Explore the ScaleUp Annual Review 2020

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Insight: Engaging with scaleups: perspectives from business schools

The Covid pandemic has thrown up many tough challenges for universities and business schools but it has also highlighted the vital importance of their relationship with local scaleups.

One of the most tangible difficulties of the pandemic for many scaleups was the closure of universities during the spring lockdown – the 2020 Annual Scaleup Survey shows that six in ten scaleups regard access to university R&D facilities as very important or vital to their business success.

However, the pandemic has also had the effect of increasing levels of awareness and outreach. “The dialogue between businesses and business schools is easier, as more businesses have recognised that they need to be open to help,” says Anne Kiem, Chief Executive of the Chartered Association of Business Schools.

“The official data had been showing that small businesses’ levels of engagement with business support generally had been falling over the past ten years,” observes Professor Mark Hart, Professor of Small Business and Entrepreneurship at Aston Business School. “However, when Covid came along, businesses wanted to get hold of whatever support that they could. We have never been so busy in working with high-potential businesses.”

While physical premises were placed off-limits, universities opened up their knowledge via digital platforms. 

Leeds University, for example, provided free webinars specifically designed to showcase relevant research and information, such as their long-established academic research about working from home. “This research was immediately useful,” says Professor Sarah Underwood, Director of Executive and Professional Education at Leeds University Business School.

Aston University started producing a series of podcasts entitled Aston means Business, says Mark Hart. Their theme was initially focused on lockdown measures but has shifted towards innovation and business models. “It’s been important to feature entrepreneurs who have pivoted and responded and are looking up and forward.”

Based on work within the 2017 Industrial Strategy, to which the ScaleUp Institute and many others, gave extensive input via the Scaleup Taskforce, this year has seen  the roll-out of the Small Business Leadership Programme. At present 20 participating business schools, all accredited with the Small Business Charter, are in the process of delivering the programme to 2,000 SMEs by the end of March 2021.1

The initial focus of the programme was to be around productivity and it still has that as an element, says Anne Kiem, but the Covid pandemic has meant that the curriculum has reoriented around resilience and sustainability – and how to grow beyond. “Growth remains an important part of the programme,” says Mark Hart, “it’s not just about getting through the next 12 months but how you grow after that.” 

The campus-based, face-to-face contact between universities and local businesses has been adapted to an entirely virtual one. The pandemic has meant that students have not been able to visit local scaleups or run physical events featuring local businesses – both effective and popular means of connecting business schools to the local business community. This year, scaleups have been brought in by Zoom to speak to students, rather than students making visits.

Being virtual does mean that the number of student interactions with local businesses is increasing. “We have been able to have more students participate in the sessions than ever before,” says Sarah Underwood.

The curricular element of student projects has also benefitted. “We have had our highest rate of business projects for students being submitted by local SMEs including scaling businesses,” says Sarah Underwood.

The virtual environment also lowers the barriers for scaleup leaders to interact with students, she adds. “For time-pressured scaleup leaders who have the willingness to engage with a business school but struggle to fit in the commitment of a day or half-day visiting the campus, virtual teaching is a great way of maintaining links.”

It facilitates connectivity, agrees Fiona Whitehurst, Senior Lecturer in Management and Director of Impact at Newcastle University Business School, as scaleup leaders “do not have to be so tied to the fixed timetables of the university.”

Some companies have started to offer virtual internships. “It may not be the same thing but there are creative ways of providing them,” says Anne Kiem. However, even if a business can’t always get a bright young person onto their premises, they are still keen to get this kind of help: “if you are not good at online marketing but can have a student to help you, why wouldn’t you?” 

The emergence of virtual education means that scaleups could study at business schools in other parts of the country, or other countries. But, says Fiona Whitehurst – an economic geographer by background – the importance of place remains. “Universities have a vital role in their local place,” she says. “The local buzz, resources and relationships remain absolutely crucial. We have to ensure that our students, no matter how constrained, are aware of the opportunities that exist among local scaling businesses – and that our local scaling businesses keep the connection for their talent pipeline.” 

But this is a tough environment. “We are putting extra effort into inexpensive offerings,” says Sarah Underwood. “Businesses need the support but we recognise that money may be very tight.”

The local nature of peer networks is also vital. Many business schools are facilitating them – virtually – as part of the Government’s Peer Network scheme, to which the ScaleUp Institute has given guidance.2

“We want to create networks, and networks where people can meet,” says Anne Kiem. “It matters that the delivery of peer networks is local so that the relationships can be maintained when we can return to a face-to-face delivery of the programme. There is a lot to be said for the informal conversations in a room.”

“And, right now, a greater reliance is being placed on peer networks,” thinks Fiona Whitehurst, “and we have found that bringing groups of scaleup business leaders together to discuss the current challenges has been a really good thing.”

So despite all the problems, universities and business schools remain focused on building their roles as pipelines of talent for scaleups, and providers of leadership programmes for scaleups and sources of expertise.

“We are putting more effort into strengthening our relationship with businesses, to provide a much clearer front door to enable local small and medium-sized enterprises to engage with the university and support their growth plans,” says Sarah Underwood.

Fiona Whitehurst highlights Newcastle University’s Arrow programme, “which focuses on innovation services for regional SMEs especially scaleups,” and the Northern Accelerator programme in partnership with Durham, Northumbria, and Sunderland Universities. A new Executive MBA and a part-time MSc in Strategic Leadership have also been launched. “They are accessible through apprenticeship funding and speak to the need for leadership programmes in scaleup companies,” she says. Importantly, these work alongside the North East ScaleUp programme and Entrepreneurs ScaleUp Academy, increasing capacity to work with local scaling businesses. 

“The format of many programmes will not go back to what they were before,” says Mark Hart, “but it’s the scaling agenda that will continue to drive us.”

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