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Family SMEs in Ireland as learning organizations

Naomi Birdthistle (Department of Management and Marketing, Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland)

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Article publication date: 18 July 2008




The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether small and medium‐sized family businesses in Ireland have the potential to be classified as learning organizations.


The research methodology adopted for this study is that of multiple‐case studies. In this research, personal interviews were selected as the data collection method. On the basis of Eisenhardt's premise that a study of between four and ten cases is suitable for qualitative studies, a total of six owner‐managers of family small and medium‐sized enterprises (SMEs) were interviewed.


The findings of the case studies support the argument that family businesses have the potential to be learning organizations. However, the extent to which these family businesses are potentially learning organizations depends on the size of the family business and the structure imposed on the business. Micro family businesses struggle to be classified as learning organizations due to the lack of a learning orientation. These businesses lack systems for the monitoring of information and lack the ability to be reactive to market changes. Small family businesses have the potential to be classified as learning organizations. This is due to the fact that small family businesses have learning at the core of their business and systems in place to deal with a learning orientation. Medium‐sized family businesses also have the potential to be learning organizations, although they need to ensure that systems are in place to allow learning to occur.


This paper presents original findings in a highly relevant, but under‐researched field – the family SME as a learning organization.



Birdthistle, N. (2008), "Family SMEs in Ireland as learning organizations", The Learning Organization, Vol. 15 No. 5, pp. 421-436.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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