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Perspective: Letting Businesses Lead Research

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Vava Angwenyi on location with the mountains in the background.

Performance Measurement & Improvement

Why Small and Growing Businesses Should Lead the Researchers—
Not the Other Way Around

This article was originally published on NextBillion, WDI’s affiliated media site. 

All too often, global development research hinges on the interest of researchers, rather than the knowledge needs of small business people and, most importantly, their impacted communities. The actual methods for data collection and analysis are also kept within the research domain, leaving an entrepreneur or small business manager with plenty of reports, but no practical tools for continuing to collect and use data themselves.

The Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), a global network working to advance emerging market entrepreneurship, recently partnered with the International Development Research Centre to support a set of partnerships explicitly designed to help small and growing businesses (SGBs) improve their own approaches to collecting and using data on gender to increase their impact. These projects were more than an exercise in changing perspectives. Instead, we collectively and purposefully attempted to “flip the script” toward empowering business owners and managers with the agency and tools to harness their data – not for the researcher’s benefit, but for their own business and community development.

As part of this process, we considered several questions relevant to SGBs that are collaborating with researchers to generate data on their work and impact. We’ll explore these questions below.

What should an SGB consider before leading an engagement with a researcher?

Before engaging with a researcher, SGBs should have a strong sense of their main goal and audience for the research. For instance, is it to inform decision-making, or to understand and share their impact? Is it to better frame their storytelling—both to inform existing stakeholders and possibly to attract new investors and/or consumers?

Often SGBs have multiple goals for data collection. While that is understandable, multiple goals can compete with one another and result in outcomes that do not fully meet any particular goal or resonate with any particular audience. A clearly articulated principal goal for data collection will help an SGB select a research partner, and set clear expectations with that partner for the type of guidance that will be most helpful in accomplishing their shared goal(s).

How relevant is a researcher’s advice to SGBs?

When an SGB leads a collaboration, researchers need to be prepared to adapt their recommendations based on the SGB’s needs and realities. While researchers may be used to applying rigorous methods in a particular way, when they place an SGB’s needs at the forefront, that approach may need adjustment. In such situations, it is helpful for the researcher to work closely with the SGB to adapt data collection to the SGB’s reality – while maintaining as much rigor as possible. While providing such guidance, researchers should explain if the adaptations will create any limitations on how the data can be used or what can be concluded from it.

For researchers’ advice to be relevant, it is also important for them to be proactive in asking questions related to the context, and to clarify any assumptions. After all, SGBs are not in the business of research, and therefore may not recognize the value of information that’s relevant to a researcher. Although SGBs are incredibly busy, it is important that their managers conduct regular meetings to provide updates and changes to the research plans. For their part, researchers should also proactively assess if and how conditions related to the research may have changed since the last conversation.

Researchers must also bring themselves closer to the areas where the SGBs work, whether that is through travel or through virtual means. Frequently, research methods are developed using desk-based work, literature and methodology review, or strategic planning sessions. But the simple act of attempting to implement these methods in the field often shatters pre-conceived notions about how realistic such methods are in the first place. Indeed, testing tools and methods before collecting data is important, as it allows researchers to adapt them to the context in order to collect useful data. For instance, in one project we supported, the team discovered a disconnect between theoretical ideas about how easily research tools could be applied, and the actual reality and context of the SGB. Recognizing this early on helped the research partners design more flexibility and validate those tools in the field.

What are some of the challenges of researcher and SGB collaborations?

Without a well-established partnership, developing a new researcher and SGB engagement will likely take more time and resources than either party expects. Both parties should anticipate spending additional time on project administration throughout the engagement.

It’s easy for things to get “lost in translation” across different national and organizational cultures. This issue is compounded when conversations involve technical language associated with research, and exacerbated when partnerships are new and communication is reliant upon e-mail, WhatsApp and other text messaging platforms. Confusion over of roles and responsibilities will almost certainly arise, much of which will not be fully anticipated. Sometimes prioritizing live voice or video calls, even when schedules are busy, can preempt or clear up misunderstandings before they solidify into conflicts.

Furthermore, when the partnership requires data collection from the local community, external researchers are unlikely to have the existing relationships and social capital of an SGB. It is important for the SGB to work with the researchers to ensure that data is collected in a way that is comfortable and respectful for community members and their cultural norms, to avoid losing trust with the community.

Are SGB-led research collaborations worth this extra effort?

Yes! These engagements can take more resources (including time), and some individuals within the SGB may not initially buy into the research process. But once the engagement concludes, most stakeholders see the value of the data gathered and are interested in continuing or even building upon the data collection processes. Indeed, in one of our projects, an SGB owner realized that the additional resources required to collect impact data from women in the coffee value chain (such as women who harvest, thresh, roast or work as baristas) yielded the added benefit of improving their understanding of these women and the challenges they face. As a result, the company (Gente del Futuro, based in Colombia) is seeking to develop new training efforts to improve the value chain. Researchers can also gain value from SGB partnerships, through field validation of their methods and being exposed to real-world implementation challenges.

How can SGBs maintain the momentum after the end of an engagement?

For busy SGBs, it can be frustrating to have piecemeal engagement with researchers on fragmented projects. To create continuity of implementation, such that researchers can further build their data collection efforts and help guide SGBs as they make decisions based on the data gathered, it is worth considering a long-term relationship with a particular research organization or individual. In order to build on the success of an engagement, researchers and SGBs can partner on the dissemination of toolkits, learnings or other project outputs through webinars or other events.

Moving research tools out of the strictly academic domain and into the hands of SGBs and other practitioners requires a spirit of patience and collaboration. But when everyone commits to the undertaking, we know the effort will lead to long-term and impactful improvement. But even more importantly, flipping the narrative and putting the power to drive research in the hands of SGBs and on-the-ground actors can enable these businesses to better meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Heather Esper

Heather Esper is the Director of the Performance Measurement and Improvement team at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan. 

Additional contributors to this article include: Vava Angwenyi,  co-Founder and Director of Gente Del Futuro; Monica Cuba, Head of Communication at Practical Action; Matthew Guttentag, Research and Impact Director at the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs; and Mallory St. Claire, Impact Analyst at the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs.

Photo courtesy of Gente del Futuro.

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