Productivity from below: addressing the productivity challenges of microbusinesses

Project: Research council

Project Details


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.
Effective start/end date7/12/2012/02/23

Collaborative partners

  • University of Bath
  • Aston University (lead)
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Warwick
  • Punch Records
  • Ashley Community Housing
  • Skills Link
  • Citizens UK


  • Economic and Social Research Council


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