Monday, July 4, 2011
REFLECTIONS ON THE BEGINNING OF A JOURNEY
Fifteen years ago, I started my first day as Professor of Small Business Management at the University of Glamorgan and I hope you will forgive me if I use this week’s column to reflect on the period that led me to return to Wales to take up that appointment.
It had been an interesting journey in my academic career up until then.
I had left my hometown of Pwllheli in 1984 to take my physics degree at University College Cardiff in a department led by the brilliant Professor Robin Williams.
However, following my graduation, I had concluded that a scientific career was not for me and went on to undertake a Master’s degree in Technical Change and Industrial Strategy at Manchester University.
A unique course, it covered the sociology and economics of innovation and enabled me to dip my toe for the first time into the study of Welsh economic development, as my thesis was entitled “The role of development agencies in promoting innovation amongst small businesses in Wales”.
Following this, I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to research innovation into small firms at Aston University and in the summer of 1989, I jumped on the train to Birmingham for an interview to return with a three year commitment to undertake a Ph.D.
Aston Business School was a stimulating environment to undertake my doctoral studies, as there was a tight knit group of young researchers from all over the world examining different elements of innovation and enterprise led, ironically perhaps, by one of the editors of Marxism Today.
Certainly, the period I spent examining technological entrepreneurship in the UK - the title of my Ph.D dissertation - gave me the opportunity to present papers at major conferences, such as the annual Babson Symposium in the USA, which led to a job offer on the first rung of academia as a research assistant at Durham University.
This was a life-changing experience in more ways than one.
Not only was I lucky to work with the leading small business group in Europe under the leadership of Professor Allan Gibb, but the research unit I joined was actually broke!
The Centre for Entrepreneurship in the Service Sector had been set up with external funding from business but when I turned up at Durham, I found out that it only had enough funding left for another year.
The potential demise of your career before it had even started certainly concentrates the mind so I spent the next 12 months frantically developing proposals for funding that eventually resulted in grants from the Nuffield Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust and the European Commission, projects which enabled me to develop new directions of study in the field but, more importantly, enabled me to start publishing papers, the simple standard by which every young academic is judged.
The uncertainty of my employment situation when I was literally jumping from grant to grant taught me the simple lesson that you cannot rely on senior academics for support! Indeed, it was that lack of support which led me to look for new opportunities elsewhere and I found myself being attracted across the Irish Sea for another project that would transform my career.
At the time, the Graduate School of Business at the University College Dublin was developing a major initiative to examine the competitive advantage of peripheral regions. Under the supervision of Dr Rory O’Donnell, Director of the National Economics and Social Council, and Dr Frank Roche, special advisor to the Minister for Industry, the two-year project funded by the European Commission’s Marie Curie initiative was set up to look at how the Celtic Tiger was going to perform during the next decade.
It was a fantastic opportunity to be part of a multidisciplinary team that was based at one of Ireland’s premier institutions but had a direct line into policy and politics at a very exciting time in the Irish economy. My brief was to examine entrepreneurship and innovation in Ireland and there was some wry amusement as a young Welshman tried to bring together a disparate group of Irish researchers in these fields to examine the current state of play.
Looking back, it was one of the most important periods in my career, mainly because I was allowed to get on with publishing over a dozen papers from my research, as well as undertake studies into Irish entrepreneurship within the project. It also established in me a love of Dublin and Ireland that remains strong to this day.
As the two year project was coming to an end, there were a number of options open to me, although an increasing sense of “hiraeth” meant that I had already decided to return to Wales to try and develop my academic career back home, especially as, at the time, there were no university positions at any level in the field of entrepreneurship and small business.
As luck would have it, the University of Glamorgan had advertised a professorship in this area at this time. Certainly, I had no illusions that I would even be considered for the job but I thought that if I submitted an application, I could at least showcase what I had done in my two previous positions and get my CV known back in my home country.
It was therefore a total surprise when I was invited to interview in the first week of May 1996 with a number of other candidates, including a professor and a reader in the field. However, that surprise paled into insignificance when I was called back into the interview room to be told that they were offering me the job as Professor of Small Business Management.
And so, fifteen years ago, I walked through the doors of the University of Glamorgan Business School to take up my dream position back in the country of my birth.
What happened then for the next four years before I took up a professorship at Bangor University? Well, that is a story for another column in the future.