Team effort: helping Limburg’s SME manufacturers think big

Could service innovation make SME manufacturers more competitive? PhD student Kars Mennens, who leads a triple helix project assessing the impact of provincial subsidies, tells Tracy Brown Hamilton that research evidence can help persuade businesses to work smarter 

Limburg’s manufacturing sector is currently responsible for 16 per cent of employment, or some 80,000 jobs, in the Netherlands’ southernmost province, and its economic impact can also be felt in areas such as health care, agriculture and logistics. Support to help expand and strengthen the sector could bring significant gains to the region’s economy, and a triple helix collaboration involving academics at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, businesses and the province of Limburg could play a key role.

In 2013, the province of Limburg launched LIOF LimburgMakers, an innovation subsidy programme for manufacturing. The first round of the programme ended in 2016, and the province asked the University of Maastricht, and SBE in particular, to examine its impact.

Kars Mennens is a doctoral candidate at SBE who is working on the initiative. “The objective is pretty broad,” he says. “Basically we have been asked to look into the effect that LimburgMakers has had on SMEs in the manufacturing industry, particularly with regard to employability.”

The research project – a true “triple helix” collaboration involving academics, government and industry – was launched in 2014, with another PhD student on board. Mennens took over the reins in 2015.

“It is very different from a typical PhD trajectory in which a student works together with two academic supervisors,” he observes. “What we do is meet up every three months with a policymaker from the province of Limburg and two programme coordinators for the LIOF’s LimburgMakers subsidy programme. We discuss the progress I’ve made, the practical relevance of what we’re doing, see what others think of our results, and come up with new research ideas. That is really the distinctive thing about this whole research project; there is a lot of collaboration with practitioners, which I really like. It really keeps my feet on the ground.”

Among the Limburg-based manufacturers that Mennens has researched – via emails, phone interviews, and in-person meetings – are Janssen Precision Engineering, Arion and Openplus. The first of his findings have just been published in the International Small Business Journal, focusing on the value of service innovation in the manufacturing industry.

The paper, “Exploring antecedents of service innovation performance in manufacturing SMEs”, was co-authored with SBE colleagues Anita Van Gils, Gaby Odekerken-Schröder and Wilko Letterie. “For this research,” Mennens says, “we ask SMEs about the service innovations that they already have implemented, and how well they think they are doing in comparison with their competition.”

He gives the example of Microfan, a company in northern Limburg that provides climate-control systems for livestock stalls.

“In the past, Microfan just provided the computers and customers regulated the temperature themselves,” Mennens says. “But now they are looking into how they can link the climate-control computers and regulate the whole process, so the customer no longer needs to monitor or regulate temperature. So now it’s not just a case of providing the computer, but delivering a service in which the customer pays a fee for the company to provide to whole system for them and regulate it. It changes their business from simply delivering the hardware into providing a subscription-based system.”

With research such as this, Mennens says, SBE can furnish the province of Limburg with valuable evidence about ways SMEs can improve their performance via service innovation, and how the province can develop policies to help the region’s businesses do just that.

In Mennens’ view, the province should create subsidies that encourage SMEs and their owners to have all of their employees participate in the innovation process. Such a process needs to start with awareness sessions in which SMEs are informed about such research, so and have proof of the value of employee input. “But,” adds Mennens, “it could also go as far as [the province] saying, ‘We have this innovation subsidy, but the only way you can receive it is if you can prove that you’ve actually collaborated within the whole organisation.’ That’s what the province can do.”

Mennens, who completed his Master’s in International Business at SME in 2015, hadn’t intended to undertake doctoral study – until the opportunity to work on this project changed his mind. “The practitioner-oriented research that I’m doing is the only reason why I chose to do a PhD, because I saw that this one would be so practically oriented. I couldn’t image myself focusing only on theory.”

What of Mennens’ future? The world beyond the university still beckons. “After completing my PhD, I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to stay in the academic world,” he says, “but move on to practice.”

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