Medium-sized businesses (MSBs) are one of the linchpins of the UK economy. Although collectively they represent less than 1 per cent of all companies, they generate about 20 per cent of private sector employment and about 22 per cent of economic revenue. They have the potential to inject between £20bn and £50bn into the economy by 2020. Despite this, they remain – as described by the Confederation of British Industry – a forgotten army; one that sorely needs recognition, encouragement and support. This is the challenge facing UK business schools: more active engagement with MSBs, benefiting business as well as the wider economy.
In 2011, the UK Department of Business, Innovation & Skills established a business school task force to examine how UK business schools could support economic growth by strengthening their engagement with MSBs. Its report was published last month.
The task force found that although many UK business schools work with MSBs, both locally and regionally, there is still more that can be done. On both sides there are negative perceptions: MSBs often assume, wrongly, that engaging with business schools will either be prohibitively expensive or free. Business school academic staff are seen as too academic and unworldly and not grounded in the daily reality of business life and application.
For their part, business schools believe that working with larger organisations – rather than MSBs – is more attractive to students. Many business school academics fail to distinguish between medium-sized enterprises and their small-business counterparts.
The task force report recommends an action plan, one that is targeted not only at business schools, but also MSBs, the government and the wider business community.
One of its first recommendations deals with visibility and access. University and business school websites need to be easier to navigate and ideally, they need a clearly identified MSB contact. Business schools and MSBs need to work much more closely together. For example, executives from MSBs could become members of business schools’ advisory boards and help to decide the schools’ strategic direction.
Business schools need to recognise and respond to the different needs and particular types of MSBs, for instance by developing tailored mini-MBA programmes, which could focus on export, innovation and management.
Business schools could also consider appointing an entrepreneur in residence, who would be available to support managers from MSBs. Such entrepreneurs in residence are well placed to support the development of MSBs and champion their interests.
Business schools should enhance networking with other schools across the UK and Europe to support collaborative ventures with MSBs. They also have an important role to play in sponsoring regional competitions for MSBs, engaging a broad range of stakeholders and intermediaries, including chambers of commerce, local enterprise partnerships and professional bodies.
Business schools, with their wealth of talented students and academics, could work much more closely with high-growth MSBs. To support this recommendation, business schools should place greater emphasis on medium-sized enterprises in the BBA and MBA curriculum so that students tackle relevant case studies and work with managers from MBSs in seminars and workshops. Internships for students could also be developed and business schools could also promote career opportunities in these businesses.
The UK government is right to emphasise the unique “high growth” potential of MSBs and the case for business schools to help develop and support this potential. MSBs are distributed across the UK and in a wide range of sectors; they are often well-established and include a number of well-known family businesses. The challenge is for UK business schools to rise to this role. I am confident that they can.
Sue Cox is dean of Lancaster University Management School, academic vice-president of the European Foundation for Management Development and chair of the BIS Business School MSB task force.