Improvisational skills are key for UK Exporters now the UK has left the EU
Now the UK has left the EU, what is the key for UK exporters over the coming years? In a blog article written for the Department for International Trade East Midlands Monthly News Bulletin, expert in export marketing Professor Anne Souchon shares her thoughts on the key to exporting success in today’s business environment.
The UK has now left the EU, though months of trade negotiations are still ahead of us. What this means for our exporters is the need to be quick to adapt to new trade rules when they come into effect. “Brexit-preparedness” checklists are proliferating on the internet to help our exporters plan for every eventuality by 1 January 2021.
Be resilient, agile and responsive
Fortunately, our UK exporters are resilient towards economic uncertainty. For example, the 2008 financial crash demonstrated UK exporters bounced back quicker/sooner/stronger than non-exporters. Part of the reason for this is that exporters are usually SMEs and, while this can bring its own challenges (e.g. limited resources, need for outsourcing skills etc.) it also makes them agile and responsive. These are the capabilities to exploit in today’s international trade environment.
Be entrepreneurial and trust your instincts
Many exporters I speak to are suspicious of making long-term business plans, while at the same time unnecessarily shy to admit what takes place instead. They know that strategic planning is at the heart of business decision-making, key to locking down investors, the route to achieving objectives.
However, it seems that the dynamic trade environment we are seeing today calls for more responsive decision-making than strategic planning allows. And many of our exporters, thankfully, already know that. So how do they achieve the agility and flexibility they need? They deviate from their formal plans in order to grab opportunities when they come along or react to unpredictable threats. Their managers trust their own instincts because often, the business is a passion and they are expert entrepreneurs. And to facilitate this, they tend to have lean corporate governance structures that empower on the ground decision-making; functional divisions are blurred and members of staff are organic multi-taskers. In other words, they are relatively free to make their own decisions without the straight-jacket of formalised planning and short term accountability.
Your improvisation checklist
The key to exporting success therefore appears to be “outside-the-box” creative thinking and practice: acting quickly without being held back by the formality of plans. I have labelled this decision-making practice “improvisation” because this reflects creativity and spontaneous action. If I was to be asked what makes our exporters successful, in a few words, I would say: the skill and ability to improvise. But the simplicity of the answer masks the complexity of how and when improvisation works as a business practice.
So, here is a brief checklist of how it can be done to maximise performance:
- Without specific strategic business objectives, improvised decisions run the risk of being random, tactical, reactive, and chaotic. And they can take the business in a direction that isn’t where it wants to go in the long-term. Improvisation is therefore best applied in the context of a plan from which a deviation is required in order to meet the company’s strategic objectives. The issue is finding the right balance between planned and improvised decisions. My research shows that the optimal balance probably evolves along product life cycles. For example, a current PhD student of mine is finding that when developing new products, successful SMEs are almost entirely improvisational at the idea generation stage As they move towards development and commercialisation stages though, they improvise far less and start to become much more rational planners. What this means here, is that success depends on their ability to alternate between different decision-making practices.
- Like Jazz musicians who can pick up a saxophone and play a coherent tune made up on the spot, exporters can best improvise from the springboard of experience, knowledge and training. A novice exporter who is unfamiliar with a chosen market is best to undertake or commission market research, even if they feel they cannot afford it or don’t have the time or skill. The Department for International Trade has specialism in this area, as do university lecturers (and often students).
- A former doctoral student of mine also found that key to export improvisation ability is a fluid business structure that shifts export decision-makers between functions such that they develop in-depth knowledge of the business as a whole. This allows for instant export-specific decisions to be grounded in what is and is not feasible for the business to see through and implement.
- Many important decisions are made on the ground, and salespeople and agents obviously play a key part in driving business success of exporters. In a study of salespeople conducted with colleagues at the University of Leeds, we found that greater improvisation displayed by salespeople is associated with competitive advantages. This is a lesson exporters can usefully apply, when so many export decisions are made and carried out in the field.
About the Author
Professor Anne Souchon is a Chair of International Marketing and Associate Dean for Enterprise at Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics. To find out more about her research with exporters, you can contact Professor Anne Souchon by emailing her at: A.L.Souchon@lboro.ac.uk.
Want to know more about how the landscape for UK exporters is changing?
Read our blog article ‘What is being done to promote Britain’s exporters – and what should be done?’ by economist Dr Huw Edwards and colleagues.
About the Department for International Trade (DIT)
The Department for International Trade (DIT) is the Government Department that helps UK based companies succeed in the global economy.
If you’re serious about expanding your business internationally or you have any queries relating to international trade the DIT have staff in offices across the globe and Trade Advisers in every East Midlands county to help you find the answers you need. Contact them at info@tradeEM.co.uk or call on 0345 052 4001.