Earlier this year, The Economist ran a feature titled “For Britain to grow faster it needs better managers”. There is clear evidence supporting this proposition, but less consensus on how to do it.   

Help to Grow: management scheme 

There are a number of ways the UK Government can improve management capability. Among these are schemes to help businesses directly, such as its Help to Grow: management. 

The scheme was announced in early 2021 as part of the UK Government’s replacement of its Industrial Strategy. It is a 12-week programme of learning, networking and mentoring open to managers or leaders of businesses with between 5 and 249 employees, delivered through business schools. Participants pay a fee of £750, which is 10% of the cost, the other 90% being paid for by the government. Paul Scully, the minister then in charge of the scheme, described the programme as a mini-MBA that would help 30,000 small businesses over three years. 

In theory, the scheme is aiming at the right target. Unpublished CIPD analysis suggests that the strategic positioning of a business such as whether to aim for a quality or a basic service has a stronger effect on its productivity than whether it adopts any particular management practice. The question is whether it is able to hit enough targets to make a noticeable difference to UK productivity. Would small firms be willing to pay £750 up-front to pay for lessons in what can seem abstract, esoteric topics far removed from the day-to-day grind of making and selling?  Furthermore, experience with the CIPD People Skills programme suggests it can be hard to attract businesses even when the assistance is free of charge and tailored more to immediate issues, like how to write a job description.  

This was recognised right from the start. An assessment by the most senior civil servant responsible, made in February 2021 (though not published until January 2023), described the 30,000 target as ambitious and “a risk whether this number is feasible to fully reach this target by 2025”.  

Is the scheme working?  

It’s fair to say Help to Grow: management had a patchy start. According to UK Government data, £19.2 million was spent in 2021/22, against an initial forecast of £59 million, an underspend of 68%. According to the latest figures, fewer than 3,000 SME leaders registered in 2021/22. The latest evaluation reports point to increased take-up in 2022/23, but numbers going through the programme are still a fraction of initial forecasts.  

Initial feedback from those business leaders that participated in the scheme is generally positive. For example, two-thirds of programme completers (68%) had made changes to the way they manage, organise or operate their business within six months of completing the programme. However, it’s not yet clear how much of any benefits to the businesses supported are at the expense of other small firmsThe shortfall in recruitment of businesses must in any case mean the initial impact of the scheme has been significantly lower than originally intended.  

Over-optimistic forecasts of business take-up are not new, according to the National Audit Office. Part of the reason may be the constant chopping and changing of policies and the organisations charged with delivering them. The engagement of competent and trusted delivery partners is critical to securing take-up by SMEs. For this type of support to be effective, it needs to be embedded in the business support infrastructure, for example, through Local Enterprise Partnerships, or chambers of commerce. 

About the author

Mark Beatson

Mark Beatson, Senior Labour Market Analyst

Mark's respected labour market analysis and commentary strengthens the CIPD’s ability to lead thinking and influence policy making across the whole spectrum of people management and workplace issues.

Prior to joining the CIPD, Mark was an economic consultant and for over 20 years worked as an economist in the Civil Service, latterly at Chief Economist/Director level, in a range of Government departments including the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and HM Treasury.

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