Article Critique: Social Competence in Small Firms–Fostering Workplace Learning and Performance

October 1, 2016

Lans, T., Verhees, F., & Verstegen, J. (2016). Social competence in small firms–Fostering workplace learning and performance. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 27(3), 321-348.

Abstract: While it is widely accepted that social networks are key to small-firm success, detailed studies on the specific contribution of owner-managers’ social competence to learning and performance are scarce. In this article, the importance of owner-managers’ social competence was explored in a specific, innovative small-firm sector in the Netherlands: the agri-food sector. This was done by means of a qualitative (n = 13) and quantitative (n = 556) study. In the qualitative study, the two social competence domains most frequently cited and employed in entrepreneurial workplace learning practices were a social learning orientation and the ability to interact with strategic social partners. The quantitative study illustrated that social competence, overall, influences small-firm performance significantly. However, the relationships between social competence and small-firm performance seem to depend on the specific strategies that owner-managers pursue. In particular, this research supports the idea of social competence being an important driver of success for specific small-firm strategies and for the ongoing development of existing and new capabilities. As such, it underlines the importance of the capability-driven approach to HRD in the small-firm context. This, in turn, has implications for small-firm support programs.

My last blog post talked about the importance of being good consumers of research, and since I believe being a good consumer of research is mostly a skill that takes practice and refinement, here are some thoughts on this recent article from Human Resource Development Quarterly (HRDQ). I am doctoral student and aspiring academic in the field of HRD so I use the word “critique” lightly. Here are a few things I liked and some questions I have.

This article drew from two studies, one qualitative and one quantitative, to answer the research question. They did a good job of outlining the studies separately in the article but bringing them together in the discussion, limitations, and conclusion. The mixed-methods nature of this article made it particularly compelling.

In justifying the population for the study (Dutch agri-food sector), the authors did a great job of pointing out how the Netherlands is the “third-largest exporter of agricultural products in the world” and how there are “approximately 65,000 small firms that operate in the Netherlands under highly comparable conditions in terms of climate, laws and regulations, financial institutions, markets, and availability of labor and technology” (p. 323). This perfectly sets up the research question of “What is the specific influence of owner-managers’ social competence on small-firm workplace learning and performance in a clearly defined sector?” (p. 323). By the time I read this, I was impressed with how much the authors convinced me that the Dutch agri-food sector was not only a good population to answer the research question but the perfect context to conduct this study. This is a good reminder for me in future studies: justify the population and context of a study so well that readers think it is the best possible context imaginable.

One question I have regards the construct of social competence itself. The authors used the term social competence despite admitting “the subject of social dysfunction in early childhood dominates existing studies of social competence” (p. 322). This makes me wonder if social competence is the best construct considering the limited number of studies using social competence in the context of small-firms or HRD. That being said, there are a few studies that use social competence in this context and I liked the discussion later on the emergence of social competence from social capital theory.

Regarding the qualitative study, the researchers utilized critical incident technique (CIT) to shape the interviews and data, which makes sense in this study but I wonder if using CIT kept the researchers from understanding other parts of the story by going in more depth and with a more open-ended mindset. CIT ends up feeling more quantitative or post-positivist instead of what I think of when I think of the power of qualitative interviews.

In sum, I thought the conclusion of the paper was fascinating, i.e. that social competence of owner-managers influences learning and performance in these small firms. I agree with the authors’ recommendation of doing similar studies in different contexts and that social competence should be more of a consideration in small firms and HRD education.

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