The hidden world of e-learning in small and medium enterprises

  • Heather Short

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research explores the hidden world of e-learning in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) through a social constructivist lens. A rigorous review of literature in the domains of both learning and e-learning in SMEs reveals these to be under-investigated areas with the majority of the scant previous research having been conducted from the perspective of owner-managers. The thesis reports an ethnographic study to enable a consideration of wider perspectives and therefore reveal more about such learning. Thematic analysis of the ethnographic fieldwork, which took place in three SMEs of varying sizes and in different industries/sectors in southern England during 2014 and 2015, suggests that more learning, e-learning and self-directed learning takes place in SMEs than indicated by previous research. My research indicates that employees’ e-learning, like their general learning, is influenced by owner-managers, resource constraints, issues of trust and their need for social interaction in their learning. However, it finds that while owner-managers’ influence on learning and e-learning in their organisations is significant, this is not always positive. Furthermore, owner-managers and employees have very different conceptualisations of e-learning with the latter using a diverse range of hitherto unconsidered media. This, coupled with the prevalence of previous research having been conducted from the perspective of owner-managers, has contributed to lack of acknowledgement of the extent of learning and e-learning occurring in SMEs. The terminology used by research participants, which can be specific to individual SMEs, has further hidden such learning, which has been exacerbated by some previous researchers using unsuitable research methods. Analysis of my data also suggests that the concept of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is relevant to the experience of e-learning in SMEs, but that Lave and Wenger’s (1991) CoP model must recognise technological and workplace developments to remain relevant to current practices.
Consequently, my thesis contributes to academic knowledge, research methodology and policy and practice, most significantly by the development of the first known model of e-learning for workers in SMEs. My research not only adds to scant research in the domains of learning and e-learning in SMEs, but also indicates exciting possibilities for further research and the future of e-learning in SMEs by showing that SMEs are indeed undertaking, and benefiting from, e-learning.
Date of AwardFeb 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorSarah Gilmore (Supervisor) & Valerie Anderson (Supervisor)

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