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Virtuality and the mini-multinational

Updated Tuesday 6th May 2008

Increasingly, SMEs are finding advantages in a multi-national approach.

A study by the European Commission (0.6MB PDF) in 2002 identified 4 key drivers of entrepreneurship and small firm development in Europe. These were:

  • Continuous technological developments
  • Shorter product life-cycles
  • Increasingly demanding consumers
  • Global competition

Research in 2006 by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) (based on a survey of 1,000 companies) revealed that 60% of companies with 49 or fewer staff bought goods or services from abroad or had customers or operations there.

“Increasingly, small businesses do not start off trading locally as they did in the past,” said Clive Lewis, ICAEW head of enterprise. “If you have a website you can think globally from the beginning”.

[from Small companies look beyond local to go global in the Financial Times, Thursday October 12, 2006, page 4]

The drivers of this trend according to the ICAEW have been globalisation together with the spiralling cost associated with red tape. Increased staffing costs were also becoming a problem for UK SMEs and was a primary reason for the outsourcing of back office jobs to the low cost economies in Eastern Europe and Asia . This is a trend that is likely to double over the next five years.

It is not just in the area of back office support services that SMEs (Small and medium enterprises) and small business start-ups are seeking overseas resources. If a business’ core product or service is information-based then virtual structures, using the Internet as a conduit, may have spawned new form of mini-multinational. For example, GNI is a biotechnology start-up that carries out research in Cambridge UK, data analysis in Japan, clinical trials in China and sells its outputs in the USA to large pharmaceutical companies.

“We take the best of what is available in each country and put them together,” says Mr Savoie GNI’s founder

[from March of the mini-multinational in the Financial Times onThursday May 4, 2006, page 12]

Video conferencing is used to link up personnel and the organisation is able to exploit national differences, cost and expertise to operate as a mini-multinational. Carol Cherkis, Vice President of GNI says that GNI is not a virtual company but a real company “It’s just that we are not all in the same place” [from March of the mini-multinational in the Financial Times on Thursday May 4, 2006, page 12].

Another example of a virtual mini-multinational is Lingo 24 which is a translation company  employing 40 staff in China, New Zealand and Romania with a turnover of £1.5 million and profits of £120,00 (as in 2004). The company’s headquarters are a two bedroom house in Deptford where clients ranging from BP, Honda, Ikea Orange and Travelex are served. Instead of having to physically travel to expensive offices employees can simply log on to a Lingo 24’s central database to obtain all the necessary information relating to translation projects. Homeworking and using international staff reduces overhead costs by 30% and permits a 24/7 service to be offered. Lingo 24 communicate on a daily basis using Skype and e-mail whilst the company intranet is used to monitor quality and provide an editorial oversight.

Richard Portes, an expert on globalisation at London Business School, said: “Small businesses are now operating on a global scale. They could not have done [this] 15 years ago.” Professor Portes added: “The advantage small businesses have is that they are not burdened with long lines of command, where important pieces of information come from operations in one country [back to the centre] then travel up and down chains of command”.

[from Small companies look beyond local to go global in the Financial Times, Thursday October 12, 2006, page 4]

So has the Internet spawned a new form of organisational structure and a new source of competitive advantage for agile and responsive entrepreneurial companies? Are the “big boys” shaking in their boots and would it be premature to start throwing out the textbooks on downsizing, delayering and business process re-engineering…….. or is this just a passing fad?


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