You don’t necessarily need a business degree to run a business. There are 5.9 million SMEs across the UK, with many learning on the job and doing well.

While there is no substitute for real-world experience, the UK’s business schools can offer a lot of practical insight and support on everything from starting up to scaling. This goes beyond the degrees they offer, to the broader way they work with local businesses.

Many business owners just don’t have the bandwidth, or the money, to juggle studying for a business degree alongside their business.

One thing that we say time and again is that it is important to take a step back from working “in” the business, to working “on” the business. This is something that few owner/managers can do easily, but it makes all the difference in being able to see the wood from the trees.

There are a host of areas that business school academics have conducted research into, which can help small businesses fine tune their growth strategy.

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Here are some 5 top tips from one of Britain’s best business schools:

#1 – Innovate but not as you know it

When most businesses hear the word innovation they tend to think about technology, or how they create their next product or process. But innovation isn’t all about ideation, technology and widgets. Actually, it means ways to create value from ideas.

In many cases this starts with doing more with the same and innovating a business model. For most businesses there are lots of opportunities to create more value from existing products, produced by existing technologies, in existing markets.

#2 – Adopt technology to grow

Technology is important too! We live in an information age, but a large proportion of SMEs are digitally disconnected, and therefore not realising their full potential. One in four microbusinesses still use no tech at all.

This isn’t about rolling out industry 4.0 and artificial intelligence for them, but basic technologies that can really drive growth. For example, CRM, cloud-based computing, accountancy software, e-commerce and computer aided design are among the top technologies proven to increase productivity for microbusinesses.

The Small Business Charter recently launched a free programme to help microbusinesses develop digital skills for growth. Leading to Grow is funded by the government and is being run through 15 of our business schools across England. If you have nine employees or less, you should check this out.

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#3 – Unlock people power

Everyone knows the adage that “people are your greatest asset”. Yet there is still overwhelming evidence that many businesses are not making the most of their people. The OECD estimates that poor management costs UK business £84bn a year.

This isn’t about making employees work harder, but rather engaging staff in the business and making more of their experience and insight.

Research indicates that if SMEs focused on developing good management and leadership skills and practices, they could increase productivity, turnover and employment.

So, it could be time to look around and ask yourself if your team’s talents are being used to the max. Are you getting the best from them? How might improving leadership and management help?

#4 – Plug into a network

Being an owner-manager can be lonely. It can be easy to shoulder all kinds of problems on your own. But you are not alone.

Taking time out to build relationships and meet other SMEs and people in your sector is one of the most valuable investments you can make. It can help you gain useful insight, new customers and collaborations. Crucially, it can also help you feel more supported and connected, which is important for reducing stress and protecting your own mental health.

Across the UK there is a wide array of formal and informal business clubs, associations and networks, from general get togethers to specialist communities. While it sounds a cliché there really is something for everyone if you look for it.

#5 – Ask an expert

Business schools should be top of your list for this kind of support. Many academics are engaged in cutting-edge research across a variety of relevant areas from supply chains to HR, leadership to innovation.

The notion that we sit around in our ivory towers, reading and writing about ideas that have no relevance to the real world simply isn’t true. We conduct much of our research in the field, working directly with SMEs, so we have a unique understanding of your challenges. Many of us strive to have a positive impact on businesses and the policy landscape.

Business schools, particularly those with Small Business Charter status, are important knowledge hubs for the small business community. They support start-ups and entrepreneurs in practical ways, by exchanging insight, creating networks, running events and bringing people together on specialist areas, from technology to innovation.

Not enough SMEs know about the opportunity to partner with, or seek support from, academic institutions, which is something we really want to change. So, if you mean business, you should check out your local business school and find out how you can use it as a launchpad for growth.

Professor Tim Vorley is professor of entrepreneurship, Sheffield University Management School and vice chair of Small Business Charter

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