The German Chamber: A vehicle for success?

Recently back from speaking at the German Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) conference in Offenbach

I attended the same conference last year in Saarbrucken, and really enjoyed it. This year’s event was similarly rewarding.

Although there are a few things I could say about BIDs in Germany (of which there are still only 30), I find myself wanting to write about something else. The meeting was convened by the DIHK – the Association of German Chambers of Commerce. My acquaintance with this organisation remains limited but – for the second year running – I found myself impressed with the quality of the people it attracts to its staff, and with its apparent standing in Germany.

The power of the German Chamber has something in common with the power of BIDs. Membership is compulsory (meaning that all businesses are included/represented) and the subscription is small enough not to undermine the very businesses it is trying to support. Furthermore the Chamber is actually composed of some 80 regional organisations, each of which endeavours to gear its programme to the particular conditions under which its local businesses operate.

What is provided in return for the subscription? The Chamber’s English statement lays out a range of services that seem entirely appropriate. These include:

  • Operating in-company training (‘more than 500,000 intermediate and final examinations every year
  • Giving young people training within companies
  • ‘Making proposals to cut red tape for new businesses’
  • Supporting new companies with information and advice on their business concept
  • Submitting ‘suggestions for a better balance  between work and family life’
  • Supporting entrepreneurial activity
  • Arranging ‘contacts with banks and savings banks’

Two further aspects caught my eye. First, the DIHK co-ordinates the German Chambers of Commerce Abroad (GCCA) in 120 locations in some 80 countries. As the blurb puts it: ‘This is where companies can find answers to many questions concerning their involvement in foreign markets.’ Second, the DIHK sits apart from government and offers a critique on policy as it affects business. ‘Our roots in the regions, our worldwide presence and our overview of the entire breadth of the economy – these three features make us the competent partner of politicians.’

How does this compare and contrast with the situation in the UK? Here, business interests are still spread between government departments; business support activities are now significantly harder to access; Chambers of Commerce have a presence at national level, but there isn’t a sense of strategic integration with the chambers operating in our towns and cities, which are increasingly seen as dysfunctional;  services of the kind operated by the DIHK can only be sourced through a band of agencies between which there is too little communication. Perhaps most significantly, the approach to introducing young people to the workplace is piecemeal and random in the extreme.

Perhaps further contact with the German Chamber would reveal it to be less of a Mercedes and more of a Volkswagen. However my experience certainly suggests a situation in which businesses have a clear path to the external services they require, and a national mouthpiece for their concerns. Perhaps in implementing a similar organisastion, Britain could regain some of its lost economic ground.

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