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Exploring informal learning in SMES

Birmingham Business School

Dr Margarita Dr. Margarita Nyfoudi Friday, April 30, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Informal learning is learning “predominantly unstructured experiential, and noninstitutional” and takes place while individuals are conducting their jobs. It is achieved through a plethora of different behaviours, including self-reflection, experimentation with new work processes, interaction with others, and innovation, while it is predominantly based on the individual learner’s volition. In other words, the learner has “the intent to learn or improve” and thus, the learning experience is not incidental or unintentional.


Research on informal learning has flourished over the past twenty years. In terms of antecedents, studies have shown that both formal and informal organizational support as well as the degree of autonomy of a job and existing resources significantly relate to informal learning. In addition, studies have found that learners’ personal characteristics, such as cognitive ability and personality, as well organizational characteristics, such as organizational size and structure, influence the degree of informal learning within the workplace. In terms of consequences, informal learning has been found to relate to job and project performance, effectiveness, salary, and promotions as well as employees’ retention.


Be that as it may, the majority of research has been conducted in large organisations. We know little about how informal learning plays out in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Yet, SMEs rely extensively on informal on-the-job learning. For example, recent research demonstrates that informal learning in SME teams whilst operating under adverse working conditions matters in redressing employee efforts. Extant studies highlight the different context of SMEs to larger organisations and call for a more nuanced understanding of the SME workers’ experience.


Based on the above, the project aims to answer the following research question:

How and under what conditions does informal learning take place in SMEs?


The research question will be answered through an inductive research design and a multi-case study approach. The PhD researcher is expected to adopt a longitudinal qualitative data collection strategy in order to be able to capture the dynamic nature of informal learning (e.g. data collection through multiple semi-structured interviews and observations of meetings and day-to-day operations from 5-10 SMEs). The data are expected to be analysed using Gioia’s (2013) methodology.


This project is envisaged to have significant theoretical and practical implications. Specifically, it will contribute to the limited knowledge on informal learning in SMEs developing a new line of research enquiry. In addition, it will guide SME owners and HR practitioners in terms of facilitating informal learning in the workplace, while it may also contribute to policy formation in terms of promoting working conditions that enable informal learning in SMEs.


Potential candidates for the Birmingham Business School Doctoral Scholarship must applied for a PhD by 30 April 2021, and must send a separate Birmingham Business School Scholarship application form, along with a research proposal, to Dr Danny McGowan, Director of the Doctoral Programme () and mark your email ‘Birmingham Business School Scholarships’. 

For further information on the application process, please contact the Business School: .

Funding Notes

A full scholarship is equivalent to an ESRC studentship and covers home fees (£4,500 p.a.) plus a living allowance (stipend) of £15,609 per annum for three years, subject to satisfactory progress. For applicants outside the UK or without settled status, a full scholarship equates normally to £20,109 covering full fees and providing a contribution towards living expenses.

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