David Thomson, head of external affairs at Association for Project Management (APM), the chartered body for the project profession, provides an insight into APM’s latest report The Golden Thread, which explores the contribution of project management in the SME sector, as well as challenges and future expectations for the profession.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) play an integral part of the UK economy, and projects form an essential part of business as usual for many. However, project management success stories tend to focus on big budget projects and large organisations. In this current time of uncertainty and stretched resources, the need for project expertise to deliver projects – of all sizes and types – is greater than ever.

APM’s study reveals that project management can play a significant contribution across the SME sector and has the potential to galvanise change. The research in The Golden Thread, undertaken by PwC, reveals that the SME-based project profession contributes up to £94 billion1 to the UK annually and that SMEs employ up to 1.3 million full-time equivalent workers (FTEs) in project-related roles. Many SMEs are projects themselves or part of larger project supply chains, yet often lack the necessary resource to utilise project expertise properly.

Increasing awareness of project management and making it more accessible to SMEs is key to allowing this sector to capitalise on the benefits project management offers such as:

·         stronger execution of projects

  • saving time
  • saving money

The Golden Thread report highlights certain key challenges facing SMEs that can hinder growth including uncertainty, revenue flow and accessing the right skills.

Challenges facing SMEs:

·         Skills gaps – SME projects are often run by managers with limited formal training in project management. Therefore, training and guidance is needed; particularly in key processes such as risk, change and time management. Upskilling is often a challenge as businesses with fewer employees can find it harder to spare people for longer training programmes. The Golden Thread highlights a desire for ‘bite sized’ courses to create consumable chunks of learning that employees can fit around their current job roles. 

·         Uncertainty – SMEs are vulnerable to economic and political uncertainly that can lead to delays or cancellations of mega projects (i.e. Hinkley Point C and Crossrail). SMEs form an important part of mega projects’ supply chains, making SMEs particularly vulnerable if projects are delayed or cancelled.

·         Revenue flow – SMEs have less of a financial buffer to cope with economic change due to tighter revenue flows and smaller workforces. Many SMEs believe transition to Brexit poses a risk as reductions in funding are passed on to local SMEs. This can lead to less money being spent on project management training and development.

Whilst awareness of project management is growing across the SME sector - professionalisation and chartership through APM having had a positive impact - The Golden Thread highlights the need to make the profession more accessible, allowing SMEs to capitalise on the benefits that it offers.

Some examples of how this could be achieved includes promoting ‘bite sized’ training courses, more sector-based knowledge sharing among SMEs and celebrating project success stories at a smaller scale.

The way forward for SMEs:

·        Supply chain opportunities - Local enterprise partnerships will continue to play a role in SME development by assisting businesses to take advantage of local supply chains, particularly around large construction projects. Better access and support to SMEs allows them to bid for work resulting from mega projects, helping drive further growth among the sector and releasing more revenue for increased employment opportunities.

·         Uptake in new industries – Project management can provide an important contribution to upscaling productivity across different SME subsectors. For example, the creative and media industry can benefit from project management tools to provide structure and platforms to work from.

·         Digital – Customer demands are evolving due to advancing technology and how they access products. Embracing digital change could play significant part in SMEs winning greater market share. Update of change management techniques will be important, helping to drive business model changes and smooth the transition to new technological integration and capabilities.

Tony Mulvahill, a consultant, coach, trainer and educator for project managers, who participated in The Golden Thread report, says:

“The SME network know they need to support each other, and they will when they can, but when there’s competition, that’s when things get trickier. I think that ongoing renewal of learning will be critical to success – support the evolving education requirement. It’s a challenge for the industry, because industry needs to be able to give people the time needed to keep their skills uptodate.                

How APM is supporting project professionals working in the SME sector:

APM is committed to developing and promoting the value of project management in order to deliver improved project outcomes for the benefit of society. There are a number of ways in which APM can help support project professionals working in the SME sector, including: 

·         membership 

·         qualifications

·         chartered status 

·         publications 

·         events

APM’s online community, APM Hub, is designed exclusively for individual members of APM. The platform provides the opportunity for an online group to be set up to connect project professionals working in the SME sector.

A full copy of The Golden Thread report is available at www.apm.org.uk/goldenthread/sector/