Business leaders gain new perspective on problem-solving on a study tour to Bolivia

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When you're thinking about business development, what first springs to mind? Is it figures, percentages and expansion that you consider the most important aspects to focus on as a successful SME, or do you factor in personal growth and the chance to look at your business from a different perspective? It seems an unlikely route to commercial progression, but the opportunities that come from taking a short time out of the business - if it is carefully planned - may be more enlightening that you could have anticipated.

Giving business owners the ability to look at their work and their enterprise with fresh eyes was exactly the intention of volunteering organisation International Service (IS) when it developed its Thematic Business Study Tours, taking groups of managing directors to see parts of the world in which their projects run. "The study tours, marketed to senior business people, allow participants to gain an in-depth understanding of some of the work of our development workers and local partners," says Charlotte Morris, International Service's PR marketing coordinator. "They are also of great benefit to the participants, who are rewarded with new insights on the way they operate their business."

But how would small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) benefit? "Study tours give you access to a number of skills which can be put to use by SMEs," she says. "Through visiting remote communities and seeing how development work is carried out, you learn new communication techniques, problem solving skills, and a whole new approach to work."

A recent tour took in six projects in Bolivia. At one, a group of women had bought a grain mill and were now able to produce and store their own grain, having overcome a number of difficulties to achieve this in challenging circumstances. The project was flourishing and it exemplified what could be achieved with identified goals and a clear strategy of communication and task-sharing.

At another, the sheer remoteness meant that basic tasks, such as attending meetings, became major undertakings. But talking to those involved revealed that the successful management of projects comes from some very fundamental factors relevant to business the world over: networking, positive communication, and efficient use of resources.

Of course, SMEs involved in any kind of agricultural development or resource management would find the business study tour an incredibly useful experience. But those from other sectors might wonder what the value of it could be to them. Belina Raffey, an independent business consultant whose work has nothing to do with agriculture, also attended International Service's Bolivian programme and felt she and her business gained enormously. "I wanted to see on the ground how people get by with considerably less resources than we have access to," says Raffey. "I am concerned about sustainability aspects of my business, and wanted to get a new appreciation for the resources I access and use, as well as those I use but don't really need to. I was inspired by seeing people do things in a new way."

And as a business consultant, Raffey remarked on what she felt the key values of the study tour would be to a participating owner-director of an SME. "SMEs tend to go through feast and famine periods," she says. "Connecting with people who have more serious, survival-level problems means attendees can better put events in perspective, and find a new, powerful motivation to make the most of what is right in front of them, be it resources, or the quality of their relationships with the people they come into contact with through work."

For information, visit International Service's website, or contact Charlotte Morris on 01904 647799