Warwick Manufacturing Group: Helping SMEs thrive
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the lifeblood of the UK economy, making a significant financial contribution, as well as driving innovation and growth.
According to research from Hampshire Trust Bank, in partnership with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), SMEs in the top 10 UK cities will contribute £241 billion to the economy (US$316 billion) by 2025. As the UK heads into Brexit Britain, SMEs could not be more vital to sustaining the economy in uncertain times.
It is imperative that they are receiving the right support to ensure continued growth and pioneering advancements in their field – a key attribute that keeps SMEs successful.
Small business, big ideas
But being a small company with big ideas is not always easy. Launching a new product or exploring a new idea can be costly and often requires resources beyond the reach of small business owners.
The good news, however, is that those resources don’t have to be out of reach simply due to a hefty price tag.
Organisations like Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) are able to offer that support and then some, partnering SMEs with university experts in collaborations that can prove crucial in progressing a business idea.
“We listen to the company, we understand where they want to get to over a 10-year time frame, and then work with them to think about how our research can [help them],” Director of External and International Relations at WMG, Professor David Mullins, told U2B.
The group brings the expertise of university to the business world and works with businesses and organisations across the globe, large and small, to solve their challenges. On top of providing the latest research, WMG also provides skills training where needed and access to resources many SMEs simply wouldn’t be able to access without them.
WMG is a pioneer in the field of university-business collaborations, starting out in 1980 with a bid to reinvigorate the UK manufacturing industry. Under founder Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, it has become one of the world’s leading education and research groups, with relationships with over 1,000 global companies and has helped over 1,800 SMEs build their business.
Universities need to serve the community
Mullins believes universities, rather than being a bastion of academia, are there to serve the community and need to make themselves more accessible to the people and business that can benefit from their expertise.
“Universities can be really quite impenetrable organisations… but we are there for the community, we are there for the people around us, and it’s our job to make ourselves accessible to them with the right thing,” he explains.
“It’s not important what’s on our agenda, it’s not what we (the university) is wanting to get out of it, or getting someone to back our research proposal, it is very much for them a shared vision and a long-term relationship.”
Some of the organisations WMG works with have been with them for almost 40 years and have stuck with them thanks to this philosophy of putting the business first.
“We have that focus on having them achieve their vision, because if they’re successful in theirs, then we are actually successful as well.”
In SMEs, everyone – including the CEO – is often working hands-on in the business, leaving very little time to work on developing their firm’s strategy or capabilities. And most do not have the resources to pay external advisors for long periods of time to provide solutions. What they need are very efficient, robust methods for building their capabilities, and that deliver practical outcomes quickly.
WMG helps them deliver on this, but it’s not all one-sided in terms of benefits. While the university supplies a lot of the expertise and resources, they come away with equally valuable returns.
Mutually beneficial collaboration
It is not only the business that gains knowledge in this partnership. As Mullins points out, sometimes the best ideas come from those out in the field, putting things to the test.
“There can be an arrogance in the academic sector around where knowledge comes from,” said Mullins.
“We have some very bright people with some very good ideas [at the university], but if you are in some of the small, high-growth companies… they are equally bright people with equally good ideas. So, it’s another route to us for good ideas for good research projects.”
Individual academics also benefit from having interesting case studies and unique material for their curriculum development; all experiences the university may otherwise not have been exposed to.
A key benefit is of course for the students. WMG runs a scheme that takes undergraduates from departments across Warwick University and places them within the SMEs they have built a relationship with, the cost of which is supported by the university.
This breaks the cycle of what used to be known as the “milk round” when big multinational corporations would come to a prestigious university like Warwick and poach all the best talent, leaving smaller companies without a look in.
The placement system has changed that. Smaller businesses now have access to top talent without having to fight with larger companies. The student also has a better chance of getting hands-on experience and flourishing within the smaller organisations, often joining at the head of a department rather than a junior trainee position.
It’s all about finding the right fit, says Mullins. Each business, each student, and each project will be unique. The focus for WMG is not how best to deliver their education, but what are the individual needs of each party. This means the organisations works across a staggeringly large spread of project styles and goals, but there is something that is necessary in all situations to ensure success – and that’s collaboration.
“It only works if both organisations are working together.”