Sir Richard Francis, director general of the British Council and a Companion of the British Institute of Management (BIM), offers advice to those with an eye on Eastern Europe.
Two years on from Europe's "annus mirabilis", Great Britain plc is still blinking at the consequences. Alan Lewis of the Confederation of British Industry likens the new trade prospects in Eastern and central Europe to the opening up of the New World: 360 million potential customers and opportunities across the board, in communications, energy, health care, agriculture, financial services and much more. Nevertheless, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union together still take no more UK trade than our annual sales to Finland. And as trading partners with the East we remain in eighth place (behind Austria), achieving something like a seventh of the volume of trade that Germany gets.
The statistics are ominous. Behind them one senses not only a deep corporate conservatism but also a distinct attack of nerves. How does one break into such very new markets? A recent research project by corporate identity design group Siegel and Gale outlines the pitfalls. Eastern Europe will not go for companies which it has never heard of; and it will certainly not go for the lightning raider, the company that dashes in to "milk the market" and then makes a prompt exit. Long-term commitment, investment for the future: these are the phrases that it wants to hear. We need to respond to the needs of the newly fledged democracies. But what are they?
It is a virtuous circle. As the BIM's director general, Peter Benton, has said, what the East wants is "a smooth transition from state-planning to the social and economic benefits of the open market". It wants accountants, bankers, stockbrokers, and above all managers. Undoubtedly Western Europe can play a large part in making this happen, and in return the key players will reap the rewards of an array of new markets. But who will they be and how to go about it? One way to start is to invest in the sponsorship of training.
Enter the British Council. It is Britain's main agent for promoting cultural relations with other countries. It is a broker for British expertise - technological, scientific, artistic and managerial - and for promoting the English language. And it has the shop windows, with a network of 154 offices around the world (including all of the capitals of Eastern Europe, except Tirana) from which for over 50 years it has been building up contacts and experience. In the world of the 1990s the young photographer whom the British Council once worked with is now Mayor of Prague; the academic is deputy Prime Minister; the playwright is the president, Vaclav Havel. Some two dozen of the new generation of government ministers in Eastern Europe were once British Council scholars in Britain. Investment in cultural relations has produced real dividends.