If owner managers were as adept at ethical decision-making as they are at financial and commercial decision making, might small business become a more powerful force for progress?

The role of Small Business in the Big Society?

The idea of the big society is being rolled out as a progressive way forward to improve society, embodying notions such as volunteering and working with and for the community. Irrespective of the role that we as citizens take on within this concept, what is the role of business?

The relationship between business and society has been debated for decades. At one end of the spectrum it is believed that business should concentrate on making profits and leave responsibility for society to others. At the other end it is believed that business has a duty of care to society and must do all it can to improve it.

The notion of corporate social responsibility has emerged as a banner under which (mainly larger) businesses articulate their relationship with communities and the environment. However, it is a notion that seems to have been hijacked by public relations departments as a tool to manage risk and reputation and to create and maintain competitive advantage.

If business does have the potential to make a major contribution to society and the environment, then we suggest that it is the smaller companies that hold the key. These are the unsung heroes who make contributions without one eye on the content of their website or the next CSR report. Small firms account for 99% of business numbers globally and account for half of global GDP. Ninety percent of working adults work in small to medium sized enterprises. The ethics of smaller firms are different. They often encapsulate the concepts of family, stewardship, community, connectedness and trust that their larger counterparts often lack.

A small step that we can take is to highlight as many cases as we can where small firms have endeavoured to make a difference to their community and/or to the environment in which they work. This will help to illustrate the true meaning of social responsibility and possibly provide inspiration, hope and guidance to others. It may show that the big society is already happening, that it should no longer go unnoticed, and that smaller firms should receive the recognition for the contribution they already make and could make in the future.

If you know of a business that fits the bill as an unsung hero, please let us know. We would like to talk to them as part of a study aimed at trying to learn lessons from the SME sector as to how business can play a more active role in creating a better society.

Please contact me, Paul Abbott at p.m.abbott@leedsmet.ac.uk or 07802 775608 if you have any suggestions or comments related to this endeavour.