Organising University-Led Learning Networks Among Small-Enterprise Managers
Doctoral thesis, 2001
This thesis elaborates upon the use of a university-led approach to facilitated learning through organised networks of small-enterprise managers and researchers. The opportunity for universities to take on an interactive role in initiating development processes, and even regional change in a wider respect, has been explored through an action research (AR) approach. One of the aims of the University-Led Learning Network (ULLN) is to develop the knowledge and managerial skills required by small-enterprise managers in order to cope better with an economic and social reality that is difficult to survey and to predict. This was done through the ongoing review and evaluation of actions carried out within as well as between the participating companies. Different management perspectives were scrutinised in an environment of close co-operation, with the intention of generating new ideas for action. ULLN is also an approach that enables the university to fulfil the task of co-operating with the external world, which in Sweden is referred to as "the third task", and to reach out to small enterprises, creating a common learning partnership. Earlier studies of networks focusing on an exchange of knowledge and learning demonstrate, above all, the power of innovation that come from a close relationship between companies and universities and the importance of dialogue. The analysis of this study shows similar results. However, there has in the past been a lack of long-term studies which monitored and investigated the effects of co-operation from within. This study aims to rectify that deficiency.
In this thesis, it is argued that ULLN has unique advantages, such as the initiation and support of important processes of change, which are not equally matched by other approaches, such as those which depend on consultants, traditional education or purely industrial networks. ULLN should therefore be seen as an important complement to the development support structure for managers of small traditional manufacturing enterprises. This study contributes an understanding of the process of organising these networks, and an analysis of the type of learning developed through such lengthy co-operation over six years.
The results of the study can be divided into three categories, namely:
- 1. Implications of organising ULLNs for universities and researchers, by providing an understanding of the advantages of using the university as a platform for initiating development processes for small-enterprise managers in networks.
Considerable knowledge and experience were gained during the study of the organisational requirements of continuous development processes, in order to generate and extend learning between small-enterprise managers and university representatives in a ULLN. Results from the study acknowledge the importance of the university adopting different roles during the process, in order to build the trust and commitment necessary for facilitating innovative and creative dialogue within the networks. Another important point that is highlighted in the study is the importance of the university and small traditional manufacturing enterprises meeting halfway in interdependent relations. For the university, this means taking on new roles, and for the small companies, a willingness to learn and to co-operate with other companies and organisations in networks rather than acting alone.
This type of close interaction with companies gives university representatives a better knowledge base of small traditional manufacturing enterprises (which make up the majority of the small-business community in Sweden) and their special needs, which in turn contributes to a deeper understanding and makes it possible for the university to introduce research projects that are more relevant and draw small enterprises into a co-operative partnership with the university. The networks are a way of increasing mutual knowledge processes by enabling managers and researchers to examine a variety of development issues and solutions in the company of others who have different frames of reference and perspectives.
- 2. A description of the effects of the ULLN in the participating companies in terms of development projects initiated.
The thesis further supports the conclusion that learning in small enterprises is stimulated by interaction with other organisations. New ideas and the inspiration for development work are created in meetings between different actors. As a result of this partnership, projects have been developed internally within individual companies and between the participating companies - for instance in issues related to IT, improved working practices, employee exchanges, ISO 14 001, and so on. Practical lessons have been learnt about different ways of handling various company-related problems, as well as theoretical knowledge about the processes of change themselves. Thus the ULLNs have both initiated important changes and acted as a bridge between the university and SMEs during development work. Through this medium, the university has been able to establish links even with the traditional manufacturing small-enterprise community.
- 3. A description and analysis of the learning process that is created by using the network concept as a development tool.
The trustful relationships established between managers and researchers have proved to be an effective medium for sharing experience and enhancing mutual learning. It has been particularly effective in providing a basis for the sharing of explicit and tacit knowledge that is required to support the implementation of different development projects. The ULLN approach has also facilitated a more reflective type of learning (double-loop learning) and created new management perspectives, which have inspired further development. Managers have also become more "secure" in their management role (as a result of the frank and confidential dialogue with different actors in and through the network) and have, for example, experienced a greater ease in delegating and contributing to the empowerment of their employees.
new management perspectives
higher education and SME linkages
University-Led Learning Network (ULLN)
the 'third task' of Swedish universities