The ambitious research objectives of RegSMEs will be achieved through a comprehensive and coherent programme of research based on four phases.

Phase one: Theories and concepts
A first main aim of the research project is to specify an analytical framework for understanding labour regulation in small firms. In order to reach this goal, two interrelated elements have to be developed. First, a conceptualisation with which to interpret the structural features and relational dynamics of small firms in a given context, as well as their relationship with relevant local actors. This will be necessary to understand the constraints and opportunities that structure the practices and strategies of firms. Second, the development of a satisfactory conceptual framework of labour regulation in small firms which accounts for the different ways in which human resources are managed and labour is protected against those risks which in large firms are the concern of the traditional and consolidated industrial relations and welfare institutions.
The combination of these two frameworks allows to highlight how different factors, internal and external to the firm, operate in shaping employment relations in small firms. A particular strength of the project is its goal to put together two different research streams – the micro-level analysis of the formal and informal dynamics of labour regulation at workplace level and the analysis of the social regulation of labour at local level as developed by the literature on industrial districts –, which have rarely come together, but which combined could strongly improve our understanding of the issue.

Phase two: quantitative analysis
The second phase will be devoted to the development and the administration of a questionnaire to a representative sample of small firms in four Italian regions (Lumbardy, Tuscany, Abruzzo and Calabria). The survey will collecti information on several topics, such as workforce composition, sector of activity, competitive strategy and market conditions, ownership and corporate governance, employees' skills, industrial relations, human resource policies, access to institutional supports, etc. Given the lack of reliable sources of information on employment relationships in small firms, the survey has the potential to become an important point of reference for scholars of the issue.

Phase three: qualitative research
The third major research activity of the RegSMEs project will be to carry out case studies in small firms to provide more detailed and fine-grained pictures of labour regulation and to highligh the mechanisms influencing them. A crucial goal of this phase is to identify best practices or interesting experiments in work regulation in small firms able to combine competitiveness with social cohesion. These practices will be analysed in regard to their origins, development, success, and future prospects.

Two horisontal dimensions encompass all the above mentioned phases.

Involvement of relevant stakeholders: Fundamental for the achievement of the project's objectives is to root the programme of research in a framework informed and supported by relevant stakeholders. Therefore a stakeholder committee will be created, involving the social partners and other policy stakeholders. These actors will be actively involved in the projects' research initiatives and in the interpretation of their results. Further, regular meetings during the course of the project will be scheduled with individual small firms in order to discuss preliminary research results. Lastly, a comprehensive programme of dissemination will be established the end of the project.

International cooperation: Research will take place in close cooperation with partner institutions at the European level. This will enable the research team to discuss theoretical and empirical findings and to compare the Italian situation with that of other countries. Cooperation will take place through various means, such as study visits by members of the Research Units to the partner units and vice versa, the construction of a virtual platform of exchange, and the organization of seminars and videoconference discussions. All this will be supported by the creation of an international scientific committee with participation by all the research organizations involved in the project.