Helping Kent's Smaller Businesses Grow Sustainably
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentBusiness and Management Studies
Summary Impact TypeEconomic
Research Subject Area(s)
Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services: Business and Management
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration
Summary of the impact
The Promoting Sustainable Performance project engaged with over
300 small to medium sized enterprises in Kent and 12 of the national and
local government bodies or industry associations that support them. The
research identified a set of ten growth enablers for ambitious SMEs and
the findings formed the basis of a pioneering research-led executive
education programme for smaller businesses (The BIG Journey).
Participating SMEs report quantifiable benefits to sales, turnover and
expansion through their engagement with Promoting Sustainable
Performance's executive education initiative, whilst policymakers
used this research to inform strategy on issues such as inward investment,
high growth firms and regional business support.
Promoting Sustainable Performance is an on-going longitudinal
project (2006 onwards) funded by multiple ESRC grants (3.4, 3.5)
plus European Commission funding (3.3). The study is led by Dr Mark
Gilman, Director of Kent Business School's Centre for Employment,
Competitiveness and Growth (at KBS 2000 to date) together with colleagues
from the People, Management and Organisation Group (including Truss) and
research associate, Dr Simon Raby (at KBS 2005 to date).
The research team tests and expands a contextual framework by Gilman and
Edwards (3.2) in order to examine and explain SMEs achieve growth
and performance. The project draws on research approaches typically found
in the fields of strategic human resource management and SME growth and
performance, building them into a multi-disciplinary and comparative (3.1)
performance and growth model.
Between 2006 and 2011, 447 Kent-based SMEs took part in surveys, personal
interviews and case studies. Over 100 of these organisations participated
in the quantitative survey element across both iterations, creating a
panel dataset. The accompanying qualitative dataset includes nearly 150
two-hour personal interviews and ten in-depth case studies.
The study allows for the progression from the observation of simple
patterns from a wide participant sample (i.e. survey, personal interviews)
to detailed analysis amongst a narrow, focussed participant sample (i.e.
case studies). The primary objective was to identify patterns in the
incidence, practice and performance effects of HRM and wider workplace
innovation in SMEs. The secondary objective of the survey and personal
interview stages was to identify those firms that were exploring wider
workplace innovation and achieving higher levels of growth.
The key project finding so far is a deeper level of understanding as to
why some SMEs achieve growth whilst others fail to achieve their
aspirations. The team has since translated these findings into set of ten
characteristics (`The BIG Ten' - 5.2) that can be used to diagnose
and facilitate growth within SMEs.
References to the research
3.1 Gilman, M.W. and Raby, S.O. (2013) National Context as a Predictor of
High Performance Work Systems in SMEs: A British-French Comparative
Analysis.  International Journal of Human Resource Management.
24(2). p. 372-390 ISSN 0958-51922012
DOI:10.1080/09585192.2012.672447 (ABS 3*)
3.2 Gilman, M.W. and Edwards, P.K. (2008) Testing a framework of the
organization of small firms — Fast-growth, high-tech SMEs.  International
Small Business Journal, 26 (5). pp. 531. ISSN 0266-2426. DOI:
10.1177/0266242608094028 (ABS 3*)
Selected Research Grants
3.3 Research Grant: Gilman — European Commission Interreg IIIa project,
"Sustainable Business and Productivity Growth for SMEs" 2006-2007; Value
of grant: £426,000.
3.4 Research grant: Gilman — ESRC Business Engagement Grant, "Promoting
Sustainable Performance — pilot programme" 2008-2009; Value of
3.5 Research grant: Gilman: ESRC Seminar Series Grant, "Strategic
Thinking in Second Generation Family Firms", 2009-2011; Value of
Details of the impact
Findings from the Promoting Sustainable Performance project have
been used as the basis for practical interventions amongst over 300 Kent
smaller businesses, informed 12 policy organisations, underpinned support
sector activity by industry associations and informed a pioneering
executive education programme for ambitious owner-managers.
4.1 SME executive education
Since January 2008, representatives of over 300 Kent SMEs have attended
one of 17 workshops based on project findings (5.9). Each provided
owner-managers with practical solutions that they can apply back in the
workplace. The success of these workshops led to the launch of The
BIG Journey in 2012, a pioneering executive education programme for
small to medium-sized enterprises. Course content draws directly on Promoting
Sustainable Performance and the related ESRC Business Engagement
The nine-month BIG Journey curriculum provides evidence-based
learning for participants who often have no formal academic
qualifications. The programme focuses on everyday business priorities
through a set of six highly practical two-day modules, bound together by
in-company support and challenges. The BIG Journey has an initial
intake of 10 participant firms, who joined in January 2012 with a further
eight joining in April 2013.
To date, participants have reported the following specific outcomes (5.4):
"The programme so far has helped me to secure a contract to the value of
Town & Country Cleaners
"The programme has quickly driven me to expand internationally. Following
attendance at the first module I attended a trade fair in Germany and
secured 25 new customers"
"Our turnover has grown by a 1/3rd as a direct result of the programme"
"`I have secured three new local customers (cafes)"
Slim Sam's Cakery
"We've got £30k of new orders as a result of the programme"
"We have smashed our targets, both for revenue generation and machine
utilisation...total manufacturing variance is down from Nov 2012 and our
scrap rate fell by 1.5% down to 2.2%...our labour rate variance reduced by
17% and direct labour credit earned from production rose by 23%"
In summary, the first BIG cohort has reported an average increase in
sales turnover of 18.8% and an increase in employment levels of 13.6%.
This means that the first cohort added £2.8m to the Kent business economy,
created 111.5 new FTE jobs and achieved an average growth in sales per
employee of £24,830 (i.e. 19.4%) (5.4).
4.2 National and local policy
Twelve local, national and international government bodies and industry
associations have engaged with Promoting Sustainable Performance
outcomes including: the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills
(BIS); the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES); the European
Social Fund; the Federation of Small Businesses; the Manufacturing
Advisory Service, Kent County Council; Medway Council, Canterbury City
Council; Business Link; Kent Channel and West Kent Chambers of Commerce,
the Kent Economic Board (KEB) and the Kent Economic Development Officers
Group (KEDOG). These organisations engaged with the project via the
steering group or a dedicated policy workshop hosted by the research team
in July 2011 for 10 policy organisations.
The team further engaged the policy community through an accessible lay
report of project findings (5.2) published in 2012. The response
to this report includes the following comment from the Deputy Director of
the Business Improvement Delivery Team within the Enterprise Directorate
of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills : "I'd like to make
sure that analytical and strategy colleagues here in Enterprise
Directorate see the report...I also wonder if it might be worth a more
detailed conversation about methodology and the work of the Centre" (see
corroborating contact No. 2)
The analytical and strategy unit of the Department of Business Innovation
and Skills on SME Growth also commissioned a presentation on project
findings in 2009, delivered to over 30 members of their London and
Sheffield strategy teams (5.6).
The research team was also commissioned to write a briefing paper for the
UK Commission for Employment and Skills (5.1) by its Head of
Research that was used for internal briefings in 2012 to "inform thinking
on approaches to Investors in People marketing" (5.7).
At a local level, the Economic Strategy Officer of Kent County Council
also commissioned the team to write a report on regional business support
Medway Council used project findings as part of its 2012 `Invest in
Medway' strategy and highlighted the BIG Journey as a resource for local
businesses on its
website and commented on the project's contribution, as follows:
"Medway Council very much values the research contribution (Promoting
Sustainable Performance) makes to our thinking on economic
strategy/development and have therefore been part of the project's
steering group since 2008...CECG has also assisted us with a key
contribution to Medway's inward investment website on SME growth, which is
due to be launched in July." (5.8)
Principal Economic Development Officer, Medway Council (name supplied)
4.3 Industry associations and corporates
Promoting Sustainable Performance is also used by industry associations
and larger businesses with an interest in supporting the SMEs who form
their client base.
The Manufacturing Advisory Service funded the research team to facilitate
a network of regional business leaders during 2009 and 2010. The network
included 12 Kent-based firms involved in some aspect of manufacturing or
supporting manufacturers. They each attended six networking and coaching
sessions over a twelve month period. As a consequence, one participant
(ladies' fashion retailer, Tube Fashion) reported diversifying its project
range and attracting new clients. Meanwhile, graphic design and marketing
company, PDS-Hamiltons, reported improved negotiations with suppliers (5.5)
The Courier Media Group sponsored a business network during 2011, with
four seminars facilitated by the research team and attended by a total of
57 local SME participants. Kent accountancy firm, Burgess Hodgson, also
sponsored five similar seminars in 2011, with each event attended by at
least 40 of its 250 clients.
Sources to corroborate the impact
5.1 Raby S. and Truss, K. (2011) High Growth Firms. A briefing
paper for the UK Commission for Employability and Skills (UKCES)
5.2 Gilman M., Raby S. and Turpin, J. (2012). The BIG Ten: The Ten
Characteristics of Successful SMEs. Centre for Employment,
Competitiveness and Growth, University of Kent. 56pp. ISSN: 1748-7595
5.3 Gilman, M.W. and Raby, S.O. (2011) The Future of Regional
Business Support: An Overview of the Business Support Literature.
Technical report. Centre for Employment, Competitiveness and Growth,
University of Kent
5.4 BIG: participant feedback, summary of outcomes and evaluation 2013
5.5 Letter from the Manufacturing Advisory Service confirming impact of
regional business leader's network (2009-2010)
5.6 Business Innovation and Skills presentation (2009)
5.7 Email from UKCES confirming use of commissioned report (5.1) (May
5.8 Letter from the Principal Economic Development Officer, Medway
District Council confirming impact of PSP on inward investment
5.9 List of organisations engaging with Promoting Sustainable
Performance outcomes since 2008
For copies of reports, full versions of emails, letters and other
corroborating evidence please see here