David Milstein

Future Focus: A New Approach to Self Assessment for the Owners of SMEs

by David Milstein

In the new economy businesses have to become "remarkable" to succeed. Strategies to promote innovation and supertition are promoted by leading strategists and business thinkers. To do this requires both human and social capital skills. Future Focus, designed by business people themselves is proving a boon to the owner's of SMEs who want to prepare themselves and their business for competing in the 21st Century

There are many factors that effect business performance. Highly developed social and human capital skills throughout the business are often central to success. Why then are business people reluctant to invest in learning? The issue of how to facilitate an interest in learning, particularly in SMEs has been the subject of considerable discussion, research and debate. The reasons for the low uptake are complex and include:

  • Attitude to learning
  • Past experiences
  • Perceived benefit (Cost, time v benefit to the business)
  • Perceived need.

Now, in the new economy, the problem has intensified because of the added pressure put on previously successful businesses to remain competitive and viable. The need to acquire these skills has thus become more compelling.

A number of strategies have been developed to address these issues. Recognition of Prior Learning and Recognition of Current Competencies has been a useful strategy to help people benchmark their skills. The problem is that some people don't like to be told that they lack certain skills. One strategy that is demonstrating success in overcoming this problem is a process which enables the business owner to themselves identify their own needs.

Initially developed for commerce and industry and marketed as "Lions and Gazelles", the process was redesigned in 1998. Based on adult learning processes and principles, it now includes additional material to enable the business person to more effectively benchmark their performance against both current and future needs. The revised process is now used by firms in the building and construction industry; building designers; fruit and vegetable growers and by retail and wholesale nurseries. Some 240 businesses in Queensland and South Australia have now completed the program. A modified version is being delivered by TAFE in South Australia and the program was recently translated into Vietnamese. The authorities in Queensland have indicated that the process will form part of the professional development program required as part of a builders licence.

How does it work?

The initial part of the process is a two-hour workshop at which up to sixteen people participate in completing a list of questions under the guidance of a facilitator. Each question has up to a dozen subsidiary questions which allows the participant to "drill down" into the subject to ensure that they can answer the question correctly. This is demonstrated in Table 1 below:

Table 1
Indicate with a ✔ your preferred response Yes Maybe No
1 2 3 4 5
Communicate with others
Can you 'read' non verbal signals (body language etc.)?
Do you check that others understand what you are saying?
Do you check that you understand others?
Do you read English with ease?
Do you write English with ease?
Are you comfortable talking in front of a group?
Are you comfortable answering questions in front of a group?
Handle stress
Are you able to prevent 'things' getting to you?
Are you able to remain calm when you get under pressure?
Do you have strategies to help you keep calm?
Do you sleep well?

After the workshop responses are reviewed by the participant with the management team of their business (usually a family member) and a list of issues identified and prioritised. The participant is then assisted at a one on one interview by the facilitator to develop a plan of action to address these skills development issues. 

The Future Focus process includes a workbook, which the participant uses to

  • define strategic directions for the business,
  • evaluate their management skills,
  • define their strengths and weaknesses and,
  • prepare a personal development plan.

The workbook is based on the endorsed training packages but is written in non-technical language, having been re-designed by business people themselves. The personal development plan includes a list of skills that require addressing as well as strategies to do this. Not all of them relate to attending training courses, but many do. Solutions are based upon access to resources and the persons preferred learning style. Both the workbook and the process have been reviewed by a leading extension consultant1 whose report concluded:

This project has the potential to contribute enormously throughout Australia. The principles are in place and the development process has been very sound.

Who benefits?

The process is aimed at owners or managers of SMEs and has been completed by businesses with turnover that ranges between less than $200,000 and $10 million. The most common comment about the value of the process has been that it has provided an opportunity to sit back and audit what they are doing and how they do it. The other important benefit is that it has provided family businesses with the framework within which to discuss the management of the business including strategic issues such as succession planning.

Areas for development identified through the process include both social and human capital skills. Some chose operating skills as a stepping stone for getting involved. Others saw the benefit of grasping "big picture" skills:

Human Capital

  • Planning for the future
  • Strategic planning
  • Develop a written business plan
  • Succession planning
  • Managing growth
  • Seeking industry benchmarks
  • QA
  • Time management
  • Marketing / sales strategies
  • Read trends in the market place
  • Export
  • Niche marketing
  • Computer and Internet skills

Social Capital

  • Managing Stress
  • Working as a team member
  • Listening skills
  • Communication skills
  • Public speaking
  • Talking in front of a group

To be successful today, firms are being encouraged to be innovative (Hamel, G. 2000 pp 279-314); embrace surpetition (Lyons, J.C. and de Bono, E. 2003 pp 225-242) and become remarkable (Godin, S. 2002). To be able to do this requires skills. The problem is no-one likes to be told that they lack skills. The Future Focus process enables participants to do their own evaluation. This has proved in most -but not all- cases as a spur to learning. Again and Again.


  1. Nigel McGuckian, principal consultant of Rendell McGuckian, Agricultural & Management Consultants


  • Hamel, G . 2000. Leading the Revolution. Harvard Business School. USA.
  • Lyons, J.C. and de Bono, E. 2003. Marketing without Money. Pennon Publishing. Australia
  • Godin,S. 2002. Purple Cow. Portfolio. USA.

© Copyright David Milstein

About the Author
David Milstein

David Milstein (M.AITD; M.IMC) is the principal of David Milstein and Associates, a specialist in learning systems, strategic thinking and leadership. David Milstein can be contacted at 7 Gunyah Street, Lutwyche QLD 4030, phone (07) 3857 8202, mobile 0407 211 192, or email Web Page

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