Module 2 | Engaging with business and stakeholders

Engaging with businesses and stakeholders to develop a Local Industrial Strategy

It is vital to engage with businesses and stakeholders in your area – to understand the challenges they are facing and to understand the opportunities which data cannot illuminate. Local Industrial Strategies (LIS) require a shared effort to make work, so engagement can build common purpose as well as an understanding of what is happening.

This module outlines why engagement is important for a LIS, the principles for engagement and the different methods of engagement. It concludes with case studies from Oxford and the North East, along with links to further resources. 

It supplements the practical guidance for engaging your business base detailed in Module 1.

Why is engagement important for a Local Industrial Strategy?

Local Industrial Strategies need to be built upon a strong understanding of the local economy, its key sectors, and what the opportunities are to drive productivity growth. Whilst data is helpful in understanding these issues, it is only through engaging with your businesses and local stakeholders (including FE colleges, higher education institutions, the NHS and the third sector), that you will gain a fuller picture of local economic dynamics and the opportunities for change.

Businesses can provide a direct understanding of the challenges they are facing in a way standard datasets do not. The kinds of questions that businesses can help you answer are:

  • Questions about growth and the market. For example, what are the main market trends and what does that mean for the business and the number of people it employs? What are the businesses’ future plans for growth? What are the barriers to growth locally? (e.g. inadequate premises, lack of skilled labour, high living costs, etc.).
  • Questions about supply chains. For example, who are the main local suppliers? What are the opportunities for supporting stronger local supply chains?
  • Questions around skills and availability of a suitably skilled labour force. For example, what kinds of skills are businesses looking for? Are businesses able to find people with the right level of skills? What other hiring challenges are businesses experiencing (for example, high costs of living)? How are businesses engaging with the apprenticeship agenda? How are businesses supporting their workforce to progress in work?
  • Questions about finance. For example, is the business looking for additional funding and of what kind? How easy is it to secure financing for this kind of business?
  • Questions about innovation. For example, does the business carry out R&D at its local site? How much engagement is the business having with higher education institutes? Has the business accessed any innovation support and how well is this working?

All of this is very relevant in developing a Local Industrial Strategy, particularly where your Local Industrial Strategy is focussing on growth in specific sectors that are dominated by a small number of key employers.

Principles for engagement

Outlined below are some principles for good engagement which have been identified through feedback from stakeholders at the LIS masterclass events:

  • Keep the conversation relevant to business - talk about what your businesses want to talk about. Empathise. Don’t use jargon – talking about ‘productivity’ can be counterproductive. 
  • Focus on quality not quantity.
  • Don’t do broad brush consultation.
  • Put in the hard graft – engagement takes time and effort. Build relationships for the long-term, not just the current process.
  • Help people connect, organise sessions that actually help businesses network with others that might lead to business opportunities, as well as providing input to your work.
  • Don’t be afraid to change plans part way through the process – LIS development and evidence base is a fairly organic process so don’t be fixed in doing something that may not be working.
  • Work with trade bodies – they can help in understanding a sector and examples of issues or things working really well – they will also have existing events and networks that you can use.
  • Don’t be afraid of doing things more than once.
  • Get others to lead events and discussions – businesses talking to businesses often works much better.
  • Use the process itself to build networks that last. E.g. get firms in a growing cluster together and then ask if they want to keep meeting or if there are things on which they want to work together.

Methods of engagement

There are a range of different methods of engaging businesses. These include:

  • Surveys or a call for evidence.
  • Using an online platform – such as Citizen Space
  • Getting up and walking the streets, knocking on the doors of local retailers
  • Talking to the FSB, CBI, and Chamber of Commerce and using existing local networks.
  • One-to-one meetings.
  • Running workshops on relevant topics (bearing in mind the above points about jargon and presentation).

When planning engagement, try and remember the following points:

  • Engagement can be difficult for businesses – especially SMEs. Think about interesting places to meet that perhaps offer networking / commercial opportunities, and venues that are convenient to get to. Try and put events on at different times of the day – breakfast sessions don’t work for parents doing the school or care run before work. 
  • Engagement should be an ongoing and long-term process of relationship building. Local places might consider using a CRM system to keep track of relationships and key issues of importance to different businesses.

Further details on these methods of engagement and their respective strengths and weaknesses, are explored further in Module 1.

Oxford Voice

Oxford City Council aimed to establish an effective relationship and account management with key businesses in growth sectors as well as create a representative group for the business community in the city – Oxford Voice – to build an effective liaison with the wider business community.

The council first commissioned a report that mapped existing forms of engagement taking place, identified any gaps and proposed a new structure for collecting and channelling the views of business, centring on two key questions:

What ‘tools’ are needed to record information and views expressed by business and what account management system is in place?

What is the purpose of the various forms of engagement, are they currently successful and how they feed into influencing policies and programmes?

The report found that the Council needed to address the existing fragmented approach to business engagement, where the means of engagement and purpose were not defined and the results not captured or used to inform discussion and debate. Also, there was no clear opportunity for businesses in Oxford to express their views on key issues and influence policies and programmes that affected the operation of their business.

Further findings from the work included:

It was vital to understand from businesses what their requirements were and to appreciate that what works in terms of engagement. I.e. what works with large companies may not be suitable for smaller ones, so ‘one size does not fit all’.

The development of an engagement framework was key, in order to appreciate what companies want from any business engagement strategy.

The subsequent implementation of the ‘Oxford Voice’ model took the form of many inter-related actions, including:

Increasing the number and range of 1-2-1 meetings with local businesses

Creating the Business in Oxford event and encouraging its promotion, support and sponsorship from all public sector bodies (City, County and LEP)

To make sure that the views and opinions expressed by business at all these various forms of engagement are systematically recorded and reported to the Oxford Economic Growth Group (OEGG), who act as the Executive Body with new terms of reference and greater representation from local companies.

The views from business can therefore be known to the council and OEGG and used as a basis to influence policies and programmes taken forward by the Oxford Strategic Partnership (OSP) or the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) that impact on the economic growth of Oxford.

North East LEP Innovation SuperNetwork

In 2016, the North East LEP, along with Venturefest North East, launched the Innovation SuperNetwork supporting innovation in businesses across the area. It is a ‘network of networks’ bringing together over 50 partners and 5000+ businesses to generate fresh ideas, new market opportunities, knowledge and money.

It is accessible to businesses, entrepreneurs and organisations in all sectors and was developed in consultation with partnering organisations and the business community in order to meet the specific needs of businesses in the LEP area, focussing on business-to-business collaboration and creating links between business and research bodies, catapults and innovation hubs.

The SuperNetwork holds a programme of conferences, seminars and workshops designed to create new market opportunities and improve access to innovation support and finance. It has dovetailed with Venturefest North East – the region’s annual innovation conference, which was attended by more than 800 delegates in 2018 – fostering cross-sector business networking and investment opportunities (£250m of deals were signed at the event in 2016), sharing of best practice, and speaker presentations.

Other projects include FinanceCamp North East, which brings together new businesses and lenders and investors that can help businesses grow, and the Innovation Challenge Programme, which allows businesses to share the challenges they’re facing and identify innovative technologies, talent and the services of other businesses in the North of England to solve them.

Relevant Resources

  • Unlocking Regional Growth is a report by the CBI that outlines the disparity between the productivity of different areas of the UK, and sets out recommendations for government on how the UK can unlock growth by closing those gaps.
  • Presentations from the business and stakeholder engagement masterclass on 3 April 2019.

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