Mixed-methods: A pragmatic approach to researching SMEs and sustainability

Alessandro Bressan


The author’s interest, passion and involvement in social responsibility and environmental sustainability began almost 20 years ago. At that time, the issue of sustainability in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a topic for research was emerging and there was a need for further research from both academics and practitioners. The author has worked with Italian and European institutions to evoke environmentally and socially responsible cultures among different organisations, paying special attention to the needs of SMEs. For example, he was an active member of the International Standard Organisation (ISO) Committee to develop the ISO 26000 International Guidelines on Corporate Social Responsibility.

This chapter discusses how the author then engaged with a PhD study in Sydney (Australia), making use of an innovative mixed method research design to comprehensively investigate sustainability in SMEs. In particular, this breadth and depth of the research design also provided for a detailed examination of the opportunities and challenges that arose from integrating these practices within SME business models. This situation provided for a richer understanding of the complexities of sustainability than what monomethods such as a survey or interviews alone could provide. The relevance of the research is particularly important in contributing to a more sustainable world as SMEs are considered central to most economies (OECD, 2019) as well as being faced with a complex environment of limited resources where decision-making is residual with the owner/manager (Jenkins, 2004; Besser and Miller, 2013).

With the need to consider the SME owners/managers and the way they make decisions, it was considered important to be close to the practitioners in the research setting, and provide for a broader view on the pragmatic issues faced by SMEs. Even more so, a methodological approach which integrates qualitative and quantitative data could contribute to unveil, and further understand the dynamics of sustainability within SMEs. From a theoretical perspective, a mixed methods research (MMR) approach also permits researchers to advance and generate new knowledge as to how

SMEs behave towards and/or approach sustainability (Molina-Azorin and Lopez-Gamero, 2016).

MMR acknowledges the strengths of each method and can provide a rich and comprehensive analysis of phenomena and research results (Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2003). The integration of methods within the field of SMEs and sustainability, however, is still fragmented and more research is needed to understand how MMR could add additional value to advancing knowledge in the sustainability field.

This chapter discusses how an integrative approach brings together the research paradigm, SME features and sustainability elements in an integrative manner. This mixing of a quantitative and a qualitative approach was deemed essential when designing the mixed method study for the PhD. In particular, a set of motivations drove the research process to:

  • 1. Provide a more complex, in-depth and different understanding, analysis and interpretation of the research questions.
  • 2. Increase clarity of definitions and analysis of innovative problems.
  • 3. Contribute to theory building and elaboration.

The structure of the chapter is, therefore, designed to elaborate further on these three sets of motivations. Firstly, the chapter provides a brief introduction of the rationale of using a mixed method approach when researching the field of SMEs and sustainability. Then, it illustrates the main perspectives and identified purposes of MMR and concludes by reflecting on the inherent challenges and potential solutions associated/involved with MMR in the context of green business.

Mixed methods research and sustainability

Organisations today are dealing with the increase in global competition as well as the need to balance a variety of grand challenges (e.g., climate change, clean energy, poverty), which have proved to be critical for any organisation, not only from a moral and responsible viewpoint but also from a managerial and organisational perspective (Ferraro et al., 2015). For example, how businesses strategize their way to avoid and/or reduce environmental impact associated with their operations has implications on the community and the broader society. In this context, firms, including SMEs (Jansson et ah, 2017; Malesios et ah, 2018) need to demonstrate their ability to develop and engage with stakeholders for organisational success and long-term survival (Freeman et ah, 2010).

Sustainability related issues are numerous, and the multiplicity of interests as well as the dynamic factors involved in the process of development and implementation of sustainability related practices requires a holistic approach to understanding the sustainability phenomena (Klewitz and Hansen, 2014). The United Nations (UN), in its most recent commitment to the global sustainable development agenda (United Nations, 2015, p. 3) adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to tackle wicked problems with an intent to ‘stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet’. Most importantly, the framework and approach of the SDGs recognise that government action alone may be limited. Realising the aspirations of the 17 SDGs will, therefore, require participation and commitments from various actors, and involve both public and private sector organisations as drivers and enablers of sustainable development of the economy and society (United Nations, 2015). The complexity associated with a great variety of stakeholders, all with their own sustainability interpretations, agendas and concerns, conspire to form strategic challenges for organisations. Furthermore, the 2020 outbreak of the COVID 19 global pandemic has further exacerbated complexity and challenges for organisations (Bapuji et ah, 2020; Eggers, 2020).

The main consideration from the author’s viewpoint was to design a research approach that could capture this complexity. The aim, therefore, was to use a methodological approach for the PhD which integrates qualitative and quantitative data, which could contribute to unveil, and further understand the dynamics of sustainability within SMEs. This was quite a novelty in the field of SME and sustainability when designing the study in 2011. Indeed, even though the relationship between SMEs and sustainability is being increasingly discussed by scholars (as presented in Chapter 3), methodologically, this has been quite challenging, as the use of a monomethod approach using either qualitative or quantitative methods has been predominant (Molina-Azorin and Lopez-Gamero, 2016). Yet, in the broader fields of CSR and sustainability, the use of mixed methods is limited (Taneja et ah, 2011; Molina-Azorin and Font, 2016). This data confirms that the use of alternative and more creative methodological approaches, such as MMR is still limited, especially in the context of research exploring social responsibility and environmental sustainability (Soundararajan et ah, 2018).

In response, the PhD study aimed for an innovative research approach which considered both qualitative and quantitative techniques which better enabled the PhD research to contribute to enhancing and understanding the relationships between SMEs and sustainability. Conducing MMR, however, is more demanding when compared to singular approaches and it requires that researchers have the knowledge and capabilities to be able to combine quantitative and qualitative methods and use the strengths of research (Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2003). This, amongst other concerns, implies a stronger emphasis on methodological preparation of the researcher, which in turn needs to be reflected in the researcher’s training. Indeed, as in other research designs, MMR must also be effectively designed and conducted. Molina-Azorin and Font (2016), on this point, suggest that more concern and commitment to training may be considered to enabling MMR in the field of sustainability. Similarly, the need for extra resources such as the time it takes to develop and implement both methods, the cost involved in the process of collecting both qualitative and quantitate data and the energy in developing, implementing and conducting MMR (Creswell and Plano Clark, 2017) are relevant aspects to take into consideration. Furthermore, challenges may also emerge in the research publication process (Bryman, 2007). Indeed, despite MMR being positively perceived and appreciated by many editors, the number of research components and the task to assign fully qualified reviewers may limit the chance to publish.

All these issues have a direct impact when researchers evaluate the possibility of integrating both qualitative and quantitative methods in her/ his study. Indeed, MMR can be a resource-intensive approach and may not be considered as the first option for the researcher, especially when there is institutional pressure to publish and/or the resources may be constrained. Potentially, researchers would not add another layer of complexity in a process that is already highly competitive and complicated and thus, choosing a mono-method over an MMR approach can result in a more convenient, immediate and known choice. Research design, however, is a choice, where researchers need to know what the available options are and how to evaluate those options while, at the same time, being somewhat familiar with a variety of methods. Thus, it should be essential to think of the methods that researchers use, as tools which can provide a set of strengths that can be used to accomplish a range of goals (Morgan, 1998). Furthermore, the complexity involved in researching sustainability also renders it critical for researchers to go beyond methodological approaches of one’s discipline.

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