Industry Sector Development and Marketing in the LEP Era: How Can We Make Partnerships Work?

Friday 10 October 2014
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The Old UK Economic Development Landscape...

The economic development landscape in the UK has changed radically since the era of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Back in those (pre-austerity) days, public sector bodies with big budgets, and the managers within them, developed and largely controlled regional development strategies, including those relating to key industry sectors.

While approaches and results inevitably varied, I think it's fair to say that private sector organisations often went along with industry sector strategies they didn't control and may not have agreed with, in the hope of securing regional funding and other support. That, of course, is very different from genuine integration and coordination of strategies between public and private sector organisations (e.g. development agencies and property developers).

And The New...

Now things are different. Today, UK central government wants the private sector to be in the driving seat of regional economic development. Private sector representatives are on LEP boards, and are actively steering industry sector strategies. Meanwhile, the LEPs have far smaller permanent teams and significantly reduced budgets.

So is this resulting in better coordination of public and private sector activities to develop and promote regional industry sectors?

Again, practices and results vary. In some regions, the LEPs have tiny permanent teams and local authorities are the key public sector players. Elsewhere, pre-existing public sector agencies have morphed into larger LEPs, through which government strategies are implemented. In some cases the private sector is taking a 'hands on' approach to sector strategy development and implementation. In other cases, not so much.

However, based on experience working and speaking with LEPs, local authorities and businesses across the UK, I think it's fair to say that the same old fundamental problem continues to prevent most regional sector partnerships from achieving their full potential.

And it must be emphasised: most sector partnership initiatives don't get off the ground, and many more don't flourish.

The problem is this: organisations from both the private and public sectors continue to enter into regional partnerships entirely focused on their own, internal, short-term, specific corporate objectives (e.g. securing funding, planning, or leads; or delivering against specific KPIs). All of these are, of course, fundamentally important to those organisations. But regional industry sector partnerships have to be about something far more ambitious.

When Industry Sector Partnerships Work...

Where sector partnerships are thriving (and some are, even though partnership working is rarely straightforward) it's because enough of the organisations involved have made a step change in their thinking, from:

How can we get [funding] [planning] [leads] [outputs] ?


How can we help to create a thriving regional industry sector, that will, in turn, help our organisation to achieve its strategic objectives?

Because a thriving, effectively promoted regional sector will attract the best people, more R&D funding, and stronger supply chains. It will have more leverage over government policy, and it will attract more sales enquiries - which means more for us, even if it means more for everyone else, too. By committing fully to the partnership approach, these organisations have bought in to the idea that a successful whole benefits all of its parts (as distinct from 'what's good for our part alone').

The Benefits of Loose Affiliations...

It also needs to be emphasised that, in an equal partnership of influential private and public sector organisations, no single organisation can really be 'in charge'. There's much to be learned here from the concept of the 'network organisation', in which top-down, centralised control is ditched in favour of self-directing teams, working independently and flexibly towards shared goals (not coincidentally, it's an approach found in many of the world's most successful modern businesses).

In the context of industry sector partnerships, this can mean multiple independent organisations utilising a shared brand and communicating shared messages in a way that's coordinated but not controlled. Press releases don't all have to be signed off 'at the top'. Partners can take the initiative with marketing opportunities that aren't necessarily 'in the plan'. Overall, it means that more can be achieved more quickly and more effectively, utilising all the resources available to the partnership.

A positive conclusion...

Industry sector partnerships can achieve great things - to the benefit of regions and the businesses located within them. They just need the right kind of thinking, and the confidence to unleash 'the power of partnerships'.

Nick Smillie
MD, Clarity Business Strategies Ltd.

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