Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Lancaster Centre for e-Science is working with the Northwest Regional Development Agency LEAD project that aims to provide leadership training to owners of small businesses in the region. The LEAD programme has been very successful (see and was originally conceived by the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (IEED) at Lancaster University Management School to provide owners an opportunity to meet other business owners in a mix of seminar and online interactions. Research on past participants on the programme indicates that those which participate are likely to increase sales turnover by approximately 15%; participants also highlight this additional growth is significantly influenced by their learnings during LEAD . Over the coming 3 years the programme, across 15 institutions in the region, will impact around 1250 business owners hopefully yielding sizable increases in north west economic growth.

The question to pose at this stage is how can we keep busy business people online once their LEAD programmes complete? It would be incredibly useful to have a large, easily accessible group of business people. For instance, at the beginning of the recession information on the impact of the recession at the small business level was scarce. Typically, knowledge of impacts has to wait until the dust settles and aggregate statistics come out of the Office of National Statistics. If we engage with business people electronically, in a trust based environment it could provide us real-time information on events. The Sakai portal technology we produce and provide as a service has capabilities as a e-community building device. It contains the usual tools, probably the most popular are forums. e-Facilitators (people that maintain electronic communication) are able to develop trust in in their LEAD communities allowing them to ask fairly confidential information to delegates. Responses to trusted e-facilitators are usually rapid and from multiple sources. Responses form very useful qualitative insights into problems. Additionally to forums, delegates are highly likely to response to online surveys that can be posted via the portal. For instance, we gather survey data from delegates as part of the evaluation of the programme; we have no problem getting to 100% response rates which is incredibly high. The evidence does suggest a high value should be placed in developing and maintaining groups of business owners online.

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