Academic journal article Journal of Comparative International Management

SMEs and Sustainable Competitiveness in the Worldwide Market: How to Overcome the Learning Challenge?

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative International Management

SMEs and Sustainable Competitiveness in the Worldwide Market: How to Overcome the Learning Challenge?

Article excerpt

This study identifies organizational learning practices that globally oriented small and medium-sized firms could carry out. Suggestions from managers were analyzed using Nud*ist and HOMALS programs. The results indicate that formal as well as informal learning practices could be used following a pollination model in order to obtain explicit and tacit knowledge. However, the content and the learning practices to be adopted are dependent, among other things, on the position, tasks, and career needs of the beneficiary.


The survival of small and medium-sized enterprises in the current hypercompetitive environment requires the exploitation of current knowledge by human resources as well as the discovery of new ways and practices of doing business (Liu, 1998; Levinthal et March, 1993). But mastering knowledge is the culmination of a continuous process of organizational learning requiring important financial resources, human resources, and other infrastructures. To face this challenge, an increasing number of large firms have started their own internal corporate universities. Their number grew from 400 in 1988 to 1600 in 1998, with an annual average budget estimated at $12.8 millions per year (Meister, 1998; Twomey et al. 1999). Motorola University, for example, is staffed with 600 professionals and manages seven major learning facilities around the world (Rucker, 1999). Such resources are not always available to small and medium-sized firms (Gibb, 1997). The challenge to master knowledge is much greater for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are globally oriented, as they face competition from more widespread sources. It might therefore be interesting to know how globally oriented small and medium-sized enterprises (GOSMEs) that are already successful improve, or intend to improve, the competencies of their human resources and prepare them to face increasing challenges of globalization.

The term "globally oriented small and medium-sized enterprise" (GOSME) here refers to an independent (not subsidiary) company with fewer than 500 employees, that is managed by owner(s), and is doing business in at least two foreign countries, preferably located in two (or more) of the three primary and distinct regional markets, including North America, Europe, and Asia (Ohmae, 1985; Porter; 1986; Bartlett and Ghosbal, 1989). Firms with characteristics similar to those of GOSMEs have been qualified as "world class SMEs" (Paradas and Torres, 1996) or "hidden champions" (Simon, 1990). The fact that they face fierce competition from other SMEs, as well as large multinational firms, implies that they adopt particular behaviors to improve their competitiveness or, at least, set them apart from competition (Julien, 2001). Understanding this behavior can help to improve the competitiveness of other SMEs, particularly in the area of organizational learning. How may companies, lacking sufficient funds and a broad range of human resource specialists like those in large multinationals, carry out continuous organizational learning?

To answer this question, first I will review the literature on organizational learning so as to build a conceptual framework. Second, a summary of the methodology and results will follow. Third, I will discuss these results in the light of previous studies and will state some related propositions. Finally, I will present a brief conclusion.


In recent years, organizational learning has caught the attention of researchers and practitioners of organizations facing uncertainty due to the rapid change and the large scope of their global activities. Some authors have reviewed studies published on organizational learning. Three of those studies, especially by Huber (1991), Dodgson (1993), and Easterby-Smith, Crossan and Nicolini (2000) give a good overview of the issues and debates pertaining to this theme.

Huber (19911) observed that many of the studies devoted an unequal amount of attention to research on different parts of the organizational learning process. …

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