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The research that will strengthen northern Sweden's companies

Published: 25 February 2021

NorrlandsNavet started in the autumn of 2020 in collaboration between the Kamprad Family Foundation and Luleå University of Technology. In the research side, five industry-oriented doctoral projects are now being initiated. Doctoral students and researchers will, in close collaboration with small and medium-sized companies, contribute to strengthening business operations in northern Sweden.

The research will help identify companies' challenges and develop new knowledge in a number of disciplines. This is done by developing methods, tools and frameworks that are based on research and can be used by small and medium-sized companies to drive innovation and growth.

- Small and medium-sized companies in northern Sweden have unique growth challenges. The geographical location can, among other things, lead to difficulties in gaining access to financial resources, customers and recruitment of staff with the right skills. Therefore, research within NorrlandsNavet addresses these complex problems from several perspectives - from the regional level to the ecosystem and company level and provides suggestions for improvements that can help companies. Five company-oriented doctoral projects have been initiated where the doctoral students have experienced, interdisciplinary researchers to help them, says Vinit Parida, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Luleå University of Technology and also scientific leader of NorrlandsNavet.

This is how "trigger events" affect small and medium-sized companies

The research aims to increase the understanding of entrepreneurial activities and strategies in small and medium-sized companies.
- With the research, we want to investigate how small and medium-sized companies react to unexpected events, so-called "trigger events", says Sara Thorgren, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Luleå University of Technology.

Unexpected events can be of a positive as well as a negative nature.
- The Corona pandemic is a clear example of a "trigger event", but it can also be about specific industry events such as larger company establishments or events that are specific to a place - for example as in Kiruna, where the whole city is moved.

While small businesses can be relatively flexible in their offerings, there are some companies that suffer from being just small and face other types of challenges than large companies when unexpected events occur. Through increased knowledge and the development of strategies for "trigger events", companies can prepare for future challenges.
- With the help of this research, NorrlandsNavet can support small and medium-sized decision-makers in Norrbotten through academic collaboration and tailored training offers that focus on strategic development and entrepreneurial leadership, says Sara Thorgren.

Digital transformation for regional growth

The research area digitalisation within NorrlandsNavet will focus on how small and medium-sized companies can receive support in taking the next step in digital transformation.
- With the help of research, we want to support all types of small and medium-sized companies in their digital development and create a capacity to manage and choose from all new solutions that are developed. We also look specifically at what digitalisation means for companies in more sparsely populated areas, such as here in northern Sweden, says Anna Ståhlbröst, professor of information systems at Luleå University of Technology.

Small companies in particular have challenges with limited financial, personnel and competence resources within their own organization. The need for digital solutions also differs between different companies and industries.
- Therefore, we want to work close to the companies, analyze their level of maturity and then develop a framework that maps which solutions are suitable for which types of challenges. The research looks at how to handle these, what competence is required within the company and what external help is available to achieve one's own goals with digitalisation, says Anna Ståhlbröst.

Green transition for strengthened competitiveness

The research aims to find out how small and medium-sized companies in green technology can increase their competitiveness and growth. With the largest investment in Swedish industry to date, LKAB will switch from today's pellet production to a completely carbon dioxide-free process for the production of iron fungus.
- What is happening right now in northern Sweden in the industry is that large companies through new technology want to be world leaders in the green transition. We will look at how small and medium-sized enterprises can contribute to climate change, and thus increase competitiveness. The large industries need to collaborate with the smaller companies to cope with this, says Patrik Söderholm, professor of economics at Luleå University of Technology.

Pilot facilities are important for the development of green technology, and need to involve users as part of technology development.
- Today there are a number of companies that run pilot facilities and want to develop, our goal is for the research to contribute knowledge about how to succeed with it, says Patrik Söderholm.

The research can be useful in several industries.External factors that affect the development of small and medium-sized companies in green technology specifically - but also in companies in general - are an important part of the research.
All companies need to apply for regulations and permits to conduct business. Environmental permits are there to promote the environment, but the fear is that current legislation risks putting the brakes on green investments. The permit processes need to achieve their purposes but not make it too complicated. The companies contribute valuable experience and based on that, the research can investigate how appropriate permit processes can be designed.

Growth through business model innovation

The research within NorrlandsNavet aims to support digital business model innovation and develop new digital ecosystems among small and medium-sized companies in northern Sweden.
- Digitization can increase the sustainability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized companies, but previous research shows that they often lack the ability to adapt their own organization and create business models that transform technology into commercial offers that are attractive to the customer, says David Sjödin, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Luleå University of Technology.

Digital ecosystems consist of networks of actors who collaborate to develop services and offers with the help of digital technology.
- An important challenge for utilizing the opportunities for digitalisation lies in understanding the value that digital technology adds and in creating business models that benefit all parties within the digital ecosystem.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are involved in the research and their needs are mapped.
- Companies will be able to practically benefit from research by receiving support with digital business model innovation and building collaborations with large and small players in various industries, says David Sjödin.

Lifelong learning for increased competence

Caroline Graeske is an assistant professor of Swedish with a didactic focus. She usually researches learning resources and teaching materials of various kinds in the school system, but in NorrlandsNavet, education among small and medium-sized companies is in focus. An increasingly flexible labor market means that in the future it will become more common with skills exchange where workers change industry at a faster pace. - I and other researchers in my department feel that lifelong learning, which lasts a lifetime, is becoming increasingly important. Today, training for an entire professional life is not enough - employees need to develop skills continuously to keep up with developments, says Caroline Graeske. The research will contribute new knowledge about how effective learning environments in small and medium-sized companies can be created to stimulate and motivate employees to lifelong learning. - Previous research has also shown that continuous competence development can increase growth in companies, something we take note of in this context as well. Research and entrepreneurs can be pulling aids in each other's development, says Caroline Graeske. - NorrlandsNavet can contribute with new, important competence that we researchers together with the companies create. The university stands for scientific experience and the companies for the tried and tested. I think it is extremely valuable that researchers and the business community collaborate and work together in research projects, to achieve better results, whether it is research or increased sales and production.