Photo of Professor Robert Blackburn

Professor Robert Blackburn BA MA PhD

Professor of Entrepreneurship Strategy, IB and Entrepreneurship

Research

Internationalisation of SMEs

My interest in the internationalisation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) spans the development of localised small firms as well as born global enteprises; the specific challenges of internationalisation; and how SMEs can develop their resource base through international value chains to innovate, develop and grow. Internationalisation for SMEs provides many opportunites but is also high-risk. Although theorically informed, much of this work has fed into policy circles through the co-production of outputs and presentations.

I was Specialist Adviser House of Lords Select Committee on Small and Medium Enterprises (2012-13) on SME Exports, gathering written and verbal evidence and helping write the Report of its proceedings. This formed the basis for a publication and government debate: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldselect/ldsmall/131/131.pdf

As an adjunct member of Deakin University, Australia I have worked with colleagues on an Australian Small Business White Paper, where I was able to analyse secondary data on Australian SMEs exporting trends: https://www.publicaccountants.org.au/media/1993618/SBWP_Full_103_most_updated.pdf

With and international research team, I worked on a project for EUROFOUND, The Future of Manufacturing: Born Globals and their International Value Chains (2016-19). This project explored the activities of 'born global enterprises' to help develop policy for the promotion of SME internationalisation. The project involved 10 EU countries and forms part of a larger project of the European Commission on the future of manufacturing activities in Europe: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2018/born-globals-and-their-value-chains

My work has also fed into workshops at the European Parliament in 2013: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EXPO_STU(2016)535025 ;and a the European Court of Auditors (January 2020) Experts Meeting 'Does the EU effectively support European SMEs seeking to internationalise their activities?'

I have supervised an examined a number of PhDs on this subject. Prospective PhD students interested in this topic are welsome.

Small Firms and their environments: relations with formal and informal institutions

How small firms interact with their environments is a fascinating and enduring area of investigation. This ranges from their formal (eg. with banks) and informal (eg. family and friends) relationships; their necessary relations (eg. suppliers); the use of advisers (eg. accountants); and their relations with the state (ie public policy interventions). Hence, my work has spanned the conceptualisation of networks, the motivations to activate network institutions and the views and experiences of business owners with public policy interventions.

I first became interested in this area in the 1990s and co-authored a book (Curran and Blackburn, 1994, Small Firms and Local Economic Networks: The Death of the Local Economy?), setting out the ways in the economy and society was moving inexorably away from a localised means of production, distribution and exchange towards a more national and globalised web of relationships. Published prior to the 'grip' of the internet on the economy and society, the arguments in the book resonate with today's debates regarding, for example, the role of clusters and entrepreneurial eco-systems. I regard networks as essential resources for small firms, providing both opportunities and threats. However, we should not ignore the reluctance of entrepreneurs to open up their busineses to external people, advisers and resources: most entrepreneurs are risk averse with a strong locus of control and so allowing external agents into their enterprise to collaborate, or provide advice, is psychologically challenging.

My work in this area has involved analysing the different types of relations business-owners have with a range on network institutions. For example, I have undertaken an extensive analysis of the relationships between owner-managers and their accountants, including for the International Federation of Accountants (Blackburn and Jarvis, 2010) https://www.ifac.org/system/files/publications/files/the-role-of-small-and-mediu.pdf ; and subsequently with colleagues in Australia, examining how a necessary relationship may, or may not, be extended into the provision of other advisory services (Robert Blackburn, Peter Carey, George Tanewski, 2018).

All firms have a bank account of some description but many complain about this service. I led a team on a project examining the complaints system for UK smal firms, for UK Finance (2018) Review of SME Bank Dispute Resolution in the UK. This provided evidence submitted to Treasury Select Committee https://www.ukfinance.org.uk/system/files/Review-into-the-complaints-and-alternative-dispute-resolution-ADR-landscape-for-the-UK%E2%80%99s-SME-market-301018.pdf. I also led a project examining SMEs access to justice for the Legal Services Board (2015) . see: The legal needs of small businesses: An analysis of small businesses’ experience of legal problems, capacity and attitudes https://www.legalservicesboard.org.uk/wp-content/media/PUBLISH-The-legal-needs-of-small-businesses-19-October-2015.pdf

Related to this, I have undertaken commissioned research for a number of government ministries seeking to understand the needs of SMEs, including for example, training, intellectual property protection, challenges of growth etc. An underpinning theme in doing so involves an appreciation of the meanings and motivations of owner-managers of SMEs to engage with support and advice structures. Many ask why small firms do not take up advice or government initiatives: this can only be answered by undstanding the modus operandi of small business owners. Public policy and the measures of support emanating from this are constantly changing making it difficult for small firms to comprehend. See for example:
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/414390/Anchor_institutions_and_small_firms.pdf

I have co-authored numerous publications examining small firms and public policy. See for example Blackburn and Schaper (eds.) (2013) Government, SMEs and Entrepreneurship Development Policy, Practice and Challenges
https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315585666/chapters/10.4324/9781315585666-12

I am interested in supervising PhD students in this area.

Inclusive Entrepreneurship and 'Disadvantaged' Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship has for decades often been regarded as a means of overcoming social and economic exclusion in society. Although I have expressed caution over this 'panacea' role (see Blackburn and Ram, 2006), in some circumstances enagement in the economy via self-employment and business ownership may provide opportunities for those who are at a disadvantage in labour markets. Hence, entrepreneurship may provide a route to economic and personal fulfilment and wellbeing. Many groups experience disadvantage for many reasons, but those with the highest levels of attention include females, younger and older people, the unemployed, disabled and some ethnic minorities. The market mechanism and society generates disadvantages, so leaving market forces unfettered to resolve the challenges of access to resources of disadvantaged groups is insufficient. Generic public support mechanisms are considered inadequate because of their lack of focus and inability to engage with specific segments of the population. Hence, policy design and delivery needs to be sensitised to the multifaceted characteristics of the business population and their owners. A framework for segmenting the small business population is set out in ACAS (Blackburn, 2012) and to develop a targeted approach based on specific business population characteristics in Blackburn and Smallbone (2014).

As well as publishing on this issue, I have worked with with colleagues and comunity organisations to appreciste their challenges and the policy implications. For example, I worked as part of a team with community-based entrepreneurship groups in Greater London, on a project focused on supporting inclusion through enterprise development (SIED) see: https://sites.google.com/site/communitybasedbusiness/about-us/what-s-community-based-business-support. Essentially, this business support model was embedded within communities and appointed business advisers from within these communities; benefitting from their trust, ability to communicate and understand the culture of these communities
(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/41902332_Community-based_business_advice_evidence_practice_and_sustainability)
The Association of Community Based Business Advice and SIED received EU funding and have ended, but the model is recognised as a successful example of enagaging with hard to reach groups.
See https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/industry-and-services/the-missing-entrepreneurs_9789264188167-en

More recently, I have helped provide and input into the Better Entrepreneurship Policy Tool: an Entrepreneurship PolicyToolkit (https://www.betterentrepreneurship.eu/), developed with the Local Economic and Employment Development (LEED) Programme of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission, Local Economic and Employment Development Programme (LEED). This involves producing background reports for OECD policy briefs that were drawn upon when developing the toolkit (eg. Blackburn and Smallbone, 2015); contribute as an expert speaker to a high-level OECD-European Commission capacity building seminar for senior policy makers, including video links (See: https://www.oecd.org/cfe/leed/capacity-building-seminars.htm); and writing research-informed guidance notes and case-study content about tailored entrepreneurship policies for the Better Entrepreneurship Policy Toolkit website: https://www.betterentrepreneurship.eu/en/resources. The Better Entrepreneurship Policy Toolkit aims to provide a framework for national and regional policy makers to promote ‘inclusive entrepreneurship’ and recognise that entrepreneurship can be a realistic and valuable option for all people, regardless of their personal characteristics and background. The target groups include youth, women, migrants and the unemployed in business creation and self-employment. This approach is considered significant in terms of helping to influence the portfolio of measures that governments and support agencies provide for small firms.

My interest in inclusive entrepreneurship is extensive and I am interested in supervising students in this area. For example, I have recently co-supervised a successful PhD student who used the concept of ‘entrepreneurial identity’ as a theoretical lens for explaining the effects of disability on venture creation and we have published together (Kasperova, E., Lewis, K., Kitching, J., & Blackburn, R. (2019). I have a number of PhD students examining female entrepreneurship in developing economies (Saudi Arabia and Malaysia).

I am interested in supervising research students in this important area of study.

Research Group Membership