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Running a small business can be challenging at the best of times, never mind against a backdrop of ongoing economic uncertainty, rising inflation rates, skills gaps and supply issues.

As SME leaders face a raft of complex issues, the need for the right conditions and interventions to boost business confidence and unlock growth potential has never been more critical.

So why are SMEs important to the economy?

Often referred to as the backbone of the UK economy, SMEs are essential to economic growth and social development. Northern Ireland is regarded as a small business economy with over 123,000 small-medium sized enterprises, accounting for 99.9% of all private sector businesses – making it the region with the highest number of SMEs in the UK.

The Northern Ireland economy is expected to return to pre-pandemic growth by mid to late 2022, according to forecasts by PwC. Interestingly, when comparing pre-pandemic economic output levels in Q4 2019, NISRA show recent local production output increased by 5.2% and service output by 4.9%, although retail remains 1% below.

Coupled with this mixed economic landscape, SMEs, to varying degrees, are also facing significant challenges operationally including the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and rising global costs which are adversely affecting the wider business environment.

Notwithstanding these challenges, many SMEs leaders aspire to unlock their growth and productivity potential.  In fact, SMEs may seek new approaches to counter the contemporary business challenges.

How can this be achieved?

One way to unlock business potential is through greater investment in skills and knowledge. Enhanced skills and knowledge can inform different operational and strategic decisions to help businesses remain competitive and adaptable. However, investing in skills development and learning is often considered a secondary priority among small businesses, especially when wrestling with the day-to-day macro and micro challenges.

Let’s take a look at some of the common obstacles preventing SMEs from embracing learning and development opportunities.

  • SMEs may not realise there is a need for learning in the first place.  The business of ‘doing’ everyday means that opportunity to reflect on ‘how to do’ is often overlooked.  It is important to take time and reflect on what is working or not.  Think about productivity and business goals and ‘where you want to take your business’.
  • Not knowing where to go to plug skills gaps can also prove problematic.  If you don’t know what is out there and how to match it to an unknown skills gap then this may seem an impossible situation. This is where your network in councils, chambers, further education colleges and universities are critical to direct and guide you.
  • 'I’ve been in this business for years and know what I need to do.’  This is true so business owners need to know the ‘real impact’ on their business of investing time and resources in learning.  The best advice is to ask questions of the providers so that you can ensure the course is aligned to your business needs and goals.
  • The financial cost of training can be difficult to justify especially in the current economic climate. Think about how much budget is available for training and funding opportunities.  Networks, contacts and training providers are best placed to advise.  Remember the key is ‘value-for-money’ which can only be achieved by matching ‘gap-learning-impact’.
  • Finally, time is a precious commodity and freeing up time to learn in business is difficult.  Identifying the time commitment and mode of delivery (for example, online, face-to-face or hybrid) in advance of signing up to a programme will help ensure that you can balance this.

At Ulster University Business School we have the solution to your learning and skills needs. The Help to Grow: Management programme, a practical leadership and management training course, is designed for small businesses across the UK to support business growth and advances in productivity and competitiveness.

The programme focuses on a number of business priority areas including strategy, innovation, digital adoption, sustainable business, finance and marketing and the curriculum has been developed based on the needs and challenges of SMEs.

From day one, the focus is on applying learning directly to your business to deliver targeted impact and results specific to your needs. This bespoke programme is delivered in a hybrid mode, using online and face-to-face, over 50 hours so the time commitment is designed to work around your existing business.

The cost to the business is £750 which is 90% government subsidised.  The knowledge and learning is supported by peer-learning, sharing business experiences and challenges along with real solutions, in addition to 10 hours of one-to-one mentoring. The outcome of the programme is a Growth Action Plan specific to your company delivering real impact.

If you are an SME seeking to make growth, productivity and competitiveness your priority, this programme is for you.

For more information and details on the next available cohort, contact Dr Laura Bradley McCauley ( or visit the Help to Grow web page.