Productivity from Below: Addressing the Productivity Challenges of Microbusinesses

Lead Research Organisation: Aston University
Department Name: College of Business and Social Sciences

Abstract

Academic and policy interest in productivity rarely captures the experiences of an important segment of the small firm population: micro-businesses (1-9 employees). The informal and opaque management processes in such firms pose challenges for the assessment of productivity and development of practical interventions. This project uses rigorous academic research co-produced with non-academic stakeholders to design and implement policies that support management to boost productivity in such firms. Our context - disadvantaged communities managing and working in the catering, retail and creative sectors in the West Midlands - serve as a critical case to improve knowledge and practice on the relationship between management and engagement practices and performance in micro-businesses.

The research is collaborative and comprises three leading applied centres with researchers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds: the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME), the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) and City-REDI (Regional Economic Development Institute). They work alongside non-academic stakeholders that rarely feature in 'mainstream' business support ecosystems (despite their reach in myriad micro-enterprise networks): Ashley Integrates (an award-winning social enterprise with a keen interest in promoting employability of migrants), the Bangladeshi Network (comprising four groups with local and national reach into the sector), Citizens UK (a national civil society alliance) and Punch Records (a business with a strong social mission to promote artists from deprived background).

A multi-method is adopted comprising five WPs that aim to develop insights into micro-businesses that can be used to develop interventions to promote productivity. WP 1 locates the project in the context of a recent national study on the characteristics of microbusinesses. Further analysis will highlight challenges facing those micro-businesses that have a desire to improve performance and grow. A granular understanding of management and engagement practices in micro-businesses will be generated in WP2 by in-depth qualitative investigation of 24 case studies of firms over an extended period of time. Manager and worker perspectives on the organization of work are evaluated. This knowledge is shared and utilized in WP 3 with a range of non-academic stakeholders, with the aim of mapping and mobilizing the business support ecosystem. Policy options will be identified, which will then - in WP4 - be tested and evaluated with micro-business owners who have the ambition to participate in bespoke change programmes to boost productivity. An active programme of knowledge exchange and dissemination (WP5) will cross-cut the project and will comprise a series of journey mapping knowledge exchange co-produced workshops, involving micro-business owner/managers and their employees, and external support agencies. These are designed to understand how involvement in the study has influenced any change to initial management style towards introducing new management and engagement practices, and how these have improved productivity. WP5 will also inform dissemination, and the qualitative component of the formative and summative evaluation.

The project will produce important practical outcomes for businesses my providing support for evidence-based interventions that will benefit around 30 micro-businesses that participate in customised programmes designed to upgrade leadership and management skills leading to a boost in productivity. Insights from their experiences and will promote greater understanding of 'what works' that can guide practitioners in other contexts.

The project will also actively support the development of a more responsive and inclusive business support ecosystem in the West Midlands by mobilising 'mainstream' and non-traditional intermediaries (for example, our non-academic partners) and via multiple pathways of engagement.

Planned Impact

The potential impact of the proposed research is far reaching. The insights generated will directly benefit strategic and operational policy making and business support delivery. It will help stakeholders to devise and refine policy approaches targeted at enhancing managerial capability and employee engagement to increase productivity. The list below indicates who benefits and how they benefit:

Micro-business owners from marginalised communities: approximately 30 owners will benefit directly by participating in the bespoke support provided in WP4. Benefits will accrue from the provision of tailored business support to improve productivity which will sit alongside the main Aston Programme for Small Business Growth. Similar independently evaluated programmes involving the Aston Centre for Growth in Aston Business School have resulted in performance improvements of an additional 22% three years after participation in an intensive leadership and management education programme. These micro-business owners will benefit by being signposted to appropriate sources of business advice by representatives of business support providers. Learning accrued from the initiative with community-based networks will be disseminated through blogs, policy briefings, and workshop participation (including via the CREME Annual Ethnic Minority Business Conference). This engagement will provide a platform for expanding the capacity-building potential of this initiative beyond partners in the project.

Non-academic partners will benefit from acquisition of new detailed information on micro-businesses, which can be used to improve their service offer to such businesses. This will be achieved by researchers, partners and 'mainstream' business support stakeholders working closely together and sharing knowledge and expertise on enterprise support.

Local and national policy makers will gain intelligence on policy options from marshalling evidence on what works - and how - in business support from co-produced working papers. The research team brings together experienced applied researchers with experience of working together and separately on projects for sponsors with interests in enterprise, management, employee engagement, business support and local economic development - including BEIS, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, LEPs and Growth Hubs, local government and third sector organisations. As such the research team is experienced in preparing and disseminating research findings to a range of audiences.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Creative Sector WhatsApp group aimed to establish collective conversations between Creatives 
Description One immediate impact from the research was the establishment of a WhatsApp group comprising participants from the creative sector (and a member of the research team) who took part in the pilot study focus group. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The WhatsApp group is a highly engaged platform with regular communication on business development opportunities, peer support and key events in the creative sector. 
 
Title Productivity in the Creative Sector Video. 
Description A pilot study took place in collaboration with the project practitioner partners [see Collaborations & Partnerships section] and included participants from the catering, retail and creative sector. The focus groups sought to better understand productivity in light of the competitive context; methods of work organisation; and skills and tools available to firms operating in these sectors. An outcome of this activity included: Punch Records (our Creative Sector practitioner partner) producing a video of highlights from the creative sector focus group. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The video, which has been posted via social media, helped raise the profile of the research both in the academic community and in the microbusiness sector. 
URL https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HJ8cj6NmyInbDvmDJuQBJRuruhfw51Sw/view?ts=5d0cf92c
 
Description Our focus group with PUNCH Records led directly to the creation of a WhatsApp comprising the 15 business owner participants. This WhatsApp group is very active and regularly exchanges information on business and personal development
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

 
Description Collaboration with microbusiness entrepreneurs. Practitioner partner Ashley Community Housing an award-winning social enterprise with a keen interest in promoting employability of migrants. ACH is a co-investigator on the project. Key contacts: Fuad Mahamed and Richard Thickpenny. 
Organisation Ashley Community Housing
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Ashley Community Housing will benefit from acquisition of new detailed information on microbusinesses, which can be used to improve their service offer to such businesses. This is achieved by researchers and practitioner partners working closely together and sharing knowledge and expertise on enterprise support.
Collaborator Contribution Ashley Community Housing has a record of collaboration with Monder Ram and CREME. Second, they have agreed to be actively engaged in all stages of the project. Third, they are committed to using the national networks to scale-up the project to other areas of the UK. The role of Ashley Community Housing is important in securing diversity in the sample of firms and overcoming the challenges of gaining access.
Impact This collaboration will create a business development intervention that is rooted in the concerns of (neglected) microbusinesses as well as scientific principles. To date, academic and practitioner partners have presented together at conferences/events (see Engagement Activities section) to share findings and insights from the project. Going forward the partnership will continue to: share findings from the research; (2) discuss potential responses to findings and options to upgrade productivity in the selected sectors; (3) secure potential participants for the research.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Collaboration with the Creative Sector. Practitioner partner Punch Records (a business with a strong social mission to promote artists from deprived backgrounds) is a co-investigator on the Productivity from Below: Addressing the Productivity Challenges of Microbusinesses project. Key contacts: Ammo Talwar and Simon Redgrave 
Organisation Punch Records
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Punch Records will benefit from acquisition of new detailed information on microbusinesses, which can be used to improve their service offer to such businesses. This is achieved by researchers and practitioner partners working closely together and sharing knowledge and expertise on enterprise support.
Collaborator Contribution Punch Records has a record of collaboration with Monder Ram and CREME. Second, they have agreed to be actively engaged in all stages of the project. Third, they are committed to using the national networks to scale-up the project to other areas of the UK. The role of Punch Records is important in securing diversity in the sample of firms and overcoming the challenges of gaining access.
Impact This collaboration will create a business development intervention that is rooted in the concerns of (neglected) microbusinesses as well as scientific principles. To date, academic and practitioner partners have presented together at conferences/events (see Engagement Activities section) to share findings and insights from the project. Going forward the partnership will continue to: share findings from the research; (2) discuss potential responses to findings and options to upgrade productivity in the selected sectors; (3) secure potential participants for the research.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Collaboration with the Retail Sector. Practitioner partner Citizens UK (a national civil society alliance) is a co-investigator on the project. Key contact: Saidul Haque Saeed. 
Organisation Citizens UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Citizens UK will benefit from acquisition of new detailed information on microbusinesses, which can be used to improve their service offer to such businesses. This is achieved by researchers and practitioner partners working closely together and sharing knowledge and expertise on enterprise support.
Collaborator Contribution Citizens UK has a record of collaboration with Monder Ram and CREME. Second, they have agreed to be actively engaged in all stages of the project. Third, they are committed to using the national networks to scale-up the project to other areas of the UK. The role of Citizens UK is important in securing diversity in the sample of firms and overcoming the challenges of gaining access.
Impact This collaboration will create a business development intervention that is rooted in the concerns of (neglected) microbusinesses as well as scientific principles. To date, academic and practitioner partners have presented together at conferences/events (see Engagement Activities section) to share findings and insights from the project. Going forward the partnership will continue to: share findings from the research; (2) discuss potential responses to findings and options to upgrade productivity in the selected sectors; (3) secure potential participants for the research.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Fletcher L, Ram M, McCarthy I, Scully J. (2020). Employee Engagement in Micro-Businesses: A Forgotten Piece in the Productivity Puzzle? Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Applied Research Conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Monder Ram, Imelda McCarthy, Judy Scully and Luke Fletcher had a paper accepted for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Applied Research Conference. The conference took place 22-23 January 2020, Dublin City University Business School, Ireland. The paper was entitled: "Employee Engagement in Micro-Businesses: A Forgotten Piece in the Productivity Puzzle?"

The conference was a meeting place for academic researchers and practitioners working in people management, employment policy and related fields. It holds a unique place in bringing together these two communities to hear about cutting edge research in Human Resources and discuss how it can be applied in practice. The conference was interdisciplinary and covered a wide range of aspects of people management, employment, learning and development and organisational development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Green A, McCarthy I, Ram M. (2019). Microbusinesses and inclusive growth. Inclusive Growth in Cities: Global Lessons for Local Action Conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Anne Green presented: "Microbusinesses and inclusive growth" at the Inclusive Growth in Cities: Global Lessons for Local Action Conference, on the 19-20 November 2019, University of Manchester.

The conference brought together scholars both domestic and international from disciplines as diverse as economics, geography, social policy, politics, sociology and urban planning, with policy-makers, practitioners and thought leaders. The key objective was understanding what can be learned for action at the city region scale, and to find new solutions to social and spatial inequalities in the face of increasing social divisions, rising populism and the growing welfare costs of unequal societies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Ram M, Hart M, McCarthy I, Parekh S, Holness J, Uddin J. (2019). Productivity challenge in microbusinesses. 23rd Annual Ethnic Minority Business Conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Monder Ram, Mark Hart, Imelda McCarthy, Sonali Parekh (Federation of Small Businesses), Joshua 'Rtkal' Holness (MBC - Music, Birmingham, Culture) and Johur Uddin (Community Connect Foundation) presented on the productivity challenge in microbusinesses, at the 23rd Annual Ethnic Minority Business Conference, on the 5th November 2019, Nishkam Centre, Birmingham.

The event showcased new developments in research and practice in the fields of diversity and enterprise. With many entrepreneurs and business owners attending the conference - together with policy makers, academics and key local and national figures - this was an opportunity to hear about how the research makes a real difference to practitioners and entrepreneurs from all communities.

Inline with our commitment to engaged scholarship the presentation was delivered by academic and practitioner partners together.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Ram M, McCarthy I, Scully J, Saeed SH. (2019). Collaborative to its Core. Centre for Learning Innovation & Professional Practice (CLIPP) Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Monder Ram, Imelda McCarthy, Judy Scully and Saidul Haque Saeed (Citizens UK) presented "Collaborative to its Core" at the Centre for Learning Innovation & Professional Practice (CLIPP) Conference on the 25th October 2019, at Aston University, Birmingham. The presentation focused on how the principles of Critical Engaged Scholarship, which underpin the project, can help Aston University meet the needs of its beneficiary groups (businesses, the region and students) in a changing world.

Inline with our commitment to engaged scholarship the presentation was delivered by academic and practitioner partners together.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Ram M, McCarthy I, Scully J. (2020). Getting to Grips with Productivity in Microbusinesses: A Collaborative Approach. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Applied Research Conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Monder Ram, Imelda McCarthy and Judy Scully had a paper accepted for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Applied Research Conference. The conference took place 22-23 January 2020, Dublin City University Business School, Ireland. The papers was entitled: "Getting to Grips with Productivity in Microbusinesses: A Collaborative Approach".

The conference was a meeting place for academic researchers and practitioners working in people management, employment policy and related fields. It holds a unique place in bringing together these two communities to hear about cutting edge research in Human Resources and discuss how it can be applied in practice. The conference was interdisciplinary and covered a wide range of aspects of people management, employment, learning and development and organisational development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020