A CANADIAN CALL FOR COLLABORATION
I just had a great discussion with Barbara Orser (Deloitte Professor, Management of Growth Entreprises, Telfer) about Canada’s fractured business support system and some ideas to fix it.
Simply put, we have too many business support programs, tools, and organizations in Canada that are tripping all over each other, trying to lend a hand to SMEs and entrepreneurs. With so much out there, SMEs run into several major challenges:
- How do they find out what programs, tools, and groups actually exist to help them?
- How do they determine which ones are worth the time commitment to engage?
- Once they’ve picked a few solid fits, how do they access them successfully?
There is actually a growing consensus that the challenges that SMEs face in navigating, selecting, and accessing support programs are the result of larger systemic challenges in our country’s business support framework.
- We have no central platform to help our SMEs and entrepreneurs navigate the complete range of services and support available to them spanning municipal, provincial, and federal levels
- Performance metrics on support programs, tools, and organizations are either incomplete or non-existent, and they are never user defined and validated
- There is a different application and decision process for every program out there, which makes engaging the system both brutally time consuming and highly uncertain
- The business support system does not often work together to combine resources around common goals, or to share best practices on how to better serve Canadian businesses
The result is a system that is proving to be increasingly ineffective in responding to the direct needs of its clients, increasingly inefficient in its operation and delivery of key services, and largely unaccountable for its performance and use of public resources.
The Vision and Solution Path
Fixing this system is simple in concept, difficult in application, and absolutely essential.
A better business support system would have the following 3 core elements:
- A unified and consolidated platform to navigate all business support programming, regularly updated by municipal, provincial, federal, and community-level stakeholders
- A standardized rating system ranking each program, tool, or organization according to a combination of internal program metrics (think Performance Evaluation – # of firms assisted, achievement of planned outcomes, dollars leveraged, etc) and external community feedback (think Trip Advisor – application and reporting complexity, time to funding provision, helpfulness of support staff, etc)
- A standardized application, decision making, and reporting process for all programs that would allow firms to interface with the business support system through one consolidated portal
his improved business support system would also need to operate according to the following 3 guiding principles, each of which would require significant structural change:
- Consolidation: Many programs exist that are trying to achieve similar outcomes; these programs need to be aggregated where significant overlaps in objectives and mandates exist, or they at least need to be encouraged to pool resources toward collective decision making
- Collaboration: Many programs are doing a great job at supporting businesses to tackle their challenges and grow; we need to make sure that a transparent architecture exists, that will enable programs to share best practices and learn from each other’s experiences
- Community Responsiveness: Many programs operate according to ad-hoc feedback from their user community; we need to formalize the process of collecting regular feedback on program performance and effectiveness and enable re-structuring on the fly in response to shifting needs (business realities are changing at a staggering pace – programs have to learn to keep up)
Bringing about these fundamental system changes could prove to be a very challenging process. But change can be helped along if the following basic ideas can be introduced into the public discussion.
We need to identify who is ultimately responsible for the delivery of the business support system in Canada, and empower this group to mandate the changes that will bring about a consolidation of programs and collaboration of resources. We also need system leadership to step up and mandate alignment with a standardized set of performance metrics and reporting procedures that will enable us to regularly identify areas of strength to be reinforced and celebrated within the system, and areas of weakness to be purged. There are too many issues of turf and territory within the system for change to come from the bottom up – too many jobs are at stake – therefore some top down leadership, and some hard choices will be essential for change.
We need to ensure that mandates reflect the right types of incentives that will reward collaboration between programs, tools, and the organizations responsible for their delivery. And developing a successful incentive structure is as much about picking the right incentives that will motivate currently disparate groups to come together around a common vision, as it is about picking the right types of activities to incent that lead to real performance improvement and improved service delivery for Canadian firms. The issue of incentive structures is highly complex, and will require engagement of many experts, engaged groups, and use community itself to get right, but we need to start a dialogue between these groups soon, before more time and resources are wasted within the current broken system.
Let us know if you think that Fixing our Fractured Business Support System should become part of Canada’s Entrepreneurial Future.