We are living in a networked society, and the assumption is that networking is a highly important part of being a small business in the creative industries and is in the DNA of how the sector operates. Scholars have long pointed to social networks and network building as the life blood of many an SME especially, the argument runs, when it comes to the creative and cultural industries and its reliance on project-based employment which requires the SME to have a strong reputation in order to secure repeat business, and reputation travels within a social network.
Are creative entrepreneurs, by their nature, established and proficient networkers? If so, how developed are these networks, are they serving a purpose to help businesses grow? Under the creative vouchers scheme, named ‘Joining the dots: network building for the creative economy’ we were looking for projects that were seeking to join the dots: how needs were mapped, or identified; practical means of bridging gaps between project based and regular enterprises, between formal and informal activities, between for profit and not for profit activities, and between SMEs and larger organizations. How are micro-enterprise and sole-trader networks sustained, can they be made more resilient? Which activities are of the most value to ‘join the dots’?
So what did we find? That some projects produced networks where none had existed before, one for visually impaired musicians for example, and as a result have attracted a great deal of attention and have some very positive opportunities opening up both nationally and internationally. That some networks, such as those which RIBA are attempting to build around the planning process, may have some fundamental issues. Not least that the planning process is based around objections rather than positive engagement, which may take a long time and policy changes to resolve.
However, given the premise we started with, it was fascinating to unpack those projects questioning the argument that creative and cultural industries do actually believe in networking for their success and engagement, The main result of our projects working with small businesses in design, making and fashion, has been yes, they do, but only up to a point. Clearly small businesses will gain a great deal by hanging together rather than hanging separately, when it comes to access to information, or technology or possible sources of funding or other support, but where reputational based relationships kick in, which may end up with commissions or the development of product or projects, then another force comes into play. The seeming altruistic nature of the CCIs hits the brick wall of commercial potential success, and barriers come down. Networking or passing on of contacts possibly hard gained, and based on a relationship of trust are not so open then it seems. Being altruistic and networked is clearly to be embraced, but how do I work cooperatively whilst still paying my rent?
There are some further points which need to be examined about the positive role of the network. People who have nothing to lose will share when they see the other party is not in competition with them. In fashion, men’s wear designers are happy to pass on contacts to women’s wear designers, for example. However some further questions arise over issues of connectivity and how that might reflect back on one self, especially if the further collaboration encouraged does not work. Also issues about the potential for the ‘power of name and shame’ in a socially networked world. Whether ’open source’ works or not in CCIs? By comparison in technology; it seems fine to share technical breakthroughs, not only because developments move on apace, but actually because they reflect back on the person who initiated it, who is not of course replaceable or copy able.
When pressed, confidence that everyone would play ball by sharing information to the same extent when a network was being constructed, and the idea of a map of who was connected with whom was found unlikely to work. There are networks that are really hard to break into, as opposed to open innovation, although social media is opening this up. Business in the CCIs also has an important face to face social element, so some of the guardedness about networks may be circumvented in this context, and what networks need to be protected seems to depend on how secure a business is in their own area. You can’t open source ‘trust’.