Innovation in family firms: an empirical taxonomy of owners using a mixed methods approach

Udeni Salmon, Kurt Allman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The increasingly competitive manufacturing sector has made innovation crucial for the continued survival of family-owned SMEs. However, family firm owners are highly heterogenous and their diverse characteristics influence their approach to innovation. The purpose of this paper is to provide solutions to two heterogeneity related innovation problems: first, the failure of generic innovation policy advice to address the specific types of family firm owners; and second, the difficulty for owners in understanding how their innovation approach compares to their competitors. The solution is to create a taxonomy of family firm owner-innovators which creates innovator types. This taxonomy addresses these two problems: first, the taxonomy enables policy advice to be tailored to a particular innovator types; and second, the taxonomy allows owners to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their particular approach to innovation.

The approach is to develop a taxonomy through exploratory factor analysis (n=1,284) and firm owner interviews (n=27) in a mixed methods study. Socio-emotional wealth theory interprets the findings.

The findings present a taxonomy of family firm innovators which contains five types: the spontaneous radical, the statist altruist, the patient opportunist, the curious traveller and the insular denier.

Research limitations/implications
There are two major limitations: first, a taxonomy is static and does not include the temporal dimension of innovation which can change according to the firm lifecycle stage and, by implication, the changing preferences of a maturing firm owner; and second, the mixed methods approach of using two data sets which themselves used differing definitions of “family firm” has introduced the possibility that the constructs developed from the quantitative study may not have the precision or clarity of a study that uses a single data set with a single definition.

Practical implications
The practitioner implications from the research stem from the diagnostic potential of the taxonomy. SME family firm owners can establish their innovation approach by using the taxonomy to decide which type of innovator they are and by adopting an innovation approach that counterbalances the weaknesses of their type.

Social implications
The social implications are to improve the innovation potential of the family firm community by offering practical support to their innovation activities.

The originality of the research is in its contribution to knowledge on the role of ownership type in directing the innovation approach of SME family firms. The value of the research is in offering a theoretically informed original taxonomy that is of both academic and practical value.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-39
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Family Business Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 25 Sept 2019


  • SME
  • Taxonomy
  • Innovation
  • Mixed methods
  • Family firm
  • Socio-emotional wealth


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