Explore the ScaleUp Annual Review 2020

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The importance of evaluating impact

Central to the ScaleUp Institute’s mission is to identify what is working well in both national and local programmes, in order to share good practice and insights.

A high hurdle of evidence is required from programmes to demonstrate their measurable impact, and no programme is endorsed without the ScaleUp Institute having researched and verified that evidence as well as taken it through a series of peer committees before final conclusions are made. 

In these two Insight articles, we hear the perspectives from committee members of the ScaleUp Institute’s People, Talent and Leadership Committee – and then from recently endorsed programmes about the value of the process.

For John Morris, who co-chairs the committee, it is “absolutely imperative to have an independent and objective way of assessing the relative merits of the plethora of leadership and talent development programmes. CEOs, MDs and owners of fast growth businesses should have confidence that we have done the hard work in identifying the country’s leading programmes.”

There is so much being offered and most business owners don’t know what is good out there, says Anne Kiem, chief executive of the Chartered Association of Business Schools. “It’s one reason why the level of takeup of training and development is not as high as it should be. They need bodies like the ScaleUp Institute to identify what is good and what can be relied on.”

“When businesses are investing their time and money on a programme – and time is often the more significant consideration – they want independent judgment on its quality and which ones are likely to make a difference to their business,” says Professor Sarah Underwood, Director of Executive and Professional Education at Leeds University Business School.  

It is also valuable for the programme providers, says Fiona Whitehurst, senior lecturer at Newcastle University Business School, “not only can they benchmark themselves against each other, but it improves the whole rigour of how they design their programmes.”

This also creates “an inherent positive feedback loop” for the programme providers, notes Sarah Underwood. “Evaluation raises the game across the board. Businesses can have a higher expectation when they go into a programme, while the programme deliverers can set higher expectations of what their businesses are going to achieve. And so that becomes a positive evidence base.”

According to John Morris, the programmes that have been endorsed to date share an ability to define, measure and report on the impact their programmes have had on the businesses that have taken part.  “This is so important; a programme can look like it is doing the right things, but unless it is able to tangibly demonstrate the impact it has had, it is unlikely to be endorsed,” he says.

As an evaluator, it is noticeable that the evidence has got much better, says Anne Kiem.

“There has been an improvement in the material being put forward,” says Fiona Whitehurst. This is particularly the case where programmes have had to re-submit their applications. Here, she says, credit must be given to the SUI team for working with providers to understand the value of the evaluation process.

Morris adds that successful programmes emphasise the importance of bringing the right type of businesses into their programmes from the very start.  This may increase the time and complexity of the recruitment process but it also increases the likely success of the businesses within the programme. Peer-to-peer support is another common characteristic of the endorsed programmes.  

Another benefit of the endorsement process, he adds, is that it identifies ‘horses for courses’. There’s a wide range of leadership programmes that will appeal to business leaders for different reasons. “Our endorsement process highlights and celebrates this variety of delivery models, while ensuring consistency in quality and impact.”

The evaluators are keen to see programmes continuing to focus on the measurement and demonstration of their impact. “Programmes must be set up in the right way to capture the information required,” says Morris.

Anybody looking to run a scaleup programme definitely needs to build in evaluation and working with the ScaleUp Institute is a very good way to do that, says Fiona Whitehurst.

After several years of reviewing hundreds of submissions, the evaluators now have a strong and clear picture of what good looks like. And while more programmes put themselves forward, the bar remains high. “It’s rare for a programme that is new to us to go straight to being fully endorsed,” says Sarah Underwood. “That is a status that has to be attained and is not easily dished out.”

What developments are they seeing? Morris says he is watching with interest to see if more major ecosystem players – such as banks, accountancy and law firms – will leverage their resources, expertise and networks to step up and create scaleup programmes.

There is a trend to set programmes with a particular focus, says Underwood. She thinks that some are helpful, such as those based around a theme such as investor readiness, but she is not much of a fan of sector-specific scaleup programmes – “there is a value in learning from businesses across sectors as you learn different ways to do things and question inherent business models.”

One challenge for the evaluators arising from 2020, thinks Anne Kiem, is that this year will be an anomaly. “It will be difficult to compare cohorts from this year with previous ones because of how Covid will have affected businesses differently.  Some businesses have done well not because they are better businesses but because of the sector that they are in. The world’s best sound engineering business for the live events industry will have struggled this year; an average maker of face masks will have done well.”