20th June 2018

The Industrial Strategy is one of the boldest policy initiatives to be announced in recent times, intended to provide both sectoral and horizontal responses to the UK’s unbalanced post-crisis economy. Although not perfectly formed, it provides a framework and potential strategy for growth. It also provides an opportunity for business schools, to use their convening power, to bring academia and business together to tackle some of the most pressing issues.

Nobody can disagree with the objectives to boost productivity and promote the competitiveness of UK business. Indeed, the fact that the Industrial Strategy reads as a work in progress is a strength. Laying out the challenges, and the five foundations of productivity to deliver a ‘transformed economy’ are helpfully broad in scope.

One of the vehicles for delivering the Industrial Strategy, and signaling the intention of the government to put research and innovation at its heart is the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Bringing together the UK's world-leading research with business, 14 issues have been identified, and grouped under four Grand Challenges, that are shaping society in the UK and globally.

About more than technology

A cursory view of the Industrial Strategy may see you dazzled by reference to developing and implementing new technologies. However, a more careful reading highlights the emphasis on it being about more than technology. Many of the underlying issues are concerned with social science as much as science. Indeed, there are a number of business schools, awarded with the Small Business Charter (SBC), who have been actively working alongside national and local government developing thinking around the Industrial Strategy.

Due to their ‘convening power’, business schools are uniquely placed to engage and deliver on the questions raised through the Industrial Strategy. Despite their absence from the Industrial Strategy at present, the breadth of expertise in business schools and their ability to provide a platform to bring together academics and businesses represents a crucial asset. Under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, there is clearly scope for greater operational engagement by working with businesses to deliver the growth and productivity outcomes associated with the Industrial Strategy.

As the then Minister of State for Universities and Science, Lord Willets, said in 2014 “Business schools are full of expertise that can help small businesses to start up and grow” – and this remains the case. This resonates with the values of the SBC, however, the onus is now very much on business schools to demonstrate their value. As a part of this, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is about increasing the competitiveness and productivity, and now business schools need to show they can make a difference.

Making a difference

The newly formed UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has assumed a central role in leading the delivery of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. There are multiple calls open for bids on projects ranging from ‘next generation services’ to ‘audiences of the future’. The scope of work encompasses a spectrum of activities from developing new insights through research on business-led challenges, to piloting new ideas through applied demonstrators and labs. There really is something for everyone!

SBC accredited schools are, given their existing engagement with SMEs, well placed to respond in addressing the business and management issues that underpin what may otherwise appear to be technology-led challenges. However, we know that for many firms the biggest barriers are not technological, but strategic, operational, managerial and leadership based. This is the bread and butter of business school teaching and research.

More broadly, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and the Industrial Strategy represent a real opportunity for business schools to walk the talk. It is time to show that business schools are not commentators on these issues, but central to shaping and changing the debate on how we engage with businesses. Importantly it is this principle that defines the SBC and is a key characteristic of accredited schools.

About the Small Business Charter award

The Small Business Charter is awarded to business schools that pass a rigorous assessment on three main pillars: support for small business growth; stakeholder engagement to support local growth; and encouraging student enterprise and entrepreneurship. There are currently 38 schools with the Charter and more are preparing for their assessment.

Tim Vorley is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Associate Dean Impact, Innovation & Engagement at Sheffield University Management School.

Michelle Ovens MBE is Chair of the Small Business Charter.