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Impact case study

Building an Ecosystem of Support for SME Competitiveness, Growth and Innovation

Unit(s) of assessment: Business and Management Studies

Research theme: Health and Wellbeing

School: Nottingham Business School


NTU research has influenced and shaped business support policy in the East Midlands inter alia. by identifying previously overlooked high-growth potential in creative and digital industries. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Local Economic Partnership (D2N2) revised its strategic priorities, unlocked £9.7 million funding targeted at SME development and engaged with 1,970 SMEs.

NTU’s research had a direct impact on the growth, job creation and competitiveness of small businesses in D2N2, by developing its SME managerial capacity. The research subsequently influenced the design of SME interventions in the UK and Europe, through the Small Business Leadership and Interreg Scale-Up Programs.

Research background

NTU research has identified three important components of learning for management education and business support:

1. Learning is situated - it is produced together within a temporally, geographically, or relationally situated practice.

2. Learning is social - it is not individualised but is co-created between people.

3. Learning is emergent - it is always in a state of becoming and as such is provisional.

These components combine to inform the development of NTU’s ecosystem methodology of SME business support, using a reflexive, iterative cycle of engaged theory and practice. NTU’s flagship business support intervention ‘Future Factory’ (2009-2015) provided an early testbed for this emerging methodology connecting theory to practice. The first principle is the understanding that knowledge is situated and contextual. The approach requires respectful listening and careful noticing to reveal taken-for-granted aspects of practice. It responds to the situated nature of learning, which demands a detailed and nuanced understanding of local contexts. For example, the research has identified particular issues related to notions of embodied confidence for local actors, and contextually co-designed bespoke support to meet the specific needs of priority client groups, such as creative and digital and high-growth SMEs.

The second principle is an understanding that learning is social. It foregrounds a collaborative inquiry approach which brings together academic and practitioner perspectives. Each party is equally valued to promote learning from, with, and for each other. In particular, this approach recognises the identity struggles that are at the heart of management learning and works by foregrounding this approach through reflexive learning and critical reflection. The third principle is an understanding that learning is emergent. This informs a purposeful cyclical approach through which we learn from the experiences of SME managers to inform the continuous development of our SME ecosystem. The underpinning research emphasises the importance of reflexivity and a responsive approach to delivery and co-design in the SME ecosystem. For example, the team show how they mobilised findings from a forum where participants reflected on their experiences in a way that shaped future interventions.

In the context of SME support, the reflexive, iterative cycle of theory and practice, as developed through the ‘Future Factory’ and subsequent projects, has led to three specific components of practice:

1. understanding how to create an environment in which SME managers can reflect upon their perceived needs in order to arrive at their underlying requirements. For example, to become more sustainable, Future Factory clients needed to develop cumulative capabilities in marketing and commercial leadership, addressing their anticipated and additional objectives.

2. being responsive to the underlying requirements of SME participants and using these to develop the SME ecosystem. The need to support high-growth Creative and Digital Industries (CDI) businesses as well as the micro-businesses in the creative and cultural ecosystem is an example.

3. creating a dynamic environment through which the ecosystem can be piloted and constantly developed, such as by facilitating networking between SMEs and education providers to update awareness of sector skills needs.


Impacting policy

NTU research has directly impacted on D2N2’s strategic policies, by making the Creative and Digital Industries a strategic priority secto and unlocking funding of £8.855 million through the European Structural Investment Fund Strategy, 2015-16. The NTU report, “Creative and Digital D2N2: Strategic Action Plan for the Creative and Digital Industries in D2N2” (SDAP), led directly to the D2N2 Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) extending its reach into previously overlooked Creative and Digital Industries as an additional Priority Sector.

NTU directly impacted on D2N2’s policy implementation for the support of high growth businesses, facilitating the release of £850,000 targeted funding channelling the three key components of learning.

Impact on SME Performance

SME interventions reached 1,970 SMEs (17% of CDI SME’s) and supported 40% of D2N2’s High Growth SMEs. Its significance evidenced by:

a) Directly improved SMEs competitiveness. Over 50% of Big House and Future Factory beneficiaries have or already plan to introduce new products or processes because of interventions. Support led 35% of Big House participants to report increased competitiveness and 33% Future Factory beneficiaries to identify commercial benefits such as new orders or cost savings. Of 14 SMEs supported by the intense Big House Accelerator, 8 and 11, respectively, created new-to-market and new-to-firm products, 3 created new jobs and 3 accessed finance for growth. One co-founder explained how the SME won a 3-year contract to double their revenue.

b) SMEs consistently reported increased management confidence and competence, team performance, “improved decision-making”, ability to “manage change effectively”, and resilience in the face of Covid-19. One UpScaler participant Managing Director explained that as a result of their participation: “Having taken the right decisions for the right reasons we found ourselves prepared when the current crisis arrived, and we have worked on and through pretty much unaffected”. Another said: “Being part of UpScaler has encouraged us to raise the bar and adopt new techniques… we’re far more strategic in what we do.” A third added: “[UpScaler] is very much run for the benefit of the participants, not to big up the organisation.

c) Further evidence of direct impact on SME turnover and jobs, in spite of economic challenges comes from UpScaler participants reporting turnover growth of 38-60% p.a. and jobs growth of 2-25% during the project, while a Big House Accelerator participant reported: “we’ve been really busy so have recruited two more team members, taking our team to 8 from 4 when we started the programme”.

Reach of the Impact

Our unique approach to bespoke management development; and the evolving Ecosystem for SME support, was called ‘outstanding’ by The Small Business Charter, leading to a contribution to the design of a national Small Business Leadership Programme. The Interreg Europe Scale Up Project identified the UpScaler programme and Big House Accelerator as Good Practices, with partners from 6 countries learning from the programmes.

Related staff


  • Watson, T. (2001). The emergent manager and processes of management pre-learning, Management Learning, 32(2): 221-235. The research underpins the link between policy and practice, and the value of successive rounds of delivery, reflexivity and informing future policy that underpins section 4. It also reinforces the benefit of individualising learning through the diagnostic process.
  • Mutch, A. (2002). Applying the ideas of Bernstein to in-company education, Management Learning, 33 (2): 181-196.
  • Hay, A. (2014). ‘I don’t know what I am doing!’: Surfacing struggles of managerial identity work. Management Learning, 45(5): 509-524.
  • King, D., & Learmonth, M. (2015). Can critical management studies ever be ‘practical’? A case study in engaged scholarship. Human Relations, 68(3): 353-375.
  • Oxborrow, L. and Brindley, C. (2013) Adoption of “eco-advantage” by SMEs: emerging opportunities and constraints. European Journal of Innovation Management, 16 (3): 355 – 375.
  • Oxborrow, L. Elijah, A. & Lawton, C. (2015). Creative and Digital D2N2: Strategic Action Plan for the Creative and Digital Industries in D2N2, Report.