Tuesday, 2 September 2008

I can't get no satisfaction

I read with interest the news this week that England's Regional Development Agencies will soon begin measuring the level of "satisfaction" among social entrepreneurs using its Business Link services.

Anyone who reads my website BusinessZone.co.uk will know I'm generally not a fan of Business Link. I've been writing for and about entrepreneurs for eight years and a consistent theme throughout that time has been dissatisfaction with the government's flagship business support network. Admittedly, efforts have been made to improve it but we're still waiting for just how ministers are going to untangle the mess of 3,000 confusing, criss-crossing support schemes into the promised 100.

It's good to see RDAs are recognising that social enterprises need assistance but how and by whom is that assistance being given?

When responsibility for social enterprise passed from the DTI to the Cabinet Office a few years ago, concern was expressed that RDAs might conclude that social enterprise was "always about social inclusion, not about business". Is that still the case? I don't have direct evidence that it isn't but I'm worried that it might be if the criticisms of the "mainstream" Business Link services are anything to go by.

Entrepreneurs consistently complain that Business Link advisors lack business experience and even when they do provide advice it's very much early days, start-up stuff and they lack any expertise to supporting business growth.

Social entrepreneurs aren't different to traditional business owners in many ways - they need finances, they have to invest in marketing and must keep employees engaged. But they are different in that they have the power to change society and overcome its ills. How many advisors have got experience of that? How many social entrepreneurs has Business Link consulted in putting together its social enterprise strategy?

No doubt, the RDAs' first social enterprise 'customer' survey will show massive satisfaction levels - those sort of things always do but that won't convince me that Business Link's problems have been solved. It must engage with social entrepreneurs where they already are, where they meet, network and solve problems amongst themselves.

A survey I'm currently running on UK Business Forums, the other website I look after, shows it's other business owners entrepreneurs turn to first for advice with government services a poor third place in the popularity stakes.

Business Link advisors may be able to tick more boxes on their evaluation forms now they're reaching out to social enterprise but the real question is are they giving social entrepreneurs the real, useful, practical advice they need to succeed?

No comments: