Guest blog: Small and Medium Enterprises - Research and Engagement
15 Sep 2017
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are a difficult target for energy policy and for energy researchers. This is in part due to their diversity: they operate in every industrial and commercial sector, in all property types and vary in size, energy intensity, resources, capabilities, organisation and leadership. The only thing they necessarily have in common is their size - being organisations with fewer than 250 employees. In reality, there can be huge organisational, resource and values differences between organisations with a sole owner/manager and one with 249 employees, resulting in very little commonality.
Research is also difficult because it has to begin from a patchy evidence base. We have incomplete knowledge on how, where, why and how much energy SMEs use. Further, the potential for savings from energy efficiency, collectively or by business sector or by any other segmentation, is poorly understood. Finally, decision-making on energy and energy efficiency by all sizes of organisations is under-researched, with SMEs particularly neglected.
Despite these challenges, advancing research on SMEs is important. Although individually small, collectively they are significant users of energy: according to the International Energy Agency they consume more than 13% of total global energy (IEA, 2015), and account for more than half the energy in the industrial and commercial sectors in the UK (DECC, 2015). UKERC’s Decision Making Theme is undertaking a range of research on SMEs, from analytical and policy work on energy efficiency to engaging with small groups of SMEs on broader issues on decision making around sustainable growth.
Working with partners at the Open University Business School and Climate Outreach, our Growing Green project aims to help SMEs and intermediaries gain a better understanding of sustainable growth and its implications for their businesses. The project is trialling a new method of engaging SMEs on issues around their environmental impact and green growth.
Two workshops in July 2017, hosted by Oxfordshire Business Support, brought together owners and managers of SMEs from Oxfordshire and neighbouring areas. The workshops were designed to provide a space for participants to explore the role of values in the decisions about how to grow their business in an environmentally sustainable manner. The participants who attended were either already bringing the principles of environmental sustainability into their work practices, or were interested in doing so. They shared a concern for living sustainably and had high levels of knowledge about issues such as climate change. For these discussions, the project used Narrative Workshops, Climate Outreach’s method of social research that follows a standardised script to explore values, identity and attitudes. The workshops were piloting this method with SMEs for the first time.
A short video sets out the aims of the workshops and gives views of some of the participants, and their reflections on the process.
The workshop methodology was largely successful with these owners and managers already engaged with environmental and energy issues, and is something we can build on in future research. Further outputs from Growing Green will include a short report and a working paper, to be presented at the ISBE 2017 conference and at the ESRC Festival of Social Science in Belfast in November 2017.
We have more to learn on engaging with SMEs, and the best ways to research this very diverse population. In addition, linking findings from over-arching research on energy issues in SMEs collectively, to qualitative findings from particular sub-groups remains challenging. We will continue to develop UKERC’s contribution to knowledge on SMEs, energy and energy policy.
Growing Green was co-funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award.