Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Future of Business Support

Business information and advice: back to the library

I recently produced a report for SINTO on business information provision in Yorkshire. It is a review of the current landscape and a vision of what might be. Now it appears that the whole landscape may change.

According to Real Business, small business minister Mark Prisk (Minister of State for Business and Enterprise) has announced that the Business Link Network is to be closed down. This follows on from the news that the Regional Development Agencies are to be replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships. This news is not confirmed on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website so it is not clear how reliable this is but it may be a leak to gauge public opinion on the matter.
It appears that Prisk is influenced by a report Small Business and Government produced a couple of years ago by Doug Richard for the then Conservative Shadow Cabinet . Richard claimed that the current system was overly complex, ineffective and undirected. He was particularly scathing about Business Links.

Richard went on to propose:

  • business support policy needs to clearly reflect the difference between providing information and expert advice or support.
  • the whole regional business support apparatus of RDAs and Business Links should be replaced by a single, web-based Business Information Service.
  • The in-depth information system behind the BIS should be modelled on the successful British Library Business and IP Centre, which is a substantive service provided by an institution with proven competence. Similar centres should be rolled out across the country, delivered by major libraries and leading universities: they are accessible organisations that have the proven competence to deliver expert information services, providing depth behind the web-based service.

Prisk has certainly seized on the last of these suggestions. Speaking at the launch of the "Inventing the 21st century" exhibition at the British Library he announced that a memorandum of understanding had been signed between Newcastle City Library, the British Library and NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) to investigate the feasibility of a Business and IP Centre Newcastle as a pilot for rolling out a new business support service.

Richard's ideas for a web-based Business Information Service sound very close to the idea put forward in the JISC Grant Funding invitation 1/10 Access to Resources and Open Innovation (which in turn followed on from the Business Information Resources: Landscape & Feasibility Study (BIR) written by Nigel Spencer of the British Library) for a one-stop-shop portal which would provide access to free and priced information. JISC is currently funding eight projects around the country which are piloting this concept.

Richard's separation between information and expert advice is interesting. In his report he said:

"… we believe that a Conservative Government should focus its efforts on enabling the provision of information, not advice. There is no need for Government advisors to try and compete with private and third sector agencies. Government should instead work through business experts, existing institutions and current programmes that could be reinforced rather than being reinvented".

Information is not just data, it can include "how to" texts which offer advice and help on setting up and running a business - the sort of thing that most public libraries and Business Link web sites provide. Richard argues that this is different to expert business advice delivered on a one-to-one basis. The later can be provided by independent paid for advisors operating in a free market and evaluated through web-based customer rating services similar to e-bay.

This model of business support is closer to the core purpose of library services. So far so good but there are obvious gaps. Who is running this national Business Information Service and how will it be funded. And who is funding the local B&IP centres. The "major libraries and leading universities" that are "accessible organisations that have the proven competence to deliver expert information services, providing depth behind the web-based service" need some incentive and support to take on this role. If Business Links are abolished will some of their funding be directed towards public libraries? One problem is that the "proven competence" of public libraries is being rapidly eroded at the present and so far there has been little evidence of the Government wanting to reverse this. It is ironic for Mark Prisk to be promoting a dynamic role for public libraries while his colleagues are handing the service over to volunteers.