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.

Being Good Consumers of Research

September 24, 2016

If there is one common goal across graduate programs in the social sciences it is for students to become good consumers of research. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading academic articles, it seems like most of us graduate students  read the introduction, skip the methods/discussion/limitations, and go straight for the conclusion. Here are a few tips I think will help us all become better consumers of research.

  1. Read the whole article. This is hard to do when you have seven dense articles to read for your next class, but I don’t think we’ll ever be good consumers of research if we just read the introduction and conclusion. In fact, the more research I read, the less valuable I’ve found those sections. If written well, the article as a whole will give you a better sense of the strength of the analysis as well as highlight any weaknesses. It’s worth the time and struggle.
  2. Be curious. In a given article, there are plenty of rabbit holes that may be worth following. Take a few minutes while reading to look up the occasional reference, theory, instrument, or author that grabs your attention. This will help you make connections in the literature and aid in understanding. It can also be very pleasurable to look something up in Google Scholar and see what comes out of it. I’ve found some great papers and scholars this way that I likely wouldn’t have found otherwise.
  3. Take methods courses. The quality of any research paper is predicated on the quality of research methodology in answering the research question. Methods courses can be time-consuming, especially when you only have so many electives in a particular program but in my experience they have enriched my academic learning. Without at least a minimal understanding of research methodology, it is very hard to be a good consumer of research.That being said, methods courses aren’t the only place to learn these skills. Reviewing methodology and critiquing articles should be embedded in all academic courses.
  4. Read and critique journal articles that interest you. This is something I’ve stumbled into and would like to incorporate more in my blog. I get the hard copy of my favorite journals delivered to my house because I like to sit down and read them for pleasure on a lazy Saturday like today. With pencil in hand, I underline things I find compelling, questions I have, and things I want to come back to. Of course, this only works if it’s something I do because I want to do it instead of because I think I should, so I encourage you to find articles and journals that you would read for pleasure.
  5. Email the author(s) if you have a question. I have about a 33% response rate to blind emails I send out to scholars about their articles but it’s something that helps me stay engaged. I’ve found that authors are more responsive if I keep my emails short, include my question/comment up front, and mention any mutual connections I may have with the author or content. Putting a face (or in this case an email) to the name can help humanize scholars, and for a social person like me, it’s just more fun. My favorite thing at conferences is meeting scholars in person whose papers I’ve read and enjoyed.

I’m sure this list could go on, and I may have strayed somewhat from the original purpose of this blog post. Still, I hope you’ve enjoyed! Now, I’m off to critique an article I just read.

All the best,


(Featured image is of Gelman Library at the George Washington University by Dollaya Hemmapattawe)

Summer Research Conclusion

September 14, 2016

Much to my dismay, summer has ended and classes have begun again here at GW. I am so grateful to the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliot School for International Affairs here at GW for affording me the opportunity to conduct a research project this summer in Thailand and Myanmar through the Grant for Asian Field Research. What a wild ride!

As part of the project, I wrote and reflected on my experiences and project on the Asia on E Street Blog and on the Rising Powers Initiative Blog. Here are the following four posts I wrote if you’re interested in learning more about my summer:

Asia on E Street: Organizational Development in Thailand and Myanmar

Asia on E Street: Life Worth Exploring: Reflections on my Asian Field Research in Thailand and Myanmar

Rising Powers Initiative: Want to Support Myanmar? Don’t Forget About Mae Sot

Rising Powers Initiative: Doing High Quality Research in Myanmar: Four Recommendations

In my free time, I did a lot of running while I was there. I’m training for the JFK 50 Miler on November 19 this year. I used my long runs as opportunities to share a little through video about my experiences in Myanmar. Many people can’t locate Myanmar on a map much less have a mental image of what its various cities might look like. Here is a short and limited introduction from my runs:

In Hpa An:

In Loikaw:

Wishing you all the best!


Summer Research: Organizational Development in Community-Based Organizations

July 19, 2016

Spring flew by and I’m here now in Mae Sot – along the Thai-Myanmar border – working on a pilot study for my dissertation on organizational development in community-based organizations.


The view from one of the organizations

I’m grateful to the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliot School for International Affairs at The George Washington University (GW) for making this field research possible. I’m also thankful to Dr. Christina Fink at GW for introducing me to the grant, the wonderful people of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Payap University (PYU), and of course the leaders of organizations participating in this study.

I will be writing two more official blog posts to be published by the Sigur Center later in the project and will post links to those posts here but I also wanted to write about my experiences here as well.

The quick and dirty overview of my field research is that I’m here to do a multiple-case study pilot study of four leaders of organizations – two in Mae Sot along the border and two inside Myanmar. The purpose of this study is to see how organizational development in community-based organizations creates a lasting impact in communities in Myanmar.

My interest in this topic came from being involved in developing a Certificate Program in Organizational Development at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 2012-2014. Now studying my doctoral degree in Human and Organizational Learning at GW, I became increasingly interested in how – if at all – this certificate was having an impact on the organizations and communities in Myanmar and along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Thus, my research questions were formed to be something like: How do four leaders of these organizations use what was taught in the Organizational Development Certificate Program to serve the purposes of their CBOs and communities? How do the participants in the certificate program perceive the usefulness of the course for their work and lives? And lastly, how, if at all, has the certificate course contributed in any noticeable way to organizational change within these CBOs?


Park area near my guesthouse

It’s been an great experience in cross-cultural planning finding the organizations and leaders to participate in the study as well as the best times and days to meet. I’ve been here in Thailand for nearly three weeks and learning a lot. So thankful for this opportunity. I leave for Myanmar on Friday.


Conference: ESRI 2016

April 28, 2016

Not too long ago we had the Educational Symposium for Research and Innovations (ESRI) here at GW, which is the student-led conference of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last two years in my capacity as proposal review board member, presenter, and all-around conference enthusiast.


My friend and colleague Lisa did a fantastic job organizing the event. Everything ran smoothly, the food was amazing, and there was a great exchange of learning. I was particularly impressed with the keynote speaker, Dahlia Schaewitz, from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) here in DC. She doesn’t have a doctorate which likely elicited some initial arrogant scoffs from the audience but her presentation was impeccable. She highlighted the importance of research for positive change in policy and practice specifically related to people with disabilities both in schools and in the workforce.


I also had the opportunity to present. I wrote a paper specifically for this conference on human resource development (HRD) in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was well-received, although I think only a few people had ever heard of ASEAN.

I have been increasingly interested in this topic and have done some thinking about how regional economic integration brings up some significant HRD related issues. Earlier this month I also attended a meeting on Myanmar at the US-ASEAN Business Council, which I may blog about later. It reinforced for me all the complex issues – economic, political, and social – facing ASEAN and its member states.

Conferences are one of my favorite things about being in academia (second perhaps to reading). I love being a part of a learning community – sharing, questioning, making connections. I am fortunate and thankful to be here at GW. Looking forward to ESRI next year!

Myanmar in Transition

March 3, 2016

It’s been four months since the November elections in Myanmar that set the stage to hand over power from the largely military government to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by long-time pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Expectations are high as the people of Myanmar and the world look on to observe the transition of power. This was the topic of a recent panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington, D.C. entitled Myanmar’s Burden of High Expectations facilitated by Vikram Nehru. The entire talk is available here:

The panelists included Mary Callahan, associate professor at the University of Washington, U Aung Din, founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma and senior adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative, and Christina Fink, professor of practice at The George Washington University. I’ve gotten to know Dr. Fink through Chiang Mai connections. She has written extensively on Myanmar, including the 2009 book Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule, which I was glad to see a couple copies of in the Chiang Mai airport during my last trip.

Here are a few takeaways from the panel:

Mary Callahan shared the “serious pent up grievances” of common people like taxi drivers (amazingly she said she takes around 8 per day.) Her five issues to watch include 1) the dam decision, which she thinks will be delayed even further creating more tension with China; 2) military retirements; 3) the peace process, and whether it will be delayed or not; 4) important land issues; and, 5) the unfolding of the promise of more inclusive economic growth, which many people have yet to feel in their daily lives.

U Aung Din–a former political prisoner in Myanmar who fled the country upon his release–talked about the continual involvement of the military and problems in the judicial system which is “weak, poor, and corrupt.” In spite of challenges like this, Mr. Aung Din was confident that the Burmese people will be able to move forward.

Christina Fink at Carnegie Endowment

Christina Fink talked about the NLD’s competence to run the government, the relationship of the NLD and the military, and ethnic inclusion. The situation regarding ethnic inclusion is incredibly fragile. Only one ethnic parliamentarian from Rakhine State was elected in November. Some ethnic leaders believe the NLD should not have campaigned in those states, which might have allowed more ethic leaders to serve in government.

Throughout the whole talk, a notable tension was the difficult place of Aung San Suu Kyi. On the one hand, she is seeking to change the constitution, especially the controversial Article 59 (f), which is an affront to the military. On the other hand she must work effectively with the military in the government transition and the peace process.

Overall, the talk was enlightening and important as we think about this transition. All the panelists are inspirational for me as I consider living a meaningful life as an academic and activist for social change in Southeast Asia and throughout the world.

Conference: AHRD 2016

March 2, 2016

What an amazing conference! Two weeks ago I attended the Association of Human Resource Development (AHRD) 2016 Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. I consider AHRD my professional home, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations and presentations throughout the week.

View of the hotel from the bridge

View of the hotel from the bridge

I had the opportunity to present at the conference in three different formats. AHRD has informal sessions over breakfast and lunchtimes, so my friend and colleague Abdul and I presented a book review of The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. It was an interactive session with a handful of people with coffee and pastries discussing culture, global management, and the place of these types of quasi-research books within academia.

I also facilitated a roundtable discussion on some work I’ve been doing on millennial leadership development. This turned out to be my favorite session. There were about 15 people around a couple of big tables. I shared some of my work thus far and put forth some questions to the group. Then, we spent about 35 minutes in a brainstorm of possible research questions, theoretical frameworks, and methodologies one could use to study millennial leadership development. It was essentially the rough draft of an entire research agenda. Everyone was incredibly supportive and the session expanded my perspective on the topic.

Two Thai friends at AHRD 2016

Two Thai friends at AHRD 2016

The last day I presented a full manuscript, which was a conceptual paper on the concept of time and organizational change. I wrote the paper building on my foundations of HRD and human systems change courses at GW. I argued that as organizations have become more complex throughout history, our concept of time has also evolved. It was well received, and a journal editor approached me afterwards and asked me to submit it to her journal.

I went to as many presentations as I could and enjoyed talking with foundational HRD scholars like Gary McClean and Karen Watkins. While I was intellectually stimulated with topics like motivation in the workplace, the global skills index, and critical HRD, my favorite part of the conference was building relationships with the other attendees. Many of the people at AHRD attended the European HRD conference in Ireland last year, so it was fun to rekindle those friendships. On Friday we had dinner at a Thai restaurant. While talking about Buddhism, it dawned on us that we had a Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, and atheist among us. What great company!

Lunch at an Irish Pub

Lunch at an Irish Pub

The next day, a bunch of us doctoral students got together for lunch at an Irish Pub and we had seven different countries represented in our group. I loved the diverse interactions and discussions about HRD. For instance, a friend of mine from Ukraine shared with me some fascinating aspects of Ukraine’s political turmoil from his perspective. I’m looking forward to being friends and colleagues with these amazing people for many years to come.

Thai Dinner

Thai Dinner

AHRD truly embodies its focus on “rigor and relationships” and I am looking forward to next year in San Antonio. In the meantime, I have a paper accepted for the Asian chapter of the AHRD conference, which will be in Morocco next year at Al Akhawayn University. Check out this sweet video below. Who wants to join?

The Land of Golden Pagodas

February 26, 2016

I remember picking up Freedom From Fear in 2009 off a dusty bookshelf in Chiang Mai and reading the powerful essays of Myanmar’s (Burma’s) pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It was in those pages my interest in Myanmar began. With a voracious appetite I devoured several other books by Aung San Suu Kyi  as well as two biographies. Even though I was living and working in Thailand, there was something dynamic and compelling about the plight of Myanmar and the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Teaching English and culture at Karen Baptist Theological Seminary

Teaching English and culture at Karen Baptist Theological Seminary

At Payap University I listened to my Burmese friend share the story of her involvement in a relief effort after the catastrophic 2008 Cyclone Nargis. This friend encouraged me to visit Myanmar at the Karen Baptist Theological Seminary in Yangon where she taught English. In 2011, I took a short trip to the Land of Golden Pagodas, and it was life-changing. The people of Myanmar have been imprinted in my thoughts even since.

I was grateful in 2013 when the International Rescue Committee (IRC) approached Payap University (where I worked) to develop a certificate course in Organizational Development and offer the course to community-based enterprise (CBE) workers along the Thai-Myanmar border. We developed the courses, trained Burmese trainers how to teach the courses, and then followed up with site visits and mentoring. The following year, we were able to offer the courses at three locations inside Myanmar. I was fortunate enough to go on the exploration trip where we met with community leaders in Mon and Karen States and thought about how best to offer the certificate course.

Payap University faculty members with IRC partners and trainers in Mae Sot.

Payap University faculty members with IRC partners and trainers in Mae Sot.

Since moving to Washington, D.C. in 2014 to begin my doctoral work at George Washington University (GW), I have been thinking about how I can use my interest in Myanmar to serve its people in the future. Through a friend at Payap, I got connected with Christina Fink, a professor at the Elliot School for International Affairs at GW, and she has helped me stay involved by hosting informal lunches with people interested in Myanmar. I have also attended several lectures on Myanmar–specifically around the recent elections–at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Christian Fink and others discuss Myanmar post 2015 elections

Christian Fink and others discuss Myanmar post 2015 elections

Last fall, I was also able to attend an amazing event at GW sponsored by the GW Southeast Asian Association where they showcased This Kind of Love, an important documentary by human rights activist and filmmaker Aung Myo Min. Here is a video of Aung Myo Min speaking at Harvard Law School in October.

Aung Myo Min’s accomplishments in human rights in Myanmar cannot be overstated. Aung Myo Min was a member of what is called the 88 generation who participated in the protests which led to the violent government crackdown in 1988, and spent 24 years in exile in Thailand. He has been a tireless advocate for human rights issues, specifically around the LGBT community. If you have a chance to see the documentary, I strongly recommend it. It brilliantly embodies the paradox in activism of strongly standing for a vital cause while also gently and compassionately walking alongside the persecuted and the persecutors.

Selfie with Aung Myo Min

Selfie with Aung Myo Min

As I consider my life as an aspiring academic, my hope is to use my interests, passions, and developing skills as a researcher to support and serve communities, like those in Myanmar, in bringing about peace and sustainability in the world. I am eager and excited about the opportunity of returning to Myanmar in the future.

3 Reflections from the Doctoral Colloquium at AHRD 2016

February 21, 2016

Last week, I attended the Doctoral Colloquium at the Association for Human Resource Development (AHRD) 2016 conference in the Americas in Jacksonville, FL. I will post more about the conference as a whole but first I wanted to spend a few minutes reflecting on the Doctoral Colloquium. The Doctoral Colloquium was a day and a half workshop for doctoral students in HRD or related fields to share our research ideas, explore our individual scholarly identities, and think about ways to chart a path for our academic careers. It was an interactive day and a half led by University of Maryland professor Toby Egan. Here are three reflections:

1. I was taken aback by the sheer warmth, care for relationship-building, connection, and compassion I experienced by the university faculty members present as well as by my fellow doctoral students. We spent a significant portion of time sharing and listening to one another in meaningful ways.

Toby Egan and Gary McLean

Toby Egan and Gary McLean

It was such a collaborative environment. Dr. Egan shared that the Doctoral Colloquium at AHRD has often been a place where longtime friendships have begun. This was exemplified in the fact that one of the faculty members assisting, Gary McLean, was once his teacher in the colloquium many years before. Two other faculty members in the room had gone through the colloquium together as well when they were students.

2. The faculty members were incredibly friendly and helpful throughout the colloquium. In addition to Gary McLean (a veritable giant in HRD), the faculty members who led the colloquium with Dr. Egan included Nisha Manikoth (GWU), Josh Collins (Minnesota), and Quincy Brown (University of Southern Mississippi). Then, in addition to those leaders, a group of other members came through at various times to contribute.

HRD Scholar Panel

HRD Scholar Panel

This included Jia Wang (Texas A&M) who led a workshop on writing, Jason Moats (Texas A&M) who talked about getting involved with Special Interest Groups (SIGs), and a panel that discussed developing a scholar identity, which included Jessica Li (University of Illinois Urbana Champagn), Seung Won Yoon (Texas A&M), and Jeff Allen (University of North Texas).

In addition to the panel, two journal editors came and talked about publishing and the importance of the peer-review process for generating high quality, original research. This included Julia Storberg Walker (GWU) who is the editor of Human Resource Development Review and Carole Elliot (Lancaster University), the editor of Human Resource Development International.

3. The third thing I would like to reflect on was the practical nature of the colloquium. Essentially, it was a day and a half of sitting down with a variety of impressive scholars in the field and learning skills and perspectives related to research, publishing, and meaningful life as an academic. For example, the research symposium allowed us to get into small groups with a faculty member and workshop our ideas.

Lunch in our small groups

Lunch in our small groups

There was a part where we each created a poster board to write out what we want to do in our careers, what steps we need to take to get there, what questions we have, and who can help us get there. Once we finished, the room flooded with other AHRD members who walked around our individual posters and gave us feedback. While many were helpful, Josh Collins–a young faculty member at Minnesota–was particularly supportive of me and offered some words of encouragement as I consider beginning my academic career.

Overall, the Doctoral Colloquium was an enjoyable time of focused, collaborative learning and relationship-building. I’m thankful to all those faculty members and fellow students who attended, and I look forward to seeing some of them at future colloquiums as faculty members.

Researching complex social issues? What’s your paradigm?

February 21, 2016

How would you solve a complex social issue like high school dropout? How would you study it? It turns out, it depends a lot on the assumptions you have about the nature of the world. Without too much jargon, we call this set of assumptions about the nature of reality a paradigm, worldview, or philosophical orientation.

I’m a doctoral student at The George Washington University in DC, so I thought I would share an example about paradigms from my coursework from Merriam and Tisdell (2015) to help us unpack this a little.

So, the question is about high school dropout. How do we approach this from a research standpoint? Without being too reductionist, here are four different perspectives that reveal a lot about the paradigms undergirding the following four people:

Person 1 looks at high school dropout and says, “Hey, this might be the result of low self-esteem. To test this hypothesis, let’s make an experimental design using a self-esteem boosting intervention with an experimental group while having a control group with no intervention. Then, let’s test to see if the intervention in the experimental group makes a difference in lowering the dropout rate. If people with the self-esteem boosting intervention have a lower dropout rate, then that’s something that can be applied to similar high school populations and is trusted to reduce overall dropout.” Person 1 is what Merriam and Tisdell call a Positivist.

Person 2 looks at the problem of high school dropout and says, “Let’s take a different approach. Instead of doing an experiment like Person 1, let’s interview a collection of students we think are at-risk of dropping out of school or recently just dropped out. Let’s also observe students in classes and even go to some of their homes and interview parents and neighbors. Let’s collect all of these interview transcripts and observations and see if we can separate it into themes that help to tell the story about why these students are dropping out.” Person 2 is an Interpretivist.

Person 3 looks at the problem of high school dropout and says, “Let’s look at how the social structures of the school are set up in a way that some people are more privileged than others. Let’s look at the school protocols, systems, and mechanisms in the school and see if they connect at all to patterns of behaviors and attitudes in the students.” Person 3 is a Critical Theorist.

Lastly, Person 4 looks at the “problem” of high school dropout and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s step back here. Why are we thinking about school in terms of someone who completes school vs. someone who drops out? Why are using words like ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’? We need to break down these dichotomies and look at multiple perspectives on what it means to drop out. Person 4 is a Postmodernist.

How do you fix a complex problem like high school dropout? It depends a lot on your assumptions about how the world works. Here you see four different perspectives based on different assumptions about the nature of reality. We all make assumptions about the nature of reality based on our experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds. Disagreements between colleagues on what the problems in our world are and how to solve them are often issues of differing paradigms and assumptions about how the world works. One of the great parts of life is learning about the assumptions in our lives. What are our values? What is our theory for change on a given topic?

Let the journey continue.

%d bloggers like this: