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Research Case studies

Encouraging SME Innovation and productivity through action oriented methods


Our work

Today, the world’s societies face severe economic and social challenges. To thrive, organisations, localities, regions and countries need to find new and sustainable sources of social value and economic growth. The search for new sources of growth and value comes at a time when many developed countries struggle to achieve the productivity improvements necessary to improve the standard of living for their citizens. Future growth must increasingly come from enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation through the introduction of new or improved products, processes and methods. The development of the next generation of small and medium sized enterprise (SME) leaders and managers with the necessary knowledge and skills to thrive in business and meet various social and economic challenges, many of which are complex in nature (such as technology, climate change or poverty) will be a key to success.

Our researchers tackle these complex problems through multidisciplinary research teams and the use of action oriented methods that seek to inform developments in academic theory, leadership or management practice, organisational strategy and public policy. Our work includes futures and foresight to inform strategy making in a variety of institutional settings; business-led knowledge exchange to understand and promote productivity improvements in SME; the use of academic research and practical intelligence to inform the design, development and delivery of learning opportunities for start-up entrepreneurs and enterprises seeking to scale up and the development of leadership and management capability in family businesses. Our research also informs the development of business mentors; sectors such as the Fintech, agri-business and tourism; the identification and communication of good practice associated with SME internationalisation and innovative teaching and learning strategies for SME engagement and sustainable development.

Our impact

The research has influenced the development of university-business knowledge exchange, as recommended in the Witty Report and the UK government’s Industrial Strategy. Through our work with professional bodies such as the Institute of Directors (IoD), Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with public and private sector organisations and the knowledge exchange activities delivered through Leeds Beckett Enterprise Hubs we have been connecting with, and influencing the behaviour of hundreds of entrepreneurs and SMEs in the region and beyond.

Our approach to encouraging SME innovation is informed by our research and practical experience. Our action oriented methods have developed and delivered, in partnership with a range of local stakeholders, a range of business support and knowledge exchange opportunities to entrepreneurs and leaders of growing businesses in sectors of strategic importance aligned with both the city-region economic development plan and the national government’s Industrial Strategy. Hundreds of SMEs have benefitted from these learning opportunities which blend academic knowledge with practical intelligence to ensure that the learning is relevant and actionable in the SME context. Further in-depth support for productivity improvements in SMEs is also provided through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and our own Business Growth Improvement Projects where high level research is used to address complex business problems.

We continue to stimulate demand within professional bodies through the process of building leadership and management accreditation within Continuing Professional Development (CPD) schemes. We have worked with the Institute of Directors to develop programmes to support leadership and corporate governance impacting on over 10,000 directors, many of whom lead SMEs. We have also supported the work of the Alternative Board as a means of enhancing SME performance. International projects funded under the Erasmus programme have developed and piloted innovative approaches to small business engagement (SME-DE) and informed the development and piloting of curriculum for small family businesses that is being embedded in business support and learning programmes (INSIST/FAME).

Our research has informed policy discourse related to the social and situated elements of SME leadership learning (UKCES 2010). This research points to the value of employer networks as a way of engaging leaders in peer to peer learning that focuses on relevant business issues. Our Networks, such as the Business Alliance have been operating for more than 10 years, with the Business School providing access to space and facilitation services using action oriented methods. More recent developments include international networks to encourage the identification and proactive dissemination of good practice in the area of SME internationalisation.

Our activity has influenced national policy development and discourse in a number of other ways. For example, researchers were invited to contribute to the Catalyst Series produced by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and research undertaken on employers ‘collective measures’ for training and development had an influence on the Skills for Growth White Paper (BIS 2009) with the government subsequently committing to the development of Coaching for Growth as a significant policy intervention. Our continued interest at the forefront of coaching developments is illustrated more recently in an Erasmus funded project (MentorCert) that seeks to reflect local sector intelligence in coaching programmes and to develop an ISO equivalent framework for business coaches interacting with SMEs. Owners and managers of SMEs inform the development of our approach through an expert group and involvement in piloting activities associated with the project ensures an evidence informed approach to development.

Next steps

Our action oriented approach to research continues to evolve and shape SME innovation in a range of ways. For example, a recently established multidisciplinary productivity forum provides an opportunity for academics and external stakeholders to frame a research agenda which includes exploration of the ways in which SMEs measure productivity and investigation of the most appropriate methods of intervention to improve individual and organisational performance.

People-centred innovation drives our research agenda and the role that coaching and mentoring plays in stimulating and supporting change lies at the heart of this. Our action oriented futures group continues to support knowledge exchange and help leaders of public and private organisations to understand possible, desirable and plausible long-term futures and to develop appropriate strategies in an increasingly complex social and economic environment.

Further international projects enable us to explore innovation and value creation. The Erasmus funded project Innovative Solutions for Sustainability in Higher Education (ISSUE) will provide an opportunity for research informed innovation and lay the foundations for ISO 26000 compliant developments in Higher Education. Our plans are to continue to develop and use action oriented methods aligned with UN goals to encourage innovation, sustainability and the adoption of responsible business practices by the SME leaders of today and tomorrow

Research outputs

Plus Icon Outputs
  • CEML (2002), Joining Entrepreneurs in their World: Improving Entrepreneurship, Management and Leadership in UK SMEs. London, Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership.
  • Menelec, V. and Jones, B. (2015) "Networks and marketing in small professional service businesses", Journal of Research in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, Vol. 17 Iss: 2, pp.193-211.
  • Johnson, S. and Devins, D. (2008) Training and Workforce Development in SMEs: Myth and Reality. SSDA Catalyst. [online].
  • Jones, B. and Iredale, N. (2014) “Enterprise and entrepreneurship education: towards a comparative analysis”, Journal of Enterprising Communities: People and Places in the Global Economy, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 34-50.
  • BIS (2009) Skills for Growth: The National Skills Strategy, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, London, 2009.
  • Devins, D., Nunn, A. and Stewart, J. (2009) Review of Employer Collective Measures: Policy Prioritisation.  UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Wath-upon Dearne.
  • UKCES (2010) Developing Leadership And Management Skills Through Employer Networks. London, UK Commission for Employment and Skills. 
  • Devins, D., Gold, J, Johnson, S. Holden, R. (2005) A conceptual model of management learning in micro businesses: Implications for research and policy. Education and Training, Vol 47, No 8/9. Pp 540-551.
  • Devins, D., Lodorfos, G., Kostopoulos, I. and Webber, D (2015). Innovation and Growth in the City Region: Microeconomic Evidence of Asymmetries. International Journal of Innovation Management. Vol 20, Issue 2. pp 1-15
  • Devins, D., Ferrandez-Berrueco, M.R. and Kekale, T. (2015) Educational orientation and employer influenced pedagogy; practice and policy insights from three higher education programmes in Europe. Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning. Vol 5 Iss 4. Nov 2015. Pp 352-368
  • Tench, R.; Devins, D.; Willis; Mitchell, C.; Brusati, L.; Frandsen, F.; Fadele, P.; Lacuzzi, S.; Ianniello, M.; Johansen, W.; Knudesen, G., & Dimitrova, T. (2016). Complexity Engagement: Stakeholders, Collaboration and Challenging Problems. Haftad.
  • Devins, D. and Jones B. (2016) Strategy for succession in family owned small businesses as a wicked problem to be tamed. Budapest Management Review, November 2016. pp 4-15




Contact Professor David Devins

0113 812 1971 d.devins@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

There are over five and a half million businesses in the UK economy and 99% of them are small and medium sized enterprises. Universities need to find ways to share knowledge and support SME development and innovation in an increasingly complex and competitive environment.

Professor David Devins
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