An Open Innovation Learning Network – for SMEs and others

An Open Innovation networking programme for SMEs, run by an experienced

local Chamber of Commerce in Belgium – might be a model that would work

here in the UK. Groups are carefully matched in terms of sector, specialism and

maturity of organization.

       I have just returned from a two-day workshop in Belgium about mentoring small groups of senior managers in SMEs, who meet together regularly to draw on each other’s experience – a striking example of collaborative enterprise. Set up by a passionate individual in East Flanders Chamber of Commerce, it has been running for twenty years and has now been seeded in at least fifteen different countries (in Egypt it was sponsored by Unilever, and in South Africa by Standard Bank.)

‘Plato’, an ‘Open Innovation Network’, is a programme whose primary aim is to help SMEs in the self-development of managerial competencies. Groups of about fifteen managers and three mentors (who are from larger companies) are carefully matched (especially in terms of sector, specialism, and maturity of organisation) so that they will have knowledge and experience that will contribute to each other’s problems or opportunities; and they hold regular meetings one evening a month over two years.

When they first come together, the participants identify their objectives and needs, both in the moment, and medium and longer term, and their first challenge is to work out how best those needs can be met, essentially from among the members of the group, and to set the ground rules; and they will agree some agendas for the first few meetings (together with plans for how each item will be treated), and importantly the location – often each other’s places of business. The mentors may steer the learning process, but they also contribute their own experience to the learning, and they draw their own particular learnings from the process.

Participants get immediate access to valuable personal experience about their biggest issues; they are able to hone their understanding through discussions then and there; they get emotional support; they get introductions to possible customers and partners who may be just what they need; and they gain friends to do business with. And the mentors find their understandings about initiative and of getting things done sharpened, their skills in leading groups enhanced, and their horizons expanded.And the ‘Plato Academy’ runs annual events for participants to come together and likewise for mentors to come together – to celebrate and to share experience.

(My own ‘Networking Groups’ (action-learning) are likewise highly valued: participants gain in different terms – maturity, confidence and breadth of outlook (and they are often then ready for promotion); but groups of this kind are difficult to recruit to – perhaps because the benefits are difficult to foresee and unspecific in kind.)

It is a finely tuned programme, with some skilful touches; its benefits have been confirmed by a research study by Deloittes; it is evidently valued, transcends boundaries, and continues to be viable (with government funding or sponsorship) – everyone, mentors included, pays a significant but comparatively modest sum to participate (but in Belgium, a 50% rebate is available from the government.)

 This sort of approach and the Plato model seem likely to be adaptable for start-ups and spin-outs alike; and potentially useful in incubators, angel groups, science parks, venture capital funded companies and all sorts of organisations; and could be a useful medium for the work Nesta is doing to provide skills and tools for people with ideas.  (http://www.platogb.co.uk/ThePLATOProgramme.aspx)

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