Learning By Other People’s Rules – The Benefits of Applying to the Small Business Charter
I am almost allergic to filling in forms. The prospect sends me into a decline. Others will often step in to cover, and fill them in for me, either out of sympathy but probably just to accomplish the deed without having to put up with the grumpiness that the prospect of form filling can induce. I realise that this is rather self-indulgent but I also sense that I am not alone. Few of us relish the prospect of form filling but there is clearly a scale of antipathy and I sit at one extreme.
As a member of the team responsible for establishing the Small Business Charter under the guidance of Lord Young, I was partially responsible for designing the criteria that would be needed to determine whether business schools qualified for the award of charter status. Imagine my horror, therefore, when I realised that I would be responsible, primarily, for completing the form that I had helped design and that would be used to determine whether Nottingham University Business School should be awarded charter status.
To be honest, I have to admit that the superb team that supported the school, and me as Dean, did most of the heavy lifting in terms of the detail required. What started as a necessary chore, however, slowly began to emerge as a lesson in self-awareness that we had been missing.
Although we may emphasise to our students the need for reflection as we learn, many of us may neglect to do this ourselves because we are too distracted by the volume of decisions and commitments that we already confront each day.
Completing the application process requires a comprehensive assessment and reflection on what our business school is for and about. It provides a view that we wouldn’t otherwise have found time to observe and it does so in a concise and straight forward way.
I was prompted to reflect on our own experience at Nottingham after being made aware of feedback from other business schools that had completed the application process. Many had emphasised the value of the experience of application, irrespective of the outcome.
I sense that there are lessons to be learned for these observations that refer to membership applications more generally. Any application for membership to an organisation with robust entry requirements transfers the control of how we reflect and self-assess from the applicant to the organisation concerned and the criteria that it chooses to apply. We can no longer select aspects of our performance that confirm our status as a successful school whilst quietly ignoring other metrics that may show us in a less flattering light.
This does not necessarily reflect a deliberate act of deception in terms of the view that we present to others. We all tend to play to our strengths and emphasise these; and so we should. This focus on the positive will naturally tend to distort our self-perception, however, and may prevent us from engaging in a more comprehensive view of our overall performance. This, in turn, may weaken the effectiveness of our strategy by distorting the relative priorities given to different aspects of our activities. As I discovered in my term as Dean, the self-assessment required according to a comprehensive set of criteria imposed by others can be very enlightening!
To understand why the requirements of an application process can reveal more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of their business school to the applicants concerned it is helpful to consider the application procedure and the three mains areas of focus.
The application procedure requires the submission of responses to a series of thirty questions covering three general areas. If a successful prima facia case for membership is accepted then the school concerned is visited by a small team of assessors to discuss their responses, facilitate the exchange of good practice and generate a report.
The three main areas covered are as follows:-
Small Business Support for Growth
The ten elements in this section cover a comprehensive set of activities ranging from the direct provision of growth and development programmes to SMEs, incubation facilities and placements to how this role is reflected in the mission of the School and the research that is undertaken there.
Wider Stakeholder Engagement in the Growth Agenda
The emphasis of these ten elements moves away from direct support to small businesses and seeks to capture the various ways in which smaller firms and the Business School interact. This covers areas such as governance, collaboration not only with small businesses for research and teaching support but also with other small business support agencies and regional networks.
Student Facing Start up Support
In this final set of elements the focus is firmly on support for student enterprise during their studies in the Business School and after graduation. The coverage ranges over small business involvement in modules, start-up space, internships and student societies to the mentoring of students by businesses and student provision of enterprise modules. Again, the aim is to assess the extent to which student enterprise is supported and the impact that this has upon their experience both during and after the course.
On completion of the application, those involved will often have a much clearer picture as to how their School encourages and supports entrepreneurial creativity and small business start-up and growth. This won’t all be good news but it can be very effective in revealing priorities for further improvement.
In short, it can be very revealing and refreshing to examine one’s own business school by other people’s rules!
By Martin Binks, Professor of Entrepreneurial Development, Nottingham University Business School