Learning Outlooks in small firms

Dr Lynn Martin  University of Central England,  Dr Alison Halstead Coventry University, UK.

“Managers reproduce themselves in kind” according to Kanter’s earlier work with large companies (1977, p 59, 68).  To explore this idea in small firms, attributes which might be shared by owner managers and those chosen for training and development, were identified and compared in a longitudinal qualitative study of 128 West Midlands SMEs.  Although this is a UK example, it is set within the  context of international small firm research in this area.
Despite previous evidence, no significant links were found between educational background and age.  Investigation also included gender and ethnic membership, since “usually the system leaves women out, along with a range of people with discrepant social characteristics” (Kanter, 1977, p 69).  In this sample, women were not excluded   and  a significant gender bias was not demonstrated, although there were gender differences.
The main area of the work concentrated on attitudes to learning for these two groups of ‘selector’ and ‘selectee’.  The study reviewed the learning styles of owner managers and key workers in each firm, looking for similarities and / or differences between these two groups. ’Key workers’ were those selected by their managers as ‘the most effective workers’ or as ‘employees most important to the progress of the firm’; key workers also had a record of preferment within the company in terms of promotion, types of work  and learning opportunities allocated.   Data collection included  a review of learning styles through the Honey and Mumford questionnaire plus qualitative interviewing to establish the ‘learning preferences’ of each participant.  Here learning preferences included descriptions of previous effective, enjoyable and / or ineffective and not enjoyable learning experiences and how the individual would prefer to learn in the future.   Also, owner managers were asked for the most effective way for their key workers to learn.
A relationship was found between the learning styles of the two groups, supported by a set of shared preferences and shared antipathies for the same types of learning experiences.   Activists were more likely to select activists, reflectors were more likely to select reflectors.  However pragmatists or theorist owner managers were more likely to select a key worker with a different learning style. 

In some firms, then , this may explain the identification of the ‘Keyworker’ as the ‘right sort of person’ - he or she have the same outlook in terms of learning and training as the person carrying out the selection process.  Whether or not this is beneficial for the company’s development remains to be seen.  The learning preferences model identifies deficiencies within each style and presents alternative strategies to enable learners to extend their ability to learn; recommendations are also made that groups involved in learning have varied learning styles for effective activities to occur.  This implies that having a manager and key employees with the same learning outlook might be detrimental to company progress; effective learning may not occur and opportunities may be missed.  Suggestions are therefore made that owner managers’ awareness of learning preferences be raised as a first step to developing better selection and learning processes within these firms.

Return to Abstracts Index