Wafa Khlif, a Tunisian professor working at a French university in Spain (Toulouse Business School, Barcelona), presented the results of recent research into boards in small–medium enterprises (SMEs). The purpose of the research was to understand how boards work and the role they play in the governance of SMEs.
The research suggests that boards perform different roles in organisations, from that of an entirely passive bystander (she uses the wonderfully descriptive term, legal fiction) through effective cooperation to that of a dominant bully. However, most of the research has investigated large and typically publicly listed firms. Precious little research has been published on SME boards, until now. Khlif interviewed 26 directors and chief executives of six Tunisian-based SMEs over a two year period.
All four of the important roles of boards that had been identified in larger firms—control, service, strategy and mediation—were also apparent in smaller companies. However, no single combination or arrangement of the roles was apparent. As with larger companies, considerable variation in the way boards work, and their purported dynamism and impact on firm performance (as claimed by interviewees), was apparent in the interview data that Khlif and her colleagues collected and analysed. However, some combinations of roles that are more common in larger firms (the watchdog, for example) is not so common in smaller firms (where the owner is more likely to be directly involved as a director and/or a manager).
The framework that Khlif and her colleagues developed as part of their research shows how the important roles can "fit" together in SMEs, and the types of background factors (firm complexity, ownership span, amongst others) that might influence how the roles are performed are identified. However, the research did not explore the link between board roles and business performance.
From an academic perspective, this research provides support to the idea that the role of the board cannot be adequately explained by a single theory. It provides strong guidance for practice as well: boards and board situations are all different, so forget about 'best practice' cookie-cutter models. Therefore, owners and boards that ignore the organisational context when boards are being established or reviewed do so at their peril.
Thoughts on corporate purpose, strategy and governance; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.