‘Business’ networking seems to have stalled somewhat in this part of the world at least.
The referral networks like BNI merrily do their stuff and, judging by the sheer number of imitations that spring up, must be making money and providing value. But there is more to business development than referrals and sales.
Then there are the publicly funded networks that seem to be ever more reliant on celebrity entrepreneurs telling their story to large groups, usually with limited Q&A sessions where perhaps 5% of the audience get involved. The audience is usually entertained, sometimes informed and often well fed by the taxpayer. The host organisation collects lots of ticks in the ‘business assists’ box and we move on. Personally I enjoy them – but from a business development perspective I am not convinced about their practical value.
Last night at the Elsie Whiteley Innovation Centre in Halifax (a superb facility with PLENTY of space for new or growing businesses – no surprise that occupancy seems to be an issue) I’d guess over 100 people gathered to hear local girl ‘done good’ Linda Barker (Changing Rooms, I’m a Celebrity…) tell her story. She was fine. It made a pleasant change to have someone spontaneous and not ‘over rehearsed’ in her delivery. Linda was. I thought, natural, engaging and clearly pleased to be on home turf. The room was full. Vernon, our Business Link host, managed proceedings well and the sandwiches were excellent. He never missed a chance to promote Business Link. I did notice that Linda got her business advice from a ‘full blown Harvard MBA’ with a solid background in venture capital – rather than Business Link London.
This was the 10th event in the region in 10 days to mark ‘Creative, Digital and Cultural Week’ or something like that! That could be seen as a wonderful boost of knowledge and opportunities to a key sector, or (but only an old cynic would think this way) a push to get the numbers up and on track with targets. Either way it does feel a bit like the London Bus syndrome…
Personally, I think the time is right to move networking to the next level. As Henry Ford once said ‘Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.
Instead of passive ‘learning’ from celebrity anecdote, followed by polite but generally superficial conversations over sandwiches and cake we should invoke more powerful and inclusive methodologies for learning and building commitment to real business change. I have some partly formed ideas of how this might be done…
We should use ‘networking’ to start getting local businesses to ‘showcase’ themselves and their challenges and to seek support, advice and guidance from their peers. Perhaps in the course of an evening a 2 or 3 businesses could make a brief presentation on the ‘who, what, how and why’ of their business. But they should also have to present a challenge or opportunity that they are currently facing and their analysis of the way forward. Perhaps a live or recently completed assignment that presented challenges? Other networkers could then be asked (perhaps in small groups) to review the issue from different perspectives, to ask what else might be done, how else might the challenge be addressed?
From a diverse group are bound to come diverse solutions. But diversity is another challenge I would throw down to event organisers. We need to get the digital, cultural and creative types working with the money people, the marketers and manufacturers – instead of hiving off networking tribes by Standard Industrial Classification codes. The Law of Requisite Variety is one of my favourites! But I know the Regional Economic Strategy wants ‘clusters’….
The best ideas and insights would get surfaced for the benefit of the whole group. Last weeks ‘bettakulture‘ event at Temple Works in Leeds might provide some clues.
I would also have a web 2.0 infrastructure to support networking between meet ups – personally I would not build another ‘web portal’ (sorry Ha), but would use existing platforms including twitter, facebook, ning groups, blogs etc. We really do not need to spend money on web design – just learn how to collectively exploit what is already out there.
Such processes would demonstrate the benefits of networking and collaboration around problem solving. It would also allow patterns of emerging problems and opportunities to be identified and addressed. More participants would actually get to meet each other and contribute. Significant value could be created. Of course it would mean that we need to get our grey cells into gear instead of gawping at a celebrity from the passivity of our conference chairs…but isn’t that the point of business?
Of course it is likely that numbers might drop off considerably. Whereas 100 plus turn up to hear a celebrity speak we might get only a dozen who are really seeking to collaborate and add value to their business – but frankly the only people that will worry are those with boxes to tick. Many will not come near networking events as they are currently constituted because they consider them an entertainment rather than an education. And, as they say, ‘other forms of entertainment are available’.
So let us not worry too much about quantity but instead focus on quality – and let’s design some networking processes that deliver real value. People will soon get on board when word of mouth gets out that there is something interesting going on.
If we want to learn the ‘real life’ stories of celebrity entrepreneurs there are always other ways and means!
In all things balance. I am not suggesting we should not have any more celebrity gigs (just imagine the damage that would do to the mushrooming professional speakers circuit) – but let us offer clear progression routes so that those who are looking to get down to business development with and for our peers are able to do so.
What do you think?
Oh! I forgot to mention Linda is twitterer – @ReallyLinda But she follows nobody! Perhaps her Harvard MBA needs to look at her SM strategy?
Weasel words are tricky.
We all think we know what they mean – but in fact their meanings are fluid. While two people may think they are talking about the same thing – often they are not. This is just one of the reasons why trying to make progress on ‘engaging communities in enterprise’ is so tricky. There’s another weasel word- ‘engaging’!
Perhaps one place to start is by collecting the ‘labels’ that people use to describe various ‘communities’ that they wish to engage in enterprise. In no particular order – and garnered from a number of policy/strategy type documents on the subject here we go:
- people with low educational attainment/skills
- people with disabilities
- single parents
- recent immigrants
- people living in neighbourhoods with high rates of worklessness
- people living in neighbourhoods with low rates of enterprise
- people who have been long term unemployed
- black and minority ethnic (BME) groups
- incapacity benefit claimants
- people at risk of offending
- young people
Feel free to add your own ‘communities of interest’ using the comments box.
- Can these labels help us with engagement? If so, how?
- Do they hold clues that can help us to think about our approach to engagement?
- How we design workshops, leaflets, posters etc?
- Who we spend time with?
- Where we choose to go?
- What do we need to be like personally and as a service if people from these communities are to invite our help?
- How do we go about winning an invitation?
- Do the labels serve any purpose when we are face to face with a potential client?
I have been asked to help various parts of the enterprise development network (Chambers, Business Links, Enterprise Agencies, community based enterprise projects, managed workspaces, load funds, credit unions, training providers etc.) to think about and hopefully improve their ‘referral’ processes. (A referral is the name given to the process where one agent in the enterprise support network refers a client of theirs to another part of the enterprise support service.)
So what are the drivers for wanting to improve the referral process?
In my book there should only be one: a genuine desire to ensure that the client accesses the right kind of service at the right time to help them progress on their enterprise journey.
This implies that the person making the referral has worked with the client to accurately help them identify what service is required and what it is expected to achieve. Sometimes this happens. Often it does not. Many referrals are driven by the referrer recognising that they are not in a position to serve the client – or it will be too time and resource intensive to be practical. They then look for a service that may be able to help and ‘refer’ the client. Or more accurately they ‘palm them off’.
Often when the referrer does take the time to identify with the client the service they need to progress on their enterprise journey the ‘diagnosis’ is based purely on technical and functional concerns and takes little account of the wider cultural and social needs of the client. This can result in clients with a tentatively held belief about their own potential on the enterprise journey being referred to judgemental and time pressured service providers who have learned to just say ‘No’! ( Or to refer them to the morass of web sites, training workshops and leaflets that is the ‘universal start up offer’). Either way the enterprise journey often hits the buffers catastrophically.
Occasions when the referrer really does their homework on the service to which they are referring and the individuals who deliver it (to find the most appropriate individual – technically, culturally and empathetically – to which to make the referral) are not common. Occasions when the referrer asks the clients permission to make a referral and offers to go with them to broker an introduction are even rarer. If the referral is actually a ‘palming off’ it may be made clear to the client that this is in fact a one-way referral. ‘This person will help you now – good luck! (and goodbye)’.
As I have already said there should only be one driver of the client referral process – a genuine desire to ensure that the client accesses the right kind of service at the right time to help them progress on their enterprise journey. In practice there are several, including:
- the challenge of service sustainability – by making lots of referrals we can demonstrate the use and effectiveness of all of our services and make a strong case to continue to fund everything
- the need to ration (some parts of) the service – there are not enough resources to give everyone a person centred and customised enterprise journey – we need to focus our efforts on those most likely to provide a quick return on investment – we can always refer (palm off) the rest
- lack of skill, competence or experience – this client is a nightmare – I have got to find them another place to go!
There are of course also significant drivers against making referrals including financial drivers where the potential referrer has a direct or indirect financial interest in retaining ‘control’ of the client. If you run a managed workspace and need to raise occupancy it is massively difficult not to see every entrepreneur as a potential tenant and therefore wish to retain control of that account. If your funding is linked to the achievement of certain outcomes with clients and they should be referred before those outcomes have been achieved there can be a pressure to delay the referral.
And then there is ignorance. Simply not knowing about the full range of support that is available. When I helped to run BLU – the Business Link University as was we used to run half day workshops – tailored to meet local needs – called an introduction to business support. Participants were helped to explore the wealth of support available to support would be and actual entrepreneurs and to understand the relevance and objectives of each. I must have attended a dozen of these events over several years and was never less than gobsmacked at how little many service providers new about other parts of the network. And this was not simply a function of experience. It was a feature inherent in the siloed service design of the providers. Does this mean I am in favour of simplification agenda. NO I AM NOT! At a time when the consumer is getting more and more demanding, and the market place for enterprise is becoming ‘super-diverse’ we have to offer a wide range of niched services. However I am in favour of these being a genuine network. But that is another soap box – for another day!
A word about power. I firmly belief that the role of all enterprise support agency is to empower the client on their enterprise journey. To improve their ability to understand context, negotiate resources and act to make things better for themselves, their loved ones and their community. Yet the language of referral is essentially disempowering. We refer to higher authorities, we refer to specialists and experts. The nature of the referral relationship is essentially one of a power imbalance. Submit yourself to their expertise…. become compliant again. That is why I urge discussion about the introduction process rather than the referral process. Introducing a client to someone who may be able to help them is VERY different from ‘making a referral’. The power must remain with the client. They must decide who they work with. They have to retain control and ownership of their own enterprise journey.
I am sure there is much more to write on the subject of referrals please post comments to highlight aspects of the referral process that require further thought. If we want clients to navigate a path effectively through diverse enterprise support services we need to do much more than urge people to refer more. We need to:
- Design services in a way that removes distorting financial/performance management drivers on the referral/introduction process
- Ensure that the client always controls the timing and nature of the referral
- Reduce ignorance among service providers about what else is available to introduce potential clients too
- Ensure that all service providers are both willing and able to make effective introductions with their ONLY interest being the clients development on their enterprise journey.