EQUAL's Tool for Inclusive Entrepreneurship: seven more supporters November 2007
Oviedo in the North of Spain provided the venue for two days of intense discussions about how to extend EQUAL's "Community of Practice" on Inclusive Entrepreneurship to more Member States and Regions during the vital transition period between the old and new Structural Fund Programmes.
The Community of Practice on Inclusive Entrepreneurship (CoPIE) is one of seven pilot projects supported by the European Commission to test new forms of support for transnational cooperation on issues of major concern to the European Social Fund. CoPIE aims to establish "a European platform of excellence for all those interested in sharing and improving both practice and policy for opening up entrepreneurship to more people during the next round of the Structural Funds."
Just before the summer, Nikolaus van der Pas, the Director General of DG Employment, said: "To continue their work till 2013, I believe we need to build a platform for inclusive entrepreneurship in the new Structural Funds period." He added: "We need to make start-ups by so-called 'disadvantaged' people a normal thing, and transnational work is an important part of achieving that". At Oviedo, representatives from the Czech Republic, Romania, Ireland, Flanders, Germany and four Spanish regions (Asturias, Andalucía, Extremadura, and the Basque Country) agreed to follow this advice and launch the second phase of CoPIE's activities.
On behalf of Germany and Flanders, the lead partners behind CoPIE, Bettina Reuters explained how the main ideas of the platform had arisen from the work of over several hundred partnerships during the last five years of EQUAL. During this period, she said that a group of Member States had not only come to realise that they faced a series of common problems but also that they had a lot to learn from the solutions tested among them. "We have to establish the mechanisms to allow all the experience we have built up to be applied in the mainstream programmes and not wasted as has often happened in the past" she insisted.
Three tools for mainstreaming past and future lessons Paul Soto, one of CoPIE's European experts, went on to describe how this common concern had led to the realisation that a large number of the problems and solutions tested by EQUAL partnerships in the field of inclusive entrepreneurship fell into four major categories – building the culture and conditions for entrepreneurship, integrated business support for all, access to appropriate finance, ensuring consolidation and growth. One of the important conclusions of EQUAL was that these four elements should not be dealt with in isolation. They were all part of what has now become know as EQUAL's "entrepreneurial ladder out of social exclusion".
The advantage of the ladder is that it provides a common language for us to talk to each other and transfer lessons and experience at a European level, said Peter Ramsden. He explained how CoPIE is using this common framework to developing three interlinked tools. The first is an assessment matrix to help regions to look at their business support systems from the point of view of disadvantaged groups - to see where they are strong - and to identify where they are weak and need to do develop new solutions. This has already been tested in five regions of Europe.
The second tool consists of an improved system for finding and exchanging good practice in the areas where regions have identified that they want more information. Finally, all this needs to be weaved together to build regional action plans for inclusive entrepreneurship. The main aim of the workshop in Oviedo was to provide information and training to help develop these three tools and role them out in other regions.
Using the snowball principle to extend inclusive entrepreneurship across Europe One of the principles of Communities of Practice is that they build on the enthusiasm and experience of their members to build and spread knowledge. So CoPIE is using the experts who tested the assessment matrix in Wales, Asturias, Berlin, Lisbon and Flanders as mentors for a second round of regions who want to apply the tool.
The bridge between these two phases was provided in Oviedo by Dominic Mullen who has tested the tool in Ireland on behalf of the three EQUAL partnerships involved in business creation. He explained how they and interviewed around 15 policy makers and 35 policy advisors. They had also interviewed around 35 entrepreneurs that used EQUAL services and were going to compare this to a similar number that had not benefited from EQUAL in order to bring out the added value.
Dominic explained how the tool had been adapted to the Irish situation. They had streamlined the questions and improved their comparability as well as concentrating on the target groups that were of most concern in Ireland – women, ethnic minorities and the long term unemployed. It was very useful to have a practical example of the kinds of issues identified by the tool – the disjointed nature of policy making and implementation, the lack of effective outreach services, the lack of role models, the difficulties and cost of obtaining premises, the gaps in Ireland's innovative Work Enterprise Allowance and so on.
After this the participants split into two groups – Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany and Ireland in one and the "Iberian Alliance" of three Spanish Regions and Portugal in another. The first group was led by Caryl Cresswell who had applied the assessment matrix in Wales while the second was led by Rafael Vigil who had done the same in Asturias. They took the new regions through a practical exercise of filling in the four main sections of the tool. This allowed the participants to raise all sorts of vital questions like how to identify and interview policy makers, advisors and users, how many and what form of interviews and at what spatial scale to carry out the exercise.
Several participants asked whether the assessment matrix should be seen primarily as a transnational bench-marking tool and in this case how many interviews were required to obtain statistically valid results. The reply from the existing members of CoPIE was that the main value of the matrix was in creating a dynamic platform or space for dialogue between the different stakeholders involved in business support in a given region or country. The tool often brought people from different backgrounds together for the first time and allowed people to think outside the box by looking at the whole picture in a trans-national perspective. This approach means that while it is necessary to have certain common, core elements, it is also possible to be flexible, to add in features and adapt the tool to the context in each country.
The first day of the workshop ended with an encouraging speech from Manuel Capellán Pérez the Director General of Professional Training, who insisted on the commitment of the Regional Government of Asturias to using tools such as those developed by CoPIE to explore new solutions to increasing entrepreneurship among all groups of society. This was followed by an excellent site visit to the Technological City of Valnalon.
From red problems to green solutions Of course knowing that you have a problem is just the start of the process. So the second day of the workshop was devoted to looking at two further tools that CoPIE is developing to help regions move from the areas that are flagged up by the assessment tool in red - as problems - to those areas which appear in green - as strengths.
The first is the prototype of a more intelligent system for linking the areas that regions feel they need to find out more about – to other regions who already have experience and transferable solutions in the same field. So far CoPIE has created a data bank of around 100 different products of this kind using the same categories as the assessment tool.
A perfect example of how this tool could develop was provided the night before by the visit to the Technological City of Valnalon. Within an impressive range of activities to support entrepreneurship education in schools, Valnalon has developed a business game based upon secondary students forming cooperatives which trade internationally with the cooperatives formed by students in other countries. The methodology and training material has already been implanted in 8 Spanish regions and 11 other countries and it is ready to be transferred to more.
Peter Ramsden went on to describe the surprising range of activities and actors that communities of practice can involve in order to promote the transfer of this kind of knowledge across Europe. "We have to move away from a situation where a case study of good practice is a once and for all exercise handed down by an external expert for others to consume. It must be possible for interested people to walk into a case, examine it from different angles, ask questions, adapt it to different circumstances and keep it up to date" he said.
With this aim in mind CoPIE is identifying a series of subthemes like entrepreneurship education, quality standards and training for advisors, and action plans for inclusive entrepreneurship where regions wish to cooperate. The next steps will be to improve and animate CoPIE's website, to test new more dynamic and participative formats like wikis for case studies and to promote exchange in the "hot" topics. To start the ball rolling each participant at the workshop explained the areas they would like to find out more about and those where they felt they had experience to offer. The list can be consulted on the CoPIE website.
Action plans for opening up entrepreneurship to all. The last and final tool being developed by CoPIE ties all the previous parts together by developing action plans for inclusive entrepreneurship. As an example, Iain Willox and Caryl Cresswell explained how the Welsh Entrepreneurship Action Plan had emerged and successfully been implemented. They said that there were a series of basic thematic components to most regional action plans which linked in very closely to the main themes in CoPIE's assessment tool. But the hardest thing, according to Iain Willox was not just to decide on the priorities (the budget for each) but on who would lead which area. Rafael Rossi followed this up by explaining how EQUAL had been used in Andalucia to redesign the map of "who did what and how" in the regional system for supporting entrepreneurship.
Next steps The meeting ended with each of the participants explaining the steps that they will take. Regions like Asturias, who have already tested the tool plan to hold a stakeholder meetings to start discussions on an action plan.
In addition to the ongoing work in Ireland, at least six new regions or areas plan to test the assessment matrix: one region in the Czech Republic and Romania, Andalucía and the Basque Country (or parts of them), the whole of Extremadura, a region from the North and South of Portugal (with the possibility of extending it further through Action 3 of EQUAL) and Rhineland Palatinate.
The conditions vary enormously between these areas. For example, in countries like Romania and the Czech Republic the subject is quite new and it is necessary to build trust and support gradually In Extremadura, Gloria Gonzalez Oyola the General Director of Employment and Training explained that "the CoPIE tools come at just the right moment because we are redesigning our entire employment strategy and are committed to opening up entrepreneurship to wider parts of society".