A business forum, the Katanga Business Meeting, was held last month in the city of Lubumbashi, in Haut-Katanga province, South Eastern D.R.C (link). The aim was to allow businesses to meet and form commercial links with each other. 130 companies attended, from sectors including agriculture, services, mining, and energy.
Such forums are a good idea. They can help companies to identify and assess the feasibility of business opportunities. They can help companies to access resources required to realise those opportunities, and to find potential partners, suppliers, and customers. They can help companies to assess demand and potential competitors, and to decide on the best strategy to enter a market. They can help companies to find goods and services that make their operations perform better.
Given all these potential advantages, how can an organiser prepare a forum to achieve them? A forum is more likely to bring advantages if it engages a large number of companies, and facilitates communication and opportunity identification between them. So an organiser would want to make detailed preparations that promote engagement and communication . Here’s what I’d do.
The first thing I’d do is contact as wide a cross-section of companies as possible and let them know about the forum. If more companies are involved, the forum’s impact is likely to be bigger. So I would use telephone directories, tax records, business organisations, business networks, and expert knowledge to identify and contact companies. Advertising in business publications would be useful. I’d also advertise in more general newspapers, both to contact those companies not reached by business publications, and to attract potential businesspeople who have not yet established a company – a nominal entry fee may ensure that forum participants are committed to business. A well-publicised forum website would also be useful, giving information about the forum. I would also encourage involvement by stating that the forum has support from prominent business associations, government, and international organisations. Stating that many other companies will be attending can influence companies to attend themselves. I’d also look at whether broadcasts or internet conferencing could be used to link to companies whose representatives cannot attend in person.
The next thing I’d do is hire people who are familiar with the companies and their business, or who can learn about them. Such people can act as “brokers” or “go-betweens”, connecting companies who may not be aware of each other. Their knowledge can be used to arrange group or bilateral meetings between companies with common features, or to provide information to participating companies, or to arrange communications whether in print or on the internet. The brokers may also be able to resolve any difficulties between companies, if the brokers have negotiating skills or can acquire them.
The third thing I’d do is explain before the forum what companies can do when they arrive. Letting companies know in advance allows them to prepare, and makes the interactions at the forum more effective. So I’d tell companies that they will meet other firms from their own and other industries, and that they can swap product samples, leaflets, and business cards. I’d also tell them that they can exhibit and present publicly.
The fourth thing I’d do is arrange the seating, spaces, and timetable in the forum so that company representatives can meet and move on quickly. The more meetings a company has during the forum, the more likely it is to identify business opportunities, partners, or suppliers. Company tables and stalls could be positioned close to each other, perhaps side-by-side so that representatives can move from company to company with few omissions. I’d suggest that initial meetings would be limited to a few minutes, with opportunities for further discussion in subsequent open meetings or at lunch. Sessions could be held for companies from different regions and industries, and on different topics of business interest. These sessions would increase the range of company interaction.
The next thing I’d do is distribute information about the region, industry, industrial specialisation, and product range of each company, together with contact information. A company will often be interested in opportunities where it can use its existing knowledge and skills, and such opportunities may arise from observing and cooperating with firms with which it shares some features. Recognising local suppliers and clients may allow companies to reduce costs, as business with local partners will have lower transport expenses, which can lead to large savings in a region where transportation is difficult. Indeed, without finding a local supply chain, a business may never get going. Additionally, if companies are aware of other firms with shared features, they can form lobby groups to protect their interests.
The sixth thing I’d do is encourage companies to talk about their work. Discussion of work can stimulate ideas and collaboration. I’d ask companies to give public presentations for five minutes about their products, organisation, and goals. Companies could provide samples of their work, and describe how they can assist other firms. Companies could also describe any problems that they have, so that potential partners or contractors can work to solve them. Open meetings could discuss topics of interest to some or most businesses, including electricity supply, regulation, taxation, and technology.
The seventh thing I’d do is promote contacts between companies after the forum ends. Companies could be encouraged to exchange business cards during the forum, and enter their names in a database available to other firms. Some of the forum employees who know about the companies and their business could continue to work temporarily after the forum ends, connecting companies who want to find partners, suppliers, or clients. The employees could also collate and summarise information given during the forum, which could help companies cooperate in future, and which could be a commercial product in itself.
1. Some academic studies have looked at preparations used in other forums and similar networks, including (in English)
Jack et al. (2013) An entrepreneurial network evolving (link)
Lockett et al. (2013) Motivations and challenges of network formation (link)
and (in French)
Chabaud et al. (2003) Les incubateurs d'entreprises innovantes (link)