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CONCEPTUALISATION OF SMES' COMPETITIVENESS: A FOCUS ON ENTREPRENEURIAL COMPETENCIES THOMAS W.Y. MAN, THERESA LAU AND K.F. CHAN Department of Management The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

ABSTRACT By drawing upon the concept of competitiveness and the competency approach, a conceptual model is developed to link the characteristics of SMEs' owner-managers and their firms' long-term performance together. Competitiveness is viewed as a threefold concept comprising the potential, the process and the performance. To remain competitive, an SME needs to satisfy the four conditions of sustainability, controllability, relativity, and dynamism. The potential dimension is addressed by both the competitive scope and the organizational capabilities of the firm, whereas the performance dimension comprises multiple indicators. The competency approach is applied to address the process dimension of SMEs' competitiveness. Six major areas of entrepreneurial competencies are distinguished, including opportunity, organizing, social, strategic, commitment and conceptual competencies. Central to the conceptual model is that the relationships between various competencies areas and other dimensions of competitiveness can be hypothesized into three principal entrepreneurial tasks, namely, 1) forming competitive scope; 2) creating organizational capabilities; and 3) setting goal and taking actions for the goal through assessing the competitive scope and utilizing the organizing capabilities. Finally, this paper points out the needs to further identify the entrepreneurial competencies and to validate the hypothesized relationships. INTRODUCTION In entrepreneurship and small business research, firm performance is often considered as the ultimate criterion in both empirical studies (Dyke et al., 1992; Ibrahim and Goodwin, 1986; Box et al., 1994; Barkham, 1994) and theoretical models (Hofer and Sandberg, 1987; Herron and Robinson, 1993; Keats and Bracker, 1988). The entrepreneur's demographic, psychological and behavioral characteristics as well as his or her managerial skills and technical know-how are often cited as the most influential factors related to the performance of an SME (small and medium sized enterprise). The relationship with firm performance is also affected by many industrial, environmental, firm specific characteristics and strategies. However, the results are often inconsistent (Chandler and Hanks, 1994; Cooper, 1993). To improve the explanatory power between independent variables and dependent variables of performance, Murphy et al. (1996) proposed the use of multiple indicators. More importantly, they suggested the need to provide a theory-based rationale for examining the given dimensions of performance.

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These arguments reveal the need of sustaining entrepreneurship and small business performance in a long term with a good theoretical foundation. Following this line of arguments, we have applied the concept of competitiveness and the competency approach to develop an operationalized model. In this paper, after introducing the concept of competitiveness and particularly at the firm level and its application to SMEs, we will introduce the competency approach in studying entrepreneurial characteristics and will explain how entrepreneurial competencies can be incorporated into a model of SME's competitiveness. A number of hypotheses will be proposed based on the three principal entrepreneurial tasks suggested in the model. COMPETITIVENESS "Competitiveness" is an attractive concept across different levels of studies (Nelson, 1992). A recent review by Waheeduzzaman and Ryabs (1996) pointed out that the competitiveness concept involves different disciplines like comparative advantage and/or price competitiveness perspective, strategy and management perspective, as well as historical and socio-cultural perspective. Moreover, competitiveness can be treated as a dependent, independent, or an intermediary variable, depending on the perspectives from which we approach the issue. Such a variety of levels and approaches of studies actually reflect the wide applications of this concept. Among them, two frameworks seem to be able to largely capture the essence of competitiveness. Firstly, Buckley et al. (1988) suggested the application of a threefold a measure which includes the Competitive Performance, the Competitive Potential and the Management Process. A similar framework can be found in the World Competitiveness Report (1993). In its "World Competitiveness Formula", "world competitiveness" is a combination of assets which are inherited or created as well as processes which transform assets into economic results. These two frameworks are shown in figure 1 and figure 2 below:

The most important implication from these two frameworks is that competitiveness is considered as an ongoing process rather than a static one. When using the term competitiveness, we need to consider not only the resulting performance or the potential to generate this performance, but also the process for doing so. However, while encompassing different levels of analysis, these models focus on international business and they are not readily operationalized. Also, they do not explicitly address the external environment, which are particularly important for SMEs. Hence, further modifications are needed.

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Conditions for Firm-level Competitiveness Focusing at the firm level, we have summarized four conditions necessary for competitiveness. Firstly, competitiveness calls for sustainability, which focuses on long term performance. For example, Ramasamy's (1995) stated that competitiveness is the ability to increase market share, profit and growth in value added and to stay competitive for a long term. This rules out short-term competitive tactics like "dumping", where the market share is bought by selling products at unprofitable prices (Buckley et al., 1991). Secondly, controllability is a necessary condition related to the various resources and capabilities of a firm rather than simply the favorable external conditions leading to superior performance. This view is particularly popular among the resource-based approach towards competitiveness (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990; Grant, 1991; Barney, 1991; Ulrich, 1993). Also related to this condition are a number of studies focusing on particular aspects like Corbett and Wassenhove (1993) on marketing, Ross et al. (1996) on information technology, Swann and Taghavi (1994) on the quality of products, and Grupp (1997) on the firm's innovative capability. Thirdly, emphasized on the competitive strategy approach (Porter, 1980, 1985; Ghemawat, 1990), competitiveness also requires relativity, concerning how competitive a firm is when being compared with the rest of the industry. This is also illustrated in Feurer and Chaharbaghi (1994) model on competitive position mapping and in Oral (1986) on a firm's industrial competitiveness. The last condition, dynamism, involves the dynamic transformation of competitive potentials through the competitive process into outcomes, corresponding to the framework suggested by Buckley et al. (1988). As some companies seem able to continually create new forms of competitive advantages, simply static view of competitive advantage based on the relative positioning or firm's capabilities building may not be sustainable for long. SMEs' Competitiveness A small firm is not a cut-down version of larger firms. Large and small firms differ from each other in terms of their organizational structures, responses to the environment, managerial styles, and more importantly, the ways they compete with other firms. There are basically three key aspects leading an SMEs' competitiveness suggested in the literature. To start with, we consider the following framework proposed by Horne et al. (1992):

Horne et al.'s (1992) framework

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distinguished between three sets of factors. One of them is the degree of access to capital or resource base, which represents the internal aspect of SMEs' competitiveness. Similar internal sources have also been identified in the literature. For example, O'Farell et al. (1992, 1989, 1988) have conducted a number of studies on the relationship between sources of competitiveness and firm performance, with focus on price, quality, design, marketing and management. On the other hand, Slevin and Covin (1995) has applied a 12-factor instrument measuring the "total competitiveness" of SMEs, which include the firm's structure, culture, human resources, product/service development etc. Pratten's (1991) study of small firms in several industries in the UK also highlighted the importance of product development, quality of the services for customers, efficiency of production, marketing expertise, and low overhead cost. Further lists of the internal factors are also given by Bamberger (1989), Stoner (1987), and Chaston and Mangles (1997). To summarize, these studies have highlighted a number of firm specific factors like financial, human and technological resources, organizational structure and system, productivity, innovation, quality, productivity, image and reputation, culture, product/service variety and flexibility, as well as customer services. Moreover, the lack of market power and the turbulent nature of newly emerged market surrounding have made the competitive environment faced by the SMEs more vulnerable to external influences than by larger firms. Representing this external aspect of competitiveness, the Horne et al.s'(1992) framework highlighted the scope for action and growth which indicates the availability of opportunities to generate increased longterm profitability inherent in the external environment. The OECD (1993) study also stressed that changes occurring in the economies can affect the "competitiveness strategy" of the SMEs. This corresponds to Pratten's (1991) findings on the influences of industrial differences on sources of competitiveness. Other authors have taken a more proactive approach in considering the external factors. For example, Slevin and Covin (1995) suggested that continuous repositioning is needed for small new firms to be responsive to and anticipative of the actions of competitors. Malecki and Tootle (1996) also emphasized on the roles of SMEs' networks on their competitiveness. Hence, small firms need not behave as a recipient to the environmental changes only, but they can also actively work on the environment. More importantly, for an SME, the process of achieving competitiveness is strongly influenced by the key player, which is highlighted as the entrepreneurship factors in Horne et al.'s (1992) framework. Moreover, even in the literature emphasizing on the internal or external sources of competitiveness, this entrepreneurial factors are also stressed. For example, the OECD (1993) study has put forward the idea that the "basic role played by the owner/manager" is one of the major determinants of SMEs' competitiveness because of the concentration of decision making power on the owner/manager in an SME environment, consequently affecting the firm overall strategy. This emphasis on the human factor is supported by Stoner's (1987) finding that the key distinctive competence of small firms is the experience, knowledge and skills of the owners and workers. Slevin and Covin (1995) also suggested that the "total competitiveness" is positively influenced by a founder who can pay attention to the detailed operations of the business when the business is small.

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Having reviewed the relevant literature, we can draw three major conclusions at this stage. Firstly, models of competitiveness shall take the threefold framework of potential, process and performance into consideration. Nevertheless, it is necessary to distinguish between dependent variables and independent variables for operationalization. Secondly, measurements of performance shall meet the four conditions of sustainability, controllability, relativity, and dynamism. Thirdly, SMEs' competitiveness shall address the three major aspects, including the firm's internal factors, the external environment, and the influences of the entrepreneur. Taking these considerations together, we suggest that the proposed model should consist of four major constructs: 1. The external environment 2. The internal firm factors } together making up the potential dimension; 3. The firm performance - i.e. performance dimension, serving as the ultimate criterion; and 4. The influence of the entrepreneur - concerning the process dimension. This will be discussed in the next section. ENTREPRENEURIAL COMPETENCIES FROM A PROCESS PERSPECTIVE Similar to competitiveness, the concept of competency is also related to performance, but the focus is mainly at individual level. Entrepreneurial competencies are obviously related to managerial competencies, which are articulated by the works of Boyatzis (1982). This approach is a response to the need for possession of characteristics more than simply skills and abilities in facing the increasing competition. In other words, there is a need for combining certain values and attitudes with these skills and abilities towards competence. The process approach of studying entrepreneurial competencies is our current emphasis. It assumes that the mere possession of competencies does not necessarily make an entrepreneur competent. Rather, these competencies can only be demonstrated with one's behaviors. Moreover, in terms of casual relationship, behaviors are closer to performance than other entrepreneurial characteristics like personality traits, intentions or motivations (Herron and Robinson, 1993; Gartner and Starr, 1993). According to Bird (1995), competencies are seen as behavioral and observable characteristics of an entrepreneur. Consequently, competencies are changeable and learnable, allowing multi-method empirical studies including quantitative approaches to measurement. This approach also expands our horizons for intervention in terms of selection and teaching of entrepreneurship. Further, it is a variable across levels of analysis and disciplines of business management, allowing complex, multi-level, and multi-disciplinary research to advance. These natures allow entrepreneurial competencies to serve as a bridge between individual-level characteristics and firm-level performance. In this paper, a competency is defined as the total capability of the entrepreneur to perform a job role successfully (Lau et al., 1998). A number of studies in relevant literature have been

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reviewed (For example, Adam & Chell, 1993; Baum, 1994; Chandler and Jansen, 1992; Chandler and Hanks, 1994; Durkan et al., 1993; Lau et al., 1998; McClelland, 1987; Mitton, 1989; Snell and Lau, 1994). Consequently, six competency areas have been summarized: 1. Opportunity Competencies - This group of competencies is considered to be very central in the process of entrepreneurship. It comprises two main elements - to spot the opportunities and to develop the opportunities. 2. Organizing Competencies - This group of competencies calls for the ability to lead, control, monitor, organize and develop the external and internal resources to become the firm's capabilities. 3. Strategic Competencies - This area of competencies requires the entrepreneur to set vision and goals, and to formulate strategies for the whole company. They represent abilities and skills from a broader perspective. 4. Social Competencies - To successfully use contacts and connections, the entrepreneur needs to possess social competencies in communication, persuasive and relationship building abilities, either internally within the firm or externally with others. 5. Commitment Competencies - These competencies are required to sustain the entrepreneur's effort to the business or particular aims. Another aspect is the initiative or proactive orientation, that is, to do things before being asked or forced to by events. 6. Conceptual Competencies - The ability in making cognitive and analytical thinking, learning, decision making and problem solving, sustaining temporal tension, innovating and in coping with uncertainty and risk belong to this area of competencies. They involve a high level of conceptual activities as reflected in the entrepreneur's behaviors with a shorter-term perspective, resolving instant events, or requiring intuitive responses. CONCEPTUAL MODEL AND HYPOTHESES The above six competency areas represent the process dimension of competitiveness. Incorporating them in other constructs of SMEs' competitiveness suggested earlier, we propose the following model of SME's competitiveness:

Figure 5 A Model of SMEs' Competitiveness

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Central to the model are the relationships between entrepreneurial competencies with other constructs of competitiveness. These relationships are conceptualized as three principal entrepreneurial tasks as shown in the model and are explained in details as follows: Task 1 Forming the Competitive Scope of the Firm Addressing external potential dimension of competitiveness, the competitive scope represents the perceived breadth for the firm to act. This relates to the opportunities available to the firm and is affected by the competitive rivalry, industrial life cycle, other market forces, and more importantly, by how the entrepreneur perceives these factors. This construct is largely captured by the following four variables: Technological opportunity - the perceived availability of new pockets of demand for new or existing technology (Zahra, 1993); Perceived industry growth - a firm's perception of the demand for industry products/services (Harrigan, 1985); Importance of new product/services - the weight that an industry assigns to the value of new products for creating and retaining a competitive position (Zahra, 1993); and Market Heterogeneity - the differences in competitive tactics, customer tastes, product lines, channels of distribution across the firm's respective markets (Miller and Friesen, 1983). While the entrepreneur is affected by the environment, the literature also suggests that the perceived environment is influenced by entrepreneurial activities as well (Keats and Bracker, 1988; Herron and Robinson, 1993). Hence, the competitive scope is likely to be affected by the entrepreneur's ability to interpret the environmental conditions. The corresponding competencies lie mainly on the opportunity competencies, which call for the ability to search and to act on the opportunities. In addition, social competencies are helpful in creating contacts and connections so that many business opportunities can be established through this process. We would also suggest that hidden opportunities can be uncovered with stronger conceptual competencies, which equip the entrepreneur with sufficient skills in conducting analysis, decision making, learning and problem solving. This leads us to the first hypothesis: Hypothesis 1: The opportunity, social, and conceptual competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the competitive scope of an SME, which is indicated by technological opportunity, perceived industry growth, importance of new products, and market heterogeneity. Task 2 Creating the Organizational Capabilities Representing the internal potential dimension, various internal sources of competitiveness have been identified and discussed earlier. Our emphasis is to consider these factors as a dynamic construct of organizational capabilities, which are defined as the capabilities for a team of resources to perform some tasks or activities (Grant 1991). Following this approach, we can generalize four organizational capabilities as

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follows: Innovative ability - the ability to innovative in new products, services or processes; Quality - the ability to maintain or achieve high quality of products or services, which lead to good image and reputation; Cost effectiveness - the ability to achieve cost effectiveness so as to set competitive price; and Organicity - the ability to create and maintain flexible, organic organizational structures and systems for achieving production speed and responsiveness. The task of creating organizational capabilities is seen as a function of the entrepreneur's ability to gather and utilize resources (Garter and Starr, 1993; Ostgaard and Birley, 1994). The relevant competencies are mainly related to the organizing competencies which call for the planning, organizing, and controlling of marketing, human and financial resources, and the monitoring of the whole operation towards efficiency and productivity. In addition, social competencies are required for gathering external resources like external consultants and financial support. Moreover, the conceptual competencies also play the roles in Analysing the organizational problems, making important decisions and innovating in either new processes, products, or services. Hence, the second hypotheses is that: Hypothesis 2: The organizing, social and conceptual competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the organizational capabilities of an SME, which are indicated by innovative ability, quality, cost effectiveness, and organicity. Task 3 Setting Goal and Taking Actions for the Goal through Assessing the Competitive Scope and Utilizing the Organizational Capabilities Firm performance is the ultimate criterion in the model. However, there exist few performance measures deliberately applied to SMEs' competitiveness. Nevertheless, we have reviewed the performance criteria in other studies of firm-level competitiveness (World Competitiveness Report, 1993; Buckley et al., 1988; Kravis and Lipsey, 1992; O'Farrell and Htichens, 1989; Feurer and Chaharbaghi, 1994). Also, after considering the need of multiple measurements (Murphy et al., 1996), their suitability for applying to SMEs and the four conditions for measuring competitiveness proposed earlier, we suggest that SMEs' competitiveness performance is best indicated by the following three variables: Efficiency - Measuring a firm's capabilities in maximizing resources allocation and profitability, indicating the controllability aspect of competitiveness; Growth - Including the present growth rate and the potential to growth. This is an indicator for the potential and dynamic aspect of competitiveness; and Relative performance - Addressing the relativity aspect of competitiveness when comparison is made with the firm's competitors. As the owner-manager of the firm, the entrepreneur must set the direction for the company, to be visionary, strategic and goal oriented. He or she must keep an eye on

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the opportunities and resources available and to have the ability to integrate them together. Hence, the primary competency area required in this task is strategic competencies. In addition, an entrepreneur also needs to possess strong commitment competencies which equip him or her with necessary drive and initiative, and to sustain his or her efforts. By being persistent and committed to the task, the performance of the firm is more likely to be enhanced. Nevertheless, the level of competitive scope and organizational capabilities will determine the extent to which the entrepreneur can apply his or her strategic and commitment competencies. To illustrate, a broader competitive scope will allow more space for the entrepreneur to take actions. Similarly, higher organizational capabilities let him or her perform with less constraints. These imply a moderating effect by competitive scope and organizational capabilities respectively. Therefore, we propose the following two hypotheses: Hypothesis 3a: The strategic and commitment competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the performance of an SME, which is indicated by its efficiency, growth, and relative performance. This relationship is moderated by the competitive scope of the firm. Hypothesis 3b: The strategic and commitment competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the performance of an SME, which is indicated by its efficiency, growth, and relative performance. This relationship is moderated by the organizational capabilities of the firm. Finally, considering the direct influences exerted by an SME's competitive scope and organizational capabilities on performance, we propose the final two hypotheses as follows: Hypotheses 4a: The competitive scope of an SME is positive related to its performance, which is indicated by its efficiency, growth, and relative performance. Hypothesis 4b: The organizational capabilities of an SME is positive related to its performance, which is indicated by its efficiency, growth, and relative performance. CONCLUSION To investigate the relationship between entrepreneurial characteristics and SMEs' performance, we have adopted the concept of competitiveness and incorporated entrepreneurial competencies to it for providing a theoretical rationale. The model distinguishes between three dimensions of competitiveness: the potential (competitive scope and organizational capabilities), the process (entrepreneurial competencies in carrying out the tasks), and the SMEs' performance. Based on the four conditions of sustainability, controllability, relativity and dynamism, we have also suggested a number of desirable variables particularly on the selection of performance indicators. Moreover, to strengthen the hypothesized relationship, we may further introduce a

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number of control variables in the model like the entrepreneur's age, the firm's age, and the stages of business development. As the model focuses on entrepreneurial competencies, it calls for several related directions for empirical studies. First of all, while we have distinguished between six competency areas, we still need to further identify what individual competencies lie in each area and hence further empirical studies are needed. Moreover, it will be of great value to carry out inter-industry comparisons on different competency areas and how they affect other dimensions of SMEs' competitiveness. Lastly, at present, only a few studies (Baum, 1994; McClelland, 1987; Chandler and Hanks, 1994) have been validated for firm performance, and hence further statistical validation of the model is clearly the way ahead. REFERENCES Adam, E. and Chell, E. (1993), "The Successful International Entrepreneur: A profile", Paper presented to the 23rd European Small Business Seminar, Belfast. Aviation Week and Space Technology (1996), "Index of Competitiveness: Exclusive Rankings of U.S. Companies", 144(23), P.42-49 Bamberger, I. (1989), "Developing Competitive Advantage in Small and Medium-Sized Firms", Long Range Planning, 22(5), P.80-88 Barkham (1994), "Entrepreneurial Characteristics and the Size of the New Firm: a Model and an Econometric Test", Small Business Economics, v6, P.117-125 Baum, J.R. (1994), The Relationship of Traits, Competencies, Motivation, Strategy and Structure to Venture Growth. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, US Barney, J. (1991), "Firm Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage", Journal of Management, 17(1), P.99-120 Bird, B. (1995), "Towards a Theory of Entrepreneurial Competency", Advances in Entrepreneurship, Firm Emergence and Growth, 2, P.51-72. Box, T.M., White, M.A., and Barr, S.H. (1994), "A Contingency Model of New Manufacturing Firm Performance", Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 18(2), P.3145 Boyatzis, R.E. (1982), The Competent Manager: A Model for Effective Performance. John Wiley and Sons. Buckley, P.J., Pass, C.L and Prescott, K. (1988), "Measures of International Competitiveness: A Critical Survey", Journal of Marketing Management, 4(2), P.175-200 - (1991), "Foreign Market Servicing Strategies and Competitiveness", Journal of General

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CONCEPTUALISATION OF SMES' COMPETITIVENESS: A FOCUS ON ENTRE...

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Businesses", Journal of Management Development, 13(4), P.4-15 Stoner, C.R. (1987), "Distinctive Competitive and Competitive Advantage", Journal of Small Business Management, 25(2), P.33-39 Swann, P. and Taghavi, M. (1992), Measuring Price and Quality Competitiveness - A Study of Eighteen British Product Markets. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company. Chapter 2. The World Competitiveness Report (1993). Instutute of Management Development and World Economic Forum Ulrich, D. (1993), "Profiling Organizational Competitiveness: Cultivating Capabilities", Human Resource Planning, 16(3), P.1-17 Waheeduzzaman, A.N.M. and Ryans, J.J.Jr. (1996), "Definition, Perspectives, and Understanding of International Competitiveness: a Quest for a Common Ground", Competitiveness Review, 6(2), P.7-26 Zahra, S.A. (1993), "Environment, Corporate Entrepreneurship, and Financial Performance: a Taxonomic Approach", Journal of Business Venturing, 8(4), P.319-340

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