skills and the opportunity to accelerate tech adoption. Productivity has to be embedded in restart. Not every business in every sector will be in the same place. Some have hibernated, others have battled through and some will need to be restructured or may fail. Be the Business and other support mechanisms are there to catch them.”

So, with Louise and ‘B the B’ refocused on ‘changing behaviour’ to achieve the productivity recovery needed, and armed with a regional strategy, SME ambassadors and training courses on leadership and management – what could possibly go wrong? It reminds one of the early evangelical claims made for TQM in the 80’s, and we all know how successful that was! 

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