In 2008, the European Union (EU) started promoting the development of micro, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the context of Think Small First - Small Business Act (sba). As SMEs represent 99% of all European businesses, they are the backbone of Europe. This phenomenon is even more clear in the Italian agrifood industry where, in 2016, SMEs were about 1,5 million. Nevertheless, most of the Italian SMEs show unsatisfactory economic performances compared to European competitors. Indeed, the small size of firms is a challenge in terms of design and production capacity. To support inter-firms’ cooperation and to enact the principles of the sba, the Italian parliament introduced the network contract (NC) as industrial policy under Law n. 33 of 2009. The NC allows entrepreneurs to collaborate in order to improve, individually and collectively, their innovation capacity and/or their competitiveness. On one side, there is a positive economic return from cooperation. On the other hand, a deeper understanding of networks should be achieved by examining how networks operate and what is the content of the links. Indeed, one of the most challenging issue lies on the disposition of network members to be cooperative. This exploratory study aims to improve the understanding of the NC and its collaborative drivers, by analyzing whether, why and how features related to network characteristics and management perceptions affect companies’ collaboration, competitiveness and innovation capacity. To do this, we perform a multiple case study analysis by interviewing six key informants who have subscribed the NC in the agrifood industry. The study has managerial and policy implications. Findings highlight some keyelements that characterize a network approach and its related advantages, which can bring benefits to companies, while triggering competitiveness, innovation and sustainability at local level. .
Keywords: Agrifood industry, innovation, Italy, networks, network-based contract
Jel Code: Q13, Q18, L14