copy the linklink copied!Chapter 8. Business advisory and support services in Ireland – approach and programmes

This chapter describes the current institutions providing business advisory services and support services to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs in Ireland, such as enterprise centres and business incubators and accelerators, the support services and programmes offered, and the targeted approaches to attracting and serving specific types of enterprises and their needs. The business support services covered include information, advice, consultancy, and mentoring. It also highlights issues of demand and supply for business advisory and consultancy services and potential gaps in service provision and the methods of ensuring quality in their delivery. The Chapter concludes with recommendations for improving the business advisory and consultancy support system and offered services, including building capacity, and addressing gaps in service to particular types of SMEs.


copy the linklink copied!The institutional structure and supply of business advisory and support (BAS) services in Ireland

Business advisory and support (BAS) services includes a wide range of services, such as information and referral, training, advisory, mentoring and consultancy services. Evidence indicates that BAS contributes to an improvement in the performance of the beneficiaries; helps create jobs, and has a positive effect on labour productivity, exports and firms’ investment (Piza et al., 2016). This is confirmed in the case of Ireland through various evaluations of business support programmes (Forfás, 2012; Forfás, 2014; DJEI, 2015; Indecon, 2018; Moloney, 2018).

The government of Ireland uses a mixed approach in delivering BAS nationwide. It works through government-operated centres, primarily the network of 31 Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs), Enterprise Ireland (EI), InterTradeIreland and the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) Ireland, under the umbrella of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI), but as well through Fáilte Ireland (National Tourism Development Agency) and Bord Bia (Irish Food Board).

Ireland segments the MSME sector with respect to BAS provision. Chapter 5 provides an overview of the policy delivery arrangements. It is important to note that each of these agencies draws heavily on the expertise of private consultants and mentors to provide support to start-ups and MSMEs.

EI Development Advisors, for example, work directly with client companies on their business development needs, but many of the programmatic BAS services are contracted out to private sector providers, such as private consultants, the Irish Management Institute, Institutes of Technology, and universities, and Technology Centres.

There is a well-developed network of incubators and accelerators, which are important providers of BAS to high-potential start-ups. All of the universities and Institutes of Technology host EI-funded campus-based incubators, totalling 30 in 2018.1 Incubators and accelerators provide the full range of advisory, mentoring and networking/linkage services to start-ups and early-stage growth potential enterprises, albeit vary considerably in the number of incubator spaces and incubating start-ups, some much larger than others.

Challenges with respect to the BAS delivery system in Ireland

There is substantial data collected on the activities of the publicly-funded incubators and accelerators. Standardised and detailed measurement and reporting frameworks are currently part of all the EI directly funded incubators and accelerators including twice-yearly key performance indicators. Furthermore, the longer established EI funded incubators have been evaluated regularly.

However, there are some gaps in the availability of data to assess public policy performance across certain incubator and accelerate providers, and to compare performance of incubators across different providers. There are also difficulties in tracking companies once they graduate from incubators. This was identified in an evaluation of the campus incubators programme (Frontline, 2014). The introduction of a Uniform Business Identifier could be very helpful in helping such tracking.

To improve information on the impacts of publicly-funded incubators and accelerators in Canada, the government department Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada created an initiative in 2016 to develop a national performance management framework (PMF) in collaboration with key stakeholders. The draft framework was published in 2018 (Deep Centre, 2018) and is being piloted for national roll-out2 (see Box 8.1).

There is no national incubator policy in Ireland and given the disparate range of funding and types, it could be useful to develop such a policy to provide guidance for administrative structures, funding, and performance outcomes across the system. This could focus on a performance management system for incubators and accelerators with public funding (either at the level of the incubation facility or of the incubating enterprises), along with a data-sharing platform for reporting on relevant indicators and performance outcomes.  

Also, although common in many OECD countries, Ireland does not have a national association of business incubators that could be responsible for collecting and reporting on such data at the individual level, as well as for promoting good practice in incubator management and the provision of advisory supports and networks. While there is a partial network for the campus incubator managers in Ireland, the level of participation is variable (Frontline, 2014). EI could work with this informal network of incubator managers to facilitate the formation of such an association.

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Box 8.1. Development of a Performance Measurement Framework for Business Accelerators and Incubators - Canada

Description of the approach

There are growing number of business accelerators and incubators (BAIs) in Canada, estimated at around 150 in 2017, many of them recently established. They vary considerably according to operational formulas, organisational structures, partnership models, programme design, and targeting of start-ups clients, as well as in size, length of acceleration/incubation cycle, and funding models (DEEP Centre, 2015).  To a great extent, many BAIs in Canada and their various public funding bodies lack sufficient data on the performance and economic impact of BAI activity. Even among the BAIs currently measuring their performance, a diverse and inconsistent range of metrics are being used, with widely varying levels of success in obtaining data from their clients, and inadequate tools for compiling and analysing this data. This has hampered the ability to accurately assess the economic benefits produced by BAIs and to compare the competitive performance of BAIs in the Canadian network. 

The Canadian Government has made significant investments in the development of BAIs to drive the growth of innovative start-ups. This includes a budget allocation in 2013 and 2014 for a 5-year matching-contribution CAD 100 million Canadian Accelerator and Incubator Programme (CAIP) fund to support the growth and sustainability of BAI programmes across the country. CAIP recognised the need for improved BAI systems at a time when there is growing and strong global competition for start-up supports and that to compete Canada needs to be able to promote highly effective BAI institutions to attract high-potential start-up teams.

Committed in principle to defining outcomes and success measures of its programmes and activities, in 2016, the Government of Canada announced that it would dedicate resources to work with BAI organisations on development of a performance measurement framework (PMF) that, through the sharing and standardisation of data, could be used across the network to evaluate and improve the BAI services available to entrepreneurs and businesses in Canada and better quantify the role of BAIs in empowering innovation and economic growth in the country. The case was made that a PMF would enable evidence-based identification of gaps, opportunities, and impact of BAI programmes and inform Canada’s ability to encourage and scale the next generation of globally competitive Canadian companies, improve their chances of scaling over global competitors, and track high-growth firms.

In the fall of 2016, Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada initiated an informal consultation process with BAI stakeholders to seek input on the viability of the PMF project and discuss how government, entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and industry could collaborate on establishing the national PMF for BAIs and the potential willingness of BAIs to share their performance measurement data to enable analysis of how various BAI programmes influence start-up performance with a view to implementing the project across the country for use by all BAIs. Topics covered included the goals and benefits of a shared PMF, principles to be applied, what metrics, data points and definitions should be considered to enable reliable data aggregation and comparison across Canada's BAI ecosystem, mechanisms to support collection of data, sharing and exchange, and how to best secure buy-in of the BAI network. Stakeholders were primarily representatives of publicly-funded incubators and funding bodies.

Following the initial consultation, ISED supported the formation of an industry-led working group of business accelerators and incubators mandated to lead the process of framing a national solution for data collection and performance reporting. After eight months of work, the industry-led BAI Steering Committee produced a BAI PMF document, based on a pilot collection of data in a set of BAIs in 2018 (DEEP Centre, 2018). The PMF document, including the BAI Questionnaire and the Company (incubating/incubated enterprise) Questionnaire, presents the rationale and development process for a national PMF, a simple logic model that guides the design of the PMF, clear definitions for the metrics to be used, and describes the approach for collecting, analysing and reporting the data, the methodology to produce the descriptive statistics and econometric analyses that will determine the relationship between BAI programmes and the economic performance of client firms, and details the administration of the performance measurement platform. The PMF is being piloted with a number of BAIs across Canada prior to national roll-out.

Linking the data collected through the PMF pilot with additional Statistics Canada datasets enables improved understanding of the economic impact of BAIs, assessment of the effectiveness of national funding programmes and the identification of policy gaps.

Success factors

The process is not yet completed but to this date, there are a number of factors that have led to the success of the project. It was very important to carry out preliminary and national consultations with BAIs and a variety of stakeholder groups, which ISED did over a period to time, to discuss and provide input on a number of complex issues and questions. Preparing discussion documents and articulating key discussion questions was helpful in this regard.

Making use of industry-led working groups and steering committees, such as the BAI Steering Committee, was an essential factor of success, as this provided leadership in designing a standardised measurement and reporting framework and overseeing the pilot process to give BAIs an opportunity to test and refine the framework before rolling it out on a national basis.

The successful collection and aggregation of consistent data from multiple business accelerators and incubators to measure the impact of business accelerator and incubator programmes on firm performance makes it possible to generate a wide range of descriptive statistics that will foster a better understanding of the role BAI programmes play in firm growth as well as in the overall growth in the economy. ISED and Statistics Canada will assume responsibility for the preparation of descriptive statistics and official reports for public consumption.

Obstacles and responses

Securing buy-in from BAIs was initially a challenge. This was addressed in the beginning of the project through national consultation processes on the proposed PMF facilitated by ISED, followed by establishing working groups and steering committees represented by leading BAIs and related stakeholders. This ensured engagement with the industry to put the message out and to solicit informed as well as consensus-based input on development of key performance measures. As the pilot progresses, BAIs will continue to be consulted on how to govern and manage the PMF and reporting process.

Implications for Ireland

Enterprise Ireland has provided significant funding for the establishment and operation of business incubators and accelerator programmes in Ireland. Most of them have been on in place for a number of years, however, they vary in size, sector emphasis, capacity, etc. There is no formal association of BAIs in the country and no co-ordinated approach to collecting performance data from the accelerator and incubators at the level of the facility or incubating enterprises. A performance management framework initiative, such as the one initiated and supported by ISED in Canada, might be an appropriate approach for DBEI to adopt for its own purposes in evaluating and improving the performance of the BAI system in Ireland.

To facilitate monitoring of the performance trajectory of early stage start-ups availing of BAI services could be to have a unique business identifier (UBI) shared by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), government departments, agencies, etc. This would enable more systematic tracking of which supports companies avail of across the entire spectrum of State initiatives, including incubator programmes. If the UBI system were in place, EI or other agencies/departments could plug into CSO/Revenue data collected on a statutory basis and perform similar analysis being targeted by the Canadian PMF for BAIs.

For more information

“Business Accelerators and Incubators: Improving Performance Measurement and Data Collection”, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada,

DEEP Centre (2015), “Evaluating Business Acceleration and Incubation in Canada: Policy, Practice and Impact”, October, Waterloo, Ontario,

DEEP Centre (2017), “BAI National Dialogue Summary”, March, Waterloo, Ontario,$file/BAI_National_Dialogue_Summary_March-2017-eng.pdf/.

DEEP Centre (2018), “BAI Performance Measurement Framework 2018”, Waterloo, Ontario,$file/BAI_Performance_Measurement_Framework_2018_rev-02_eng.pdf.

Enhancing the “Supporting SMEs Online” tool as an entry point to information, an important component of basic BAS services

In many countries, the first point of accessible information for entrepreneurs and MSMEs is through an online service. An online SME information portal is a very effective vehicle for reaching out to anyone thinking about or starting a business, as well as to owners/managers of existing enterprises of any size in any sector. It allows an entrepreneur or existing MSME to reduce the time and cost of search for institutional sources of support and programmes that may meet their self-professed needs as well as guidance on issues to consider in starting and growing a business.

The government’s launch of the “Supporting SMEs Online” portal in 2014 was an important innovation in the Ireland context and, the outcome of the DBEI mapping of as many as 170 government and non-state business supports available to start-ups and small businesses from 27 different government departments, agencies and initiatives. These include access to finance, management development, mentoring, business development programmes, market supports, trade promotion, incubation, and networking opportunities. It does not however obliquely provide information on R&D supports through SFI funding programmes which are relevant for R&D, business development and growth (e.g. SFI Research Centres, SFI Industry Fellowship Programme, SFI Strategic Partnership Programme). The portal could be updated to address this gap by including information on industry-facing collaborative R&D programmes from SFI.

By answering eight questions on the portal, start-ups and MSMEs can be directed to the kind of support they are seeking and discover which institutions and support programmes, by sector, stage of development, and location, might best fit their needs and from whom it is available.

However the portal does not include the scope and breadth of information present on the government. SME sites in many countries, such as the “” website hosted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, include information tips on starting, planning, managing, and growing a business. As well as the online portal, “” provides Canadian businesses with a wide range of information on services, programmes, regulations and financing options from across the federal, provincial and territorial governments in Canada.

Artificial intelligence also offers opportunities to offer more tailored and specific support to SMEs and entrepreneurs on a needs basis., the New Zealand business advisory website, offers a potential model to draw inspiration from (see Box 8.2).With some improvements, Ireland’s “Supporting SME Online” website could well serve as a first-stop information source for all MSMEs and compensate for service offerings to all segments of the SME population falling between the cracks of the LEOs and EI. This improvement could be made by integrating general “how-to” information that currently exists on the EI and LEO websites3, with links to, for example, the Founders Institute website which presents the “Startup Ecosystem Canvas in Ireland” that organises supports by Idea Stage, Launch Stage and Growth Stage.4

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Box 8.2. Using artificial intelligence for business advisory websites: The experience from New Zealand

New Zealand strives to improve and streamline the interactions between its businesses and government bodies through the “Better for Business” initiative. It encompasses the 10 government agencies that are collectively responsible for about 83% of the interactions that a business normally has with government in the country. Among its achievements is the development of a unique business number, thereby removing the need for companies to supply the same information several times.

In addition, the government developed a “digital assistant, Tai.” Its main purpose is to make it easier for businesses to navigate across several government agencies by using artificial intelligence (AI) technology. The proof of concept has been developed by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), Customs New Zealand and the developers, Datacom and rolled out in July 2018.

After the proof of concept, the 10 partner organisations will further explore how to harness AI to further improve the user experience of its main online portal,

In addition, the portal could be improved by including online assessment instruments and modularised training materials, making advisory services available to MSMEs through the online platform (e.g. question and answer sessions with advisors and mentors) and referrals to sources of advice from accountants, lawyers, and other professional bodies often consulted by MSMEs.

General business advisory services provision

LEOs have business advisors on staff who can respond to questions from micro and small enterprises on a walk-in basis and make referrals to other sources of assistance, as required. They host Group Business Information Sessions on a weekly basis that are open to anyone, each one facilitated by LEO business mentors and designed to share information on issues to be considered when starting up in business with signposting to the variety of supports on offer from enterprise-supporting agencies.

LEOs also organise one-to-one Business Advice Clinics for start-ups and existing micro-enterprises on an appointment basis. In some LEOs, clients are charged a modest fee for these advice sessions (but the fee structure is not consistent across the LEOs) and set a limit on the number of sessions a start-up or micro-enterprise client can participate in during the year. Micro-enterprises can also apply for one-on-one mentoring sessions with external experts on an appointment basis, which could also carry a client fee, with clients restricted to a certain number of mentor meetings in a calendar year. This could possibly indicate that the supply of mentoring sessions to individual clients is limited, regardless of their needs and the benefits to be derived. However, there is no restriction on mentoring once a clear need is identified. The number of sessions is managed at a local level to ensure appropriate management of the mentoring assignment. In the application for mentoring session, the micro-enterprise must indicate the three main issues where they need mentoring. This assumes the client is aware of their specific needs, which may not be the case. Identification of these needs (e.g. critical business issues to be addressed) is further clarified in a discussion with LEO staff before the mentor is assigned.

To be more effective in building the capacity of existing micro and small enterprises for performance improvements, including mentorship, the LEOs should consider a more integrated approach to support by first helping the enterprise complete a diagnostic of its current strengths and weaknesses, indicating the areas in greatest need of improvement. With exception of the use of a diagnostic tool for micro and small enterprises applying to the Lean for Micro Programme, this self-assessment approach is not largely in use by the LEOs. There are, however, plans to introduce a formal client engagement model with the appropriate diagnostics in order to improve the client interface and facilitate a system whereby the client needs, journey and outcomes are captured and feed into an enhanced reportage platform.

With information from a simple diagnostic assessment, the advisory and mentoring services could be better tailored to the individual needs of the enterprises, including referrals to consultancy advice and technical assistance in areas not covered by the LEOs. This tailoring of services is one the greatest benefits to using a diagnostic tool – its efficiency in enabling the identification of the support services best matched to the needs of each enterprise, whether it be quality improvement, better market access, or financial controls, and linking them to the most appropriate assistance programmes and consultancy services.

EI’s main target is high-growth start-ups and SMEs in manufacturing and tradeable services sectors, although works with a broad range of companies, many of which are not high-growth. However, it is more targeted in its provision of BAS services than the LEOs, focusing on the enterprises meeting the eligibility criteria for participation in its specific programmes. Employing a number of Development Advisors in its offices who have always played a specific advisory role with start-ups, it has recently introduced a client engagement model for start-ups (targeted supports based on agreed needs and scaling milestones) and for existing SMEs, many with high-growth potential (market expansion and exporting milestones) (EI, 2017a) (also see Box 8.3).

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Box 8.3. Enterprise Ireland’s New Client Engagement Model (CEM)

The new CEM provides a more standardised approach and differs from the Development Advisor approach. Through the process, the CEM enables EI to match supports more closely to a client’s need and to bring internal teams together to focus on particular stages of the company’s development cycle according to agreed-on action plans and scaling milestones. In the CEM, client companies are divided into three service tracks, each with a defined process for engagement with companies.

  • Start Engagement: Aims to help high-potential start-ups (HPSUs) to scale more quickly by targeting supports at pre- and post-investment stage, moving from an introductory meeting to a diagnostic process to identify priority areas to agreement on an action plan and its implementation. The model consists of regular business plan meeting, overseas market reviews, and a focused development programme with interactive masterclasses on product-market fit, international sales, finance and leadership. This engagement normally lasts over two years, at which time the client transitions to Advance or Accelerate engagement programmes.

  • Advance Engagement: Targets clients who have export potential and the capability to grow internationally. Its diagnostic process identifies: 1) barriers to growth ambitions; 2) level of existing capability; 3) future capability needs, and 4) areas for priority support. The clients and EI agree to clear timelines for actions to be taken.

  • Accelerate Engagement: Targets clients with a clear ambition to scale and have already demonstrated a high level of exports and job growth. It is a team approach involving the client company’s management team and an EI team who work together on achieving growth and scaling ambitions following a diagnostic of the company’s capability needs and areas for priority support based on six pillars: strategy, sales and marketing, finance, operations, innovation, and people and management. Focused support services, both financial and non-financial, are delivered by EI to the client’s entire senior management team and according to clear agreed-to timelines. The engagement process is subject to quarterly and a final review.

Source: Information supplied by Enterprise Ireland.

In terms of diagnostic tools, EI implements a Company Health Check to support clients in benchmarking themselves against competitors across business functions and performance. This is used particularly within the context of the Lean offer, an operational excellence model that includes Lean Start, Lean Plus and Lean Transform, with the assessment results forming the basis of an action plan for improvement activities. In employing this tool, EI engages Competitiveness Benchmark Facilitators who have been trained in the methodology and approved by EI to work with the enterprise to gather the benchmarking data. EI sets out the guidance requirements for service providers (e.g. what they are to do and cover) that along with the reporting template requirements provide a measure of quality control on delivery of the Lean programmes.

Within each enterprise network funded by Skillnet Ireland, a dedicated Network Manager supports MSMEs to diagnose skills requirements and co-ordinate the development, design and delivery of programmes that address both current and future skills needs.

In addition, the government launched the Workplace Innovation Toolkit in 2018 to help companies and their workforces identify where there is scope to improve their businesses and workforces, including questions about the company’s employee engagement, innovation, productivity and training approaches.

Start-up and management training supports

The LEOs are main providers of start-up training (Start your Own Business programme), training on functional areas of business5, and Management Development Training Programmes to support the building of management capacity of their clients to achieve business sustainability and growth). They also facilitate half-day digital literacy training to help micro-enterprises trade online reaching over 10 000 micro-enterprises since 2014, and the delivery of intensive “Entrepreneur Bootcamp” training and mentoring for young entrepreneurs accepted into the Ireland Best Young Entrepreneur (IBYE) programme. Over the past four years, the programme has attracted over 5 700 applicants.

The focus of EI is on tailored management development training, with several programmes geared to the needs of client SMEs (e.g. Excel at Growth, Innovation4Growth, Leadership4Growth, LeanStart, Leadership Masterclass, and the International Selling Programme). EI supports client companies to implement training projects that are generally contracted out to private trainers expert in the respective areas.6

22.33. SkillnNet Ireland is also a major provider of management training for MSMEs as discussed in various chapters of this report (Chapters, 3, 5 and 7), with specific emphasis on the Management Works Programme (e.g. training in strategic business planning, business leadership, business growth, management team alignment) where the demand is deemed low among SMEs. It comprises only 2% of learners in the Training Networks Programmes in 2017 (Indecon, 2018), with the consequent recommendation to expand/scale-up this Programme offer to SMEs (see Chapter 7). In addition to the Management Works Programme, 49% of firms trained within the broader Training Networks Programme during 2017 indicated that the training included a focus on management development.

Use of incentives to encourage SMEs to avail of external consultancy services

In addition to providing basic BAS, the government employs mechanisms to incentivise micro-enterprises and SMEs to make use of external consultants. These include vouchers and various grant programmes to encourage SMEs to seek professional guidance on online trading, export development, innovation activity, and lean business and production practices, areas consistent with desired government goals for the productivity and growth directions of SMEs.

Vouchers are an increasingly common instrument to encourage SMEs to seek professional expertise. In Ireland, voucher schemes are offered by EI, the LEOs, and InterTradeIreland. Each of these voucher schemes offer small grants that the micro-enterprises or SMEs (depending on the eligibility criteria) can use to acquire professional expertise from external consultants or approved service providers.

The Trading Online Voucher (TOV) is financed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment with a link to micro firms through the LEOs. The scheme has achieved very favourable results and is an effective tool for exposing more micro and small enterprises to larger market captions, including export markets. The TOV has nevertheless been criticised for being too low in value (matched grant of up to EUR 2 500) considering the amount of professional assistance that even micro businesses may require. The option of increasing the size of the voucher offering businesses the chance of obtaining a second voucher to further develop their e-commerce capability should therefore be considered.

In September 2018, the DBEI launched a new pilot Online Retail Scheme for SMEs with 10 or more full-time employees. This supports eligible retailers with an existing online web presence to develop a more competitive online offer. It is a competitive fund administered by EI with a total fund size of EUR 1.25 million. Successful applicants will be awarded funding to support a maximum of 50% of the project eligible costs with a grant of between EUR 10 000 and EUR 25 000. Typical elements involved in developing a sophisticated and transactional online presence include research, consultancy costs for strategy development / implementation and training costs.

Innovation vouchers, managed by EI, are open to all SMEs from all sectors (except agriculture) and come out of DeMinimis support for companies. With the EUR 5 000 voucher, SMEs can acquire professional expertise from one of Ireland’s 38 registered public knowledge providers (i.e. higher education institutes, Technology Centres, public research bodies) (see description in Chapter 5). The vouchers are accessible to IDA and EI clients, plus others and are actively promoted by the LEOs to their clients. Since 2007, 5 600 vouchers have been redeemed, with about 30% of these by EI clients. In 2017, this amounted to 544 vouchers (EI, 2017b) and to 558 in 2018. The programme is highly successful, with previous impact evaluations showing an increase of EUR 7 for every Euro invested in the scheme.

The InterTradeIreland Trade Accelerator Voucher Scheme is offered to micro-enterprises in manufacturing and tradeable services to acquire professional cross-border trading advice from expert providers in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The EUR 2 250 Brexit Start to Plan Voucher targets SMEs (with 250 employees or less) to engage professional advice related to Brexit matters. LEO’s actively promote these voucher schemes to their clients.

A number of other programmes provide funding to encourage micro-enterprises or SMEs to avail of professional consultancy services that they would otherwise not likely pursue. These include grant-based consultancy programmes offered by EI (consultancy grants for feasibility studies, market research and internationalisation, innovation activity, strategic initiatives consulting, productivity and business improvement, and digital road mapping); InterTradeIreland (consultancy grants to help solve cross-border trading issues, such as the Acumen programme for SMEs and Elevate programme for micro-enterprises); and LEOs (e.g. Lean For Micro). In many cases, eligible enterprises must be in manufacturing or tradeable services, so micro-enterprises and SMEs in other sectors cannot avail of these programmes. The exception is the Lean For Micro programme which is available to all micro and small enterprises meeting the eligibility criteria.

Since 2017, a number of advisory and consultancy services have been made available to assist SMEs in preparing for Brexit, a critical policy issues for Ireland. This includes the provision of teams of trainers who go into the business to carry out quality assessments, and links with Brexit experts who engage with SME clients on a one-on-one basis to help them assess their exposure to Brexit and determine actions to deal with the impact on their strategy and performance (e.g. LEO Brexit Mentor Programme7; EI “Be Prepared for Brexit Grant” and Brexit Advisory Clinics 8; ; InterTradeIreland “Brexit Advisory Service” for cross-border MSMEs;9 and Fáilte Ireland “Get Brexit Programme” targeting tourism enterprises. The demand for these programmes has been high.

Services related to vouchers and grant-based consultancy programmes are all delivered to eligible micro-enterprises and SMEs by external consultants. In this respect, Ireland has a well-developed network of private sector consultancy companies and individuals to invoke by the government agencies and many of the private consultancy firms compete for various government contracts to provide training, consultancy and mentoring services to MSMEs.

Mentoring - a widely used BAS service in Ireland

Mentoring as a service is widely employed in the Ireland BAS system. The LEOs and EI have dedicated mentor programmes (targeting their respective client bases) and mentoring is a component of MSME programmes offered by EI, the LEOs, InterTradeIreland, the Food Advisory Service, Fáilte Ireland, and Skillnet Ireland, as well as all business incubator and accelerator programmes. On a professional basis, a number of associations, such as Engineers Ireland, and private sector consultancy firms, such as Mentors.ie10 and DCM Learning (based in Cork) promote mentoring services, including training and professional development for mentors.

The DBEI Mapping of Supports (to December 2017) listed 22 public and private organisations offering mentoring as a specific service.11 This does not include the mentoring services offered as part of most of the other support and grant consultancy programmes, such as the Lean programmes, incubator and accelerator programmes, EI management development programmes (e.g. New Frontiers Programme, Innovation For Growth Programme, and Female Founders Programme, Lean For Growth, Competitive Start Fund), LEO Leadership For Growth and Accelerate Management Development Training Programmes, and InterTradeIreland’s Acumen and Elevate programmes. The main public providers are EI, LEOs, and Skillnet Ireland.

The 2014 review of business mentoring services in Ireland reported there were 3 000 mentors providing services to businesses, two-thirds on a paid basis and one-third as volunteers (Forfás, 2014). In 2014, Forfás estimated the annual value of business mentoring in Ireland to be more than EUR 9 million with state funding accounting for EUR 5.3 million, and EUR 0.8 million attributed to the value of volunteer mentors’ time.

The Enterprise Ireland Mentor Network Panel exceeds 400 highly-experienced business people, consisting of entrepreneurs, founders and senior executives with international commercial business development experience. The role of the mentor panel is to offer practical one-to-one guidance and advice to start-ups and existing MSMEs based on their own business experience and relevant to the business needs and goals of the client. However, the demands will differ for start-ups, micro-enterprises, and growth-oriented SMEs due to the differing levels of sophistication, growth ambition, and innovation and internationalisation goals, so the make-up of the mentor panel must demonstrate diversity.

New mentors are recruited into the Mentor Network throughout the year by way of an application and assessment review process. When a client firm applies for a mentor indicating the specific guidance sought, the EI Mentor Network team matches the client with a shortlist of mentors who are experienced in the sector or issue, in collaboration with the EI Development Advisor.. Depending on the client’s needs, the client and mentor agree to meet 3, 5, or 10 times (in 1-3-hour sessions) over a period of 3, 6 or 12 months.12 The cost of the mentoring service is covered by an EI grant to the client not exceeding EUR 1 750 for up to 10 sessions which EI pays directly to the mentor. Most EI mentor services are paid for in this manner. However, in cases where mentors volunteer to advise an EI client, EI pays them a per diem of EUR 175 per meeting and reimburses them for any travel expenses.

Fáilte Ireland offers mentoring, along with training to tourism-related SMEs, the objective being to improve their performance and competitiveness. Mentors are engaged to provide 1-3-day interventions with tourism SMEs (e.g. looking at financing, strategy, planning, sales and marketing, digitisation, etc.), all of which is offered free to the client.

Ireland’s publicly-funded mentoring programmes have not been formally evaluated since 2014, but, at that time, an online survey revealed that 64% of EI mentored clients felt mentoring had been beneficial to the business, 46% that the mentoring help had accelerated the growth of the business, 67% that mentoring had better prepared them to face challenges, and 78% that mentorship was helpful in enabling them to achieve their objectives (Forfás, 2014). The mentoring to micro-enterprises provided by the LEO-precursor organisation received even higher assessments by the clients; 86% of surveyed clients reported that the mentoring support met their needs; 82% that the mentoring help had better prepared them to face challenges; 79% that the mentor support was the appropriate support for the needs of their business; 61% that the business had grown due to the mentor support; and 41% that it had led to increased confidence, focus and direction and enhanced their business management capabilities (as reported in Moloney, 2018, p. 67-68).

However, the EI Mentor Network reviews all assignments that were formally completed each year. In 2017, the feedback was even more favourable:

  • 98% of companies said their mentor was well matched;

  • 91% of companies stated that they would stay in touch with their mentor after the formal assignments ends;

  • 76% said their business grew because of the mentor’s intervention;

  • 86% said the program was excellent.

copy the linklink copied!The demand for business advisory and mentoring services

There is limited available quantifiable data on the demand for BAS and mentoring services in Ireland and no recent studies or surveys attempting to quantify the demand. Data is available on the take-up of existing BAS services and programmes (see Table 8.1), but is insufficient in providing insight on the penetration rate among all MSMEs and the potential demand for these and perhaps other services, as well as the deterrents to availing of BAS services.

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Table 8.1. Take-up of selected public BAS services


Programme Indicator

Take-up of service in 2017

Local Enterprise Centres (LEOs)

Total number of LEO-supported clients

7 132

Participants in Start You Own Business Training Programme

3 755

Participants in various other business training programmes

26 618 across 1 611 training sessions

Participants availing of Group Business Information Sessions

No data readily available

Participants in Business Advice Clinics

No data readily available

Number of one-on-one sessions with mentors in the Mentor Programme*

8 393

Clients supported with Trading Online Vouchers

1 187

Participant companies in Lean For Micro Programme

179 micro clients

Number of LEO client companies approved for Technical Assistance for Micro Exports Grants

289 micro-enterprises

Young entrepreneurs participating in the Ireland Best Young Entrepreneurs (IBYE) Programme business bootcamp training and one-to-one mentoring

1 472 applicants in 2017

Number of early stage food businesses participating in the Food Academy supplier training programmes in partnership with Bord Biá and SuperValu

329 Food Academy suppliers

Enterprise Ireland

Companies receiving mentorship

443 (402 EI clients; 31 EI mentors to LEO clients ; and 10 to Udaras and IDA clients)

Innovation Voucher for small and medium enterprise clients

557 vouchers redeemed

Start-ups in the New Frontiers Programme, delivered through Institutes of Technology; training, support and mentoring to entrepreneurs with a good business idea (Phase 1)

500 participants per year

Start-ups in the New Frontiers Programme that wish to accelerate the development of their new business (Phase 2)

160 in 2016

Participants in the Leadership Management Development Programme (delivered by the Dublin Institute of Technology)

1 598 CEOs and managers trained

Lean and Competitiveness business supports to improve productivity, profitability and environmental best practice

170 Enterprise Ireland-client companies

Pilot Online Retail Scheme supports retailers to improve their online web presence

11 applicants funded in Call 1 2018-19.


Companies supported through Brexit Advisory Service (including the Brexit Start to Plan Voucher)

2 350

Participants in ACUMEN Programme to stimulate cross-border business for SMEs

100 SMEs

Participants in ELEVATE Programme for micro-enterprises (manufacturing and tradeable services)

72 micro-enterprises

Fáilte Ireland

Get Brexit Ready Programme

600 tourism enterprises

Skillnet Ireland

SME managers trained in the revised Management Development programme to upskill and develop their leadership skills

776 learners

Note: *This does not reflect the number of micro and small enterprises receiving mentoring as some will have more than one mentor and mentoring assignment.

Source: Figures for 2017 from EI (2018), “Enterprise Ireland: Annual Report & Accounts 2017”; LEO (2017) “Impact Report 2017: Measuring the impact of Local Enterprise Office supports during 2017”; ITI (2017), “InterTradeIreland 2017: Annual Review of Activities and Annual Accounts”; Fáilte Ireland 2017 Annual Report; Skillnet Ireland Annual Report 2017.

The general demand for mentoring services in Ireland appears significant. The review of business mentoring in Ireland (Forfás, 2014) reported that around 21 000 businesses take advantage of business mentoring services annually, with a much stronger demand penetration of mentoring provision to businesses in the pre-start and start-up stages (14 000 mentoring assignments) than to established enterprises, and that about 15% of mentored businesses benefit from more than one mentoring source, suggesting that they seek expertise to fit the different business challenges they face.

The LEOs are the largest public provider of mentoring services (making use of external mentors), reporting almost 8 400 mentoring sessions in 2017 with a budget of EUR 1.6 million (LEO, 2017). However, there may, in fact, be greater latent demand for LEO mentoring services than supply, given that the LEOs limit the number of mentoring sessions per individual client. More useful than data on the number of mentoring sessions would be data on the number of entrepreneurs/micro-enterprises who benefited, since a percentage would be assigned more than one mentor and more than one session. This would provide more adequate data on the number of mentored clients. The new Customer Relationship Management System (CRMS) being developed by the DBEI for the LEOs will capture details of the client journey and thereby allow better reporting. In 2017, Enterprise Ireland assigned 443 business mentors (EI, 2018), of which 402 were to EI client companies, and the remainder to LEO clients and Údarás and IDA clients.

While LEOs may draw on the Enterprise Ireland Mentor Network database for mentors, the supply of 400 may not be sufficient to service all LEOs on a local demand basis. Consequently, each LEO maintains its own local panel which can and is regularly shared across the LEO Network. An option to provide mentoring resources not immediately available in the local area may be to consider greater use of virtual mentor sessions. For example, the US Small Business Administration (SBA)-supported SCORE mentor service, making use of SCORE-certified mentors, provides mentoring access to start-ups and SMEs through in-person face-to-face sessions or through virtual media (e.g. email, video chat, Google Hangouts, Skype, Facetime).13 The EI Mentor Network does allow a limited number of Skype interactions per assignment. This is determined at the time of the formal assignment being put into place and is normally based on the geographical distance between the mentor and the company. Skype interactions are limited to one or two interactions for a standard 10-visit assignment. While it may be easier to assign a mentor that is geographically closer to the company, a greater emphasis is placed on ensuring the assignment of a mentor with the most relevant industry experience to meet the company’s request.

For many of the grant-based consultancy programmes, the supply of spaces and budget allocations may in some cases limit the number of clients who can be serviced, and not sufficient to meet the potential demand. This may be particularly the case with EI programmes. On the other hand, EI does make special efforts to build demand for its programmes. For example, to build a pipeline of new clients (meeting its eligibility criteria), LEOs are committed to annually develop and progress 100 LEO clients into Enterprise Ireland, enabling these businesses to avail of further support programmes and services. To develop a pipeline of clients for its High-Growth Start-Up (HPSU) Programme, EI funds the New Frontier Entrepreneurship Development Programme, a pre-incubation training and advisory programme delivered by Institutes of Technology, to prepare start-ups for admission. New Frontiers supports over 500 participants per year in the establishment of a new business (Stage 1) with the expectation that close to 130 will progress to Stage 2, many of whom may later be able to receive investment funds from the LEOs or EI. The demand for places in the New Frontiers Programme often exceeds the supply. There is also a pipeline of HPSUs from the research system (15 per annum); a pipeline of female entrepreneurs; and a pipeline from the Competitive Start programme and from overseas entrepreneurs.

There appear to be a small number of SMEs in management development programmes, considering that the level of general management skills in Irish businesses is deemed relatively poor, particularly in skills such as human resources, marketing and finance, forward planning and strategic management (NCC, 2018, p. 99). The National Competitiveness Council (NCC) points to the need to broaden the reach of existing management development programmes with the aim of increasing the take-up by locally-trading SMEs, in particular, reporting that some of the LEOs have established management development networks in response to an identified need among former participants of the Management Development Programme for a regular forum to interact with peers, exchange ideas, share best practice and develop sales leads (NCC, 2018, p 100).

The NCC recommends the development of mechanisms for tailoring and extension of relevant management development programme modules to cohorts of firms currently not engaging in programmes offered by EI and the LEOs, further suggesting that the National Training Fund (NTF) could be sourced for additional funding support for management development training to boost enterprise participation (NCC, 2018, p. 100).

A key remaining question is whether the supply of BAS meets demand. In order to provide top-quality business support to new entrepreneurs and MSMEs, it is necessary to systematically and regularly analyse the demand side of the market for these services. This can be done by examining the level of awareness entrepreneurs and MSMEs have of the existence and availability of support services, their needs with respect to the content, conditions and design of support services, their level of participation in support services (take-up) over the past three years, including the take-up of public versus private sources, as well as on the general attitude of entrepreneurs and MSME owners towards support services (why they have or have not considered participation in or availed of BAS services).

In this context, the DBEI could work with the Central Statistics Office or an independent research organisation to update its knowledge on the demand side of BAS services and the penetration rate among all MSMEs. This would involve carrying out a representative survey of the MSME population, including new start-ups, to determine the take-up of existing BAS services by type, by enterprise size (employees and turnover), stage of development, age, and sector, the reasons why MSMEs have not availed of public BAS services, the desired BAS services of the two cohorts of survey respondents (those who have and who have not used BAS services), and their level of satisfaction with the BAS provision. Guidance in design of the survey questionnaire can be found in the European Commission survey of support services to micro and small businesses (see IfGH, 2002, Annex II). Considering that most of the business surveys conducted by the DBEI focus on EI, IDA and Udaras clients only, a more viable option for collecting data on BAS usage issues of all MSMEs may be to add relevant questions to an existing CSO business survey, which would require collaboration with the CSO. The challenge of selecting the survey population would be a key part of the process and would need input from the EI, IDA, Údarás, the LEOs and the CSO.

The results of such a demand survey could produce factual evidence of gaps in public service provision to segments of the MSME population, particularly small enterprises falling outside of the parameters for BAS support from the LEOs (primarily under 10 employees) and the eligibility for EI support (primary focus on high-potential start-ups in manufacturing and tradeable services and high-ambition enterprises in the same sectors with more than 10 employees). As well, it could point to gaps in meeting the specific BAS needs of entrepreneurs and MSMEs, given the current supply.

copy the linklink copied!Quality of service provision by business advisors, consultants and mentors

In terms of quality and competency of business advisors, external advisors and mentors, the first line of focus is on staff in the LEOs since they are likely the initial point of contact of many micro and small enterprises to the public business support system. Through Service Level Agreements with the Local Authorities, EI undertakes performance evaluations and develops and delivers core competency business training to LEO staff to drive service consistency and quality for their clients nationally.

Of considerable importance is ensuring that front line staff and internal business advisors are fully aware of all of the available MSME supports so they can do the appropriate signposting. Essential to LEO staff in performing this function is comprehensive knowledge of the information on the Supporting SMEs Online web portal, but even more useful could be the “Mapping of Supports” excel sheet produced by the DBEI, which lists, categorises and provides a brief description of both State and non-State supports for entrepreneurs and SMEs.14 Updated and amended regularly by the DBEI, this is a useful tool in ensuring LEO staff are knowledgeable about its contents on an ongoing basis. The new CRMS system will also aid in the knowledge sharing with intelligence to assist in the signposting of clients to the supports available.

The EI Business Development Advisors need a more comprehensive set of knowledge and competences since their work is more focused on delivering development and business advisory services according to a tailored and more intensive client engagement model. Their skill needs span a range of diagnosing developmental opportunities over six pillars: finance, innovation, market, operations, strategy and people, with a view to agreeing on developmental plans with companies some of which include specific EI programme offers and some of which do not. Thus, EI seeks employees matching competencies in these areas.

The second priority is ensuring the quality and competency of the network of private sector consultants contracted by public agencies, including EI and the LEOs, to deliver consultancy services to MSMEs as part of the various business support and specialised programmes. Consultants listed in the EI database (Enterprise Ireland Directory of Lean, Green and Specialist Service Providers) are selected on the basis of their curriculum vitae (i.e. qualifications and experience), a proven track record in providing business development consultancy services, and demonstrated expert knowledge in their field of competence. The performance of service providers is tracked and monitored, providing a degree of quality assurance.

To further ensure the quality level of external service provision, it is common for the government in many countries to provide capacity building to the external consultants. For example, the Mexican Ministry of Economy has trained and certified hundreds of consultants in its comprehensive care methodology and approach. In Ireland, this capacity building is most evident when dealing with the expert consultants delivering the Lean and Green Programmes. In this case, EI and the LEOs provide the consultants with national guides on the methodologies for delivering the programmes (e.g. Lean SWIFT guide, Driving Competitiveness using Lean) which ensures a standard level of consistency and quality in service provision. In addition, the EI hosts two meetings a year with the directory members to discuss the programmes and identify areas for development within the Service Provider cohort. Similar competency approaches should be applied in other consultancy areas where EI requires consistency in the approach according to an EI-standard.

The third priority is assuring the quality and consistency of services provided by external business mentors participating in publicly-funded mentoring programmes. Past evaluations of publicly-funded mentoring services in Ireland indicated highly favourable results, assessed as making a value contribution to clients and their businesses, but also revealed certain weaknesses: lack of a universal approach to mentor training; limitations in terms of mentor capability; inconsistent approach to note-taking and reporting on session outcomes; lack of consistency in feedback on the mentor’s performance; lack of signposting clients to other business supports (possibly due to lack of awareness and knowledge); and lack of data for impact evaluation of mentoring support (Forfás, 2014).

The 2014 Forfás evaluation report recommended improvements be made to the service quality, consistency, and professionalism of service provision; increasing the scope of mentoring for established micro and small enterprises (versus start-ups); and establishing appropriate metrics and capability in measuring the impact of business mentoring. Some of these recommendations have since been addressed, such as development of a Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guide (Terms and Conditions) for business mentors that sets out the minimum standards for relationship management, intervention approaches, reporting on mentor sessions, and providing feedback on service performance. When new mentors join the Enterprise Ireland Mentor Network Panel, EI provides them with the guide on best practice mentoring approaches. Mentors can attend the bi-annual EI-organised Mentor Networking events and share experiences and knowledge with other mentors on the Mentor Panel, as well as participate in regularly-run mentoring Best Practice Masterclass training events.

The standard of quality of mentoring services provided through EI and the LEOs is currently monitored by requiring mentors to submit reports on the mentoring sessions. The mentored clients are also asked for their feedback on the mentor, the value of the mentoring and level of satisfaction with the mentor service. While EI provides some training of mentors in its Mentor Network Panel, and the LEO Centre of Excellence undertakes evaluations of the LEO-supported mentoring relationships, not all public entities, incubators, and other programmes draw on the Enterprise Ireland Mentor Network Panel for their mentors. Thus, there may be inconsistencies in the delivery of mentoring services, which could be addressed by developing a consistent approach to the training and professional development of business mentors based on international best practice, including opportunities for enhanced professional learning that would contribute to a higher degree of professionalisation of mentoring practice.

Considering the widespread use of mentoring, the diversity of mentoring approaches, and the need for capacity building of the mentors, the quality of mentoring services could be enhanced by implementing more elaborate orientation and training of mentors on the mentor role and approaches, with an eventual path towards mentor certification. This would be consistent with the approaches taken in many countries where mentors receive initial training to ensure they understand the role of the mentor and the relationship with the mentee (including practice sessions) so they are able to play their role more effectively, plus professional development opportunities for enhanced learning and the potential for becoming a certified or accredited mentor.

The example of the Business Mentors New Zealand Service may provide an inspirational model for Ireland (Box 8.4), even though the delivery of mentor services differs from the approach employed by Ireland’s public institutions.

Another example is from the US SBA-SCORE programme, in which new volunteer mentors must complete the Mentoring Methodology Training programme during a 3-month probationary period. During this period, the mentor completes 2-3 online training modules based on five key components to be applied in mentoring sessions, reads and agrees to the standard operating manual and code of ethics, shadows an experienced mentor, and takes part in team mentoring.15

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Box 8.4. Business Mentors New Zealand Service - Competency development of mentors

Description of the approach

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) builds the management capacity of SMEs by providing access to effective information, assessment, advice, training, and mentoring. Established by the NZTE, the Regional Business Partner Network (RBPN), which includes local chambers of commerce and councils, development agencies, and innovation parks, delivers the NZTE business support programmes. Working with Business Mentors New Zealand (BMNZ), a not-for-profit organisation of volunteer mentors, the RBPNs employ Mentor Managers as the local network contacts for SMEs in their area and bridge to the BMNZ mentoring services.

BMNZ works collaboratively with the RBPNs to provide mentoring services to start-ups and SMEs. The services are delivered at no cost to start-ups and existing SMEs with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) through NZTE, sponsorship from SME-supportive private sector companies and other organisations, and a one-off client registration fee (AUD 225 to AUD 300). This registration fee entitles the clients to free mentoring services for up to12 months.

Mentoring is provided by over 2 000 volunteer BMNZ mentors. The Start-up Business Mentoring Programme provides 6 months of accelerated mentoring to entrepreneurs with a new business idea or needing help starting a new business, while the Business Mentoring Programme provides 12 months of mentoring advice to owners of currently trading SMEs who want to grow or need help with a specific problem they are trying to solve.

During the initial 1-2 sessions, the mentor will work with the client on a business assessment and define the mentoring requirements and objectives. Using the assessment and the goals or objectives the client wants to attain, subsequent sessions focus on the action steps to be supported, with the mentor acting as a sounding board for the client in the implementation of the plan. In 2017/2018, 1 758 start-ups and small businesses were matched with business mentors (NZTE, 2018).

Factors of success

The most important key to success is having a network of experienced and successful business people who are passionate about sharing their experience and knowledge with SME owners to help them succeed and grow the economy. However, the government recognises that mentoring is a specialised skill, even among experienced businesspeople and entrepreneurs, which often requires further development of mentor skills, e.g. effective relationship management and skill/knowledge transfer, communication and learning styles, and the delegation and techniques employed by mentors to support the mentoring relationship and client motivation and commitment.

Thus, all of the BMNZ mentors contractually agree to attend the Mentor Accreditation Programme Seminar, a one-day orientation and introduction to the mentoring role that is facilitated by mentoring experts who are also active mentors in their own business communities. The purpose of the seminar is to encourage professional standards in the field of business mentoring. It covers the principles and practical application of the mentoring role and involves each mentor in completing a client case study that is submitted for assessment. Upon completion of the seminar, the mentor becomes certified as an “Accredited Mentor of Business Mentors New Zealand”. The training seminar also enables Mentor Managers to gain a better understanding of the mentors’ personalities and skills that improves the matching of clients with mentors.

Another success factor is communicating clearly to new entrepreneurs and currently-trading SMEs what mentoring is, how they will be mentored, what is expected of them, and the benefit they will experience. This is achieved by making information public on the BMNZ and RBPN websites: FAQ sheets, testimonials from mentored clients, and case studies. The RBPN Mentor Managers also promote the mentoring service as a business support service of NZTE.

Obstacles and responses

Initially BMNZ did not accept start-ups as clients into the mentoring programme, a decision considered a “blind spot” in the organisation. In 2015, it changed its policies after the realisation that start-ups who often failed within the first 12 to 18 months did so because they lacked guidance from an expert.

One of the big challenges for BMNZ was measuring the quality, consistency and impact of business mentoring. Three times a year, the BMNZ now carries out an independent survey of mentored clients 120 days from the mentor match in order to measure satisfaction rates on a number of key factors and evaluate the mentor service. The survey consists of eight statements designed to evaluate the mentor service (scale of 1-5) and makes use of the Net Promotion Score to obtain rated (scale of 1-10) feedback from the mentored clients on the likelihood of recommending the service to others (customer engagement, advocacy levels, etc.), along with the reasons for the rating. Another benchmark for evaluating the impact of the service is an increase in the number of clients reporting a positive impact on their business due to the implemented changes agreed to with the mentor.

Relevance for Ireland

There appears to be an adequate supply of people who want to become a mentor to Enterprise Island and LEO clients. In most of the mentoring matches, the mentors receive payment, unlike the New Zealand case where the mentors are volunteers. The BMNZ commits to ensuring that mentors are seasoned business professionals and adequately trained in the mentoring role before being matched with a client, which includes a case study practicum and accreditation as a mentor. Because many mentors in Ireland are paid for their services, which may be one of their motivations for applying to be mentor, it is even more critical for Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs to provide adequate training to them before assigning them to a project and to ensure the ongoing quality and impact of their services.

Ireland also has challenges in measuring the impact of mentoring services. The BMNZ example may provide guidance on an approach to this challenge in Ireland.

For more information

BMNZ (Business Mentors New Zealand) (2018), “Business Mentors Annual Report 2018”, Business Mentors New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand.

National Office, Business Mentors New Zealand, Auckland,;

Ireland has a base of expertise for training of business mentors that could perhaps be more fully utilised in the training and professional development of business mentors by Enterprise Ireland, the LEOs, Skillnet Ireland, InterTradeIreland, and other entities employing mentoring services to start-ups and SMEs. For example, Engineers Ireland has a fully developed mentoring professional development programme entailing a one-day training that provides mentors with the latest knowledge in best practice mentoring techniques and also supplies reading resources on the essentials of mentoring training and the key factors in successful mentoring. DCM Learning also offers one-day mentoring training workshops throughout Ireland to introduce the essential skills and techniques required to be a successful mentor.

In addition, the Association of Business Mentors (ABM), the trade body for business mentors in the United Kingdom and Ireland, offers a full range of mentor training and good practice information.16 This includes a Mentoring Accreditation Programme that aims to professionalise the mentoring role and enable the supply of well-trained and experienced business mentors. The accreditation programme makes use of web tools for delivery of an action learning methodology that requires 12-16 hours of study time over a 3-month period, plus journaling and opportunities for practice mentoring. Accreditation is confirmed following the assessment of a recorded mentoring session and completed statements of reflection by the mentor on the mentoring experience. The ABM also publishes detailed guidance on the process to be qualified as an ABM Professional Coach Mentor.

These are examples of the types of mentor development programmes that could be made more available to business mentors in Ireland and enhance the level of professionalism and consistency in the provision of mentoring services.

copy the linklink copied!Conclusions and policy recommendations

Many small and medium enterprises may be falling between the cracks of eligibility for either LEO or EI services. While the LEOs are the dedicated first stop shop for those starting a business or already in business and accessible to all MSMEs for information and signposting, only micro and some small enterprises are eligible for certain support programmes and particularly subjected to eligibility restrictions for financial assistance/grant aid. One way of addressing this gap is to expand the information offering on the Supporting SMEs Online tool by adding more how-to information dealing with developing a business idea, starting a business, growing a business, financing a business, etc., with links to support providers who can help. Potentially, more interactivity, such as diagnostic tools, an online Q and A capability and virtual mentoring, complemented with an inquiry call centre, could be added. Another notable example worthy of being extended to help scale access to expertise efficiently is the frequent filming of EI workshops which are made available to non-attendees as an online product.

On the other hand, some of the LEO programmes, such as the Trading Online Voucher, could be extended to small enterprises, as these are critical in helping small enterprises improve their productivity and grow their markets.

Irish agencies make considerable use of external consultants and mentors to provide BAS services to client companies (e.g. training, pre-incubation, technical assistance). This is a good practice that does not crowd-out private sector advice/consultancy and introduces MSMEs to the use of external advisory/consultancy services.

Although EI and the LEO Centre of Excellence undertake evaluations of the mentoring relationships, in many OECD countries, mentors receive an enhanced level of orientation and training before being assigned to a mentoring relationship to ensure they are prepared to effectively play their role. The quality of Ireland’s mentoring services could potentially be improved by developing a more systematic mentor orientation and training package for all contracted mentors delivering mentoring services for public agencies, ideally leading to accreditation as a business mentor. As well, MSMEs receiving mentoring should be well briefed on how the mentoring relationship will work and what to expect. In these regards, a review of the mentoring guidelines could be undertaken.

It also appears that the demand for some services from micro and small enterprises is greater than the supply. Ireland has not performed an assessment of the supply and demand for BAS services for quite some time. In order to assess the current demand for BAS services, conducting an annual or bi-annual survey of SMEs could be considered, in concert with the Central Statistics Office. This would assist the DBEI in taking stock of the demand for and usage of its BAS offerings and identifying any service gaps, by sector, size of enterprise, stage of development, region, and priority issues.

The Irish Government is effective in undertaking impact evaluations of many of the BAS support programmes and taking the results under consideration for programme adjustments and refinements. Management of the business incubator network, however, could be strengthened by developing a national incubator policy and seeking to set national standards for their operation and performance outcome. Developing a performance management framework and consistent methodology for collecting and reporting on key performance indicators (of publicly-funded incubators and accelerators) would enhance Ireland’s ability to measure the impact of incubation programmes and their contribution to economic growth factors.

Based on this analysis, the following recommendation are made to strengthen the provision of BAS services.

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Key recommendations on business advisory and support services
  • Expand the information content on the Supporting SMEs Online portal to improve its capacity to serve as a first-stop information source for all SMEs.

  • Expand the use of online business diagnostic tools for SMEs and entrepreneurs to help them identify their challenges and provide basic guidance. Explore how to use the diagnostic results to help match the offer of business advice with the needs of individual enterprises.

  • Encourage the LEOs to collect and report information on the take-up of group information sessions, business advisory clinics and mentoring services disaggregated by type of client and enterprise and type of advice requested.

  • Make enhanced use of virtual tools to improve SME access to specialised mentors who may not reside in the local area of the LEO.

  • Increase the level of awareness and take-up by SMEs in the Skillnet Ireland training initiatives, particularly in relation to management development training in micro and small enterprises.

  • Consider the use of a voucher scheme to incentivise more micro and small enterprises to participate in management development training programmes.

  • Develop mechanisms for the tailoring and extension of relevant management development programme modules to cohorts of SMEs not currently engaging in such programmes offered by the LEOs and EI.

  • Scale up the Trading Online Voucher system by increasing the amount of the voucher or allowing micro-enterprises to apply for a second follow-on voucher.

  • Hold regular information and awareness sessions with staff and business advisors of the LEOs to ensure they are updated on the programmes and support services and act as an effective signpost. This could make use of regularly amended versions of the “Mapping of Supports” that has been produced by the DBEI.

  • Increase opportunities for business mentors to acquire professional qualifications and accreditation.

  • Develop a national incubator and accelerator policy to encourage the systematic sharing of key performance indicator data on Ireland’s publicly-funded business incubator and accelerators and to offer opportunities for sharing good practice across different incubator and accelerator providers.

  • Include information and advice on good corporate social responsibility practices in business development services offers, focused on how Irish SMEs can remain competitive and sustainable in response to global megatrends.


BMNZ (Business Mentors New Zealand) (2018), “Business Mentors Annual Report 2018”, Business Mentors New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand.

Committee of Donor Agencies for Small Enterprise Development (2001), “Business Development Services for Small Enterprises: Guiding Principles for Donor Intervention: 2001 Edition”, World Bank Group, Washington, DC.

DEEP Centre (Centre for Digital Entrepreneurship and Economic Performance) (2015), “Evaluating Business Acceleration and Incubation in Canada: Policy, Practice and Impact”, October, Waterloo, Ontario,

DEEP Centre (2017), “BAI National Dialogue Summary”, March, Waterloo, Ontario,$file/BAI_National_Dialogue_Summary_March-2017-eng.pdf/.

DEEP Centre (2018), “BAI Performance Measurement Framework 2018”, Waterloo, Ontario,$file/BAI_Performance_Measurement_Framework_2018_rev-02_eng.pdf/.

DJEI (Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation) (2015), “Evaluations of State Supports for Enterprise: Synthesis Report and Conclusions”, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Dublin.

EI (Enterprise Ireland) (2017a), “Enterprise Ireland Strategy 2017-2020”, Enterprise Ireland, Dublin.

EI (2017b), “Enterprise Ireland End of Year Results 2017”, Enterprise Ireland, Dublin.

EI (2018), “Enterprise Ireland: Annual Report & Accounts 2017”, Enterprise Ireland, Dublin,

Forfás (2015), “Evaluation of Enterprise Supports for Start-ups and Entrepreneurship”, Forfás, Dublin.

Forfás (2014), Review of Business Mentoring Services in Ireland, July, Forfás, Dublin,

Frontline (2014), “Evaluation of the Campus Incubation Programme: Report for Enterprise Ireland”, Enterprise Ireland, Dublin.

IfGH (Austrian Institute for Small Business Research) (2002), “Support Services for Micro, Small and Sole Proprietor’s Businesses: Final Report”, commissioned by the European Commission, DG Enterprise. European Commission, Brussels.

Indecon (2018), “Evaluation of SkillNet Ireland in 2017”, October, Indecon International Economic Consultants, Dublin.

ITI (InterTradeIreland), “InterTradeIreland 2017: Annual Review of Activities and Annual Accounts”, ITI, Dublin,

LEO (Local Enterprise Office) (2017) “Impact Report 2017: Measuring the impact of Local Enterprise Office supports during 2017”, Enterprise Ireland, Dublin,

Moloney, A. (2018), “Focused Policy Assessment of Start Up and Entrepreneurship Expenditure”, Enterprise Programmes and Policy Evaluations Unit, Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI), Dublin.

NCC (National Competitiveness Council) (2018), Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenge 2018, December, Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Dublin,

NZTE (New Zealand Trade and Enterprise) (2018), Annual Report 2017/2018, NZTE, Auckland, NZ.

Piza, C., T.A Cravo, L. Taylor, L. Gonzalez, I. Musse, I. Furtado, A.C. Sierra, and S. Abdelnour (2016), The Impact of Business Support Services for Small and Medium Enterprises on Firm Performance in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review, Oslo, Norway,


← 1. See:

← 2. See:

← 3. Such as the “Information Store for Start-ups” on the EI website (see:, the Dublin City LEO “Knowledge Centre (

← 4. See:

← 5. In 2017, the LEOs trained 3 755 participants in the Start Your Own Business (SYOB) training programme (through 280 training sessions) among the 30 373 people trained in other business areas across 1 891 different programmes (LEO, 2017).

← 6. Some of the training, for example, is provided by the Irish Management Institute (e.g. Innovation4Growth), Institutes of Technology (e.g. New Frontiers Entrepreneurship Development Programme), and Business Innovation Centres (Enterprise Start and High-Potential Start-ups SPRINT training).

← 7. In order to access the mentor programme, clients must complete the Brexit SME Scorecard to assess their key needs and the most critical mentoring objectives.

← 8. The EI Brexit supports include Brexit clinics where any companies (not just EI clients) can meet with specialist advisors on currency exposure, supply chains, and other issues affecting export development.

← 9. From May to the end of 2017, 2 350 SMEs had availed of the Brexit Advisory Service (ITI, 2017, p. 24).

← 10. is an alliance of mature, experienced, and capable professional business leaders with passion and willingness for sharing their expertise and knowledge with SME leaders in Ireland.

← 11.

← 12.

← 13.

← 14. The list is categorised by: online resources, state support schemes by agency, mentorship service providers and programmes, networking initiatives, hubs and co-working spaces, Enterprise Centres by location, accelerators, food incubators, support initiatives by academic institutions, female entrepreneurship programmes and supports, training courses, etc. (see:

← 15.

← 16.

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Chapter 8. Business advisory and support services in Ireland – approach and programmes