Power to the small players
Skilled professionals counsel SMEs to help them compete in a global market where big companies dominate, writes Debra Martin
certified business counselling
BIG MULTINATIONALS may have the clout to determine many of the rules of global business, but the fact remains that the vast majority of employees in Asia and around the world work for small- or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). To hold their own, these companies sometimes need a little extra help, which is where certified business counselling comes in.
The phenomenon of globalisation has not brought equal benefits for all types of companies and, in some cases, has only served to polarise certain markets. According to Spencer Ma, chief consulting officer for Stonehenge Consulting and chairman of CPA Australia's SME committee, that has created a need for skilled professionals who can counsel SMEs and help them compete in a global market where large corporations dominate the landscape.
'Free trade agreements have created both opportunities and challenges for SMEs,' Mr Ma said. 'There is a bigger market and potential customer base, but also fierce competition from overseas.'
His interest in promoting certified business counselling courses and services stems from a genuine desire to help the underdog. 'It's not just a commercial venture,' Mr Ma said. 'The aim is to help SMEs by providing high-quality professional services that were not accessible to them before.'
There is certainly no shortage of SMEs to help. According to Mr Ma, in Hong Kong alone, 98 per cent of businesses fall into this category and, taken together, they employ 60 per cent of the local private sector workforce.
In 1997, ministers from 15 member countries of Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) recognised the importance of SMEs for economic growth, as well as the need to train and certify business advisers to help them deal with the emerging knowledge-based economy.
By establishing education programmes and training opportunities, the aim was to teach entrepreneurs about the dynamics of the global economy. In 2001, Apec ministers also approved the creation of the International Network of Institutes of Small Business Counsellors (Apec IBIZ).
As member countries, Canada and the Philippines pioneered the programme for certified business counsellors, while others provided strong support.
Internationally, there are already 100 accredited counsellors and at least 1,000 students completing the course, which leads to the professional designation of Apec CBC.
In Hong Kong, Apec funded a special programme, designed with the help of the Hong Kong Productivity Council. Most students who enrol are practising consultants with a tertiary-level or postgraduate education. However, the programme is also suitable for professionals working in SMEs who want to study business theory and acquire new skills.
Ten course modules cover topics ranging from government regulations and electronic commerce to financial analysis and marketing. The Productivity Council offers weekend classes and it takes a few months to complete all the required subjects on a part-time basis.
However, people taking the course must also complete 400 hours of counselling with ten SMEs within three years to qualify for full certification.
'The most successful graduates have strong analytical and interpersonal skills, loads of business acumen and the ability to relate to and build trust with clients,' Mr Ma said.
Since he holds both an MBA and the Apec CBC, Mr Ma is in a position to make comparisons. 'The counselling course is like a trimmed-down MBA that uses lay language instead of business jargon and technical terms,' he said. 'It uses checklists, tables and templates that are useful for everyone.'
Despite these efforts to promote globally relevant skills among SMEs, the concept of business counselling is regarded as something new in the region.
'In Hong Kong, some traditional family businesses have grown to the point where they are ready for an initial public offering,' Mr Ma said.
In such family concerns, he said, it often occurred that if the original owners were still in control, they tended to show little or no interest in 'new-fangled' business theories, even if these could help take the company to the next level.
'The second and third generations are more receptive to strategic planning,' Mr Ma said. 'They realise the need for specialised skills they may not have.'
Certified business counsellors aim to empower SME owners with the knowledge and tools to identify problems and tackle them effectively. They teach how to explore and execute solutions after considering things objectively. Unlike consultants, whose brief is often to come in and fix problems for clients, counsellors encourage independence and pass on knowledge.
'In this way, SMEs can learn new competencies in supply chain, production or logistics, so they can re-engineer processes,' Mr Ma said. 'Then they can create a culture of continuously looking for improvements in operational efficiency, cost, delivery lead time and quality.'
However, despite the potential advantages, some Hong Kong SMEs remain sceptical. 'Many don't want to reveal their company's problems to an outsider,' Mr Ma said. 'Large companies don't mind inviting in McKinsey or other consulting firms to look at their problems, even if they have a brand name or a superstar chief executive. They are used to the process.'
There are a number of reasons for the reluctance among Hong Kong SMEs to seek business counselling services. One reason could be cultural; some Chinese-run companies may feel awkard about openly discussing their corporate problems. Another reason is that SMEs tend to think they are the experts, because they built the business from the ground up.
'Bakers might be experts at making bread, but if they have limited business skills, they won't know how to build a brand or finance expansion,' Mr Ma said.
The pride associated with personal ownership can also cause SMEs to keep their doors closed to outsiders. If the business has not grown according to plan, the owner may even be unwilling to admit there is a problem until it is too late.
In many cases, SMEs worry about not having the resources to implement recommendations. 'Some SMEs wrongly think counsellors will try to prolong the consultation process just to get more money out of them.'
Mr Ma viewed China as the main market for certified business counsellors. 'There are a lot of start-up companies in China and not enough qualified advisers to help them out,' he said.
If these 'individual business owners' hoped to compete in a market where large corporations and state-owned enterprises have been operating for years, they would have to sharpen their business skills.
Apec business counsellors may have no intent to 'steal from the rich' to give to the less well off, but there is something in their mission to bridge the gap between big business and SMEs that Robin Hood would applaud.