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Beyond Formal Learning Network Structures: an Exploration of Evolving Learning Communities in the Micro-Firm Environment

Beyond Formal Learning Network Structures: an Exploration of Evolving Learning Communities in the Micro-Firm Environment

Reinl, Leana and Kelliher, Felicity (2009) BEYOND FORMAL LEARNING NETWORK STRUCTURES: AN EXPLORATION OF EVOLVING LEARNING COMMUNITIES IN THE MICRO-FIRM ENVIRONMENT. In: IAM Conference (September 2009), 02nd - 4th September 2009, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.

In rapidly changing and increasingly competitive business environments, micro-business owner/managers seeking business survival are encouraged to seek out potential learning and development opportunities through membership of collaborative learning communities (NCEO, 2006; EC, 2006). Micro-firm cooperative learning relationships are the subject of increased academic interest (Brown and Duguid, 1991; Florén and Tell, 2004; Morrison et al., 2004; Toiviainen, 2007; Bottrup, 2005; Kelliher et al., 2009), while international studies acknowledge the value of cooperative learning in the network environment (Devins et al., 2005; Down, 1999; Gibb, 1997; Hannon et al., 2000; Taylor and Thorpe, 2004). Finally, the literature provides evidence that learning structures and key learning relationships in formal learning networks create opportunities for higher levels of learning (Florén and Tell, 2004; Reinl, 2008; Morrison and Bergin-Seers, 2001; Wing Yan Man, 2007). Little is known about the formation, maintenance or success of these types of learning relationships after formal structures and supports reach a conclusion (Bessant and Francis, 1999). What is known is that Evolving Learning Communities (ELCs) are devoid of formal structures, consequently autonomy in their structural and relational reasoning is required. The effective management and maintenance of such learning structures and relationships requires a level of learning competence, much like that described by Wing Yan Man (2007). Where a competence shortfall arises, there is a need to reach outside the boundaries of the core learning community to providers of specialist knowledge. This paper seeks to explore these challenges, and commences with a comprehensive review of relevant literature prior to establishing a model of ELC learning which draws from the social learning perspective, in particular Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theory of learning. The ELC model maps micro-firm owner/manager learning development, from the micro-firm setting to the formal learning network environment and on to the ELC learning arena illustrating the evolution of the learning community. As such, the various stages of community evolution will be reviewed in the natural succession in which they occur. Future research will inform and validate the model through an interpretivist approach that will enable the researcher to ‘induct theory’ (Eisenhardt, 2007) through the completion of a number of longitudinal cases. This study addresses calls for research to be completed in the micro-firm learning network context (for example: Devins et al., 2005; Kelliher et al., 2009), and is the first of its kind to the best of the author’s knowledge.