Philosophy behind Plato can help tackle challenges facing SMEs

Peer-to-peer learning can be every bit as effective as book learning.

“Sharing of knowledge allows you to learn and manage problems in a more efficient manner so you can focus on the important parts of your business”

The classroom has its place in business education, but if you really want to know what’s bugging small businesses put their owners in a room together and let them talk. Within minutes there is common ground, and people are generous about sharing their often hard-earned experience.

Peer learning groups offer support, networking opportunities, practical advice, information and insights. They need an experienced and diplomatic hand on the tiller to lightly guide their progress. But once that’s in place they can be a safe and supportive environment in which owner-managers can spill their concerns and bounce new ideas.

Plato is a small business support network with an all-Ireland presence. The aim of its 18-month business development programme is to help SMEs grow and develop.

It recognises that owner-managers are typically time poor, so official sessions are confined to once a month. Each group is steered by two volunteer leaders from one of the "parent" companies that support the programme – including Microsoft, Diageo, PayPal, the ESB, IBM and Pfizer.


Groups decide on their own agenda, and meet for a three-hour session that focuses on one of the topics they have identified as being of interest. This is facilitated by the leader who is usually an experienced senior manager in their own right. He or she may speak about the issue from a personal perspective and/or bring in a guest speaker to get the discussion going. Having leaders with backgrounds in large corporates gives the SMEs access to big company expertise, knowledge and ways of doing things.

Groups start out with between 12 and 15 participants, all from different backgrounds. Competing companies are generally not put together unless it’s a sector-specific group. The meetings are held at the premises of the parent company at a time and day chosen by the group. And the cost to participants is €600 for the 18 months.

Long-term goals

"As a business owner it can be challenging to make sure you take the time for strategic planning and to consider the long-term goals for your business," says Orla Veale of digital marketing and web design company Conker. "The Plato Dublin programme has helped us to address this challenge through the monthly meetings and expert support from the programme's mentors and the excellent speakers brought in to address specific areas.

“The benefits have been that our business growth has exceeded the plan we set before we entered the programme. Another key benefit is that you meet a group of your peers experiencing similar challenges. And sharing of knowledge allows you to learn and manage problems in a more efficient manner so you can focus on the important parts of your business.”

Cormac Kelly is senior manager with Microsoft, running a team of 50 people. He is a leader with the current cohort.

“The people in the groups usually own the company [or are the next in line] so they are heavily invested in the business and very passionate,” Kelly says. “Regardless of sector, they experience similar problems, and generally recognise that they need time not only to work in the business but also on it.

“Most owner-managers are so busy coping day to day that stepping back is not something they get to do very often. We began the programme by brainstorming to draw up a list of key challenges and common themes. These ranged from sales and HR to strategy and digital marketing, and we’re working our way through them.

“The participants really benefit from getting three hours away from it all, and while there is no obligation to do homework there are tasks that can be completed to develop an aspect of someone’s business – for example, putting a strategic plan together.

“The benefits of getting involved with the group cuts two ways,” Kelly adds. “I may be helping them, but they are also educating me about SMEs and what it’s like to run one. I believe this is developing my leadership capacities by opening me up to new experiences. While the group meets once a month officially, there is also additional interaction between members who get together informally so there is a lot of support going on.”


Brian Sweeney is the founder of Evolved Energy Solutions, which employs 10 people. He is part of a group facilitated by the ESB and law firm Mazars.

“I joined the programme because my business was growing, and I wanted to get an overview of how we were doing. It can be difficult to get perspective when you’re the owner-manager and so immersed in the process of running the company.

“I have found being with the other owners of real practical help. Where else could you talk about vans one minute and employment contracts the next and get an informed opinion on both first hand?

“There is so much red tape when you’re running a business, and sometimes that can feel overwhelming. What I’ve found with the group is that it’s likely someone in it has ‘been there’ before and can break down the information and what you need to do into manageable chunks.

“I pick up a lot of pertinent information from the group discussions, and as an owner-manager found a session on how to price your time really useful, not least because how you value your time has to change when you take on employees.”