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 West London area contains a mix of SMEs, covering a wide variety of sectors. Organisation size varies widely – from microbusinesses with 8-10 employees to companies with 250-plus staff. Tony highlighted that there is interplay between West London’s large companies and projects, and SMEs and smaller project work. Major projects in the area such as the Heathrow expansion, and the Park Royal development generate project work for many SMEs, and SMEs ‘fit’ around the larger organisations – a key example being the many SMEs within Heathrow’s supply chain. Planning for the Best supports the local SME network by identifying applicable project management methodologies and frameworks and translating them so that they can be applied across these SME’s projects. Tony believes that many within the SME sector are ‘accidental’ project managers – most of those in the sector who are engaged in project work do not hold a ‘project professional’ job title, but instead tend to be sales managers, marketers, production managers, directors or engineers. Although these ‘accidental’ project managers know their industry well and are organised, there are areas in which they can benefit from a more professional approach to project processes and techniques. 

Through his work, Tony has highlighted key gaps in project management skills amongst SMEs. The main areas where SMEs require support include developing business cases to support bids for local contracts, benefits management, and organising post-implementation reviews. SMEs often need support with risk management, change management, and time management.

A typical example is a local contractor that was very skilled in solar panel installations, but unfamiliar with project management principles: risk management was identified as a technique that could assist them when considering and undertaking installations on non-load-bearing roofs. Tony believes that the SME network in West London are good at supporting each other and have strong working relationships. However, damage to the working relationship can occur when large ‘outsider’ companies move into the region and compete by undercutting local SMEs – this creates price pressure and disrupts the network. Another key challenge for the SME sector in West London is cash flow and the availability of funding. Cash flow is much more important for SMEs than for larger organisations, and work can be ‘hand-to-mouth’, without the buffer of a large number of contracts. Due to the size of SMEs, and their local focus, council budget cuts can have a strong adverse effect.

In terms of training needs and skills gaps, Tony believes that the main challenge for SMEs is that they can lack the time and resource to provide their staff with additional raining. Smaller organisations don’t have the number of employees to send their people on day-long (or longer) training courses, as it takes too much out of their workforce. As a solution, Tony believes that more ‘bite-size courses’ would be beneficial, as it would create ‘consumable chunks of learning’ from which SME staff could benefit. 

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