Trust and strong ties in the selection and evaluation of business advisors by small firms

Kautonen, Teemu, Zolin, Roxanne, Kuckertz, Andreas, & Viljamaa, Anmari (2009) Trust and strong ties in the selection and evaluation of business advisors by small firms. In Gillin, L (Ed.) Proceedings of the 6th International AGSE Entrepreneurship Research Exchange, Feb 3-6, 2009, ECIC, University of Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, Swinburne University of Technology, Adelaide, Australia , pp. 1117-1131.

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Principal Topic

A small firm is unlikely to possess internally the full range of knowledge and skills that it requires or could benefit from for the development of its business. The ability to acquire suitable external expertise - defined as knowledge or competence that is rare in the firm and acquired from the outside - when needed thus becomes a competitive factor in itself. Access to external expertise enables the firm to focus on its core competencies and removes the necessity to internalize every skill and competence. However, research on how small firms access external expertise is still scarce. The present study contributes to this under-developed discussion by analysing the role of trust and strong ties in the small firm's selection and evaluation of sources of external expertise (henceforth referred to as the 'business advisor' or 'advisor').

Granovetter (1973, 1361) defines the strength of a network tie as 'a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding) and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie'. Strong ties in the context of the present investigation refer to sources of external expertise who are well known to the owner-manager, and who may be either informal (e.g., family, friends) or professional advisors (e.g., consultants, enterprise support officers, accountants or solicitors). Previous research has suggested that strong and weak ties have different fortes and the choice of business advisors could thus be critical to business performance)

While previous research results suggest that small businesses favour previously well known business advisors, prior studies have also pointed out that an excessive reliance on a network of well known actors might hamper business development, as the range of expertise available through strong ties is limited. But are owner-managers of small businesses aware of this limitation and does it matter to them? Or does working with a well-known advisor compensate for it? Hence, our research model first examines the impact of the strength of tie on the business advisor's perceived performance.

Next, we ask what encourages a small business owner-manager to seek advice from a strong tie. A recent exploratory study by Welter and Kautonen (2005) drew attention to the central role of trust in this context. However, while their study found support for the general proposition that trust plays an important role in the choice of advisors, how trust and its different dimensions actually affect this choice remained ambiguous. The present paper develops this discussion by considering the impact of the different dimensions of perceived trustworthiness, defined as benevolence, integrity and ability, on the strength of tie. Further, we suggest that the dimensions of perceived trustworthiness relevant in the choice of a strong tie vary between professional and informal advisors.

Methodology/Key Propositions

Our propositions are examined empirically based on survey data comprising 153 Finnish small businesses. The data are analysed utilizing the partial least squares (PLS) approach to structural equation modelling with SmartPLS 2.0. Being non-parametric, the PLS algorithm is particularly well-suited to analysing small datasets with non-normally distributed variables.

Results and Implications

The path model shows that the stronger the tie, the more positively the advisor's performance is perceived. Hypothesis 1, that strong ties will be associated with higher perceptions of performance is clearly supported.

Benevolence is clearly the most significant predictor of the choice of a strong tie for external expertise. While ability also reaches a moderate level of statistical significance, integrity does not have a statistically significant impact on the choice of a strong tie. Hence, we found support for two out of three independent variables included in Hypothesis 2.

Path coefficients differed between the professional and informal advisor subsamples. The results of the exploratory group comparison show that Hypothesis 3a regarding ability being associated with strong ties more pronouncedly when choosing a professional advisor was not supported.

Hypothesis 3b arguing that benevolence is more strongly associated with strong ties in the context of choosing an informal advisor received some support because the path coefficient in the informal advisor subsample was much larger than in the professional advisor subsample.

Hypothesis 3c postulating that integrity would be more strongly associated with strong ties in the choice of a professional advisor was supported. Integrity is the most important dimension of trustworthiness in this context. However, integrity is of no concern, or even negative, when using strong ties to choose an informal advisor.

The findings of this study have practical relevance to the enterprise support community. First of all, given that the strength of tie has a significant positive impact on the advisor's perceived performance, this implies that small business owners appreciate working with advisors in long-term relationships. Therefore, advisors are well advised to invest into relationship building and maintenance in their work with small firms. Secondly, the results show that, especially in the context of professional advisors, the advisor's perceived integrity and benevolence weigh more than ability. This again emphasizes the need to invest time and effort into building a personal relationship with the owner-manager, rather than merely maintaining a professional image and credentials. Finally, this study demonstrates that the dimensions of perceived trustworthiness are orthogonal with different effects on the strength of tie and ultimately perceived performance. This means that entrepreneurs and advisors should consider the specific dimensions of ability, benevolence and integrity, rather than rely on general perceptions of trustworthiness in their advice relationships.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 26994
Item Type: Conference Paper
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Small Firms, Business Advisors, Trust
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > COMMERCE MANAGEMENT TOURISM AND SERVICES (150000) > BUSINESS AND MANAGEMENT (150300) > Small Business Management (150314)
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Australian Centre for Business Research
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Current > Schools > School of Management
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2009 (Please consult the authors).
Deposited On: 25 Aug 2009 02:07
Last Modified: 18 Sep 2012 02:24

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