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Improving tacit knowledge transfer within SMEs through e-collaboration
Robert John Harris
Institute for Innovation and Enterprise, University of Wolverhampton Business School, Wolverhampton, UK
Abstract
Purpose – The implementation of e-learning can help SMEs to develop skills to cope with their operational environments, but current literature suggests they are not effectively engaged, partly due to a lack of understanding and mistrust of vendors. This paper considers the potential for a more effective transfer of marketing knowledge to firms through e-learning and e-collaboration frameworks. Design/methodology/approach – This research identifies the perceptions of SMEs towards e-learning and the propensity of managers to embrace technology-based training. It investigates SMEs preference for training delivery and the potential for an e-centric collaborative learning environment to support effective knowledge transfer. Findings – Organisations must be capable of learning from experiences and of disseminating learning, to respond to emerging market conditions. The research endorses the need for a focused approach to e-learning that facilitates social interaction and learning in order to harness the value of shared tacit knowledge. Research limitations/implications – The research sample was limited to 24 respondents from the West Midlands region. Practical implications – Support providers need to maximise their research effort in order to fully understand the social and cultural implications of e-collaboration, and offer effective solutions that will allow SMEs to manage and develop their tacit knowledge resources effectively. Originality/value – This paper identifies the need for e-learning solutions to be constructed to add value to the learning experience and to harness the potential for exploiting tacit knowledge in SMEs. Keywords Tacit knowledge, Small to medium-sized enterprises, E-learning Paper type Research paper

Improving tacit knowledge transfer 215
Received 2 September 2008 Revised 14 November 2008 Accepted 18 December 2008

Introduction If the entrepreneurial capabilities of small businesses are to be maximised, SMEs need to be persuaded to invest in their people. Academic theory purports that true competitive advantage can only be achieved by exploiting the intellectual capital, and knowledge, contained within an organisation. This is an important goal since the sector has a remarkable capacity to be entrepreneurial, and to create employment (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, 1999). Small businesses also demonstrate exceptional innovative abilities (Rae, 2005; Murphy, 2001; Hoffman et al., 1998) Furthermore the sectors responsiveness to change and competition and the role and interaction of SMEs with respect to large firms, compound their importance (Murphy, 2001, Pettigrew, 1998). Research into learning within the small firm or small, medium-sized enterprise (SME) has mainly focused on two different units of analysis. Firstly, learning at the

Journal of European Industrial Training Vol. 33 No. 3, 2009 pp. 215-231 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0309-0590 DOI 10.1108/03090590910950587

2004): a significant feature of this literature has been its focus on the individual entrepreneur and although this has provided valuable insights into the nature of entrepreneurial learning of individuals. have focussed on issues such as team formation and composition and resources in building processes. Small and medium-sized companies are usually more entrepreneurial and willing to experiment and innovate in terms of business models and operations than larger organisations with established hierarchies. where effectiveness often depends on networks of relationships both within and outside the business. 2002). Rae. Government initiatives aimed at increasing the “e-readiness” of SMEs can result in a higher level of knowledge transfer and national competitiveness in this crucial sector. markets and competitive situations are changing rapidly and unpredictably. at the level of the individual entrepreneur. Studies have examined the attitudes of senior management teams towards learning support and their preferences for delivery (Vyakarnam and Handelberg. 2006. 2001. However. highlighting the importance of entrepreneurial learning (Cope. it has largely neglected to conceptualise learning from a collective perspective. technology is offering support in this respect. Increasingly. Birley and Stockley. Increasingly entrepreneurship is being viewed as an organisational team. 2000). 2004. involving multiple actors associated with the SME. not a singular endeavour. However there is a growing body of literature that challenges this dominant paradigm of entrepreneurship and supports organisational learning (Taylor and Thorpe. Minniti and Bygrave. Politis. and at times easily neglected activity. Taylor and Thorpe. Gibb.. Chaston et al. in order to improve the overall effectiveness of an organisation it is necessary to share knowledge throughout teams. mechanisms should be considered to codify knowledge and create the opportunities for the generation of explicit knowledge. rather than on exploring the dynamics of learning within the team itself. 2007). and portals. in order for organisational learning to be effective. 2000. The development of tacit knowledge is important in this respect as networking/relationship skills are developed through experiential learning. Most. 2000). However. through the implementation of virtual learning environments. however. Even Cooney’s (2005) discussion of organisational teams is mostly concerned with whom and what constitutes the team in terms of ownership stakes and venture creation. Devins and Gold. since individuals are not permanent assets. rather than wholly centred on the entrepreneur (Rae. The need for business development to match environmental change has become increasingly associated with organisational learning (Lee et al. possess counter-balancing advantages. 2004. working collectively through relational and conversational practices. however.JEIT 33. 1995. SMEs frequently regard training as a somewhat peripheral. Technologies. intranets. Organisations must be capable of learning from their experiences and of disseminating learning if they are to respond to emerging conditions. Secondly. Therefore. but offer little insight into the detailed nature of the learning process itself.. 2005. It is important that these attitudes are changed and that they view the facilitation of learning within their organisation as a .3 216 organisational level (Pedler.. limited. 2005. Limited resources may be a distinguishing characteristic of SMEs and a barrier to their competitiveness. 2005. Pittaway and Rose (2006) argue that more sophisticated social conceptualisations within the study of entrepreneurship are needed to deepen our understanding of entrepreneurial learning. 1999): these studies have focused on the existence of a relationship between learning and organisational performance. Thorpe et al. but they do.

Nevertheless a clear opportunity exists in this critical area for business development. 2003) states that networking and partnering with other organisations stimulates learning and brings about tangible business benefits such as reduced costs and improved efficiency to the organisations involved. within its characteristically turbulent environment. in the form of conversations. To be successful. Knowledge is a highly valuable asset. Indeed. Hence. in recent studies of manufacturing and service organisations. The social nature of these collaborative communities gives rise to learning opportunities amongst participants and for members to obtain exposure to wider network of communities (Brown and Duguid. 1998). 2001). concluded that tacit knowledge could be obtained from partner organisations. to the evaluation of training provisions (Martinsuo and Jarvenpaa. narratives and stories provide the means by which the participants share experiences and construct a shared “reality” (Burr. Effective collaboration offers a framework by which tacit knowledge can be shared amongst participants through a process of socially constructed learning. The success of the SME sector will relate. However. discourses. Boddy (cited in Wagner. 1999).. Organisational implementation of new technologies and electronic commerce in particular.. ranging from the identification of training needs to the sourcing and implementation of training interventions and finally. 2000). (2003). SMEs have traditionally been identified as weak across the training continuum. Organisations that understand their customers and can effectively focus this capability Improving tacit knowledge transfer 217 . in which renewed understanding and actions create new enacted opportunities. The perspective is characterised by the way in which language. a factor that is essential for knowledge transfer. Although the implementation of new technologies such as e-learning can help SMEs to develop the skills to cope with their operational environments. current literature suggests that they are not effective in their exploitation of the channel due to a lack of understanding and mistrust of vendors. 1998. the SMEs’ electronic training provisions must be considered within this context. Direct interaction between partner organisations. they are not effective in their exploitation of electronic marketing and are weak in their provision of training in the area. can aid SMEs in coping with their operational environment and can provide numerous organisational opportunities (Turban et al. Providing small businesses and entrepreneurs with direct access to information and knowledge is of primary importance in facilitating their growth and development. The provision of e-learning opportunities through a web-centric collaborative learning environment may encourage learning development amongst small businesses whilst at the same time overcoming some of the resource constraints they typically experience (most notably that they are often time-critical). 2000. due to their frequent and close interactions. Cavusgil et al. it seems that the degree of interaction between partner organisations and the level at which the partnership agreement is tied is key to the overall success of the collaboration. 2000). in some respects. allows both partners to observe the operational practices used by the other and thus facilitate experiential learning. McDonagh and Prothero. collaborative partnerships need to have a degree of interdependence that benefits all the partners involved. Kitching. to its ability to remain competitive and to satisfy consumer needs and demands. Technology should be viewed as a conduit or learning which can lead to effective change and improved business performance (Pollard and Hayne. 2003).key element in organisational change (Lee et al.

The socially situated or constructed perspective of learning (Taylor and Thorpe. 1999. and that very often. and (3) organisational learning to embed the new knowledge into the organisation’s procedures and unconscious actions. One school of thought believes that since tacit knowledge is highly personal and can only be gained through experience. The extent to which collaboration is supported in a socially constructed manner is important and has been shown to either enhance or block knowledge transfer within and between organisations. Over time. or codified knowledge. including intuition. but it must be converted to explicit knowledge first through codification (Nonaka and Konno. It has a technical or academic bias and can be captured and expressed in formal languages such as manuals and databases. cited in Haldin-Herrgard. Walsh and Ungson (1999. cited in Haldin-Herrgard. through the acquisition of new knowledge by an individual and through personal experience. Gill (2000. Associated to knowledge transfer and organisational learning is organisational culture and the extent to which businesses are prepared to share the tacit knowledge that they have acquired. 2004. rule-of-thumb and gut feeling. it cannot be transferred (Augier and Vendelo. It forms 218 . is based on objective reasoning and the learning gained from routines and instruction. cited in Augier and Thaning Vendelo. co-existing in a synergetic relationship. Conceptual framework Nonaka (1991) argues that for an SME to develop a competitive advantage based on intellectual capital. (2) tacit knowledge transfer to disseminate knowledge across the organisation. SMEs develop tacit knowledge of the markets and customer groups with which they work. to examining the nature of social participation within a particular context. He argued that there are many examples of tacit knowledge. This shifts the focus away from the cognitive frameworks of knowledge that have been acquired by individuals to make sense of the world. Rae. an opposing school of thought believes that tacit knowledge can be transferred. 1998. they need to move through three stages involved in developing an organisation’s intellectual capital: (1) individual learning to develop localised knowledge. If the organisation is to benefit from the tacit knowledge it “owns”. 2000) believes that tacit and explicit knowledge operate in a dualist framework. Academic thinking is divided on the ability to transfer tacit knowledge. all of which are created through personal experience. it needs to orientate its routines. knowledge is isolated in specific sections within organisations. Conversely.JEIT 33. 2000). cited in Haldin-Herrgard.3 into quality products and value-added services have a significant advantage in the marketplace. particularly with those outside of the organisation. it is possible to overcome the issues concerning the erosion of tacit knowledge over time and encourage the creation of explicit knowledge within networks. thus developing competitive advantage. 2000). structure and culture to provide a social environment in which to exchange knowledge and disseminate it across the organisation. Explicit. By sharing experiences and tacit knowledge within a collaborative environment. 2005) points to the significance of social practice in a lived world. its structure and its culture. 1999) assert that knowledge within an organisation is usually embedded in its routines.

(2000) view organisational learning as an evolutionary. Senge (1990) suggested that the most successful companies are those that are capable of facilitating learning across the whole organisation. This. The organisations that will truly excel in the future will be the organisations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels of the organisation (Senge. It is knowledge that is automatic.] It is just not possible any longer to “figure it out” from the top. . 1996). . Conversely. tacit knowledge is “being understood without being openly expressed” (Smith. therefore offers a bridge between theory that has been developed around the concepts of tacit and explicit knowledge. managerial or prescriptive process that focuses on experiences and the manner with which they are shared. It is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organisation [. which can be found in their individual skills. continuously renewing themselves. and is highly personal and subjective. work must become “learningful”. often involving the recognition of patterns and application of prior knowledge interpreted individually and socially and then shared or transferred to others inside and outside the business through a process of integration and joint sense making through dialogue which ultimately becomes embedded or institutionalised into the routines of the business. Tacit knowledge derives its ability to be used as a source of competitive advantage for SMEs (Cavusgil et al. Furthermore he articulated the significance of teams in actually achieving this: As the world becomes more interconnected and business becomes more complex and dynamic. in which innovative opportunities within a firm evolve out of a complex engagement in the process of learning. An interest in the learning capability of organisations has come principally from the belief that creating a sustainable. successful and competitive organisation in the face of increasingly complex and turbulent environments is dependent on effective learning (Argyris and ¨ Schon. p. changing. It is often their unique selling point. SMEs contain rich sources of tacit knowledge. habits and abstract knowledge. New technology offers an effective framework for the promulgation of such information through intranets and extranets. Organisational learning is also an important consideration within the context of developing the capabilities of SMEs and is considered as the process of improving organisational actions through better knowledge and understanding. Dutta and Crossan (2005) explain this in terms of what they describe as the 4I organisational learning framework. 2001). they argue begins with individual intuition. Knowledge transfer processes that focus on the extraction of tacit knowledge through codification and sharing it within internal teams and external networks are important considerations for effective learning and the development of capability. 2003). . Improving tacit knowledge transfer 219 This highlights the importance of the transition of learning from the individual to the team and how this becomes embedded in the organisation. adapting. 4). Organisational learning.the basis of much of an organisation’s information structure and underpins its repetitive and unexceptional activities. based on experience. and have everyone else following the orders of the grand strategist. Easterby-Smith et al. economic. In their study on the nature of entrepreneurial opportunities. developing and transforming in response to the needs and aspirations of people inside and outside the organisation.. 1990.

present a barrier for SME participation.linkedin. Independent learners face a bewildering range of options in learning portals. for example as strongly bonded groups “that have been practicing together long enough to develop into a cohesive community with relationships of mutuality and shared understanding” (Lindkvist. The composition of the group. Without the opportunity for face-to-face contact. delivery. its purpose. accredited or non-accredited courses and in selecting from 100. 2005). 2005.JEIT 33.3 220 The potential of e-learning and e-collaboration for the transfer of tacit knowledge Enabling SMEs to acquire new ways in which to manage tacit knowledge and information can assist them to achieve competitive advantage. The educator enters an environment in which information and communications technologies. p. An effective method of knowledge transfer to SMEs. support. and execution of the learning programme. This can. The implementation of a collaborative learning environment would add value and potentially overcome key problems. Many owner/managers are confused by the array of opportunities and providers of e-learning. underpinning communities of practice. educational design. web design. extending the range of influence. whilst at the same time offering a knowledge repository with a rich content. Different interpretations characterise its nature. however. Recently professional networks such as www. 1189). and the method of engagement all emerge as important factors for situated learning to take place. (2006) argue that fundamental to understanding the nature of situated learning. ease of use. However. including enhanced access to learning. therefore. Importance should be placed on mechanisms which encourage tacit knowledge to be shared with others within a community of learning. and are sceptical of content suitability. E-learning currently presents many possibilities and benefits for educationists.000s of options on the online learning market that can be delivered through their personal computer. more flexible learning. assessment and educational marketing all converge. It is important to take the correct focus. participation in the community and identity construction as part of the community. Handley et al. A body of research exists to consider the extent to which exposure to other communities in the form of networks and contacts contributes towards learning. and deepening the penetration for learning. are the practices of the community itself. . empowerment of the learner to control the learning schedule. A focus on e-collaboration enhances learning and particularly tacit knowledge transfer. The “e” term has less to do with electronics and much more to do with engagement of the learner. e-learning provision through situated learning must be considered in a creative but dynamic and effective way. in order to add value to the learning process. enhancement of learning. could be to focus e-learning support through a managed network of partners. The provision of effective web forums could also offer the opportunity for networking and for learning through the shared experiences of participants within a community of practice. experience of exploration. the phrase “community of practice” is considered fairly ambiguous in this emerging field of literature (Lindkvist. To be successful e-learning opportunities must embrace the opportunities for web-based communities of practice to emerge.com have emerged and are gaining credibility for their ability to encourage tacit knowledge transfer and build cooperative relationships between participants. This sharing of experiences has often been missing from e-learning provision which has restricted its value.

Under this definition a typical SME is one that possesses at least two of the following four characteristics: . Furthermore. The 24 respondents were selected on a systematic basis of their willingness to participate and represented a cross-selection of industry sectors. Management of the firm is independent. Usually the managers are also owners. Ottesen and Gronhaug (2004) emphasise that SME needs and preferences should be closely identified and for the purposes of support they should not be treated as smaller versions of large corporations as they are different from their larger counterparts. Capital is supplied and the ownership held by an individual or small group. Improving tacit knowledge transfer 221 . understandings. views. 2006). experiences and social interactions are meaningful properties of what makes up social reality. Epistemologically. a series of four focus groups were undertaken each containing six owner/managers of UK SMEs. based on the interpretations of those experiencing or considering experiencing that phenomenon (Shah and Corley. The methodology is less concerned with theory testing or offering perfect opportunities for replication. The sampling frame enabled an effective and representative sample of regional small businesses to be accessed. The research forms the first stage in a process to investigate small businesses preference for training delivery. retailing and services. This is best achieved through understanding the interpretation of the phenomena from those that are actually involved in the process of experiencing them. The research is part of a longitudinal study which will subsequently investigate the potential for the establishment of an e-centric collaborative learning environment to support effective knowledge transfer. From this perspective the e-learning environment is socially constructed and subjective and the research is inherently part of the process of observation. This approach is widely used as documented by Taylor and Thorpe (2004). The SME sector was targeted in order to observe their particular needs. The idea of a “lived world” experience (Russell. namely construction. but rather its ability to provide reasonable and plausible insights into the phenomenon of e-learning provision. What this suggests is that people’s interpretations. 2002). . The sampling frame was a Chamber of Commerce/Business Link database. Burke and Jarratt (2004) suggest that small firms approach risk and uncertainty in a particular way that sometimes their actions may seem far from rational and explains why they are so little understood by economists and are least recognised. For this research. This study utilises the definition adopted by the Small Business Service and framed by that offered by the Committee for Economic Development. manufacturing.Methodology The aim of this exploratory research is to identify the perceptions of SMEs towards e-learning and the propensity of owner managers to embrace technology based training in the future. 2000) designed to capture the complexity. Adopting an interpretative and qualitative approach the research methodology explores the attitudes and preferences of managers of SMEs based in the West Midlands region of the UK. including talking interactively with members of the management team and observing their interactions. actions and behaviour (Manson. These types of phenomena are socially embedded processes. contextually rich data that strongly suggests the adoption of a qualitative interpretative approach (Silverman. nuance and subjectivity intrinsic in the management team’s experiences. which focuses on size and management style. a meaningful way to generate data on this basis is to use a variety of methods. 2006) advocates that people cannot be studied in isolation from the world they exist in and interact with.

222 The sample was filtered according to the propensity for them to engage in knowledge transfer activities.JEIT 33. The average time allowed per employee was three days. However. There was a correlation between a firm’s number of employees. To be fully representative. turnover. Findings Learning issues Discussion centred initially on a series of questions relating to how respondents and their employees acquired the skills to perform their jobs effectively. It was acknowledged by all 24 respondents that learning consisted of voluntary and involuntary self-managed activities. the sample was selected to include the views of both ends of this spectrum. However. with the workers and owners living in one home community. . This demonstrates the existence of a core repository of tacit knowledge within businesses. The area of operations is mainly local. those employing more than 50 employees were more likely to indicate that their primary strength was their workforce and correspondingly engage in their skills development. Fourteen respondents claimed to support self-learning and job specific short courses. One respondent commented: My core managers have been with me for over 15 years and have built up a thorough knowledge of the product and markets through experience. and its involvement in training. The relative size of the firm within its industry must be small when compared with the biggest units in the field. However. All respondents claimed that a significant amount of learning undertaken in their organisations was involuntary and focused on the necessary knowledge needed to perform daily routines. the groups were constructed so that they each contained businesses across the same range of industry sectors. respondents’ views were recorded and subsequently compartmentalised according to their feelings/perceptions towards the key issues. These were generally planned on an ad hoc basis and involved employees participating during working hours. only four respondents conducted a formal induction process for new employees. there was general agreement that there was a problem surrounding coding and transfer of this knowledge between staff. This measure can be in terms of sales volume. number of employees or other significant comparisons. two employing 11-50. With their permission. This training was favourably received . and two employing over 50 people. Therefore. Furthermore. Each interview ran for an average of 90 minutes. Higher turnovers were found to be more likely in firms with larger numbers of employees. In addition to this there was evidence of internal mentoring across the range of sectors. One respondent stated that he had lost a lot of knowledge from his business when two of his best engineers had retired. Four respondents had received in-house training that had been organised by their local Business Link or Chamber of Commerce.3 . and at least two respondents from businesses that employed fewer than ten people. the market need not be local. It was agreed that subjective comments could be incorporated in the report but that anonymity would be maintained. There was a strong similarity between the responses reported from each group across the range of areas probed.

He claimed that he had insisted that a debrief session was delivered by an internal member of staff in order to justify the cost of the course.because it reduced the impact on employee absence. If one of them is absent on a training programme then it is almost impossible to cover their job. The suggestion was that an e-learning . One respondent commented that the programmes she had supported had fostered a feeling of shared ownership amongst participants. ten of these being broadband. without any accreditation”. Cost of training packages was identified as a barrier to participation. Improving tacit knowledge transfer 223 Half of the respondents felt that their employees would not be interested in undertaking formal training and this reflection was unanimously supported by retailers. Only one respondent did not have direct access to the internet at work or home. which was endorsed by others in the group. with the exception being one retailer that had organised a training session on new credit card transaction procedures for counter staff. One respondent stated: I only have seven people in my firm. Respondents from retail businesses perceived the time employees were likely to be away from work as being a critical barrier to their support. The primary reason given was that formal qualifications would add no perceived value to the business and indeed would increase the propensity for staff to leave them. E-learning None of the respondents had undertaken any form of e-learning within their businesses but 20 had websites. there is no satisfactory assessment of the link between small firm formal management training and improved business performance. cost was not raised as a critical issue. particularly if they are out for half a day on a regular basis. It was concerning to note that only five SMEs had offered any form of formal learning support to their staff. although respondents from firms with less than ten employees said they would favour subsidised programmes. represents the antithesis of the current UK Government position. particularly among micro businesses across the range of sectors. All six respondents from businesses employing less than ten people stated that they would only be prepared to engage in fully government-sponsored learning programmes. One respondent suggested that “the solution is to support informal learning and soft skills development. The issue of staff getting qualified and then leaving was raised by all groups as an underlying factor. There was a perception that e-learning packages would actually provide extra value to businesses and those with more than ten employees welcomed the idea of buying into a package that provided long-term value for developing explicit knowledge. That is a real cost to me which is more important than the price of the training course. Three of the firms were service providers and two manufacturers. There was little evidence of formal dissemination of knowledge within firms. None of these were from firms with ten employees or fewer. which is to promote life-long learning and improve the qualification base. Fifteen respondents stated that they would be prepared to incorporate e-learning into training provision in the immediate future if the quality and suitability of materials could be established. Within the discussions. Storey (2004) suggested that despite substantial public spending. e-mail capability and internet connectivity. but claimed as his business was cleaning office windows he did not need web support. This view.

Generally. A key benefit expressed by one respondent was “I would welcome good e-learning support because it would enable my staff to study in their own time”. Language training would be enthusiastically received in support of SMEs increased export engagement. This was a view specifically expressed by four respondents from retail businesses but others in the groups confirmed that they felt it would be a starting point for a learning contract between the employer and employee and would demonstrate commitment from employees. E-commerce also emerged as a major area of perceived demand for retail-based respondents who felt that e-learning would be particularly suitable for this area of training. the inference was that the time commitment issue could be transferred from the organisation to the individual employee. Universities emerged as the “preferred evil” choice of partner for an e-learning programme. however. e-business. It was agreed by all groups that the ideal scenario would be for task-critical learning to take place at work and more general learning (language development was cited as an example) to be undertaken elsewhere. specific marketing input. respondents felt that they were not likely to receive good value from commercial vendors. The key areas of demand for e-learning were expressed as sales. particularly those from businesses with less than 50 employees. languages. Respondents from the construction sector were keen to incorporate a social dimension that would facilitate inter-organisational collaboration and knowledge transfer. once they were made aware of the possibilities through mediated forums. It was suggested that initially this may be the killer application for engaging managers of SMEs with e-learning applications. Several suggested that study time could include lunch breaks and pre or after work sessions. However. finance/bookkeeping. There was some confusion regarding delivery methods. There was considerable discussion as to who would best provide e-learning materials for SMEs. Commercial vendors it was felt would over-simplify material and it would not be specifically relevant to the needs of individual sectors or regional economies. except for five respondents from construction-based businesses and three manufacturers. Few respondents initially suggested the importance of networking.3 224 package could be shared and then passed on to future employees. This exacerbates the view that there is confusion amongst SMEs as to what e-learning actually comprises. there was greater enthusiasm for the inclusion of mechanisms for tacit knowledge transfer between network partners. Universities. The perception was that material would be very general and banal in terms of quality. This view was emphatically supported by other respondents. Some respondents focused on CD-ROM type delivery thinking of distance learning. the consensus was for a combination of learning within the workplace and outside working hours. Several respondents felt that a weakness of their business was the ability to fully engage with office technology software. would be in a position to more fully understand the needs of sub-regions and to be able to provide . Others described an image of a password-controlled area that they entered that may be time-sensitive. conversely.JEIT 33. Clearly this presents implications that would require further research. legislative updates and human resource development. web-based technology and especially aspects of e-commerce and website maintenance. They demonstrated heightened awareness of both the necessary involvement and potential. When directly asked for a preference for session scheduling. However. Respondents who worked in areas relating to technology were generally more receptive to using e-learning for training.

respondents were generally unaware of the range of focused business support activities that universities are currently engaged in. all respondents felt that universities were more likely to have an open-door policy for help and advice post-purchase. The important features that would be imperative for the success of what was termed a “collaborative . Critical factors elicited from them focused around perceived quality of material. The literature suggests that businesses are to an extent unaware of the services that universities can provide and there is a need to develop a more effective portal between businesses and universities locally (Dahlstrand. Improving tacit knowledge transfer 225 E-collaboration (collaborative learning environment) Discussion progressed to methods by which the barriers to successful e-learning could be neutralised. Mason and Wagner. They commended the relationships as being highly successful and fruitful for both parties and one claimed that “the overall success of these schemes was reflected in the fact that the whole organisation learned as opposed to just one individual”. 1999. It was also suggested by three groups that universities were far less likely to over-price or over-sell solutions. This would enable an effective and comprehensive portal to be grown organically and would provide cost savings with respect to the creation of other support programmes. focus has moved from the individual to the capacity of the whole organisation to learn”.more focused and relevant content. Nine respondents stated that they would not consider using e-learning in the foreseeable future. However. These respondents expressed an opinion that if designed correctly a blended learning approach that focused heavily on e-learning could replicate this key benefit. The notion of a learning environment that placed the emphasis on sharing tacit knowledge and peer support was discussed. Others felt that material may either be too advanced or not sufficiently practical. One respondent suggested that: Mentored and other blended learning support could be offered by a range of deliverers that utilised the same knowledge hub. continuing change and innovation. The suggested solution was a blended learning approach focused around an e-learning portal. An overriding issue that was expressed by all groups was mistrust of commercial vendors. complexity of delivery architecture. They offered a combination of reasons. Lack of tangible outcomes was also suggested as being associated with isolation. Respondents felt that they could be pushed towards buying a bespoke training package that would have limited usefulness and there would be hidden costs or up-selling involved. Yeung et al. 1999). rather than a single underlying factor. One respondent suggested that undergraduate students would take priority over SMEs who may subsequently fail to receive the full attention of the university. (1999) supported this view and suggested that “responding to imperatives for constant improvement. Two respondents from businesses employing more than 50 people had undertaken knowledge transfer partnerships in association with universities. Interestingly. There was a general feeling that there would be heightened isolation relating to learning activities. An interesting idea expressed by one group was for a central web-based collaborative learning portal to be created and used as a hub across a range of funded support programmes. cost and potential lack of follow on support. It was suggested that the downside of partnering with a higher education institute (HEI) would be that it would be a very “academic” experience.

. and foster collaboration through enthusiastic participation. and one to one or one to few interventions in the workplace. business meetings (a breakfast club was suggested) would cement the framework and allow effective social interactions. A total of 22 respondents stated emphatically that they preferred the latter and that it was increasingly important to link training with improved capability and business performance. This comment reinforces research undertaken by Birchill and Smith (2000). business links and chambers of commerce. The opportunity to network through events such as seminars. peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. It was evident from the discussions that the opportunity to incorporate mentoring assistance into a support platform would be enthusiastically received. The responses from the focus groups support this finding. There is evidence that SMEs are less interested in formal learning and would be more receptive to interventions that focus upon mentoring and action-based learning (Worrall et al. they reacted positively to the idea of transparent collaboration and. There was total agreement that the success of a collaborative learning environment would be dependent on the willingness of all parties to buy into the initiative. security and protection of information from competitors was not perceived to be an insurmountable problem. including banks. blended learning. Networking opportunities. The opportunity for coaching and mentoring. and support from industrialists/entrepreneurs were aspects considered important by the groups. They were also aware of the need to implement mechanisms to effectively codify and capture that knowledge in order that it can be transmitted to others. Conclusion Enthusiastic discussions took place in each of the focus groups and clearly the whole area of business support is emotive for SMEs. All respondents felt that e-collaboration would offer a more realistic proposition than stand-alone e-learning. Respondents were asked whether they would prefer training outcomes to be linked to formal qualifications/accreditation or to business specific tasks and goals.3 226 learning environment” were discussed. due to the synergies that already existed. although discussed. who reported that “HEIs need to develop new ways of delivery based upon e-learning. The availability of high-quality relevant e-learning material and effective personal interventions would also be critical. linked to an e-learning framework was particularly appealing to all groups. An action-orientated approach to knowledge transfer was seen to have more scope in modern SMEs than the traditional formal route. It was pleasing to note that the respondents interviewed recognised that they and the sector as a whole have a wealth of tacit knowledge that offers them significant leverage in the marketplace. Many business schools are dragging their feet on e-learning”. This finding acknowledges the link between practitioner awareness and the theory relating to tacit knowledge and the issues concerning its erosion. They also reported that they perceived HEIs had not effectively engaged with the sector in a systematic manner. However. it was felt by one respondent that “universities may need to undergo a paradigm shift in the way that they interact with the SME sector in order to manage such a venture effectively”. and that the ideal enabling partner in such a venture would be a university.JEIT 33. 2003). Respondents claimed to be disillusioned by the efforts of the major support agencies. action learning. take ownership of it. However.

The true potential of e-learning for small businesses may only be realised when the traditional views of training and education are re-evaluated. as well as ensuring that course content is applicable and specific to the learning requirements of SMEs. This lack of recognition is interesting considering that it is widely accepted that informal training interventions are more suitable to SMEs due to the small size of their enterprises (Curran et al. with the minimum disruption to their lives. extra skill sets such as languages and export logistics are needed by firms. This was highlighted by one respondent. This finding highlights the significance of the growing body of research (discussed earlier). The findings from this research endorse the need for a clear and focused approach to e-learning that facilitates social interaction and learning in order to harness the value of shared tacit knowledge. There is a need to improve awareness within the sector and in order to engage fully with SMEs it is important to create conditions that are in favour of e-learning and to eliminate barriers that prevent participation in an e-learning environment. Businesses are less likely these days to support day . online learning delivery mechanisms no matter how sophisticated are only as useful as the content they carry. As business become increasingly global. The provision of incentives and funding by government support agencies may encourage investment in e-learning and promote broader access. relating to socially constructed learning and the importance of networks. One of the respondents interviewed suggested that.. The collective views of respondents towards e-learning are generally positive. 1996. e-learning. who said: Universities and colleges are continuing to peddle traditional courses that are offered in the same way as they have been for decades. although it has to an extent been over-hyped. Improving tacit knowledge transfer 227 Another suggested that “Focusing on the technology is looking in the wrong place”. offers huge potential for future learners and may dictate a paradigm shift among trainers and educators. 2000). While not all subjects can be delivered effectively through e-learning. One stated specifically that: E-learning has the potential to make a significant difference to individual and organisational performance in the small business sector but the delivery platforms through which e-learning materials are offered need to be focused on business needs to a greater extent. with its high degree of accessibility and flexibility.Interestingly even the more sceptical group members that perceived they had no need for e-learning warmed to the notion of a collaborative learning framework as the discussions moved forward. Curran. There was evidence that the sceptical respondents did not really understand the scope of e-learning or the wider informal learning opportunities available to them. one of the great advantages of it is that it can cater for each learner’s preferred learning style by providing multiple paths to learning. The literature confirms that SMEs do not fully understand informal learning or view it as a legitimate form of training (Curran. Changing expectations of employers and employees increasingly means that people want to learn exactly what they need to know. The rapid development of technology and internet applications make ever increasing demands on organisations to the point that to remain still in markets inevitably means a loss of ground. Ultimately. Allowing participation in e-learning at work rather than outside working hours may be important for engaging individual learners. 2000). rather than on the technology.

There is evidence of effective current engagement between universities and the SME sector through successful initiatives such as knowledge transfer partnerships. Theory supports the fact that this approach provides a competitive edge for firms and allows differentiation in highly competitive markets which are increasingly global and homogeneous. government agencies. This model encompasses the relevant theory on organisational and socially constructed learning. they felt that an effective mechanism for transferring knowledge and innovation to the SME sector is through distribution channels such as university business schools and associated networks. is to harness. online tutorials. bulletin boards and discussion groups. This was a fact endorsed by several respondents. University networks have existing client bases that can be influenced directly and could therefore increase the rate of e-learning adoption by SMEs.JEIT 33. The construction of a central hub linked to offline geographically based mentoring is an approach that received the most favourable response from the sample. The addition of “e” merely increases the range of options available through. It also offers a means of addressing issues relating to sharing tacit knowledge. the energy contained within the tacit knowledge repositories of SMEs and to focus them on facilitating innovative applied outputs. for example: . The challenge. and . access to other content. . one of whom stated: I have sent people on formal college programmes and they return knowing some theory. collaborative learning activities. We need dynamic bespoke support that is delivered in an innovative and less demanding way. codification. therefore. universities and the private-sector need to maximise their research effort in order to fully understand the . 228 The research has confirmed that small business needs by nature are dynamic and changeable. The focus is moving away from formal accredited learning leading to qualifications and to output related informal on the job training. such as online procedure manuals. but are unable to practically apply it to my business problems. These examples of best practice could be extended to provide creative intuitive socially constructed learning solutions that maximise the mix of appropriate instructional devices and delivery techniques. Firms are increasingly benchmarking their training support against improvements in capability and business performance. and the generation of repositories for hosting explicit knowledge. . I am interested in them being able to solve problems and suggested ways forward for my business. E-learning should be constructed in order to add value to the learning experience. Furthermore. With e-collaboration an emerging field. Another suggested: I am not interested in my employees hanging certificates on a wall. A mechanism for networking that enables participants to share their own experiences through tacit knowledge transfer is a critical success factor. develop and fully utilise. The design and implementation of effective collaborative learning frameworks offer the opportunity to enrich management provision through the inclusion of industry and academic expertise in the form of mentors and to add social/networking opportunities.3 release.

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