Inside business: The topsy-turvy small firm survey

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MARKET research, as every politician should know, is not always accurate. Individuals have a knack of behaving in a different way to that predicted by the polls, and then there are the surveys that contradict each other.

The small business sector has been the subject of a lot of research in recent years as management consultants, ministers and the rest have suddenly woken up to the fact that small firms together employ a lot of people. But acknowledging this development and understanding it are two different matters. When the accountancy firm of Horwath Clark Whitehill teamed up recently with Kingston University to find out more about small businesses, the two organisations admitted that this was an area which did not readily conform to the usual research techniques.

Part of the problem is that the so-called small business sector is not a sector at all, but several different sectors. It is not just that there are many definitions of small, based on a range of turnover sizes and head counts.

A lot of the difficulty stems from the fact that not everybody running a small business has the same ambition. For example, some people will see the internet as a means of exporting on something like a level footing with larger competitors, while others might see such technology as a threat to their niche operations.

Even allowing for such variables, though, it is hard to credit the welter of conflicting messages coming from various sources that claim to have a handle on this area.

Now, it is not so surprising that a survey commissioned by an IT company should find an alarming lack of interest in computers, or that one from a bank should reveal a lack of understanding of finance options.

But it is a little more fundamental when one survey, from the accountancy firm Kidsons Impey, suggests that 80 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses expect to fare well over the next three years despite a "strongly competitive business environment", and another, conducted by Kingston University and appearing just five days later, says the performance of small business has slowed dramatically over the past quarter.

These surveys have not been singled out for any reason other than that they are the latest examples of a trend. Maybe the discrepancies can be explained by some of the factors already discussed.

However, given that many small business owners pride themselves on their individuality and cussedness, could it not also be that they are suffering from the same sort of survey fatigue as the rest of us and playing a little game with these diligent researchers?

Whatever the explanation, the time is probably right for a reduction in the number of surveys. After all, one reason for a drop in performance could be that these famously hard-pressed people are spending too much time answering questionnaires and not enough drumming up business.