On 2nd March, the ERC team were back at The Shard for the New Frontiers in Family Business Research Conference, our first event held in partnership with the Institute for Family Business Research Foundation.

The conference aimed to bring together researchers, policy makers, and family business practitioners to discuss current themes and challenges in the family business research field, and to explore new priorities and avenues for research.

After an opening session from ERC Director Stephen Roper, Sir Michael Bibby Chairman of the IFB Research Foundation outlined some of the challenges in getting good data on family businesses and in communicating research findings to the family business community.

An engaging keynote presentation followed from Allan Discua Cruz – Director of the Centre for Family Business at Lancaster University Business School. Allan’s presentation opened with a quotation: “Every family in business has a story to tell, a legend to live up to, a tragedy to lament”, and emphasised the importance of narratives in understanding decision-making in family businesses – a key theme which ran through the day.

ERC Research Fellow Maria Wishart chaired the first panel session of the day. Jane Suter (University of York), Niamh Lenihan (University College Cork), and Eileen Donnelly (Ripple&Co) discussed the theme of wellbeing in family businesses. The importance of creating an environment of ‘psychological safety’ in family businesses was highlighted, and the role played by culture, values and stories in enabling this. The panellists also drew attention to the importance of line managers in managing workplace mental health issues, and the emotional toll involved in this.

After a break we moved onto the second presentation of the day, made by Emanuela Rondi, of the Università degli Studi di Bergamo, and focusing on the theme of what we know about innovation in family firms. Emaneula started by noting that innovation is not something typically associated with family firms, but argued that there is significant innovation potential to be unlocked. A fascinating discussion at followed on the relationship between innovation and tradition, with Emanuela arguing that tradition can be a distinctive asset when it comes to family firm innovation.

The theme of innovation continued into the next presentation, which focused on what works in terms of encouraging digital adoption in in family businesses. Halima Jibril, Research Fellow at the ERC discussed the findings of a randomised control trial evaluation of a programme designed to boost digital adoption in small family businesses. The findings indicated that short online courses focusing on encouraging adoption can be effective, and that peer learning plays a crucial part in building the confidence to adopt technologies in family firms.

After a networking lunch, we returned to a presentation by Andy Wiggins and Guilherme Pereira of PwC reporting on the first findings from the IFB Research Foundation’s Total Tax Contribution study, which aims to provide evidence to help inform debates about the contribution family businesses make to the UK’s public finances.

We then moved into a section focusing on family business data. ERC’s Stephen Roper returned to the stage, this time in conversation with John Cushing, CEO and Founder of data analytics business mnAi, on new opportunities for accessing data on family businesses using AI. A second panel discussion followed, chaired by Louise Scholes of Loughborough University. Josh Martin (The Bank of England), Frances Pottier (Department for Business and Trade), and Sharon Ryan (Repgraph) tacked the question of how we might improve data on family businesses, covering a range of issues including the problems involved in defining family businesses, and the issues involved in opening up data access.

Our final session of the day was a panel discussion, chaired by Monder Ram of Aston University, and focusing on the theme of family business research into policy and practice. Emanuela Rondi returned to the stage, joined by Julia Rouse (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Kiran Trehan (University of York), for a discussion focusing on the practice of engaged scholarship. We returned to the theme of the power of the narrative in family business research, with the panellists questioning the desirability of striving for academic detachment. Rather, stories should be at the heart of what researchers do – capturing the complexity of power relations, family dynamics and emotionality.

Stephen Roper rounded off the day by thanking speakers and delegates for an interesting day of discussion on family businesses, with lots of learning and new connections made, and plenty of inspiration for areas of future research.

Vicki Belt, Deputy Director, ERC

View the presentations from the day here 

Take a look at our picture gallery from the event