Ask an Academic: Professor Vania Sena, Enterprise & Entrepreneurship

— 19.05.20

by Caroline Foster

In this interview, we speak to our new colleague Professor Vania Sena to learn more about her vast experience in the areas of entrepreneurship, Big Data and productivity growth. An applied economist by training, Vania gained her D.Phil. from the University of York, became a Professor in 2011, and has joined Sheffield University Management School (SUMS) in late 2019 as our Chair in Enterprise & Entrepreneurship.

You recently joined SUMS as our new Chair in Entrepreneurship and Enterprise. Tell us about your experience of the role so far.

My experience so far is extremely positive. I am a member of the new subject group, Entrepreneurship, Strategy and International Business (ESIB) and of our research centre in Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, CREED. So, I have spent some time discussing with new colleagues how I can contribute to the group.

I have been really impressed by how quickly the group has come together once the University decided to move to online teaching. I think it is testament to the quality and professionalism of the staff.

We’re delighted to have you here at Sheffield University Management School.

SUMS and the University of Sheffield have a huge academic reputation and I was genuinely humbled by their interest in my work.

There is obvious harmony between my own research on productivity and new technologies and existing research in CREED on regional economies and entrepreneurship. A lot is happening in the University around entrepreneurship and knowledge exchange; I have joined the University at a time when there is a genuine interest in entrepreneurship and how it can be supported within the city region.

On a more personal level, I must admit I was thrilled by the idea of coming back to Yorkshire after such a long time and being given the opportunity to spend the weekends hiking in the Peak District!

“There is a genuine interest in entrepreneurship and how it can be supported within the city region”

We would love to know more about your research interests and your career background.

By training, I am an applied economist. I have a D.Phil from the University of York (UK) and I began my career at the University of Leeds. I moved to Aston University and then to the University of Essex where I have been a Professor since 2011.

My research deals primarily with the drivers of productivity growth among firms. My work aims to explain what drives the productivity gap between the UK and its main competitors, with a focus on knowledge spill overs, accumulation of human capital, intellectual property and corporate governance.

At the moment there are two areas I am particularly interested in:

  1. deployment of new technologies and the extent to which deployment translates into productivity growth
  2. the spatial organization of productive activities and how it affects productivity growth

Are there any particular challenges there are in your area of research, and how do you think they can be addressed?

Yes, there are challenges as you would expect. The first challenge is that there is a tendency to mix productivity of organizations with productivity of individuals. The two concepts are totally different and asking why organizations are not as productive as their best performing peers does not necessarily imply that workers have to waive their rights or work longer hours just to make up for the productivity gap. Unless we thread the conversation on productivity very carefully, we may end up in a situation where productivity growth could become the byword for dubious work practices.

The second challenge is intellectual; “productivity growth for what purpose?” It may sound like an odd question, but I do not think there is an agreed answer to this question.

Krugman pointed out that “productivity is everything in the long run” and we have a good understanding of why this is the case. But I think that productivity growth has to be functional to other goals that must be agreed at societal level. Productivity gains have to be used to develop inclusive societies and (more importantly now than ever) to build resiliency in our communities so that we can cope with emergencies.

The third challenge is related to data availability. Theoretically, we have a good understanding of why organizations are not as productive as we would like them to be. Most of the time, it really boils down to how companies organize themselves and how teams interact; at the same time, data availability at the intra-organizational level is limited. As a result, interesting insights tend to be thought of as just specific to a company and not generalizable. It is a challenge that cannot be solved very easily, until creative ways to solve the data challenge are found.

“Productivity gains have to be used to develop inclusive societies and (more importantly now than ever) to build resiliency in our communities so that we can cope with emergencies.”

How does your research relate to business in practice?

In the past, I have been working with a number of companies through knowledge transfer partnerships and of course, I am happy to have a chat with interested alumni if they wish.

One area I am interested in is identifying the drivers of productivity at company-level. In general, companies may be inefficient because of either environmental factors (like a lack of infrastructure, leading to increased transportation costs) or because of the way their internal processes are organized.

I have looked at deploying analytical tools to manage Big Data and its impact on company-level productivity. One of the findings is that lack of skills, and ensuing beliefs on how work should be organized, may hamper the expected productivity gains after the initial investment in analytical tools. These are important lessons for a firm, which may need to take a closer look at why operations are organized in a certain way and the extent to which cultural norms within the workplace need to be changed, before they start investing in these technologies.

“I have been working with a number of companies through knowledge transfer partnerships and of course, I am happy to have a chat with interested alumni if they wish.”

When you joined SUMS you were already a member of the core team leading the Productivity Insights Network (PIN). Tell us more about your role as Data Director and involvement in the PIN.

The main purpose of the PIN network is to develop a nationwide community around productivity and change the tone of the discussion on productivity to ensure that long forgotten issues, like localities and labour market institutions, are brought back to the forefront of the debate.

Crucially, discussions about the importance of places and institutions hinges on the availability of high-quality data that can provide new insights, which policymakers can act on.

Something that was immediately clear to all of us was that the current administrative data on localities may not answer all the questions around productivity in cities or regions. I have explored the use of alternative data (like unstructured data) to fill some of the existing data gaps and some of the projects funded by PIN explore exactly these issues.

Are there any other messages you would like to add for our alumni?

When I joined SUMS, I was told how proud everybody is of its alumni community and how it is a continuous source of inspiration for the School. I am happy to get to know our alumni better and we are planning activities for alumni who have created their own companies or start-ups.

We are currently building on the existing strengths to build an offer in Entrepreneurship which will be directly beneficial to our alumni community. We would welcome the input of our alumni in the process, so watch this space!

Do you have a question for Vania?

If you are a member of our alumni who created your own business or start up and you are interested in having a chat about knowledge transfer partnerships, please contact the Alumni Team at


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