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Research Case studies

SME Research


The Faculty of Business and Law has a long history researching small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from the perspectives of leadership, management, policy and skills. In particular, Professor Jeff Gold has focused on improving leadership in SMEs through coaching and action learning and Dr David Devins has looked at approaches to supporting SME development.

Research undertaken by David Devins in the 1990s highlighted the heterogeneity of the small business population which presents challenges to both researchers and policy planners. SME policy in the UK was less developed than in other countries with insufficient attention given to stimulate investment in the development of systems and procedures to make the most of employees.

Work with Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and other professional bodies and non-government agencies helped the development of policy recommendations informed by the interests of the SME community. Using data collected over three years from a programme targeted at 40 SMEs in Sheffield, Jeff and David emphasised the need to recognise the uniqueness of SMEs in the process of formulating organizational culture. They went on to show how coaching constitutes a form of intervention that provides a means of working with the values and interests of the business.

Their research has influenced the development of university-business knowledge exchange through work with professional bodies. For example, work with the Institute of Directors (IoD) has supported the development of programmes to support leadership and corporate governance impacting on over 10,000 directors, many of whom lead SMEs. In addition, research for the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership (CEML) has helped to stimulate demand within professional bodies through the process of building leadership and management accreditation within Continuing Professional Development (CPD) schemes. This was most notably adopted by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

The faculty’s research has influenced national policy developments and discourse in a number of ways. Work undertaken on employers ‘collective measures’ for training and development had an influence on the 2009 Skills for Growth White Paper (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and the Government has subsequently committed to the development of Coaching for Growth as a significant policy intervention in 2012. Policy discourse has been influenced relating to the social and situated elements of SME leadership learning and the research has highlighted the value of employer networks as a way of engaging leaders in peer to peer learning that focuses on relevant business issues.

Jeff’s current research focuses on how to increase the return on investment in leadership and talent programmes, the vital role of SME networks in leadership development, leadership learning from social capital and the contribution of coaching to change in the NHS. His approach to research is increasingly collaborative, seeking to work with practitioner partners on their issues and ensuring impact and value-added.

David has a longstanding research interest in the development of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) and their network ties in the local economy. His PhD explored the connection between national skills policy and SMEs and his current research interests lie in the role that universities play in the development of SMEs.

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