Our experience of running pilots in three territories since 2009 has convinced us that Business Bridge addresses a real need and has great potential worldwide. We have also learnt some valuable lessons, resulting in some refinement of our original model:
* Channel Partners
An appetite for growth in participants is key and channel partners play a crucial role in identifying the rights participants. However, our recent experience with our first channel partner in South Africa, The Business Place, which has been forced to retrench, and in the case of some branches to close because of cuts in Johannesburg city budgets, has taught us that we cannot become too dependent on a single partner, and need to develop several in any given territory. Developing a number of channel partners in each country is now a priority for the Business Bridge core team. We have also learned that we must make sure that the aims of the Business Bridge and the aims of any local donors, particularly lending institutions, are closely aligned.
* E-learning versus face-to-face teaching
When Business Bridge was first set up, it was thought that e-learning/internet-based learning would enable us to reach many entrepreneurs at a time, assisted by coaching from tutors working pro bono. However, experience has proved that it is easy to overestimate access and use of the internet even in countries like South Africa. The key finding of all pilots is that the small class experience (a maximum of 25), the facilitation of peer-to-peer learning and direct, practical applicability of our material to the participants’ own businesses are the key to making the courses a success.
This is not to say that e-learning won’t play a big part in future Business Bridge courses. The markets in which we work are increasingly moving away from PCs towards mobile and tablet technology. The arrival of the Aakash (http://www.ubislate.com/) could revolutionise the way Business Bridge delivers its e- learning content, but it may take several years for this technology to be available.
* Scaling up
The impact and importance of the face-to-face aspect of our courses means that we are revisiting the way in which we propose to scale up, focusing on the replication of the small group model many times rather than attempting to reach large, undifferentiated groups through internet-based material.
* Course content and fees
This has implications for our course content and fees. Our first course, used in all our pilots, is How to Win Sales, which contains stimulating e-learning material including animations. However, the latter have frequently overloaded local digital systems and proved of less interest to participants than expected. Business Bridge has negotiated a very generous CSR rate with Imparta Ltd. Nonetheless, the price of £150 per participant is proving too expensive for the countries in which we have run pilots and has proved difficult to re-negotiate in the light of varying circumstances.
* Our own courses
We have therefore opted to develop our own courses, meaning that we have direct ownership of our material. This will significantly reduce the cost per participant and make it easier to scale up.
* Development of the Business Bridge Toolkit
We now propose to develop our own core ‘toolkit’, a set of three courses based on a) winning sales b) managing business finance and c) making things happen through people, priorities and projects. Graduates of our first courses have been clamouring for more, and expressing some frustration that they cannot simply continue, so moving on from the pilot stage in these existing countries and developing the complete core toolkit is a priority.
To this end, Managing Money, developed by Learning Development Partners (LDP) in South Africa, is nearing the final stages of completion and should be operational within a month. Discussions are also taking place on the shape of Making Things Happen, again with LDP being the preferred content developers. Recent pilots have also indicated that a Business Planning course, or at least modules, would greatly add value to our proposition.
* Teaching model and staffing requirements
Our original insight that there is a growing pool of business school alumni interested in ‘giving back’ has proved to be correct and we know this works well where, as in South Africa, we have a Country Director who can manage such teams. However, we are now also aware that as we scale up we shall need to draw on a pool of paid tutors, with the experience to adapt quickly to local circumstances and different levels of entrepreneurs’ experience, as well as our teams of our pro-bono tutors. We also need to be able to respond to demand from pro-bono tutors for top-up training and from participants for mentoring. We envisage that many of our pro-bono tutors will want to take on a longer term mentoring role too.