Small and medium sized enterprises, or SMEs, are an integral part of the UK economy, with the nation’s estimated 5.6 million SMEs representing over 99% of all businesses.
Projects form an essential part of business as usual for many SMEs. However, project management success stories tend to focus on big-budget projects and large organisations. In order to gain an accurate picture of project management in the UK, it is important to raise the profile of project work and project managers in the SME sector and the opportunities that exist for further ‘projectification’.
Types of Projects
The types of project undertaken by SMEs are amongst some of the varied of any sector including IT/Digital transformation, new product development, creative media and event-based projects.
Skills needs and gaps
Our research found that SME projects are often run by managers with limited formal training in project management techniques. With finite resources to hire dedicated project managers, a need was highlighted for further training and guidance for these professionals, particularly in key processes including:
- Risk management
- Change management
- Time management
Communication and interpersonal skills were also recognised as important skills. The dynamics and attitudes of project team members are vital to a project’s success and our SME experts identified project managers that can apply interpersonal skills during projects can help create high-performing teams and maximise a projects benefits.
Future challenges and expectations on project professionals in SMEs
SMEs surveyed forecast a steady flow of projects and funding, with 1 in 3 expecting to see increases over the next three years. Compared to the charity and healthcare sectors SMEs have an optimistic outlook on the future number and budgets of projects.
However, our research also identified several challenges that could hinder growth: uncertainty, revenue flow and accessing the right skills. SMEs due to their very nature can face a difficult existence. More limited resources reduce their ability to adapt to shifting market conditions or weather periods of little to no growth. This can translate into difficulties introducing and embedding project management into their businesses as often the resources are not available to upskill current staff or to create positions for dedicated project managers. This can be compounded by a lack of awareness of the benefits of project management, reducing likelihood of uptake.
Uncertainty - The UK has some of the largest construction and infrastructure projects in Europe in the pipeline. These ‘mega projects’ are a vital source of work for the many SMEs that form an important part of mega projects’ supply chain. This can mean SMEs are particularly vulnerable to
any economic and political uncertainty that can result changes to investment.
Revenue flow - tighter revenue flow and smaller workforces and a smaller financial buffer to cope with economic fluctuations. Brexit poses a risk to local government in the UK and any reduction in council budgets could see a lack of funding passed onto local SMEs. Economic constraints can decrease money spent on project management, which can be more apparent in deprived areas of the country where SMEs report significantly lower turnover growth than the rest of the country. This can lead to projects being managed informally – with a lack of structured approaches and planning. SMEs can also struggle to compete with large organisations on price, therefore are unable to pass on increased costs to consumers. This means SMEs often have to emphasise value to stand out from the competition.
Accessing the right skills - tight margins make it difficult to dedicate resources, both money and time, to develop staff. Upskilling is therefore a challenge as the limited workforce makes it harder to commit staff to longer training programs. SMEs can struggle to find the budget to match salaries of larger companies with this further impeded outside of major transport hubs with rural locations making it more difficult to attract young talent.
SME CASE STUDY: PLANNING FOR THE BEST
Tony Mulvahil is a consultant, coach, trainer and educator for project managers. Tony has a wealth of project management experience gained from his background in the finance industry, and now applies this to SMEs and social enterprises in West London through his consultancy practice, Planning for the Best.
The way forward
Raising awareness of project management and making it more accessible to SMEs is key to allowing this sector to capitalise on the benefits project management offers and continue to grow. Some examples of how this could be achieved include promoting ‘bite size’ training courses and celebrating project management success stories at a smaller scale. Our research also identified a demand for more sector-based knowledge sharing among SMEs to help develop solutions to the unique challenges faced across different industries.
Supply chain opportunities - Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) will continue to play a role an important role in SME development by assisting SMEs to take advantage of local supply chains, particularly around large construction projects. Providing better access and support to SMEs, allows them to bid for work resulting from mega projects, helping drive further growth among the sector and release more revenue for increased employment opportunities.
Uptake in new industries - Several key SME subsectors were identified where project management can potentially provide a significant contribution to up scaling productivity. The creative and media industry is an example of this. The job functions and objectives of creative production managers for example are well placed to benefit from project management tools and methodologies.
Digital - Customers’ demands are constantly evolving due to rapidly advancing technology and how they access products. Embracing digital change could be a key differentiator for SMEs and help them win greater market share. The uptake of change management techniques will be important, helping to drive business model changes and smooth the transition to new technological integration and capabilities.