The term “SME” covers a wide range of business sizes – conventionally anything under 250 staff. When considering management system assessments, audits and certification, this classification can be less than useful, especially at the lower end of the size range – the Very Small Enterprise.
I was once asked to audit a two-man “security company” and refused – they were two guys who offered their services as night-watchmen and the audit was to be a formal review of their HSEQ management systems. An audit on their system would have yielded a very poor result (they neither had nor needed a formal system to the level being required by the specified audit protocol) but would have born no relation to how well they could do the work for which they were being engaged; if their livelihood required it, I suspect they could have bought an off-the-shelf manual and gotten a reasonable score which, again, wouldn’t have said anything about their competence.
When we get to small organisations it’s necessary to determine what we are looking for; actually, it’s vital to do that for any size company, but let’s stick with the small ones for now. A formal management system, and an accompanying certificate, can seem quite attractive and, for a purchaser, should provide assurance. But assurance of what? What are you engaging – a company or the individual? If one of the above two night-watchmen was off sick, would the company management system step in to fill the gap? No: he (or his wife) would phone the partner who would then try to find a replacement. Will the management system help them maintain their vigilance? No – if anything, maintaining it would probably send them to sleep!
My approach is that where the services are reliant on the competence of specified individuals, look at the competence of those individuals, not the competence of a system. Ask how complex the interfaces are – if most are one-to-one question the need for system documentation. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any forms (those, and checklists, are useful tools for an individual) but don’t look for a management system manual or documented procedures unless there is a demonstrated and critical need. In fact, before looking for a system, identify the type of culture operating (a subject for a future article). Think about what is being engaged – an individual to use his/her individual skills to complete a task, or an organisation to employ its corporate skills (through a number of its employees and, possibly, suppliers and subcontractors) to carry it out? Think about the communication needs, too – are they simple (just one-to-one and/or one-to-many) or more complex (including many-to-many), person-to-person or via a formal system?