It’s now 30 years since Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd set off on their DeLorean-powered time travelling adventure – taking a trip back to 1955. In some of the film’s most memorable scenes, the characters encounter a world that’s somewhat familiar (it’s the hero’s home town after all), and yet utterly different. Back to the Future was released in 1985. In the same year, a group of researchers established the Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain, and began the task of monitoring emerging trends and examining the experiences and opinions of the UK’s small business owners and managers. I’ve been only been involved with the Quarterly Survey for the last five years, but have seen several important developments in that relatively short period, including the growth of mobile and cloud computing and the long aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007. However, it’s rare that we step back an look at the longer-term changes that have reshaped the business landscape over several decades. In December, we published a special issue to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Quarterly Survey. We assembled contributions from a variety of sources, including several of the people who were instrumental in creating this research project. Our aim was to shed some new light on this important period in the history of small firms’ research in the UK; to explore the main changes and continuities in the small firms landscape over this extended period; and lastly, to draw some lessons for future work in this important research field.
I won’t attempt to paraphrase these varied contributions, but as the current editor I found it an eye-opening experience. I’ve always been interested in adopting more ‘historical’ approaches to studying small businesses and social enterprises. Short-termism is an all-too common feature of policy making in our field, and its detrimental effects are equally obvious. However, while I’m convinced that there is much to be gained by ‘taking the long view’, I also recognise that longitudinal and historically-informed studies pose serious challenges for policy-makers – and for researchers. My colleague Rob Baldock has written eloquently on this topic in the anniversary issue and I reflected on it briefly in my concluding remarks:
‘The current editorial team certainly enjoyed working with such a wide range of contributors, and the 30th Anniversary special issue has also provided us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on the past and to consider our future directions. Looking across the report as a whole, the following themes stand out:
Though it may be something of a business cliché, it is hard to overstate the sheer pace of change over the last three decades. As highlighted in earlier sections, the spread of digital technologies has had a particularly dramatic impact on small businesses of all kinds, helping to create new markets and re-shape business models.
Long-term, engaged research initiatives such as the Quarterly Survey can provide unique insights, both at the time the original studies are conducted and in retrospect when the evidence is re-examined and, in some cases, re-interpreted with the benefit of hindsight. For example, I was particularly struck by the comments of our long-term respondents about the benefits of participating in the survey (Section 4.2). In addition, even the briefest glimpse at the three decades of Quarterly Survey findings can prompt new interesting research questions that would merit a more in-depth historical analysis (Section 3.1).
There are considerable technical and methodological challenges in sustaining any research project over an extended period, given the many changes that are bound to occur (Section 3.2). Research of this kind is also fairly resource-intensive, highlighting the importance of similarly long-term financial and institutional support.
The digital revolution has also transformed our own ‘industry’ – conducting and publishing applied business research. There are many new, quicker ways to collect and analyse data, printed reports have been largely displaced by electronic documents, while social media and podcasts have challenged conventional approaches to dissemination such as press releases. Above all, there has been a massive increase in the amount of information available to our readership. The quality of some of the newer entrants may be variable, and the provenance occasionally doubtful, but much of this information is timely and well-packaged in ‘media-friendly’ formats. With most specialist small business publications also migrating on-line, there is a danger that the more complex or detailed messages are getting lost in all of the resulting ‘noise’. These technological changes raise a number of questions about how best we respond, as researchers seeking to create rigorous, independent and reliable knowledge in this field. Drawing on lessons learned from the last 30 years, I would suggest three pre-requisites for any similarly ambitious, long-term research project: (1) a stable institutional base, combined with what would now be termed a ‘sustainable business model’; (2) a ‘blended’ (online and face to face) approach that enables researchers and practitioners to engage constructively over an extended period; (3) effective communication strategies that enable the research team to connect with a wider audience. The Open University is now home to a thriving community of researchers, many of whom have research and teaching interests around small businesses, social enterprises, innovation and entrepreneurship. We are actively developing new approaches that will continue to promote the core aims of the Quarterly Survey, while also addressing these wider changes – watch this space!’
The full report is available on our website – I hope you may be tempted to download it to see for yourself.