TODAY Mar 13, 2008: After the award, what next?

Written by Esther Fung 13 March 2008, featuring interview with me.


WHEN it comes to recognition, small firms may have too much of a good thing going.

Just ask Mr Yee Jenn Jong, chief executive officer of e-learning business ASKnLearn, who recently trashed as spam an email inviting him to be part of a ranking of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore.

He gets so many of such emails, he said, and rarely bothers with responding because, as he pointed out: “Some of these awards are quite tiring to apply for; they come with a lot of forms, interviews. In some cases, you even have to pay to apply.”

The number of business excellence awards and rankings has proliferated in recent years. True, winning one of the more well-known ones can boost the image of a company’s products and services, differentiating it from the thousands of SMEs operating in Singapore.

But critics say that “momentary glory” is all it sometimes brings. Some firms think the sheer number of such competitions has diluted the recognition accorded to winners.

“The recognition is not as it was before, although it’s still good to be awarded,” said Mr Abdul Rasheed, CEO of telecommunications services provider Navcom. As of last December, there were some 170,000 active SMEs with substantive business operations.

The judging criteria of some awards ? which these days are handed out by a range of agencies, including accounting firms, banks and government-linked bodies ? can be “quite mechanical” and may not truly reward enterprise, said Mr Sunny Chin, CEO of engineering firm Robotronics Land.

Often, the criteria include quantifiable factors such as annual revenue and net profit, and non-tangibles such as achievements, business practices and future expansion plans.

But the winning of an award should be more than just the earning of a badge, says Mr Chin. That is why he suggests that organizers model their awards on Miss Universe pageants, where the winner is groomed to be an ambassador over the course of a year. That means nurturing the firm with grants, management training and help in overcoming barriers when expanding overseas.

That’s not to say current practice achieves little. “Rankings and awards are an acknowledgement of an enterprise’s good work,” said Mr Lawrence Leow, president of the Association of SMEs. “Such awards set a benchmark for good entrepreneurship and encourage enterprises in Singapore to do better, propelling them to expand domestically and overseas.”

Likewise, recognizing supportive official agencies has paid off. Mr Philip Yeo, chairman of enterprise development agency Spring Singapore, said last July the Action Community for Entrepreneurship awards had “been instrumental in raising awareness among government agencies to be pro-enterprise” and in turn, they can improve the regulations “to support and encourage SMEs to grow and prosper”.

And that’s important. More than awards, what would better stimulate the set-up of successful businesses is a combination of pro-enterprise policies and a breed of enterprising individuals, said Mr Leow.

During the recent parliamentary debates, at least five Members of Parliament expressed concerns about whether SMEs got enough support from the Government. Mr Lee Yi Shyan, Minister of State for Trade and Industry, gave assurance that the Government “is committed to create the most conducive environment for start-ups and SMEs”.

For instance, with the help of financial institutions, Spring Singapore made available 3,573 loans worth $716 million last year.

Awards make up but a small part of a business-friendly landscape, say entrepreneurs, and it is better access to funding and more flexible business regulations that will go a long way to boost entrepreneurship.

“If it’s relevant and not too onerous to apply for and it’s good for our business, we will continue to apply for the awards,” said Mr Yee. But ultimately, what shareholders and staff want is long-term profitability, “so, firms need to get business fundamentals right”.


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