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Entrepreneurial Competencies and the Performance of Small and Medium Enterprises:

An Investigation through a Framework of Competitiveness

Thomas W.Y. Man, Department of Mathematics, Science, Social Sciences and Technology, The Hong Kong Institute of Education

Theresa Lau, Department of Management and Marketing, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Ed Snape, Department of Management and Marketing, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

ABSTRACT. As an attempt to investigate the relationships between entrepreneurial characteristics and firm per- formance, we operationalized a theoretical framework of the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enter- prises (SMEs) and empirically tested the four hypotheses derived from it. The framework links together entre- preneurial competencies and SME performance with two further constructs: competitive scope and organiza- tional capabilities. The empirical study consisted of a stage of instrument development specific to the research context, as well as a stage of hypothesis testing. The results of hypothesis testing, involving a sample of 153 owner/managers of SMEs, provided evidence for the direct and indirect contributions of the entrepreneur’s opportunity, relationship, innovative, human and strategic competencies in affecting the long-term performance of an SME via competitive scope and organizational capabilities. This initial success, with the validated survey instrument of entrepreneurial competencies, may serve as the ground for further research in this area.

SOMMAIRE. Dans le but d’examiner les relations existant entre caractéristiques entrepreneuriales et perform- ance d’entreprise, nous avons mis en opération une structure théorique de la compétitivité des petites et moyennes entreprises (PME) et testé de façon empirique les quatre hypothèses qui en découlent. Cette structure relie les compétences entrepreneuriales et la performance des PME avec deux autres constructs : ampleur concurrentielle et capacités d’organisation. L’étude empirique comportait un stage de développement d’un instrument spécifique au contexte de la recherche, ainsi qu’un stage de vérification d’hypothèses. Les résultats de ce dernier, portant sur un échantillon de 153 propriétaires/gestionnaires de PME, ont mis en évidence les contributions directes et indirectes chez l’entrepreneur de l’opportunité, de la relation, et des compétences inno- vatrices, humaines et stratégiques qui affectent la performance à long terme par l’intermédiaire de l’ampleur concurrentielle et des capacités d’organisation. Ces résultats, ainsi que l’instrument de sondage validé pour les compétences entrepreneuriales, peuvent servir de point de départ à la recherche ultérieure.


Entrepreneurship, as exemplified by the characteristics of the entrepreneur, is con- sidered to be central to the determinants of SME performance by some researchers (Erikson, 2002; O’Farrell and Hitchens, 1988; Roper, 1998). Such a claim was particu- larly popular among studies of the entrepreneurial firm, in which the entrepreneur plays a founding and dominant role in the development of the business (Daily et al., 2002; Goedhuys and Sleuwaegen, 2000; Glancey, 1998). Researchers have attempted to inves- tigate the various entrepreneurial characteristics affecting the performance of SMEs,

Journal of Small Business and Entrepreneurship 21, no. 3 (2008): pp. 257–276


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including the entrepreneur’s background and demographic characteristics like education, age, gender and ethnic origin (Changanti and Parasuraman, 1996; Cooper, Dunkelberg and Woo, 1988; Honjo, 2004; Robb, 2002), psychological and behavioural characteristics (Barkham, 1994; Begley and Boyd, 1987; Kotey and Meredith, 1997; Sadler-Smith et al., 2003), and factors of social and human capital (Batjargal, 2005; Dyke, Fischer and Rueber, 1992; Haber and Reicheil, 2007; Lerner, Brush and Hisrich, 1997; Aldrich and Zimmer, 1986; Johannisson, 1993). More importantly, contingency factors of contextual, organizational and strategic natures are of particular importance in determining a firm’s performance (Chandler and Hanks, 1994a; Chaston, 1997; Ensley, Pearce and Hmieleski, 2006; Lumpkin and Dess, 1996; Roper, 1998).

However, studies on the relationship between these entrepreneurial characteristics and firm performance have produced mixed and inconsistent findings (Chandler and Hanks, 1994a; Cooper, 1993; Fenwick and Strombom, 1998; Reuber and Fisher, 1994). Possible explanations for these inconclusive results are that our ability to predict a firm’s success using entrepreneurial characteristics is limited by the instability of firm performance, the importance to an entrepreneur of non-economic goals, and the stochastic nature of the process (Cooper, 1993). The lack of formal structural frameworks (Roper, 1998) and of a comprehensive theory of SME development (Gibbs and Davies, 1991) are also problems.

Therefore, further research relating entrepreneurial characteristics and SME perform- ance must take into account, first, a more fully developed theoretical framework; second, contingency relationships on different conditions and interactions; third, characteristics that deserve more attention even if they may be less easily operationalized; and fourth, the performance measures chosen, and the use of multiple performance indicators (Cooper and Gascon, 1992; Murphy, Trailer and Hill, 1996).

In response to this, Man, Lau and Chan (2002) have developed a theoretical frame- work making use of the concept of firm competitiveness for SMEs and the competency approach to study entrepreneurial characteristics. This framework focuses centrally on the role of entrepreneur in determining the firm’s performance. It is readily applicable to firms that are smaller in size and dominated by the entrepreneur. By using this framework, we have conducted an empirical study on the relationship between entrepreneurial compe- tencies and the performance of SMEs. In this paper, we report on the results of this study. The implications, contributions and limitations of this study, as well as directions for fur- ther research, will also be discussed.

Theoretical Framework

The framework of Man, Lau and Chan (2002) is founded upon a multi-dimensional conceptualization of the competitiveness of SMEs, including the performance dimension, potential dimension and process dimension, developed from earlier studies of competi- tiveness (Oral, 1986; Feurer and Chaharbaghi, 1994; Buckley, Pass and Prescott, 1988; World Competitiveness Report, 1993). In particular, the influence of the entrepreneur is considered as critical and this is addressed through the competency approach.

Entrepreneurial competencies are related to managerial competencies, articulated in the works of Boyatzis (1982). The competency approach has become an increasingly pop- ular means of studying entrepreneurial characteristics (For example, Baum, 1994; Bird, 1995; Baron and Markman, 2003; Chandler and Jansen, 1992; Lau, Chan and Man, 1999; Martin and Staines, 1994; McGregor et al., 2000; Schmitt-Rodermund, 2004). According to Bird (1995), competencies are seen as behavioural and observable, and therefore are

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more closely linked to performance than are other entrepreneurial characteristics such as personality traits, intentions or motivations (Herron and Robinson, 1993; Gartner and Starr, 1993). Moreover, as with attitudes (Robinson et al., 1991), competencies are changeable and so the development of entrepreneurship becomes more feasible. In Man, Lau and Chan (2002), six major areas of entrepreneurial competencies are categorized as relating to an SME context, including opportunity, relationship, conceptual, organizing, strategic, and commitment competencies. They are supposed to play different roles in affecting an SME’s performance with their direct and indirect effects.

In fact, central to the framework are the relationships between these entrepreneurial competencies and other constructs of competitiveness, including competitive scope, orga- nizational capabilities and the performance of the firm, which together address different dimensions of SME competitiveness. These relationships are conceptualized as three prin- cipal “entrepreneurial tasks,” including (1) forming the competitive scope of the firm; (2) creating the organizational capabilities; and (3) setting goals and taking action. In other words, by making appropriate use of his or her competencies, an entrepreneur can per- ceive a widened competitive scope such as more opportunities for innovation, business growth, and the provision of new services or products. From available resources, he or she can also develop better organizational capabilities such as the firm’s innovative capabili- ty, cost-saving ability, quality and flexibility. Finally, he or she can plan and work towards a firm’s long-term performance, along with the available competitive scope and organiza- tional capabilities. These relationships are addressed through the following broad-based hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: The opportunity, relationship, and conceptual competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the competitive scope of an SME.

Hypothesis 2: The organising, relationship and conceptual competencies of the entre- preneur are positively related to the organizational capabilities of an SME.

Hypothesis 3a: The strategic and commitment competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the long-term performance of an SME. This relationship is posi- tively moderated by the competitive scope of the firm.

Hypothesis 3b: The strategic and commitment competencies of the entrepreneur are positively related to the long-term performance of an SME. This relationship is posi- tively moderated by the organizational capabilities of the firm.

Hypotheses 3a and 3b address the interactions of entrepreneurial competencies sepa- rately with competitive scope and organizational capabilities. By taking a more contingent or configurational perspective towards a firm’s performance between entrepreneurial competencies, competitive scope, and organizational capabilities (Lipparinni and Sobrero 1994; Dess, Lumpkin, and Covin 1997; Wiklund and Shepherd 2005), three-way interac- tion between these three kinds of variables may also be possible. Therefore, Hypothesis 4, as an alternative hypothesis to H3a and H3b, is also proposed:

Hypothesis 4: Strategic and commitment competencies, competitive scope, and orga- nizational capabilities will positively influence the performance of an SME through their interactive effect.

The main purpose of this study, therefore, is to test the above hypotheses derived from the model of Man, Lau and Chan (2002). We shall describe and report the empirical study to achieve this purpose in the following sections.

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Overall Research Design


In order to successfully test the hypotheses, it is first necessary to operationalize the concept of SME competitiveness with an instrument tailored more specifically for meas- uring different dimensions of SME competitiveness, particularly the aspect of entrepre- neurial competencies. As a result, the subsequent hypothesis testing could have a higher level of validity.

Therefore, the empirical part of this study was designed as having two stages—instru- ment development and hypothesis testing. The stage of instrument development involved a qualitative study in the form of behavioural event interviews (McClelland, 1987; Spencer and Spencer, 1993), an intensive effort for modifying existing instrument using of qualitative data collected, as well as a pilot study of the preliminary instrument.

With this instrument, we were able to test the hypotheses about the relationships between different entrepreneurial competencies and the other constructs in the framework of SME competitiveness, as designated above. This part was conducted using a sample of SME owner/managers in the services sector in Hong Kong.

Stage I: Development of the Survey Instrument

The main focus of developing the survey instrument was on the measures of entrepre- neurial competencies. While some existing instruments like those of Chandler and Jansen (1992) and Baum (1994) are currently available to measure entrepreneurial competencies, they did not fully meet the needs of this study. For example, the instrument by Chandler and Jansen (1992) included three distinctive categories of entrepreneurial, managerial, and technical competencies. Baum’s (1994) measurement of competencies covered a range of instruments measuring traits, skills, experience and knowledge. While they were useful for this study, they did not address all the competencies identified in the qualitative study, and the varied forms of measurement used may cause difficulties for the respon- dents to answer the questionnaire. Therefore, a survey instrument taking a behavioural perspective and meeting the requirements of this study is necessary. The underlying approach in developing this survey instrument is to modify and update the existing instru- ments with reference to the results from the qualitative analysis so as to make them appli- cable to measuring the entrepreneurial competencies of the research context. The prelim- inary instrument was then subject to a pilot test on a small sample.

Qualitative Study: Behavioural Event Interviews

A qualitative study was first conducted with reference to the theoretical framework and the context of SMEs in Hong Kong, with the purposes of: 1) identifying entrepreneurial competencies specific to the research context, 2) exploring any new competencies that have not been identified in prior studies, and 3) generating a referencing pool of items (DeVillis, 1991) in developing a survey instrument to measure entrepreneurial competencies.

The qualitative data were collected from a sample of 19 successful owner/managers contacted through referral, using a modified form of the behavioural event interview (McClelland, 1987; Spencer and Spencer, 1993). This approach has been successfully applied to the study of entrepreneurial competencies in different contexts (Snell and Lau, 1994; Hunt, 1998; Martin and Staines, 1994; Lau, Chan and Man, 1999; Adam and Chell, 1993). Basically, the interviewees were asked to describe the process of business devel- opment since starting up, and their actions and behaviour in various incidents during the development of the business. In particular, in accordance with the suggestions of Bird (1995) who favoured the use of more rigorous and theory-based qualitative analysis

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instead of exploratory-qualitative approaches in studying entrepreneurial competencies, the competitiveness framework was explicitly applied in matching the behaviours identi- fied with the prescribed competency areas for different entrepreneurial tasks. This analy- sis has led to a detailed coding of 192 competencies in 44 clusters in the six areas of opportunity, relationship, conceptual, organizing, strategic, and commitment competen- cies as in the original framework, as well as in two new competencies that do not fit into these six prescribed competency areas but seem to play supporting roles to other compe- tencies. They were named learning competencies and personal strength competencies. As a result, the original theoretical framework has been modified. Therefore, the focus can be placed on competencies directly relevant to performance in the next stage, and on those playing an indirect or supporting role to other competencies in further studies.

These competency clusters and behavioural elements were further turned into corre- sponding constructs and components. This was accomplished through a detailed review- ing procedure of the competencies which led to similar competencies being combined into higher-level competencies. The result was a grouping of 70 competency components under the six constructs of opportunity, relationship, conceptual, organising, strategic, and commitment, and the two supporting competency constructs of learning and personal strength.

Development of Preliminary Instrument

These competency constructs and their components were then used in the subsequent step of selecting and developing suitable measures. Those that were concise, with higher reliability and requiring fewer modifications, were preferred. Apart from these considera- tions, the measures were expected to be behavioural in nature and reflect the direction of the effects of the hypothesized relationships. Based on these criteria, the measures were selected and modified from Chandler and Jansen (1992) (for opportunity, organizing and commitment competencies), Roemer (1996) (for relationship competencies), Evers and Rush (1996) (for personal strength competencies), Quinn et al. (1990) (for conceptual and personal strength competencies), William (1996) (for personal strength competencies), the Learning Skills Profiles (1993) (for strategic competencies), and the Leadership Competency Inventory (1996) (for strategic competencies). These have resulted in a 68- item instrument measuring various entrepreneurial competencies. These original meas- urements are all multi-item with a reported coefficient alpha ranging from 0.7 to 0.82, except for the learning competencies, for which no concise measures matching the quali- tative results are available. Thus, a simple six-item measure based on the qualitative results was developed.

An example of this developmental process can be demonstrated with the construct of “opportunity competencies,” in which six key components of competencies were identi- fied from the qualitative stage. These six components were compared with the existing four-item scale by Chandler and Jansen (1992) and found to be largely comparable. The exception was one dimension on “assessing potential business opportunity thoroughly,” which was missing in Chandler and Jansen’s (1992) scale, and added to the revised scale.

To enhance the validity of the preliminary instrument for measuring entrepreneurial competencies, five academics experienced in the development of scales were invited to evaluate its content validity. Based on the comments, some items were added, changed or removed, resulting in a modified version with 68 items.

We then combined them with existing instruments for measuring competitive scope,

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organizational capabilities, and firm performance. Competitive scope measures the per- ceived environment facing the firm from the point of view of the entrepreneur. They are adopted and modified from Zahra’s (1993) and Miller’s (1988) instruments for measuring opportunities for innovations, perceived industry growth, importance of new product, and market heterogeneity. Organisational capabilities comprise a firm’s innovative ability, quality, cost effectiveness and flexibility, modified from Chandler and Hanks’ (1994b) and Covin and Slevin’s (1988) instruments. The reported coefficient alpha for the original measures for these scales ranges from 0.76 to 0.89.

To measure SME performance, the use of scales is a better alternative than using actu- al figures due to the unwillingness of the SME owner/managers to disclose these sensitive figures. Under the framework of SME competitiveness, measurements for performance were considered from three perspectives, including investment efficiency, business growth, and relative performance. In this study, investment efficiency was represented by return on shareholder equity, gross profit margin, net profit from operations, profit to sales ratio, and return on investment. This was extracted from Grupta and Govindarajan’s (1984) instrument, which was frequently cited, adopted and modified by others in meas- uring SME performance (for example, Covin and Slevin 1989 and 1990; Naman and Slevin 1993). The reported coefficient alpha was as high as 0.88 (Covin and Slevin 1989). On the other hand, the measures for business growth and relative performance were mod- ified mainly from that of Chandler and Hanks’ (1993) instruments which had a coefficient alpha of 0.72. These three variables, investment efficiency, business growth, and relative performance, together shall reflect the concepts of an SME’s competitiveness perform- ance in a more complete picture as they represent performance at present, in the future and in comparison with its competitors. There are also other variables for collecting personal and firm data.

Pilot Testing

The resulting preliminary version of the survey questionnaire, translated into Chinese and then back-translated into English to ensure consistency, was applied in a pilot test on a sample of 55 owner/managers and senior business executives in SMEs in order to eval- uate the performance of the items in the instrument.

In the data collected from the pilot test, some items were rephrased if their wording was not sufficiently strong to differentiate between good and poor ratings (DeVellis, 1991). Some were also selected for removal if they had (1) a low item-scale correlation, given an acceptable level of coefficient alpha (close to 0.7) could be maintained, (2) seri- ous mis-loading or cross-loading into other variables, or (3) low loading to the original variable. A final version of the survey questionnaire was then produced, with 53 items measuring the eight competency constructs, 12 items for competitive scope, 20 items for organizational capabilities, 14 items for firm performance, and other items for the respon- dents’ personal and firm data. For the purposes of hypothesis testing in this study, the measures for competitive scope and organisational capabilities were treated as composite scales. The items for measuring entrepreneurial competencies are shown in Appendix 1.

Stage Two: Hypothesis Testing

Sample and Data Collection

The sample used for hypothesis testing was 153 owner/managers of the SMEs, who were drawn from the services sector in Hong Kong through a postal survey. The surveyed firms were randomly drawn from latest available listings of SMEs in directories like the

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Dun and Bradstreet’s Market Guide and the Hong Kong IT Directory during the time of the survey, provided that they met the following criteria:

  • 1. The contact person listed in the directories is the owner/manager of the firm;

  • 2. The firm has 50 or fewer employees (which met the definition of SMEs in the serv-

ices sector in Hong Kong); and

  • 3. The firm has been in operation for at least three years.

Although the response rate of the postal survey is not particularly high (around 7%), it is comparable to the reported response rates from 6.8% to 11.6% in a previous study of the response behaviour on postal surveys for Chinese owner/managers in Hong Kong (Siu, 1996). Siu’s study employed a four-page questionnaire, as did our study. Nevertheless, we have also made a conscientious effort to ensure the data collected was representative: first, a comparison was made between the earlier batch (two-thirds of the data) and the later batch (one-third of the data) of returned questionnaires—that is, one received before and one after a reminder card had been sent after nine days, by using a t- test on the main variables and a Kolmogorov-Smirnov test and t-test on the demographic and firm characteristics. These tests did not reveal significant differences between the two batches of respondents. Therefore, it could be assumed that the two batches were drawn from the same population. Moreover, a comparison was made on the key characteristics between the sample and the general population of SMEs in Hong Kong, based on the available and comparable data from the Census and Statistics Department in Hong Kong as follows.

Table 1. Comparison of Key Characteristics between Sample and Population




Age of owner/manager

89.5% between 28 to 56 and 3.3% below 28

89% between 30 to 59 and 4% under 29

Gender of owner/manager (female to male ratio)


15: 85

Firm Size (number of employees)

Mean: 11.5/Medium: 7

Half of SMEs (under 50 employ- ees) with less than 10 employees

* Data obtained from the General Household Survey (2000) and Annual Digest of Statistics (2002) published by the Census and Statistics Department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.

As shown in Table 1, those key characteristics of the sample were comparable to that in the population, implying that there should not be a significant non-response bias in the sample used and they should be a representative sample of the population.


Exploratory factor analyses were first conducted to empirically determine the number of factors within each competency sub-construct, together with reliability and correla- tional analyses.

In the testing of the hypotheses, a hierarchical ordinary least squares regression analy- sis was used. The principal component factors of the areas of competency, generated from the previous factor analyses, were used as the independent variables instead of the origi- nal composite variables, to avoid the potential problems of multicollinearity arising from the high level of correlations between these competency areas. Moreover, as these princi- pal components are standardized, problems of distortions with the interactive terms in

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H3a, H3b and H4 were minimized (Aiken and West, 1991). Standardized scores for com- petitive scope, organizational capabilities, and performance variables were also used so that the variables would be more comparable in scale to assist in the calculations of inter- active effects in H3a, H3b and H4.

In testing H1 and H2, the composite measures of competitive scope and organization- al capabilities were used respectively as the dependent variables. In testing H3a, H3b and H4, firm performance was regressed by using the three performance criteria separately, namely, investment efficiency, business growth, and relative performance.

In testing H4, the three-way interactive effects between competitive scope, organiza- tional capabilities and entrepreneurial competencies were tested by using two different types of interactive terms among these variables: (1) the full multiplicative terms among competitive scope, organizational capabilities and entrepreneurial competencies, and (2) the additive-multiplicative terms between a combined measure of competitive scope and organizational capabilities with entrepreneurial competencies. This is, in effect, a less stringent interpretation of interactions than the full multiplicative interactions.

Some control variables were also introduced. For Hypotheses 1 and 2, the entrepre- neur’s age (current age and start-up age) is controlled because an entrepreneur can become more competent (Brockhaus and Horwitz, 1986) or, on the contrary, less entre- preneurial (Begley and Boyd, 1985) as he or she gets older. For Hypotheses 3a, 3b and 4, in addition to the entrepreneur’s age, it is also necessary to consider the firm’s age and size, industry sectors and stages of business development, all of which are related to a firm’s performance.


For these competency items, as there are only 153 cases in the sample, which is insuf- ficiently large for conducting a single factor analysis, three separate exploratory factor analyses were conducted using varimax rotation with Kaizer normalization and principal component analysis. Together, the result was a clearer separation of factors and an ability to account for the maximum portion of the variance represented in the original set of vari- ables (Hair et al., 1998). In all of the three factor analyses, factors were extracted when the eigenvalues were greater than one. The factors extracted in all of the three analyses explained over 70% of the total variance, as shown in Appendix 2. While there were some cross-loadings in other competency areas, in general the loading patterns corresponded with the predetermined sets of competency sub-constructs, except that the conceptual competencies were found to be better separated under two competency areas: analytical competencies and innovative competencies. Organizing competencies were better sepa- rated into two competency areas – operational competencies and human competencies— to better reflect the organizing competencies in business operations and in people man- agement. In the end, a total of 10 factors were generated from the factor analysis for use in the subsequent analyses.

The reported Cronbach’s Alpha for all multi-item variables used in the study ranged from 0.78 to 0.94, all of which are higher than the acceptable value of 0.7 suggested by Nunnally (1978). The correlations of the dependent and independent variables are shown in Table 2.

Table 2 shows a significant and substantial level of correlations among variables of the same construct. For variables in different constructs, the correlations are moderate. Such a pattern can be seen as evidence for the convergent validity for variables within a construct and the divergent validity for variables outside a construct. The significant

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Table 2. Correlations of Variables


















































































































































































  • 2.55 .26**




















  • 2.82 .85















** Significant at .01 level, * Significant at .05 level.


correlations between the supporting competencies of learning and personal strength with the main competency areas may provide some indications of the relationships between these sets of competency variables. However, for the sub-constructs of entrepreneurial competencies, the significant correlations may create potential problems of multicollinear- ity when used as dependent variables in hypothesis testing. To solve this problem, the stan- dardized principal components of these competency sub-constructs were used in multiple regressions when the hypotheses were tested, instead of the original numeric values on the ratings. The results of the tests of the hypotheses are shown in Table 3.

The results from the test of H1 show that there is an overall significant equation with the final R 2 of 0.210 on the final model (adjusted R 2 = 0.175). In particular, significant and positive effects were found for relationship, innovative, and opportunity competencies on a competitive scope. Therefore, the extent of the competitive scope as perceived by the entrepreneur is positively related to how competent he or she is in building relationships, innovating and identifying opportunities in the external environment. On the other hand, the insignificance of analytical competencies may imply that as a kind of more abstract

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Table 3. Results of Hierarchical Regressions


































Independent variables















































R 2












Comp. Scope









Organ. Capab.








R 2












2-way interactions:

Strategic x


Comp. Scope




Commitment x


Comp. Scope




Strategic x


Organ. Capab.




Commitment x


Organ. Capab.




R 2









3-way interactions:

Strategic x (Comp. Scope + Organ. Capab.)





R 2





Strategic x Comp. Scope x Organ. Capab.





R 2





Control variables

Current age












Start-up age












Firm size











Firm age






















Dev. stage












Dev. stage












Dev. stage












R 2




R 2












Adjusted R 2
























** Significant at .01 level, * Significant at .05 level, + Significant at .10 level 1. The 3-way additive-interactive and the 3-way full-interactive terms are put under the same model in H4, as the correlation between them is insignificant. 2. As the variable commitment competencies variable was shown to have a direct effect on firm performance in H3a and H3b, it was not entered as one of the interactive terms in H4.

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conceptual ability, they are not as readily applicable to the conceptualizing of the external environment. The small change in R 2 of 0.045 when introducing the control variables of current age and start-up stage of the entrepreneur into the equation indicates that the main effect from the independent variables contributed a considerable proportion of the R 2 in the equation.

The results from testing H2 have shown an overall significant model with the final R 2 = 0.230 (adjusted R 2 = 0.189). Significant and positive effects of relationship, innovative, and human competencies were also found on the dependent variables of the organization- al capabilities of the firm. Therefore, the creation of organizational capabilities is posi- tively related to the entrepreneur’s competencies in manipulating various resources through their relationship, innovative and human competencies. However, no significant impact was found for operational competencies and analytical competencies, although positive signs were noted. The lack of significance for operational competencies may be explained by the assumption that the formation of organizational capabilities relies more on the organization of people, as demonstrated in the significance of human competen- cies, rather than on the organization of physical resources. For analytical competencies, its insignificant effects may also be related to the fact that it is a more abstract variable as in testing H1, and hence the respondents may find it more difficult to relate it to actual conditions. Again, the small change in R 2 of 0.05 for introducing the control variables of current age and start-up stage of the entrepreneur into the equation indicates that the main effect from the independent variables played a significant role in contributing to the R 2 of the equation.

Also from Table 3, the results from testing H3a and H3b have indicated that there are overall significant models with respect to all three performance criteria. The significant and positive two-way interactive effects of the competitive scope and the organizational capabilities on strategic competencies were demonstrated when investment efficiency was used as the criterion of firm performance, as shown in the values of the standardised coefficients on these interactive terms. On the other hand, no such significant effects were found for competitive scope and organizational capabilities on commitment com- petencies, which instead tend to have a direct effect on firm performance across various indicators.

Apart from their interactive effects, both competitive scope and organizational capa- bilities do not have a significant direct effect on firm performance, which may again be evidence of their role as moderators in the model. However, the two-way interactive effects for both competitive scope and organizational capabilities were not apparent when business growth and relative performance were used as the performance indicators. A pos- sible explanation is that the performance consequences of the interactions of strategic competencies with competitive scope and organizational capabilities are better reflected in realized and tangible gains, as in investment efficiency. As business growth and rela- tive performance are less directly related, they are less tangible for SMEs. However, it is worth paying attention to the fact that the changes in R 2 when introducing the independ- ent variables and moderated terms into the regression equations were noticeable but not so substantial. This would mean that the control variables also made significant impacts on firm performance.

In testing H4, the results also demonstrated overall significant models with respect to all three performance criteria. As with H3a and H3b, commitment competencies have a direct and positive relationship with firm performance. For strategic competencies, a

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significant and positive additive-interactive effect with competitive scope and organization- al capabilities on investment efficiency was noted; however, no significant three-way full interactive effect on firm performance was demonstrated. The direct effect of strategic com- petencies was also shown, but under the criteria of investment efficiency only. However, the impact of strategic competencies on investment efficiency was not as strong as its interac- tive effect, as shown by the comparison between their standardized coefficients.

Also, as with H3a and H3b, these interactive effects were significant only when invest- ment efficiency was used as the performance indicator, but not when growth and relative performance were used. Also, the moderators of competitive scope and organizational capabilities did not have a significant direct effect on firm performance. Rather, they tend to play a positively moderating role in the relationship between strategic competencies and firm performance, as in H3a and H3b. Again, there have been some noticeable changes in R 2 when introducing the independent variables and interactive terms into the regression equations.

From the results of testing various hypotheses, it was found that the current age of the entrepreneurs tends to have a negative impact on the hypothesized relationships, whereas their age when starting up their business has a positive impact on H1 only. These findings give supporting evidence of the need to control for the effects of the age factor in the hypothesized relationships, as entrepreneurs tend to become less entrepreneurial with age (Begley and Boyd, 1985). On the other hand, the results also show that firm size has had a positive and strong impact on firm performance, and various stages of business devel- opment are found to have different levels of positive impact on the growth of the business, with a firm in the mature stage being the strongest, followed by the growth stage and the stage of decline. Therefore, controlling for these firm factors would yield a more accurate account of the hypothesized relationships between entrepreneurial competencies and other constructs. From the results of the changes in R 2 in Table 2, the independent variables in H1 and H2 have considerably higher impacts than the control variables on the respective dependent variables (competitive scope and organisational capabilities), whereas in H3a, H3b and H4, the changes which resulted from the independent variables were also notice- able but less substantial.

Taking the above factors into consideration, it was shown that, in general, H1 and H2 are partially supported with empirical evidence, with opportunity, relationship, innovation and human competencies having significant and considerable impacts on forming the competitive scope and creating the organizational capabilities of a firm respectively. On the other hand, H3a and H3b are also partially supported, with evidence for the positive impacts of the higher levels of competitive scope and organizational capabilities on the entrepreneurs’ strategic actions that would, in turn, affect the long-term performance of their firms. However, it was necessary to pay attention to factors other than those.

There is also evidence for at least partial support for additive-interactive effects among competitive scope, organizational capabilities and strategic competencies on the perform- ance of a firm. As in H4, the results can be interpreted as indicating that an entrepreneur’s strategic competencies can be more effective through the presence of a favourable com- petitive scope, as perceived by the entrepreneur, and an abundant supply of organization- al capabilities; but that there is no need for a “full alignment” among strategic competen- cies, competitive scope and organizational capabilities, which may be an overly stringent condition that few SMEs can achieve given the limited capabilities they possess and the extent of the competitive scope they face.

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On the other hand, compared with the results from testing H3a and H3b using invest- ment efficiency as the criterion, H4 has provided a higher level of adjusted R 2 , meaning that it can explain more variances in investment efficiency than H3a and H3b. It has also resulted in a higher standardized coefficient in the interactive term with competitive scope and organizational capabilities than in the separated two-way interactive effects of strate- gic competencies with these two variables as in H3a and H3b. This again provides evi- dence for the need of the entrepreneur to consider the external environment and the firm’s capabilities simultaneously in order to achieve better firm performance.

Discussion and Conclusion

As an effort to investigate the relationship between individual-level entrepreneurial characteristics and firm-level performance, we have made use of a theoretical framework for SME competitiveness incorporating the competency approach for studying entrepre- neurial competencies. This framework has also allowed us to study interactive relation- ships, and provided guidelines for the choice and operationization of the variables involved, as suggested by Cooper and Gascon (1992) and Murphy, Trailer and Hill (1996), which are necessary for further investigations of the relationships between entrepreneur- ial characteristics and firm-level performance. We were able to achieve an initial success, with some positive results from testing the hypotheses which provided supporting evi- dence of the direct or indirect effects of different competencies on a firm’s long-term per- formance. These findings correspond to earlier research efforts demonstrating an entre- preneur’s ability to become alert to and interpret environmental conditions (Keats and Bracker, 1987; Herron and Robinson, 1993; Kristiansen, 2002; Minniti, 2004), to gather and use various internal and external resources to the advantage of the firm (de Carolis and Saparito, 2006; Gartner and Starr, 1993; Ostgaard and Birley, 1994), and to plan for the long-term success of the firm (Harris and Emmanuel, 1999; Ibrahim, 1991; Kargar, 1996; Kisfalvi, 2002).

It is also worth taking note of the supportive evidence for the interactive effects, rather than the direct effects of competitive scope and organizational capabilities on firm per- formance, which give additional evidence for the theoretical framework. These results have also suggested that while differences in the perception of the environment or the firm’s resources play a role in forming the competitive scope and creating organizational capabilities, they cannot be developed into competitive scope and organizational capabil- ities without the respective entrepreneurial competencies including relationship, innova- tive, opportunity and human competencies. Also, the strategic competencies of the entre- preneur to make use of the competitive scope and the organizational capabilities shall con- tribute to a firm’s successful performance over the long term.

As compared with previous studies on the relationship between entrepreneurial char- acteristics and SME performance, this study has provided an alternative means of approaching this issue by making use of a theoretical framework that links other con- structs (organizational capabilities and competitive scope) with firm performance. This study also provides some empirical evidence for the role of the entrepreneur in determin- ing the performance of an SME. Nevertheless, when evaluating the contributions of entre- preneurial competencies in firm performance, it is also important to pay attention to other factors such as firm size and stages of industry development. These influences may be particularly significant, given the small size of SMEs in the sample used, and the eco- nomic downturn of Hong Kong in the last few years which may have put these SMEs in a relatively disadvantageous position. Hence factors other than individual competencies,

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like the stages of industry development, may contribute even more towards firm per- formance in this context. We therefore recognize the need for further research work in this area.

On the other hand, a supporting role for learning competencies and personal strength competency was also observed, with empirical evidence from the qualitative analysis and the correlation analysis. However, contrary to our expectation, commitment competencies seem to exert a direct effect on firm performance rather than a moderating/interactive effect, as originally hypothesized. This result may indicate that the use of commitment competencies is not limited by the external environment or by the firm’s capabilities.

More significantly, a unified survey instrument for measuring ten types of entrepre- neurial competencies from a behavioural perspective has been developed. It was devel- oped from modifying and expanding existing instruments for measuring entrepreneurial competencies, such as those of Chandler and Jansen (1992) and Quinn et al. (1990), using the results from the qualitative analysis. This instrument has been content-validated by an expert panel, construct-validated through exploratory factor analysis and correlational analysis, and criterion-validated by hypothesis testing. Moreover, the instrument has shown a high level of reliability in the variables it contains. Therefore, given further test- ing on larger samples, this survey instrument should have a high potential contribution in the future quantitative work on entrepreneurial competencies. For example, apart from testing with firm performance, the instrument itself may serve to identify the relative strengths of different entrepreneurial competencies in distinctive dimensions to help both practicing and potential entrepreneurs identify the competency areas in which they require further training and development. In fact, the results imply that training and developing competent entrepreneurs is as or more important than simply providing more resources and a positive environment. Moreover, distinguishing the roles of different competencies on firm performance will allow a more focused approach to be taken in providing train- ing to entrepreneurs.

In conclusion, to address the relationship between entrepreneurial competencies and SME performance, further research can be conducted for testing the model of Man, Lau and Chan (2002) by using samples across different industries and cultures. In addition, this will also help us better understand how the requirements of different entrepreneurial competencies vary across different industries and the influence of socio-cultural contexts on the formation of entrepreneurial competencies. Also, as entrepreneurial competencies are regarded as higher-level characteristics closely linked to SME performance, it will be of interest to investigate what entrepreneurial typologies will emerge if they are used as the basis of classification. Moreover, by classifying entrepreneurs into different cate- gories, it is possible to offer them more focused training and assistance.

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Appendix 1:


Items Measuring Entrepreneurial Competencies

  • 1. Identify goods or services customers want.

  • 2. Perceive unmet consumer needs.

  • 3. Actively look for products or services that provide real benefit to customers.

  • 4. Seize high-quality business opportunities.

  • 5. Develop long-term trusting relationships with others.

  • 6. Negotiate with others.

  • 7. Interact with others.

  • 8. Maintain a personal network of work contacts.

  • 9. Understand what others mean by their words and actions.

    • 10. Communicate with others effectively.

    • 11. Apply ideas, issues, and observations to alternative contexts.

    • 12. Integrate ideas, issues, and observations into more general contexts.

    • 13. Take reasonable job-related risks.

    • 14. Monitor progress toward objectives in risky actions.

    • 15. Look at old problems in new ways.

    • 16. Explore new ideas.

    • 17. Treat new problems as opportunities.

    • 18. Plan the operations of the business.

    • 19. Plan the organisation of different resources.

    • 20. Keep the organization run smoothly.

    • 21. Organize resources.

    • 22. Coordinate tasks.

    • 23. Supervise subordinates.

    • 24. Lead subordinates.

    • 25. Organize people.

    • 26. Motivate people.

    • 27. Delegate effectively.

    • 28. Determine long-term issues, problems, or opportunities.

    • 29. Aware of the projected directions of the industry and how changes might impact the firm.

    • 30. Prioritize work in alignment with business goals.

    • 31. Redesign the department and/or organization to better meet long-term objectives and changes.

    • 32. Align current actions with strategic goals.

    • 33. Assess and link short-term, day-to-day tasks in the context of long-term direction.

    • 34. Monitor progress toward strategic goals.

    • 35. Evaluate results against strategic goals.

    • 36. Determine strategic actions by weighing costs and benefits.

    • 37. Dedicate to make the venture work whenever possible.

    • 38. Refuse to let the venture fail whenever appropriate.

    • 39. Possess an extremely strong internal drive.

    • 40. Commit to long-term business goals.

    • 41. Learn from a variety of means.

    • 42. Learn proactively.

    • 43. Learn as much as I can in my field.

    • 44. Keep up to date in my field.

    • 45. Apply learned skills and knowledge into actual practices.

    • 46. Maintain a high energy level.

    • 47. Motivate self to function at optimum level of performance.

    • 48. Respond to constructive criticism.

    • 49. Maintain a positive attitude.

    • 50. Prioritize tasks to manage my time.

    • 51. Identify my own strengths and weaknesses and match them with opportunities and threats.

    • 52. Manage my own career development.

    • 53. Recognize and work on my own shortcomings.

Note: All items are anchored on a seven-point Likert scale seeking the respondent’s agreement on how compe- tent they are as described on in the items. Items 41 to 53 were related to two supporting competencies of learning and personal strength which were not put into hypothesis testing.

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Appendix 2:


Rotated Component Matrix for Items of Entrepreneurial Competencies

Exploratory Factor Analysis 1 – Items 1 to 17


1. Relationship

2. Innovative

3. Analytical

4. Opportunity














































% of Variance





Exploratory Factor Analysis 2 – Items 18 to 40



1. Strategic

2. Human

3. Operational

4. Commitment





















































% of variance





Exploratory Factor Analysis 3 – Items 41 to 53



1. Personal Strength

2. Learning































% of variance




  • 1. Only the factor loadings equal to or greater than 0.5 are shown.

  • 2. Bold type indicates items for the competency area prior to the factor analyses.

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This study has been partially funded by the Central Research Grant of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University under project number G-V502.

Contact Information

For further information on this article, contact:

Thomas W.Y. Man, Department of Mathematics, Science, Social Sciences and Technology, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, 10 Lo Ping Road, Tai Po, N.T., Hong Kong

Tel: (852) 2948 7300/Fax: (852) 2948 7726 Email: wyman@ied.edu.hk


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