Research
16 Dec 2014

30 years of SME research highlights impact of the ‘digital revolution’

The digital revolution and the recent growth of mobile technologies have been key drivers of change for SMEs over the past three decades, according to the 30th anniversary issue of the Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain, published by The Open University Business School.

For example, the Quarterly Survey tracked the recent growth of online services and their impact on SMEs, including the transition of back office services to ‘cloud-based’ providers, up from less than one in ten (8%) in 2011 to more than one fifth of respondents (21%) two years later. The 2011 report also revealed that businesses considering themselves to be the most entrepreneurial were seven times more likely to have implemented cloud computing technologies.

The Quarterly Survey was founded in 1984 by consultant and economist, Graham Bannock, in response to concerns over the lack of accessible and relevant data on Britain’s small business sector. Its reports have tracked sector developments for three decades. The Open University Business School has hosted the Quarterly Survey since 1989 – the same year it launched its MBA programme, which has provided a strong foundation for many individuals establishing their own small businesses and who have become part of the Quarterly Survey community.

Emeritus Professor Colin Gray, editor of the Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain from 1998 to 2011, commented:
“The Quarterly Survey has been an economic barometer since it was launched in 1984 and has remained an important resource for SME academics, policy-makers and support providers. It has also established a community of UK-wide SME managers and owners, enabling them to highlight shared concerns.”

Dr Richard Blundel, current editor of the Quarterly Survey, said:
“It is difficult to overstate the sheer pace of change that SME managers and owners have experienced during the last three decades. It is apparent that the spread of digital technologies has had a particularly dramatic impact on small businesses of all varieties. Some issues, such as the ‘Millennium Bug’, have come and gone but others – business information and support services, the impact of regulations and the need for skills development – are as important today as they’ve ever been.

“Whilst it’s essential to have reliable and independent data on small and medium-sized businesses, the experiences and shared opinions of the managers and owners behind the statistics are just as important if we really want to understand the underlying issues. The Quarterly Survey team has always tried to engage with the individual to ensure that the practitioner’s voice is heard.”

The Special Issue report features personal accounts from small business specialists who were directly involved in establishing the Quarterly Survey, a review of key trends affecting smaller firms, and ten short cases that share the experiences of small business owners who have been taking part in the Quarterly Survey for two decades.

Mike Holland, 59 has been participating in the Quarterly Survey since the 1990s. His Peterborough-based marketing consultancy, Metrix Marketing (www.metrixmarketing.co.uk), began in a room, ‘no bigger than a broom cupboard.’ As technology began to transform communications and IT, Mike and his six colleagues decided to switch their business to home-based working, operating as a virtual team courtesy of web-based technologies. As Mike explained:

“The lease was expiring on our Peterborough office in 2012 and we started to consider alternative locations. Then we realised we didn’t need an office at all!”

Mike and his team supplement their online interactions by occasional phone calls and a meeting with the team twice a month. At first Mike was hiring temporary office space for these meetings, but he quickly realised that it would be more cost-effective to meet at home, so now the team takes turns to host meetings in their own front rooms – and as Mike noted, “the catering is much better.”

Longstanding participants in the Quarterly Survey reflected on other key external factors that have influenced their businesses over the past 30 years, including regulations and procurement pressures from big businesses, and on the benefits of participating in the survey:

“Tougher legislation – particularly around employment and compliance issues… it seems that employers alone get asked to shoulder the burden of political decisions.”

“[The Quarterly Survey] helped me see trends, how the world was changing… the best thing about it was in the recession in 2008 when everything slowed down you came to realise that you weren’t on your own that what was happening to you was happening to everybody else.”

“[The Quarterly Survey] has created a sense of community, a kind of ‘we are not alone.”

The Open University is home to a thriving community of researchers, many of whom have research and teaching interests around small businesses, social enterprises, innovation and entrepreneurship. The Open University Business School is actively developing new approaches to digital engagement that will continue to promote the core aims of the Quarterly Survey while also expanding its reach to a wider audience.

For a copy of the full report, a freely-accessible archive of previous surveys dating back to 1990, and additional background information on the history of the Quarterly Survey, please visit www.open.ac.uk/quarterly-survey

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