Business Analysis: Degrees of Obsession

  • 2011-08-10
  • By Charles Cormack

I have to admit that this article could be seen as a personal venting of frustrations, and it would be fair to say that the events that have inspired it were deeply frustrating. However, I also believe there is an important lesson for Baltic governments to learn from my experiences.

I am referring to the Baltic obsession with educational qualification, and the need for all people who are to be involved in just about any government tender to have them. I will start by saying that one of the things I most admire about the Baltic States, and their people, is their belief in the power of a good education to transform lives, and also as someone focused on bringing inward investment to the Baltics I realize the number of highly educated people is one of the key strengths of the economies.
However, there is a danger that the focus on qualifications becomes an obsession which damages the development of the entrepreneurial spirit, which the Baltics also desperately need.

I am going to use my most recent experience to illustrate my point, but I want to stress that this is just the most recent example of many I have seen over the past few years in both Latvia and Lithuania.

A government agency, which shall remain nameless, (on the off chance that we are still in with a chance of winning the tender!) issued a tender to deliver export training to a carefully selected group of companies. The training was to run for a number of months, and was to culminate with an international summer school, and business mission. The training was to be designed to equip the participants with a range of skills they would need if they were to be successful on the international stage.
A number of key markets were identified, including the UK, and as we run the only specialist export consultancy between the Baltics and the UK, we thought we should look to put together a team and get involved. 

We brought together the main Chamber of Commerce in Scotland, which is recognized across the UK as the leader in the provision of services to exporting companies, a private training consultancy, which delivers export training across the UK, Europe, and USA and a UK University business school. My company was also to be involved, offering practical support around the business mission element of the project, setting up potential sales meetings, etc.

I was pleased with the team; we had between us many years of successful export experience, and also, more importantly, a real understanding of the Baltics and the issues that face Baltic companies.  However, as we started to pull together the tender it became clear we had a major issue that was going to stop us from qualifying. 

When we put together the team of trainers (all of whom do export training around the world or act as export consultants), about fifty percent did not hold a degree and, according to the tender, that meant that they could not take part. To use myself as an example, I have worked on export between the UK and the Baltics for 10 years; I have one of the only export consultancies with offices in all three Baltic States, and over the past 10 years I have helped over 300 companies trade internationally. I am also an experienced trainer, having delivered a range of training in the Baltics on export, raising investment, etc.

However, because I decided not to go to university when I was younger, I can’t take part.  We had other members of the team who had even higher levels of experience, including two who lecture at a number of the top UK universities on export, who could not take part because they had decided when younger to go straight into business, when they left school.

But the madness extends across all levels of the tender; we had to replace our nominated project manager, who has many years of experience of coordinating UK/Baltic projects, with a recent inexperienced university graduate. The net result of this obsession is that we had to submit a weaker and less experienced team than we would have liked. 

This is more than a personal rant; there is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. University education is important, but so is life experience. The Baltics want to set themselves up as an entrepreneurial hub, attracting entrepreneurs from across Europe to base companies here, but also to create their own local brand of entrepreneurs. However, I worry that to be an entrepreneur in the Baltics you will first need to get a degree in entrepreneurial studies, and then a certificate from a government agency.

Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson all failed to complete a degree, but have done Ok as a result. However, in Baltic terms, they would be perceived as “second class.” The Baltics should be about the best, and to do that there needs to be an ability to deviate from set rules; there needs to be flexibility in approach. Perhaps the obsession with a university education is a place to start?