Organisational and operational innovations for sustained competitiveness and growth in SMEs

This case study concerns the economic, commercial and organisational benefits gained from the application of original research undertaken between 2000 and 2020. The research has provided significant new thinking concerning the design of agile organisations and supply chains through the creation of frameworks and tools for the development of SME-focused, resilient business strategies. The application of the research has supported a priority component of the regional productivity strategy for the North West of England through the implementation of a wide range of economy-driving and productivity-enhancing industrial applications. These applications have boosted the region’s economy and the prosperity of its citizens, facilitated the growth of the region’s manufacturing SMEs, supported the participation of SMEs in global networks, equipped SME owner-managers with the knowledge and skills to facilitate business growth, improved the professional behaviour and cognitive characteristics of employees, and, to date, led directly to 43 jobs and several businesses safeguarded, and 28 new jobs and one new business created. It is anticipated an impact will also be made to regional policy and to regional development initiatives in Spain. 

Background 

Agility is recognised as a by-word for responsiveness. It is a concept that harnesses organisational resources to respond to the uncertainty of a volatile business environment. Agility achievement provides the means to being able to align production with demand, and ultimately provide customer-driven processes and customisation capabilities. In this context, agility is primarily concerned with the fast production and delivery of products to customers in response to changes in customer demand. The agility research programme has been 20 years in the making and represents an account of the lifecycle of a research theme that has been conceived, grown, and developed into the Liverpool Agility Method (LAM) as the means for translating the agility research into practice. 

Research 

Fundamental research at ULMS into the concept of agility began in the late 1990s, focusing on manufacturing responsiveness and the development of methodological approaches to address responsiveness issues within the manufacturing domain, leading to the development of a conceptual model for an emerging theory and research agenda for the development of the agility theme. Since then, ULMS researchers extended these initial ideas, demonstrating how agile thinking can be structured and inculcated into the strategic planning processes and working practices of manufacturing policy makers and managers. Further developments include the integration of information systems and Internet technologies into the agility theme, leading to the establishment of an EPSRC funded £1.25m Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre; examination of the emerging role of the Internet in the management of industrial organisations, and the development of frameworks and methodologies for bringing together Enterprise Resource Planning, Supply Chain Management and e-Business, culminating in almost £6m funding for an AIMES (Advanced Internet Methods & Emergent Systems) research centre and several business spin-offs, as well ass the development of the Liverpool Agility Method (LAM) and its seven steps (differentiation analysis, trend analysis, competitive positioning, target setting, agility growth options, agility planning, implementation) as the principal vehicle for translating the agility research into practice. 

More recently, work included the extension of the supply chain focus of organisational agility into supply network-wide integration, supplier involvement and also introducing a practical approach for demonstrating how the supply chain design process should be aligned and integrated with the market and the product design process. These works were complemented by research into collaborative innovation processes, including  an ERDF-funded C2i project. 

Impact 

This work has helped improve regional industry in manufacturing operations and supply chain systems in over 100 SMEs throughout the North West region (approximately 10% of the region’s manufacturing SMEs) and provided significant input for policymakers. Regionally, the cumulative effect of transforming the agile behaviours of the stock of firms supported has made an important contribution to economic growth. The legacy benefit of improving the absorptive capacity for innovation and the entrepreneurial culture of these firms has provided the region with a platform of high added-value manufacturing SMEs which, in many cases, via the application of the LAM, have been future-proofed against market uncertainty and equipped with the means to respond to unexpected requests and events, new opportunities and changes to customer demand requirements. 

Ongoing research 

This work continues to enhance the performance and sustainability of the region’s key, manufacturing SMEs, and, at the workforce level, it has improved the leadership, management and innovation competencies of owner-managers, created and safeguarded jobs, and added to annual revenue generation and productivity. The legacy benefit of improving the absorptive capacity for innovation and the entrepreneurial culture of these firms has provided the region with a platform of high added-value manufacturing SMEs which, in many cases, via the application of the LAM, have been future-proofed against market uncertainty and equipped with the means to respond to unexpected requests and events, new opportunities and changes to customer demand requirements.