Small and medium-sized enterprises are considered as an integral part of the economy of a country. UK is comprised of 2.7 million firms out of which approximately 99.8% are comprised of less than 250 employees (DTI, 2000). The SMEs comprising of up to 249 employees account for 50% of all economic activity and 56% of private sector jobs. SMEs are regarded as an important source of innovation and this study is focussed to investigate the SMEs of the North-west of England. It is quite interesting to note that the North-west region is uniquely diversified as the region has around three-quarters to four-fifths of its land mass classified as rural and woodland with one that current data indicates is the UK's leading manufacturing location((NWDA, 2000)). The region is rich in history of successful industrial and commercial development. The exhilarating entrepreneurial drive of the region suggests electrifying prospects for SMEs in future. SMEs having long term growth prospects have the greatest potential to strengthen the economy of a country and are also considered as major economic players and a potent source of national, regional and local economic growth (Taylor and Murphy 2004). Systemic activities like technological advancement, innovation and increased level of knowledge tends to engross diverse actors throughout the global financial system. There has been a considerable body of evidence indicating relentless differences in the innovative behaviours of companies located in different countries or regions of the world, signifying that the social or institutional context of the firms within which they function; greatly influence their aptitude to absorb, generate, and apply knowledge (Curran and Blackburn, 2001). Social networking technology is considered as a critical factor in business development and the SMEs with a capacity to demonstrate higher social networking gain competitive advantage. It is very unfortunate that the in many SMEs especially those aspiring to grow, the potential to adopt social networking technology and knowledge exploitation practices is frequently underdeveloped or has been completely disregarded. In recent years attention has focused on the effectiveness of business networks and clusters, formally or informally structured, as vehicles for the creation and dissemination of innovation and the accumulation of knowledge (Curran and Blackburn, 2001).
1.1 RESEARCH BACKGROUND
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Regarded as one of the major European region, the North-west of England is comprised of approximately seven million people having a population density at 480 persons per sq km which is nearly twice the UK average of 244 (DTI, 2000). At the beginning of the year 2008 there were 454,000 private sector enterprises in the North West of England which makes approximately 9.5 per cent of the UK in total. An increase of 9,000 private sector enterprises has been observed that accounts for approximately 2.1 per cent, since the beginning of year 2007 (NWDA, 2000). In accordance with the figures at the start of year 2008, about 9.3 per cent of the UK total population were employed in the private sector in the North West of England which makes approximately 2,162,000 of the people employed in this region with an increase of 53,000 people making 2.5 per cent of the total since the initiation of the year 2007 (NWDA, 2000). The SMEs of the North-west region employed 1,403,000 people which are equivalent to 64.9 per cent of the total region (NWDA, 2000). Approximately nine percent out of all businesses in the North West of England are in the Transport, Storage and Communications sectors which are six percent higher than the proportion in the UK as a whole. Moreover, approximately nine per cent of all businesses in the North-west region are in the other sectors that include community, social and personal service activities, in comparison with approximately eleven per cent of all businesses in the UK as a whole.
1.2 RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
This research aims to enhance the understanding of SMEs acquiring social networking technologies and utilise them as a basis for improved business competitiveness. The theme is based on the SMEs of Northwest of England, illustrating the impacts of social networking implicated in communal, historical and economic contexts of the region (Grandon and Pearson, 2004). With continuously evolving global trends a need has been develop for the transition of business practices in order to achieve a knowledge-based economy by stimulating innovation and improved access to advanced research and development practices and social networking technologies. The proposed paper aims to study the relative impact of social networking technology encompassing the SMEs in the North-west region. The investigation is based on how the innovative use of business networking and advanced e-commerce solutions encourage and support the SMEs of North-west region, to play a leading role in the advancement of a cutting edge trade society (KP Associates, 2000). At the same time the research expounds on addressing the related competitive challenges to SMEs in the North-west region of England, in absorbing and developing new-fangled social networking culture. The study design is fabricated to expound on the impacts pertaining to SMEs benefiting from the exploitation of science and technology in order to develop closer links with new markets and consumers of the North-west region. The theme of the overall exploration is to develop an understanding of how social networking technologies enable SMEs to broaden and deepen their consumer acquaintance and leverage business culture of excellence.
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Societies are built around relationships and by introducing the concepts of social networking system within SMEs, a better understanding of business dynamics can be achieved. Social networks are essential not only for explaining the logic of political and institutional arrangements between firms and their environment, but also for understanding the patterns of development of new productive structures and innovative activities (De, 2000). In recent times, the organizations of contemporary business world are embracing blogs and social networking websites not just to gain competitive advantage but to foster innovation and establish a dialogue directly with their customers and relative stakeholders. In the growth of UK economy the SME sector is considered as an engine and a vital component having approximately 3.7 million SMEs which are producing 40% of the UK's GDP and the picture is equally understood by the UK government (Oftel, 2002). For the purpose of development and stimulation of the SME sector, various policy initiatives have been fabricated and the government has focussed on SMEs in particular recognizing it as a growth opportunity for the technological advancement. Both the former and recent government policies also reflect the same concerns. In order to benchmark the SMEs of UK against international standards numerous targets have been set. Furthermore, it's interesting to note that the target of 1.5 million SMEs to embrace social networking technologies by 2002 has already been achieved (NWDA, 2000). Conversely, there are few concerns remaining as highlighted in relevant government statistics that in terms of international standards the UK SME sector can be rated as average when it comes to address the level of connectivity. Moreover, regional differences can be observed in SME sector to online access endure and despite the perceived advantages, a very small proportion of SMEs have adopted technological advancements like broadband, reflecting wider issues over roll-out to the UK as a whole; and sadly enough a very small proportion of SMEs trades online. In accordance with a report by (Oftel, 2002) it has been observed that 63% of all UK SMEs are associated with internet connectivity out of which 94% are medium businesses and 60% are small businesses. Furthermore, the survey also constituted that the number of small businesses expecting not to connect to the internet has fallen. In 2001 some 540,000 UK SMEs including micro businesses of less than 10 employees were trading online, which is an increase of 20% from the 2000 figure of 450,000 (Oftel, 2002).
NEED FOR EMBRACING SOCIAL NETWORKING TECHNOLOGIES
With the passage of time e-connectivity and social networking practices are becoming obligatory for the success of businesses and followed by the observations it can be suggested that the adoption and implementation of the internet connectivity, e-commerce practices and social networking technologies by SMEs offer a great potential for creating new markets, new organisational forms, and new ways of working in the knowledge-driven economy. SMEs are seen as motors of economic growth with their loose organisational structures and often fuzzily defined organisational roles and relationships perceived as fruitful milieus for innovative activities (De, 2000). All social networks have significance for innovative activities and the extent and the nature of overlap between social networks is especially important bearing heavily on the extent to which cooperation can be produced over large sectors of the economy. All business groups are based on social linkages whether it's cultural similarity, informal link or an everyday contact. The need for social networking arises in situations where economic advantage can be achieved for the group members of a business. To understand the ability of firms to respond to the fast-changing environments of the business world the approach of social networking technologies within regional business development is important which can provide suitable insights into the structure and dynamics of local economies. Although the bulk of the effort in innovation is to be done by the firms themselves, the difference between national and regional patterns of technological development highlights the importance of external economic and non-economic factors that encourage creative interactions between all parts of the society, leading the economy into virtuous circle of technological development (Porter and Stern, 2001).
The social networking technologies encourage entrepreneurship and experimentation and help SMEs compete intensely while at the same time gain knowledge of each other about changing market trends and technologies through informal communications and collaborative practices. UK government encourages SMEs to adopt the social networking technologies with a target of tripling the number of SMEs wired up from around 350,000 at the end of 1997 to over one million by 2002 (DTI, 2000). This constitutes that the UK government perceives SMEs as a medium for entrepreneurial and innovative activities and considers that the adoption of the e-commerce practices and implementation of technological environment SMEs can be fundamentally transformed in terms of business dealings and their relationship with customers, suppliers, competitors and with other organisational members. For SMEs to maintain stability and self-reliance, the practices of secrecy and loyal relations between the firm and their customers, suppliers, and competitors is of exceedingly high substance. Social networking provides a means of efficient business practices with a possibility to respond faster and gather needs of consumer, safely disseminate information and reallocate different types of resources promptly. A socio-technical system formed by the integration of technology within the business organisations which constitutes complex relationships of institutions, artefact and knowledge which tends to interlink the human and the non-human elements.
EXISTING SOCIAL NETWORKING PRACTICES
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A community can be more willing to adopt a certain technology when it can offer some beneficial package through which an existing human need can be fulfilled. The social networking technology is capable to offer enhancements to communication that improves networking and also sufficient enough to make needed knowledge resources more readily accessible; and this is what makes it striking for the SME sector. It is also interesting to note that those that have been most successful in fulfilling specific market needs, or niches, also encounter competing technology vendors which can also be the case in any other situation.
A peripheral vision is offered to the providers by the successful community building devices like Facebook, twitter and MySpace and these posses a vital niche within the lives of their consumers and the communities that they tend to form. Astoundingly, the social networks which are the main selling product offered by these community building devices, is mostly formed outside of the e-environment before an electronic communication takes place (Robertson et al., 2007). Interestingly these social networking platforms are not just for the purpose of fun instead they offer a means for advertising potential business practices. The social networking websites were formerly utilized by young however, the technologies that link individuals are no longer limited to the younger age groups and their significance has been realized hence, the models are now designed to serve as an interactive tool which can help diffusion into target markets. In addition to these social websites an alternative niche is provided by a business focussed solution termed as Linkedin that offers the professionals and businessmen from diversified backgrounds with an ability to form business networks and maintain searchable contact information that can be further utilized for trade purposes. These highly successful technologies provide elementary communication and collaboration environments via text and sometimes via audio channels within specified limitations. Much better and enhanced communication and collaborative environments are provided by certain recent innovations as for example, Skype, which is not web based but offers an array of telecommunication devices that uses IP connectivity and is mostly known for free Skype to Skype video or audio conferencing facilities (Goode and Stevens, 2000). All these social networking websites within their own capacities offer a platform for SMEs to further enhance and develop their businesses with an unlimited access and exposure of consumers globally.
IMPACTS OF TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS
E-collaboration as change-orientated device that provides firms a heightened ability to find, use and apply knowledge to either raise competitiveness or improve operational efficiency (Fink, 2007). With the continuously evolving recent market trends the availability of 24/7 portal services has become easier to SMEs of all types. However, the potential and initial market for this type of technology is relatively less within the regional parts as North-west of England as the innovator class of owners or managers or some early adopters of technology might not be readily available in this market. The policies and the infrastructure to deliver support to SMEs are expensive while small business owners themselves appear resolutely unwilling to accept their alleged benefits' (Curran, 2000). There are certain limitations that keep holding the SME owners to adopt e-commerce practices or social networking technologies. There are hurdles subsisting that tend to limit technology adoption within enterprises, particularly SMEs. For instance, there are many smaller enterprises which find technologies too complex or expensive to install (Lockett and Brown, 2004). Furthermore, entrepreneurs with poor perceptions towards computer technology were less likely to adopt computer based technology generally e.g. internet, e-commerce (Robertson et al., 2007). In addition to this the size and resources also tends to put a drastic impact on the owners perception to adopt such technological advancements which might prove to be expensive or out of budget. The size and budget of an organization has been identified as one of the best predictors of organisational adoption of technological innovations (Fildes, 2002). In accordance with another study it has been observed that business size, previously the best indicator of technology adoption, was not significantly related to technological innovations adoption (Goode and Stevens, 2000). It is more likely that larger firms are much more willing to adopt social networking practices as compared to smaller firms as larger firms have a greater need, resources, skills and experience and the ability to survive failures than smaller firms (Levenburg et al., 2006). Conversely, there are many business owners that have embraced the advanced business techniques and modern technologies by recognizing the benefits associated with them. Followed by investigating the positive impacts on the businesses gained by the adopters of the social networking technologies it has been observed that they succeeded to raise profitability of their businesses. Furthermore, there have been increases in relative advantage over competitor firms in the market place may occur through enhanced communication with customers or clients leading to increased revenue streams as for e.g. enhanced marketing or customer service (Frambach & Schillewaert, 2002). The second positive impact for the early adopters is that costs presently imposed by geographic distance would be reduced via improvements in knowledge retrieval and exchange as for e.g. improved decision outcomes through use of video conferencing versus textual/telephone (Fildes, 2002). Operational costs may be further reduced via a reduction in travel time to meetings leading to increased worker productivity but also reducing the financial burden associated with the travel to and from meetings. The reduction in cost would result in more efficient operational activity and increased profitability over those firms not engaging with the technology. During the mid-1990s internet services were very basic and few firms used this technology to operate business activity. During 2001, SME adoption of internet services was less than 50%, 7 years later this number has risen to over 90% Oftel (2002). The significant point here is that although SMEs have been targeted as slow adopters of innovative technology, eventually they seem to come to market, we propose that the case for e-collaborative technology will be similar, but at present, we are at the equivalent stage in the market as internet services prior to 1996, that is, still in the innovator/early adopter product cycle stage (Levenburg et al. 2006).
LIMITATIONS TO ADOPTION
Research from the European Commission (2002) constitutes that when it comes to introduce technological advancements especially social networking technologies to SMEs, they face certain problems as statistics suggests that the smaller the enterprise the less likely it is to familiarise itself with social networking techniques. This does not necessarily means that by the enlargement of size or by integrating specific SME policies will solve these problems. Reliable, stable and open business environment is what SMEs benefit from and therefore policies encouraging this along with liberalisation of ecommerce practices and the interoperability of internet solutions, and easier access to finance through horizontal policy initiatives are likely to succeed in tandem with SME-specific initiatives (Goode and Stevens, 2000). Frambach & Schillewaert (2002) describe the competitive or environmental pressures that may force enterprises to adopt technologies under the premise that profitability will be maintained or improved. In accordance with another study by Robertson, Lockett, Brown & Crouchley, 2007) it can be observed that among SMEs that poor perception towards computer based technologies limits adoption as entrepreneurs have limited finance or support to engage with state of the art web based technologies that would enhance communication. When larger companies adopt the social networking technologies it is interesting to note that positive network external effects can be achieved which can also be thought of as word of mouth effects (Frambach & Schillewaert, 2002). The significance of words spread within general public is highly recognized within the business world and SMEs do realize that the adoption of techniques which can broaden the horizon of their trade can be extremely beneficial. Social networking technologies offer the same by providing the business owners with all ingredients to attain better chances of success. As for example the network externality effects were particularly important in the success of fixed line and mobile phone adoption as an additional subscriber leads to an increase in the utility of all existing and future subscribers thereby augmenting the eventual success of the technology (Fildes, 2002).
The existing relationships between the SMEs and the consumer markets also tend to hinder in adoption of the innovative technologies. There is a specific load or pressure within everyday business practice and the knowledge that is required to carry out routine activities through technological means is absent in most of the business environment unwilling to become a part of modern trade practices. The inability to deal with the recent technological environment tends to compromise the credibility with business partners and leaves sensitivity amongst the workforce that the business environment is less dynamic. On the other hand, in some instances there are numerous of consumers without internet capabilities or those who do not feel secure to utilize advance e-business techniques; also see their credibility compromised in terms of other SMEs. Furthermore, industry, market scope, competitive pressure and external technological support are considered to be factors that influence SMEs' willingness to adopt social networking technologies. The adoption of advanced technologies is greatly influenced and also dependent upon the industry in which the SME operates (Levenburg et al. 2006, Raymond 2001). Service industries, which rely on the processing of information, depend on information systems (Goode and Stevens 2000). Retail industries, which rely on the transfer of goods, may have a greater dependence on point-of-sale systems (Premkumar, 2003). Manufacturing industry rely more on technological systems. It has been observed by a study that the ecommerce practices vary not only across sectors i.e. across Standard Industrial Classification codes but also within constituent sub-sectors (Fallon and Moran, 2000).
For an innovation or technological advancement to integrate within a business it is significant to identify the relative compatibility between them. Compatibility of an innovation with a business is defined as the degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters (Rogers, 2003). In order to gain benefits from a technological system there is need to develop a better understanding and familiarity with it. It has been found that compatibility is an important determinant of adopting the social networking techniques (Premkumar, 2003). The small businesses need to illuminate the compatibility its infrastructure, values and beliefs with all the environmental and functional changes prior to adoption of new technologies. The adoption of new technologies can bring significant changes to the work practices of businesses and resistance to change is a normal organisational reaction (Premkumar, 2003). The social networking technologies are the natal component of contemporary business practices and mostly offer positive results but the impacts of integrating new technology within a business can be tricky and hence it becomes imperative to test the relative compatibility of the applied technology in context of the organizational, environmental, operational and functional setting of the business. In addition to test the compatibility it is also essential to check the relative complexity before the implementation of any technology within the business structure. Complexity is defined as the degree to which an innovation is perceived as relatively difficult to understand and use (Rogers, 2003). The complexity of the technology creates greater uncertainty for successful implementation and therefore increases the risk in the adoption decision (Premkumar, 2003). This factor has been found to be negatively associated with adoption of technological innovations (Grover and Goslar 1993, Cooper and Zmud 1990). It has also been found to be an important determinant of technological innovations adoption in the context of small business (Lertwongsatien and Wongpinunwatana, 2003). The ability to be trailed is yet another significant factor which can be defined as the degree to which an innovation may be followed to be positively related to e-commerce adoption. The advanced innovations and social networking technologies are currently new to the SME market (Kendall et al., 2001) and hence its following is expected to be exceptionally relevant. The advanced innovation technique that has been seen to make an impact in the industry in which an SME operates is more likely to be viewed in a favourable light (Rogers, 2003). In the context of small business, the degree to which the results of an innovation or technology is observed by others, is another attribute of technological characteristics that is not perceived to be positively related to the adoption of social networking technology. All these factors when studied in context of a particular region i.e., North-west England, tend to play an integral role in identifying the impacts of social networking technologies when applied to the SMEs.
The research methodology incorporates exhaustive literature review, interviews and observations based on studying SMEs in the Northwest of England. The study expounds on observing a radical intent to utilize the development of innovative networking technologies as part of a SME processes however, certain limitations make it difficult for the owner managers (Brock, 2000). The contemporary business practices and market trends has established that by implicitly adopting social networking techniques wider SME transformations can be obtained. To obtain a better picture the study needs to obtain a theoretical understanding of how economic costs and lack of technical knowledge become two of the most important factors that hinder in growth of social networking technologies in small organisations. The research methodology involves observation of theoretical data, data collected through interviews and analysis of market activities, validated research procedures and investigative strategies upon the area under discussion. The method used in this research is to evaluate various technological, organisational, and environmental aspects that facilitate or inhibit adoption or diffusion of social networking technologies and thereby identifying the relative impacts on the SMEs.
3.1 RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
The core element of this dissertation is to determine the upshots of implementing social networking technologies within the SMEs and studying in detail how it affected them with a particular emphasis on the SMEs of the North-west region. The objective is to assess the overall business activities and growth pattern of the SMEs to find out the impact of the innovative networking technology and also elicit the views of significant participants of the SME sector. The five main objectives of this study are;
To establish how social networking technologies are acquired, absorbed and utilized within SMEs to gain competitive advantage;
To study the relative impacts of social networking technologies when applied to the SMEs particularly within the North-west of England;
To investigate enablers and constraints that influence social networking in SMEs within a regional context depending on the regional, social and economic factors;
To adopt a methodology, influenced by data collected from the active respondents and theoretical groundings for investigating social networking practices in SMEs;
To utilize a research design incorporating users of social networking technology such as the SMEs owners, managers and administrators, to gather valuable views and comments about the relevant consequences.
3.2 SAMPLING TECHNIQUES & RESEARCH DESIGN
The recruitment and designing of sample required the random selection of the study population that is acquired from the 500 SMEs of the North-west region. The additional information about the SMEs was supplemented by the National Statistic website. The sample was designed to develop and benchmark the present scale of adoption of social networking technologies among the allocated sample of SMEs in the Northwest of England. The design of sample was tailored to measure the consequences of adopting e-collaborative technologies within the SMEs in the particular region. A brief semi-structured questionnaire was distributed and the interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim for the assessment of relative impacts of social networking technologies on the SMEs. A back up staff for taking notes in writing and recording was made available to the interviewers, where applicable. The interviews were conducted on the basis of discretion; hence the sample SMEs, market participants and the respondents are kept unidentified.
Initially 500 SMEs from Northwest of England were engaged in the study which operate in a number of sectors that include services sector comprised of media culture and retail, client-based sector that includes bespoke advice and formulaic advice and manufacturing sector encompassing the high-tech and low-tech firms. The firms were further categorized in accordance with their level of maturity i.e. depending on their status of commencement, stability and innovation. At the outset, the interviews were conducted in each firm and the respondents were selected from senior management team. The interviews were based on open-ended questions with in-depth interrogation in which the flexibility was maintained on the focus, follow-ups and probes clarifications to pursue the emerging themes (Alvesson and Sköldberg, 2000). The duration of interviews lasted between one and one-and-a-half hour's session. The research has been conducted in three phases; each phase is discussed in detail as under:
3.1.1 PHASE I
For understanding the existing research exhaustive literature and systematic reviews were carried out. Review was based on investigating how social networking has been adopted and integrated in small firm and thereby identifying their relative impacts. The exhaustive literature study also examined the association between the use of social networking technology and small firm growth. These reviews helped to identify major themes within previous research and the details contained within the papers highlighted concerns with social issues, absorptive capacity and policy support that enable the transfer and development of social networking technologies within business practices. Gaps include sector bias, lack of research on the situated nature of technologies, factors that mediate the adoption of new systems of organizing, and how relational competence and social skills influence firm growth (Alvesson and Sköldberg, 2000). An in-depth study was carried out of relevant literature present in books, newspapers, articles and renowned academic journals.
3.1.2 PHASE II
The research survey was administered during the period in between February 2010 and March 2010 and the investigation was focussed on SMEs from the north of England, specifically the North-west region. Dunn and Bradstreet database were used for the selection of SMEs via the 192.com database to obtain useful data of UK based SMEs. A smaller canvassing team of 5 interviewers were trained to administer the telephonic survey and approximately 500 SMEs were contacted via telephone. The inclusion criteria as set in accordance with the research methodology allowed the survey information to be collected from the owners, managing directors, company secretaries, IT managers or from people of similar stature by the canvassers. Certain administrators in smaller companies were also considered as respondents and accepted as per the inclusion criteria. A response rate of approximately 18% was received through the outbound calls that helped to achieve about 90 completed forms. It is important to note that problems of sample selection and response bias can lead to results that are difficult to extrapolate to larger populations. In this case two types of bias were encountered. Firstly, regional bias arose due to the over collection of surveys from the NE and too few from the NW. Secondly, the survey contained too few small enterprises, defined by the Department of Trade and Industry as those organisations with less than 50 employees. Both imbalances were corrected using a weighting process called rim weighting (Elliot, 1991; Barnett, 1995). All results generated for this document are weighted implying that the results reflect the general picture to be found in the north of England.
3.1.3 PHASE III
The third phase of the research methodology is designed to understand the need for incorporating social networking technologies within the potential market and assessing how entrepreneurs would utilize the technology to gain competitive advantage, and finally investigating the limits of the social networking technology when put into practice. In order to gain deeper insight into the need for social networking technology among SMEs, qualitative interviews were conducted on 20 SMEs out of which there were 10 micro 5small and 5 medium sized SMEs from the North-west of England. The interviews were conducted on the upper management and directorship level or with IT decision makers of the companies. The research encompasses a broad range of industry types from the North-west region including companies representing health care provider, professional sports union, suppliers of lawn fertilizer, architectural design, public relations, industrial pump production, food production, cosmetic reseller, producer of industrial radiation detection devices and bespoke large scale wood engineering. To acquire a rich background of company information there were about 8 companies enlisted for interview via cold calls to the database collated during the enterprise survey and further 5 companies were enlisted through general contacts. Respondents were asked to illustrate the nature of the SME in order to gain insight into the role of social networking technology in the company. Details were collected regarding the trade practice of the enterprise to identify the level of operation i.e. local or international, furthermore, investigations were made about the current level of networking technologies in use and the mode of communication between employees, suppliers and customers were also studied.
3.3 PROTOCOL FOR DATA COLLECTION
The target study population is comprised of actively participating members of SMEs including owners, directors, managers, administrators and IT staff. An aggregated set of data collected through authenticated annual reports of the companies to determine the growth patterns. Renowned economic journals, newspaper articles and books are used for compilation of authentic data. An open ended brief survey questionnaire was distributed to the SMEs to collect valuable comments and meetings to discuss and accumulate annotations of relevant stakeholders.
ASSOCIATED RISKS TO DATA COLLECTION
There are certain practical difficulties that hinder in the collection of data that eventually result in delaying the research procedure. Due to the indulgence of human objects there are chances of missed appointments, absences due to illness that might account for the down gradation of the research process. Effective time management by pre-evaluated questionnaires cut short and transcribed interview sessions and appropriate theoretical observations are required to anticipate research obstacles in timely manner (ESRC, 2010).
3.4.1 VALIDITY AND RELIABILITY OF DATA
It is very important to check the validity and reliability of the constructs which are tested to ensure that the acquired measurements are accurate. The accuracy of the construct clearly reflecting what it intends to measure is referred as the validity, on the other hand; the consistency of the results obtained is termed as reliability. Several criteria can be used to judge construct validity: face validity, convergent validity and divergent validity (Ghauri et al., 2002). Before the commencement of the main study it is important to consult experts in the field and perform pilot testing of the questionnaires with SMEs' owners, managers and administrators to ensure face validity. This is an essential step to correctly incarcerate the concepts used in this study and avoid any ambiguities in measurements. Moreover, construct validity is ensured by taking into account the usage principle (Babbie 2007). The operational measures used in this study were taken from previous work in the field that was published in reputable academic journals. Reliability was ensured using face-to-face interviews where interviewer ensures that each respondent is answering the same questions.
3.4.2 MEASURES TO ENSURE DATA PROTECTION
Data security is found to be important to most firms for which the measures for data security were described to firms by clearly illustrating the data protection measures to interviewees and assuring that potentially sensitive data would be kept strictly confidential. Safety measures for data storage, security and length of time is reserved. For the sake of maintaining data security to higher standards all the tapes and transcripts were subjected to be observed and utilized for the research purpose only. While writing names for identification of information, pseudonyms and code names are used to keep utmost level of anonymity or confidentiality. Name of the companies, detail of owners, directors, managers, and job descriptions of employees and any source of identity are left out and de-identified material is utilized for privacy concerns (ESRC, 2010).
3.5 ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Ethical considerations including fair arguments, confidentiality, equity, and transparency are the fundamental aspects to perform standardized research. In accordance with the legislative bindings and with the requirements of data providers, the interviewers and researchers certified compliance with the UK Data Protection Act 1998 and where appropriate undertook a Criminal Records Bureau Disclosure (OPSI, 2010).
3.5.1 DETRIMMENTAL EFFECT OF STUDY
Observations and taking notes in public places are controversial; ethics committees consider them an invasion of privacy (ESRC, 2010). While interviewing there is a risk of exploitation of highly confidential information and the interviewees become reluctant to divulge authentic facts fearing any fiscal damage (ESRC, 2010) or hurting their privacy concerns.
3.5.2 INFORMED CONSENT
An informed verbal and a recorded message of consent to be obtained from each study participant. A standard pre evaluated and structured questionnaire is administered by the Interviewer. Respondents were assured of the confidentiality of the information, and every effort was made to ensure privacy. Careful considerations have been given by the interviewers to the secondary use of datasets, especially with regard to presumed consent and the potential risk of disclosure of sensitive information (ESRC, 2010). Researchers are conscious of the implication to obtain consent by the respondents and appropriate steps have been taken for the long-term use and preservation of data (REC, 2010).
3.5.3 PRIVACY AND CONFIDENTIALITY
Private information was covered within the interview sessions that included investigative questions about the structure of companies, their growth rate and technological aspects by assessing comments of respondents. For studying the impacts of social networking technologies the study reveals monetary aspects of the companies by assessing the size of investments within technological departments. For the purpose of maintaining absolute privacy and secrecy of any personal information divulged to help in research work, a declaration has been mutually agreed in between the interviewer and the interviewees. Complete freedom is provided to opt out from volunteering and to demand for deleting the given information. Detailed information pertaining to the research methodology has been provided to the respondents in order to avoid any inconvenience and lessen doubts where applicable.