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Headlines Published on 06 October 2004

Title Are you ready to innovate?

This is a nagging question for any small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) hoping to be competitive in the 21st century. It is also the catchy introduction to a new innovation audit tool developed in the West Midlands (UK) to improve the performance of smaller businesses. And, measure-by-measure, such initiatives help the EU achieve its Lisbon goal of becoming the world’s most competitive knowledge-based economy.

Daring to be different – helping SMEs to compete in the 21<sup>st</sup > century © Image: PhotoDisc
Daring to be different – helping SMEs to compete in the 21st century
© Image: PhotoDisc
Is your company stuttering along without direction? Are you using cutting-edge technology or making do with current equipment? Does your small company have a growth plan and a hunger to innovate? These and many more questions plague European SMEs as they look for ways to remain competitive in an increasingly ‘globalised economy’. At the regional level, smaller firms often turn to local advisers who provide valuable assistance, but Coventry University in the UK’s West Midlands felt more could be done to give local businesses the competitive edge.

Whatever answers a firm finds to these sorts of questions, the next step is always what they plan to do about it. Due to be launched on 21 October at Coventry University’s TechnoCentre, the Montage 2 Innovation Audit Tool (M2I) was created to help SMEs, initially in their region, to identify critical issues and focus their resources on potential opportunities. By identifying companies who are able to exploit new ideas, processes, services or products, the Innovation Tool helps them take a fresh look at how their business is being run.

The project got off the ground in April 2003 – funded by Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, and managed by Coventry University Enterprises Ltd. and other partners – with the aim of developing a standard tool which companies would be encouraged to use as a launch pad for innovation. It builds on the experience of the ‘Montage’ scheme – Meeting Organisations’ Needs Through Audits, Grants and Exploration – a university-led initiative designed to help SMEs make the most of innovation opportunities.

Getting to know your own company
Pilot tests of the audit tool on around 30 companies confirmed its suitability for use by firms of varying sizes and sectors. Categories in the audit cover such areas as ‘Approach to innovation’, ‘People’, ‘Leadership’ and ‘Technological capability’ and, according to M2I’s Terry Medcraft, it should take around 2.5 hours to complete the 90 questions. “It’s a unique tool in that it provides a narrative for each of the nine categories instead of just giving a numerical score,” he says. The feedback also helps by directing users to further resources on the website via links, and is aimed at prompting decisions and action in the company.

One of the advantages of the tool is that it can be used at all levels of a company, enabling everyone from the boardroom to the shopfloor to take part. For example, completing the ‘Approach to innovation’ section yields a graphical rating and a short ‘action statement’, such as:  “Because of other pressures, innovation is pushed to the background. You may see your business as in a steady state situation, but this will lead to falling behind your most aggressive competitors. Use the other areas in this tool to analyse what is really holding you back.”

SMEs can act on the results independently or together with their local Business Link Advisor – essentially government-sponsored consultants helping enterprises in regions across the UK – who should be able to advise on the most appropriate steps to improve company performance, for example through marketing more aggressively, investing in technological expertise, or revising processes.

"Working with advisors, it can also be used as a possible gateway to funding – at regional, national and perhaps one day EU level – but that depends on what funds are available,” says Medcraft. “In fact,” he adds, “calling it an audit tool is a bit misleading – it’s more than just a check on the business status, it’s a check with some guidance on what steps to take afterwards to improve the situation.”

Advantage West Midlands says the project is a major part of its Regional Innovation Strategy focused on bringing innovative thinking into the region’s higher education and research facilities, encouraging collaboration to help them compete, training, education and motivating regional actors, and enhancing the culture of innovation and spread of best practice.

Source:  Coventry University (UK)

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More information:

  • Montage 2 Innovation
  • Lisbon Strategy
  • Regional Policy (Inforegio)

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