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Making cakes or building walls?

A couple of weeks ago I delivered the keynote presentation at a national conference. It was the annual gathering of the National Outdoor Events Association. These are the people who make sure that the festivals, concerts and other major cultural events we all attend are safe, secure, accessible and perhaps most importantly, adequately supplied with food, drinking water and toilets.

My brief was to explain to them how Big Society translated into big opportunities for their members. It was important to differentiate between the enterprise and the entrepreneur. Many of their members simply provide services in response to customer request. These are clearly enterprises. Others however added value, innovation and creativity in ways that enable their client to increase footfall and profit. These are more entrepreneurial and in my view naturally lead the field.

I needed a metaphor and thought about mixers. I compared two pieces of equipment, similar in function but quite different in effect. One was a truck mounted cement mixer, which arrives on site to pour concrete into holes in the ground. The other food mixer used by a chef to create a tasty cake. The truck is large and expensive to own and operate. The food mixer relatively cheap, yet has the potential to add tremendous value.

The majority of events supported by Association members are commissioned by local government and other public sector organisations. Understandably the future looks challenging as public spending cuts will inevitably reduce the amount of spend on public events. I suggested that members had to move away from behaving like truck drivers delivering wet cement and start lending their own recipes for success.

Just as the chef in the kitchen will experiment and select new ingredients to blend and tempt the palate of his or her customers so too must even the most mundane service provider spice up their offering. ‘Cement builds walls and cakes build relationships,’ I explained. Slowly the penny dropped, perplexed expressions relaxed and people began to smile. I was not asking them to do new things, but instead asking them to do the same things in different ways.

To me the way to make enterprises more entrepreneurial is to put them together in new and interesting ways. This means behaving differently and doing more than collaborating with others in the same industry sector. After all a long line of cement mixers is still going to do nothing more than deliver loads of cement. You need bricks, joinery, plumbing and tiles if you are to build a street of houses. And to achieve that you also need funders, architects and planners.

We talked about regeneration. We discussed the challenges organisations face in building any sense of community in some of the grimmest housing estates in the country. I explained that people they had yet to meet had budgets to engage with people, to build community pride and give hope to those who otherwise have none.

‘Surely,’ I said, ‘within the room was the expertise to create exciting and appealing events that could be delivered on the doorstep of the very people others were trying to tempt over the threshold.’

But for people already running successful enterprises is it too much to ask them to gain the understanding they need to capture the attention of this new market sector? My experience is that it often takes an independent agent or catalyst to see the opportunity, then define it in terms both sides can become excited about. Indeed often I find myself fulfilling that role. But it is also a golden opportunity for the entrepreneurial, open-minded, perhaps slightly adventurous trade association.

It could be said that many trade associations are in effect social enterprises. After all their membership is their community of interest and many are constituted as not for profit organisations. Add to the mix the massive need for new thinking and new ways of engaging the hard to reach and hard to help and the opportunity becomes clear. Of course the purists would say that social enterprise is not like this, but social entrepreneurship most certainly is.

Just as the entrepreneurial chef adds baking powder to make the cake rise, so too will those enterprise cement mixers need a magic ingredient to rise to the challenges they face. But just imagine the scale of success they could achieve!

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