Mark Bell: Sport can show how to pick business winners

Great Britain won 15 ­medals at the 1996 ­Olympic Games in ­Atlanta. One was gold. Twenty years later 67 medals were won '“ 27 of these gold.

Callum Skinner won gold for Great Britain in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Picture: Getty Images

This success is a clear validation of UK Sport’s approach to picking and nurturing winners. However, the government remains ­reluctant to apply this strategy to the global ­economic race.

If Scotland wants to meet its ­aspiration of competing internationally to create jobs and growth, we need to apply some of UK Sport’s methods.

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UK Sport has developed a clear understanding of how to ­identify and nurture talent. They are unembarrassed about focusing on an elite set of potential winners and sticking to this approach, despite lobbying from those who miss out. They leave it to other organisations to support the wider sporting population.

In business, we adopt the opposite approach to this winning formula.

Business Gateway – a free ­business support service – backs local ­entrepreneurs and businesses ­irrespective of their ability. Enterprise agencies support those with good growth potential. However, no organisation is tasked with identifying and supporting the elite.

The sporting model suggests that someone should focus on those businesses which will succeed on a global scale.

There is a reluctance to find new ways to provide a support system that allows government to step back and let experienced advisors do the job. This problem is compounded by the limited availability of ­regular and long term access to world class coaches who can ­provide deep knowledge and insight, robust ­challenges, a strong contact list, and the credibility to get the potential best businesses to take notice.

Just as UK Sport had to look beyond home turf for the best coaches, we need to look beyond the network of successful ­Scottish ­business people or public sector advisory frameworks, however good they are.

The current Enterprise and Skills Review, which aims to improve the services to businesses, offers an opportunity to transform how we support their growth. We must ­genuinely and unashamedly ­commit to identifying and supporting the potential gold medal businesses of the future. We must now go beyond the current focus on high growth potential and also support those who show elite potential.

We also have the chance to exploit technology to provide a digital ­platform for the public and ­private support system to engage with and learn from the growing ­business base. We have an opportunity to evolve the role of government from one of competing in the advice and guidance landscape to one of facilitating it and strengthening public and private support systems.

We have the ideas and energy to succeed, we now need the right approach to push Scotland to the top of the economic medal table, rather than wonder why we hover around the ‘could and should be better’ range.

Mark Bell is an economic development expert at PA Consulting Group. For more information visit