Helping SMEs to look further ahead Socio-economic research can help to identify the business trends that all companies need to take account of in their forward planning. Smaller companies have not so far taken part in this kind of research, but a new project, PLATON, aims to use industrial associations and Chambers of Commerce to get SMEs involved in it. They will improve their own skills and influence the kind of research that is done. The activity will help small businesses to improve their competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace and protect these firms on which so much of Europe’s economic activity depends. Small and medium sized companies have always had difficulties in finding time and funds for research, although the EU has successfully helped them to get involved in many technical and scientific projects. Now for the first time, the PLATON project is seeking to persuade SMEs of the value of social, political and economic studies. “In today’s highly competitive and internationalised business environment, smaller companies and groups need more than ever to look ahead,” says PLATON’s coordinator Dimitrios Papageorgiou of Q-PLAN N.G Thessaloniki, Greece, “but do not have the knowledge or experience to go about it.” To stay competitive, SMEs must formulate long-term business targets, and appreciate that ‘softer’ research can make their targets realistic and give them the tools to meet them. “They need a better understanding of trends, so that they can identify business opportunities and threats,” adds Papageorgiou, “and adopt a more proactive attitude to business planning”. The European textile industry offers an example of a sector that failed to see the writing on the wall. Many small manufacturers were driven out of business when the market turned to other countries with much lower labour costs. Advance knowledge of the trend could have enabled some of them to plan to diversify and look for niche markets, and so to survive the change. When PLATON began in 2005, there was not a single SME in Europe taking part in any research project in the CITIZENS targeted priority area in FP6. “They don’t see it as meeting their immediate needs,” explains Papageorgiou. “It seems too academic and irrelevant, while they are concerned with the day-to-day business of survival. The mainspring of PLATON is to target this group and show how research can help them.” Using existing research players & SME groupings “It would not be realistic to expect a typical small business to participate directly in socio-economic research projects,” comments Papageorgiou “They may appreciate the need but don’t have the skills or experience to participate in such projects. We will mainly target the organisations that small businesses join in our six participating countries, Greece, Italy, Germany, the UK, Poland and Estonia. These ‘SME Groupings’ could be industrial associations, sectoral groupings, clusters and networks and Chambers of Commerce. Also, we expect a small number of individual highly innovative SMEs interested in socio-economic issues to join (such as consultancies, IT service companies and socio-economic studies companies). “Our approach is top-down. We will contact organisations already active in EU-funded socio-economic research and persuade them to involve SME groupings or even individual SMEs in their projects. We will put them in touch and help them to find common ground for collaboration and do the research they both need. This contact will be a two-way process: the PLATON project will try and persuade social and economic research organisations to tailor their research toward the needs of SMEs. They will then be able to get the kind information that they require earlier in the planning process and influence the course of the research as it develops. What do SMEs need to know The six countries in PLATON have widely different economies, industries and businesses. The national organisations that will spread knowledge and interest in PLATON will focus initially on service companies, and those in the IT business, as these have the most direct interest in the kind of research that is being covered. Some more traditional areas, like manufacturing, agro-food and tourism, also need to be aware of social trends and efforts will be made to bring them into the network. PLATON will also help SME managers to improve their administrative skills through training and by taking part in these research projects. Smaller businesses are unlikely to take account of socio-economic factors and the increasing importance of corporate social responsibility in their business planning. Many research projects, processes and services fail to be turned into business opportunities because these aspects are not sufficiently recognised in the design and validation stage. PLATON is adopting a range of measures to help achieve its objectives. They include ‘conventional’ information days, networking events, workshops and similar activities. A range of more advanced services has also been devised for individual SMEs and groups of SMEs, including training sessions, strategic guidance and help in preparing research action plans. “More than 2000 SMEs, SME groupings and research organisations in the EU will be contacted, informed, join in and generally benefit from our activities,” concludes Papageorgiou. While SMEs are striving to survive in an increasingly global marketplace, socio-economic studies and research activities can help them identify and benefit from new business opportunities and avoid threats that affect their business environment.
Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, United Kingdom