Academic journal article Irish Journal of Management

Considering Practice: A Contemporary Theoretical Position towards Social Learning in the Small Firm

Academic journal article Irish Journal of Management

Considering Practice: A Contemporary Theoretical Position towards Social Learning in the Small Firm

Article excerpt


This paper seeks to contribute to the management development debate by providing insight into the dynamics of organisational learning and human interaction in the SME firm. The paper sets out to consider how a practice-based perspective of knowledge is useful in this regard. The paper is theoretical in its intent and adopts a social constructionist view of knowledge and learning. Using qualitative analysis the paper establishes a review of the current literature by highlighting the centrality of knowledge and learning. Literature has suggested that critical aspects of learning within the SME firm are based around contextualised and social interaction. A limited number of studies account for how practice is configured and influenced, in terms of value, uniqueness and scope of what is known, and how these influences can vary depending upon the contexts in which knowledge is being used and potentially used. There is a strong recognition in many of the empirical studies of learning and its use in the SME firm that knowledge is gained through practice as opposed to formal instruction. What current research does not reflect is the changing nature of knowledge research in the wider organisational community, which has focused its attention on the situated nature of knowledgeable activity or knowing in practice. The paper argues that learning through practice, with its focus on real world issues and lived experiences, which are contextually embedded in the owner-manager's environment, may provide a better means of successfully developing practitioner-focused owners and managers.

Key Words: situated learning; social practice; pragmatism; small firm


Over the past decade, learning in the workplace has been conceptualised in terms of Organizational learning' (Argyris and Schön, 1978), 'knowledge management' (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) and the participative concept of 'communities of practice' (CoPs), (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Despite the large volume of literature there has been very little progression in the academic debate surrounding knowledge and learning, which has not moved beyond the conceptualisation of learning as being critically important to the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME). The growing importance of knowledge-related issues in the modern SME, and the related inadequacy of many of the existing methods to understand these phenomena, has led to a renewed interest in the subject area. The SME firm provides a unique and interesting context for the investigation of organisational learning in terms of extending the current conceptualisations of the subject area by focusing more attention on the role of tensions in relation to learning that define the emergent nature of the process of learning. The SME firm and its management processes are contextually specific and dependent on a wider number of factors (Goss and Jones, 1997), making it difficult to specifically and rationally identify those key learning processes which would allow for the development of firm learning. What is required is the recognition that both knowing and knowledge are the embodiments of social practice. One of the key influencing elements on the learning process in the SME firm is that of the owner-manager, or employee, having both the power and legitimacy to influence practices (Vera and Crossan, 2004). The knowledge which owner-managers have established through experience will to some degree shape the trajectory of the firm, as it is this resource which they use to enable them to make sense of their working environment (Kakati, 2003; Rae, 2004). Even though the owner-manager may have the power and capacity to harness knowledge and experience they cannot act in isolation. They need the resources of others, in terms of the institutional and social context in which they are embedded, to help influence the possibilities of their desired actions.

Davey et al. (2001) found that owner-managers benefit from the opportunity to interact with each other through a co-dependent approach, as opposed to a direct advisory process of instruction. …

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