Wanted: HR mentors to support SMEs

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5th Jul 2011
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The coalition government is hoping to create an “informal” nationwide network of 40,000 business mentors over the year ahead to support small-to-medium enterprises in areas such as HR, marketing and finance.

 
The initial plank of the scheme, launched by the British Banking Association yesterday, is expected to see 1,000 current and retired employees from Barclays, HSBC, RBS, Lloyds and Santander being recruited as volunteers over the next 12 months. So far 231 have signed up and will receive training from the UK Skills Sector Body for Enterprise and Business Support.
 
The mentors will form part of a wider pool of volunteers sourced from organisations such as the Princes’ Trust, the CBI and other trade bodies. They are intended to try and fill the gap left by the closure of the government’s Business Link advice centres this autumn. SMEs will be able to find local mentors and other resources at a new website - www.mentorsme.co.uk.
 
Business and enterprise minister Mark Prisk said: “The mentoring is really replacing the 1,500 currently state paid advisors we have under Business Link by recognising that most SMEs what they look for in advice is not necessarily something from government. What they are looking for is someone who has been there and done it; someone who has solved that problem and they are looking for that practical advice.”
 
As a result, by working with the British Bankers’ Association, the CBI and various other business organisations and companies, the aim was to create a “single, cohesive network of mentoring provision” for the first time in the UK, he added.
 
At the same time, however, the Forum of Private Business also launched its own special work experience placement scheme for MPs. Dubbed the ‘Business Buddy’ scheme, the aim is to provide elected representatives with first-hand experience of what it is like to work in a small business in order to understand what challenges they face.
 
The hope is that MPs will stay in touch with business owners after their placement, creating a ‘hotline’ for them to communicate any emerging issues or concerns.
 
The Forum’s head of campaigns Jane Bennett said: “It’s all well and good for lobby groups like the Forum to tell the Government about the issues facing small businesses, but there’s no substitute for first-hand experience. We want politicians to see for themselves what it’s like to run a small business.”
 
Some 97 MPs, including Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin, Tourism Minister John Penrose and Chuka Umunna, Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, have already signed up to the initiative.
 
Each MP will be expected to spend at least half a day at the business with which they have agreed to work and attempts will be made to match them with companies that are linked to their roles wherever possible. Letwin has agreed to work in a pie shop in his West Dorset constituency in September.

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By Jeremy Thorn
05th Jul 2011 17:27

I am all in favour of mentoring schemes for organisations of any size. I also applaud any scheme for SMEs to access very specific professional advice that they may not otherwise afford. But I would be very wary of encouraging enthusiastic ‘mentors’ more widely at no fee to their client.

 To declare my own background, I have been involved in helping to set up many business mentor schemes for SMEs professionally over the past 20+ years; first when I was a founding Director of a large Training & Enterprise Council, and subsequently more widely on behalf of the then DTI Small Business Service and many Business Links.  There are some important lessons to be learned. First, external mentoring can be a truly valuable, but accreditation inevitably becomes a significant issue when promoted by any formal public body. This often becomes a very time consuming and expensive matter for all as every local body involved seeks to promote their own preferred standards, often against inconsistent yard-sticks and parochial biases.  ( And that is despite endless efforts in the last 20 years to provide one nationwide standard - not the least because there is so little agreement of what that the standard should be, shorn of both local vested interests and professional jealousies, and who should fund it.) Secondly, both because of and despite the above, I observe there is already a vast over-supply of broader skilled and  professional mentoring skills, across almost every conceivable business area. (Their best 'accreditation standard' may well be whether they can still offer their services at fees their clients continue to feel offer added-value at a level both can afford. They won't last long otherwise!)
I suspect many of these providers were attracted to enter this market due to earlier redundancy, thanks to previous grant-aided support regimes, many of which may have offered them ready-made clients. But no longer? 
Encouraging additional providers for free with 'part-time well-wishers', where there is already huge downward pricing pressures on this over-supplied free-lance market (most especially in HR), may therefore do no favours either for those who have already invested in this role, or for newly-redundant managers who think they may have something useful to offer the wider market. Thirdly, there is no doubt in my experience that all successful mentors need training. They need to leave their egos at the door, their past successes and failures behind, and acquire many more professional business and customer-focused skills that their previous management roles may never have required. And that takes quite a lot of readjustment, humility and self-awareness that only comes from experience. 
That could be a great development role for any sponsored employees, but they do need to be careful not engage where they may not be suitably qualified.

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