Date of Award

2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Management

Faculty

Business and Law

First Advisor

Professor Susan Stoney

Second Advisor

Professor Rowena Barrett

Abstract

Small business owner-managers (SBOMs) are a difficult group to engage in formal face-to-face training and learning activities. Research to encourage SBOMs' participation has focused on two main themes: first, trying to ascertain why they do not attend training and, second, determining their learning preferences. They are reluctant to attend formal training because they prioritise business operations (no time to attend training), perceive training as a poor return on investment, have negative perceptions of training and education, and believe the training provision often does not meet their needs. In terms of their learning preferences, it is clear that SBOMs prefer informal, network-based, experiential and problem-oriented learning. As such, efforts to increase SBOMs‘ engagement in training and learning should focus on trying to incorporate these learning preferences while endeavouring to overcome their rationale for not attending formal training. In this thesis, the focus is on the provision a free, informal, voluntary, online discussion forum (ODF) for SBOMs as an alternative to face-to-face training. The ODF provided an alternative to formal face-to-face training and enabled informal, voluntary, networkbased learning for SBOMs that met their learning preferences for experiential and problem-oriented learning. The ODF also overcame their reasons for not attending faceto- face training and enabled SBOMs to learn in an informal way, with and from each other‘s experiences, without having to leave their business operations. This approach was expected to promote the greater engagement of SBOMs in learning. This cross-disciplinary study brings together elements of educational psychology in terms of learning theory and the emerging theories of online learning. It also takes a business and management perspective in applying these theories in small firm context. The study involved the development of an asynchronous ODF, which was guided by the literature regarding SBOMs‘ training and learning, learning theory, online learning and, in particular, the importance of discussion for promoting relevant, authentic learning that enables interaction and reflection. The ODF provided a learner-centred approach to learning that encouraged active learning based on social interaction through discussion. Discussion was based on problems, issues and questions posted by SBOMs in the online network and answered by the knowledge and experience of other SBOM members of the network. As such, the ODF provided learning that was relevant, authentic and interactive and that encouraged reflection. The ODF set up for this research used Yahoo Groups, third party, groupware technology that enabled free access to SBOMs from a networked computer (other networked devices were not available in 2007). The Yahoo Groups ODF developed for this research was an online collaborative learning (OCL) forum that provided the basis of the case study reported in this thesis. The research was undertaken to explore the following research questions:

  • Does an ODF empower SBOMs as active learners?
  • What factors (internal and external) lead to different levels of participation (inactive, peripheral participants, active) in an ODF?
  • What learning (single- or double-loop, surface or deep) results from different levels of participation in an ODF?




The research was conducted using constructivist ontology, an interpretive epistemology and a qualitative methodology. The case study approach was used to evaluate SBOMs' participation and learning using the OCL forum, using reliable data from SBOMs. Data from four sources—the OCL forum transcript, in-depth interviews, focus groups and field notes—were used to provide insight into participation and learning by SBOMs in the context of owning and operating a small business. Pozzi, Manca, Persico and Sarti‘s (2007) framework for tracking and analysing the learning process in an ODF was used to provide a structured approach to the analysis of participation and learning from the OCL forum transcript data. This was followed by a detailed thematic analysis of all data to determine what factors affected participation and learning by SBOMs in the OCL forum. Findings from this research provided proof of concept that an ODF for SBOMs supported double-loop learning; however, participation could not be assumed. Although the ODF provided a learning approach that met the SBOMs‘ learning preferences and mitigated their reasons for not attending formal training, the majority of invited SBOMs chose not to participate. Internal factors pointed to SBOMs‘ learning commitment, in particular, their occupational identity, whether they linked learning with business success, and their prior experience with ODFs. When SBOMs had committed to learning, they made time to learn in an ODF. External factors showed that the ODF technical and learning design also affected SBOMs‘ decision to participate, as did the quality of learning design; however, it appears external factors are less influential than the internal factor of SBOMs‘ learning commitment. This thesis makes four contributions:

The importance of SBOMs‘ learning commitment in their decision to participate (or not) in a voluntary ODF

  • Proof of concept that an informal ODF can promote deep learning for SBOMs
  • Challenge to the idea purported by the more recent learning theory of heutagogy (Kenyon & Hase, 2001) that all learners in an online networked environment are self-determined
  • Research design, exploratory, multiple data collection methods from the SBOMs—both those who participated in the ODF and those who chose not to take part.