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Stimulating learning in micro-business owners through introducing external perspectives

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Fiona WhitehurstORCiD, Dr Paul Richter



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of a conference proceedings (inc. abstract) that has been published in its final definitive form by ISBE, 2018.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


This paper relates to a current, collaborative programme that brings together academia, micro businesses and larger regional firms and organisations to develop the leadership and management practices of the micro business owners through drawing on a northern business school’s ‘anchor institution’ status. This may be a cost-effective way of contributing to the immediate development needs of micro-businesses and strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem of a locality, and therefore is relevant to the worlds of academia, policy and practice. Aim: This paper aims to explore the learning that micro businesses have achieved through participating in a development programme run by a northern business school and the process through which that learning is achieved. Methodology: The paper adopts a qualitative and inductive approach. The research can be characterised as interventionist (Baard, 2010; Thomas and Rothman, 1994) and enactive research (Johannisson, 2011) where the participants in the programme are fully involved in a ‘knowledge-creating process where their experientially gained insights are fully appreciated’ (2011: 137). Data collection is by way of field notes, focus groups, survey responses and semi-structured interviews. These are coded to identify ‘informant-centric’ concepts which ensure the participants are treated as ‘knowledgeable agents’ (Gioia et al. 2012). These concepts are then developed in light of relevant literature through ‘recursive cycling’ (Eisenhardt and Graebner 2007). Contribution: The paper makes a contribution to the debate on the role of business schools in small-firm learning by exploring the way in which the programme was designed in conjunction with a ‘pracademic’ (Posner, 2009) to meet the needs of the micro business as a ‘learning organisation’ as described by Gibb (1997). It also identifies how learning by micro business owners can be stimulated by the introduction of an external perspective in a ‘novel’ form i.e. managers from medium to large sized organisations. This external perspective may be unusual as Robson and Bennett (2000) noted that business friends and relatives were often the preferred and most valued source of advice for micro-business owners, and work by Johnson et al (2007) found it was difficult for a small firm with limited managerial resources to identify the type of formal (market or non-market) advice that they need to produce the development outcome they want and therefore tend to rely on friends and family for advice. The paper explores the types of learning that occur when that external perspective is introduced. Our findings show that this intervention appealed to micro-business managers and enabled them to clarify their vision for their business and its value proposition; focus on how they should invest their time to generate greatest impact; and obtain validation and increase their confidence as a leader of their business. Through its methodology, the paper simultaneously explores how a research-based intervention that adopts an engaged scholarship approach can enable the researcher to access the ‘lived experiences’ of micro business owners participating in a development programme and therefore makes a contribution to the underexplored area of the messy dynamics of implementing engaged scholarship in the context of small business research. Implications for policy and practice: Micro-businesses are crucial to the economy. UK Government figures show that in 2016, 5.3 million (96%) of UK businesses were micro-businesses – employing 0-9 people. They accounted for 32% of employment and 19% of turnover. Hayton (2015) suggests that the overall impact of leadership and management skills on firm performance tends to be particularly strong for firms with between five and 19 employees. The model that has been implemented in this programme provides a useful form of leadership and management support to micro-business owners and uses the anchor status of a business school to provide a platform for involving larger firms in small firm development as suggested in evidence to the APPSBG/FSB (2014) report.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Whitehurst F, Richter P

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship Conference (ISBE 2018)

Year of Conference: 2018

Online publication date: 07/11/2018

Acceptance date: 02/04/2018

Date deposited: 28/10/2018

Publisher: ISBE