During the last two decades, the European Commission has highlighted the importance of encouraging the creation of a favourable environment for industrial and business cooperation as a mechanism for promoting the internal market and as a competitiveness factor, especially in areas of small and medium enterprises. White Paper COM(85) 310, 14 June 1985 gathered the need of having the Commission ensure that the communal budgets included support for cooperation and pointed out the importance of the contribution of regional funds to this same aim.
In 2006 the European Parliament established the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (2007–2013), which underlines cooperation between SMEs as a concrete course of action in order to achieve the goal of reinforcing innovation, business spirit and industrial competitiveness.
In Catalonia, the market expansion linked to the European unification process has not been accompanied by a proportional increase of business’s size, which undoubtedly could become a threat in an environment dominated by the ever-growing necessity of investing in large-scale projects with a strong risk factor.
In effect, an environment of deep technological change, together with the globalization process which world economies are going through now, place dynamic competitive advantages as key factor for the positioning of enterprises in the market. It is precisely within this context that permanent innovation strategies stand out amongst the priorities of global enterprises. Nevertheless, these strategies, in order to successfully position themselves in the global market, are closely linked to an ever increasing need for business capitalization, knowledge management and technological surveillance.
Consequently, in an SME environment like Catalonia, the size imbalance between business and market can be defined as a threat in the sense that it could eventually cause a loss of opportunities in emerging markets with strong growth potential and, at the same time, constitute a weakness when facing new competitors, who count with larger companies and competitive advantages based on low costs. Currently, SMEs generate 75 per cent of the workplaces and contribute 60 per cent of the GDP.
Hence, business cooperation stands out as a particularly adequate strategy for successfully solving the structural problems related to the size-factor. However, it should be taken into consideration that, in order to meet the challenges posed at European level in the fields of innovation and technological development, cooperation should result from the shared business will of joining efforts to achieve those strategic goals, continuously improving concrete aspects of their competitive position, locally, but mainly in the global market.
In this sense, it is important to differentiate between actual collaboration agreements and what could be cooperation strategies of enterprises belonging to a concrete collective or a specific community. In general, the former tend to have a punctual impact, they usually affect their participants only and they can result in a zero-sum game where the benefits of those involved in the agreement are balanced by the equal losses of another economic agent. On the other hand, a cooperative strategy which has been developed through a process of permanent collaboration between enterprises who share the goal of acting together should result in the structural strengthening of the productive network and in the increasing of competitiveness in the territory where the strategy is applied.
In Catalonia, the existence of around fifty local production systems spread throughout the region and consisting of industries in the same line of business which operate within an environment of global competition should constitute a driving factor for cooperative strategies. In spite of this, the low levels of cooperation observed in Catalonia indicate the presence of cultural and structural factors which make stable alliances between our enterprises difficult to achieve.
Data from INE’s Technological Innovation Survey show that the cooperation levels in Catalonian businesses are relatively low, at less than 20 per cent, close to the Spanish average and, according to Eurostat, still far from the figures shown in Scandinavia (44 per cent Finland, 43 per cent Sweden and Denmark) or the Baltic region (35 per cent Estonia, 39 per cent Latvia and 56 per cent Lithuania). The accentuated presence of SMEs and the low rate of business collaboration justify the creation of specific policies which could boost cooperation strategies based on the development of common action plans aiming to improve the competitiveness of collectives or business communities.
Thus, in 2008, the Secretaría de Industria y Empresa (Office of Industry and Enterprise) through the PYME Programme will start the Red de Asesores de Cooperación Empresarial de Cataluña (Catalonian Network of Business Cooperation Advisors), whose main concern will be the definition, design, diffusion and carrying out of concrete cooperation projects for the improvement of internal competitive factors for business collectives.
These tasks will be included in a multi-year plan for common action and will have the financial support of the state. They will focus on structural aspects which affect productivity in enterprises and will be grouped in five main areas: business organization; management of human resources; knowledge management; quality, norms and safety; and business culture, values and sustainability.
Their main field of action will be the geographic cluster of companies that operate in the same line of business and share common strategic challenges. In this way, it is intended to confront the needs and deficiencies of the companies within the cluster in order to place most of them, especially the smaller ones, in a position of being able to face the strategic challenges posed by their market segment.
This initiative has to reach beyond mere economic back up. It will particularly influence the discovery of cooperation opportunities and guarantee the support during the course of joint-action plans.
The aim of this new political orientation is to consolidate networks of business cooperation in Catalonia, emphasizing all the relational, personal and cultural aspects, which are inherent to this kind of processes.
Antoni Soy was born in Ripoll in 1950. He is a professor of Applied Economics and taught at the faculty of Economics in the University of Barcelona for three years. Presently, he is an advisor of the General Assembly of Caixa Catalunya and is part of the Advisory Council of the Financial Institute of Catalonia.