Jim Duffy: Scottish Enterprise no longer fit for purpose

Start-ups can only benefit from business support but how that is implemented defines just how useful that support will be. Picture: John Devlin
Start-ups can only benefit from business support but how that is implemented defines just how useful that support will be. Picture: John Devlin
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No amount of cute titles and clever acronyms can disguise the need to support and nurture new business, writes Jim Duffy

For many of you out there in the big bad world today, economic prosperity, enterprise agencies and start-up ecosystems just don’t register on your radar. If I asked you who the new chairman of Scottish Enterprise is and what has he accomplished in his first 90 days in the job, you probably won’t know. If I asked you how Business Gateway was set up in Scotland and whether it was run at a profit by external contractors or local authorities, again you may not know or, in fact, care. If I asked you what you would do with the millions of pounds of public monies sitting on the balance sheets of these external contractors, you again may not have an answer or be inclined to care…. well, you should!

Scotland spends a small fortune on start-up, growth and the Holy Grail – scale-up. The budget alone for Scottish Enterprise is eye-watering, going into hundreds of millions of pounds. The CEO of Scottish Enterprise, Lena Wilson, reportedly gets paid more than £200,000. Personally, I think the figure should be more like £750,000 based on the huge budget and remit of the agency she runs and the papers should stop having a go at her pay package. In the US, anyone running such a hugely important economic driver would trouser a lot more. Top job, top talent and all that.

Our Business Gateway contracts have made many a social enterprise very cash rich, while delivering what could only be described as a lackluster and antiquated service that is anachronistic and mired in bureaucracy. It’s the same old, same old and despite the odd case study here or there it’s bordering on extinction. I have a radical plan for this, but that’s for another day.

My question is, do you out there in the metropolis that is Scotland care about all of this? How relevant is it to you where you work just now? Do these organisations need to change and have they moved the economic development dial over the past five years with hundreds of millions of your cash that has been ploughed into them?

Firstly, I know some top drawer people who work in places like Atrium Court in Glasgow, the home of Scottish Enterprise. I was lucky enough to work with them when we created the Scottish EDGE Fund. In fact, it was Elaine Morrison from SE who actually came up with the title EDGE – Encouraging Dynamic Growth Entrepreneurs. I’m not taking the credit for that one, Elaine! So, what I’m not going to do here is what so many do and simply say: Scottish Enterprise is no longer fit for purpose. That’s too easy to roll off the tongue. Too glib. It doesn’t provide a better alternative. What I am going to address here for all of you out there, whether you think economic development by the public sector is important or not, is the key question – are they moving the dial in enterprise?

The answer is yes. There is no denying that SE, HIE and Gateway are all out there making a difference. Business Gateway has opened its new ‘incubator’ in Aberdeen and is having a go at being a bit more entrepreneurial. Many local authorities have brought the Gateway contracts back in-house and are tying them into their own local economic development strategies. This is the best way to run Business Gateway, I believe, as any surpluses – and as discussed above, they are lucrative in some areas – should be funneled back into local delivery and not amassed in a standalone bank account somewhere. Scottish Enterprise and HIE are engaged in many new ideas to continually kick-start and reboot enterprise in and from Scotland. I’m not disputing that in any way - and an army of highly paid consultants will fire all sorts of data and measurements at me to prove the point. What I am challenging is the culture within the likes of SE.

There are two points here to note. I believe that SE, as an example, has become too inward-looking and afraid to be bold. As I alluded to earlier, many a newspaper is ready to criticise them and the CEO if they do something that is radical or out of the ordinary. I wonder what goes through Lena Wilson’s head in the morning as she brushes her teeth. If she is concerned about negative PR, the sharks that are circling to oust her from her job, the politics she has to engage in that day or the inertia that stifles intrapreneurship in her organisation, then it’s game over. I’d go get the seven hundred and fifty grand elsewhere Lena. However, if she is brushing away and singing, thinking about the difference she and her team can make, the possibilities for the future and the radical change she is going to drive through this day, then like her, I’m happy as Larry. I’m not so sure which one it is though…

Secondly, are these agencies too big to fail? Have they actually lost the capacity to be entrepreneurial because they are so big and kinda stuck in their ways? Do they have skunk works and spin-outs operating within them and coming out of them? Can they set up a new team and execute really fast or do they need sign off to do anything, from three different directors after weeks of strategy papers blah blah blah? You know what I mean – the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ culture.

I’m not afraid to have sharp elbows and ask these questions. It’s not always the most popular person in the room that gets things done and that is why entrepreneurs just crack on without consensus. If Steve Jobs of Apple was brave and bold enough to take on IBM, we need to be bold enough not just to take on but to enable our public sector economic development agencies to really move the dial, not one degree left, but off the charts.

It’s time for change…. and I’ll support any public sector CEO who wants to really embrace this.

• Agitator and disrupter Jim Duffy is the Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark