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Pragmatic learning in family SMEs: a qualitative study of functional overload among family SME owner-managers

Stephanie Querbach (WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management, Vallendar, Germany)
Nadine Kammerlander (WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management, Vallendar, Germany)
Jagdip Singh (Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, cleveland, Ohio, USA)
Matthias Waldkirch (EBS Universität für Wirtschaft und Recht, Oestrich-Winkel, Germany, and is an affiliated researcher at Jönköping International Business School, Jönköping, Sweden)

Journal of Knowledge Management

ISSN: 1367-3270

Article publication date: 8 September 2021

Issue publication date: 22 February 2022




Learning in organizations is well-recognized as a key determinant of innovation and success in competitive markets, and a rich literature examines learning mechanisms in large-sized and professionally-run organizations. Relatively little is known about the learning processes in family-run firms, most of whom are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) led by a single family SME owner-manager connected in a family network. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to investigate how family SME owner-managers engage in learning and how those learning processes are affected by family SME-specific characteristics.


Using pragmatic learning theory as an interpretive lens, this study conducts a qualitative multi-case study involving 61 interviews in family SMEs with family SME owner-managers, family members, employees and customers.


The within- and cross-case analysis helps identify the mechanisms, barriers and enablers of learning and innovation in family SMEs. The study develops and pinpoints the family owner managers’ “functional overload” as a major barrier to learning and employee empowerment, family-members’ support and customer feedback as critical resources in overcoming such functional overload. Yet, these resources turn out to be major amplifiers of functional overload in later phases of the learning process, thus impeding learning and innovation.


The study provides novel insights into learning processes and innovation within family SMEs, outlines the double-edged involvement of family members, employees and customers for learning processes, and provides nuance to pragmatic learning theory.



The author would like to express our gratitude to the anonymous reviewers and the editor for the feedback and guidance in the review process. We thank Alexander Dorth, Donata Kollmar, Charlotte Layher and Florian Philipp Schwarz-Abbaspour for support in the data collection. We furthermore acknowledge helpful comments from participants of a joint Research Seminar of WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and Technical University of Munich (TUM) in 2017, the Academy of Management Meeting 2019, and the Third Tel Aviv Family Business Research Conference 2019.


Querbach, S., Kammerlander, N., Singh, J. and Waldkirch, M. (2021), "Pragmatic learning in family SMEs: a qualitative study of functional overload among family SME owner-managers", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 26 No. 2, pp. 375-402.



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