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Problem-based learning in the Irish SME workplace

Emma O'Brien (Centre for Teaching and Learning, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland)
John McCarthy (Department of Management and Marketing, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland)
Ileana Hamburg (Institute of Work and Technology (IAT), Westfalische Hochschule Gelsenkirchen Bocholt Recklinghausen, Gelsenkirchen, Germany)
Yvonne Delaney (Department of Management and Marketing, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland)

Journal of Workplace Learning

ISSN: 1366-5626

Article publication date: 16 September 2019

Issue publication date: 16 September 2019




This paper aims to explore how in Irish small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), problem-based learning (PBL) could possibly provide a paradigm which addresses two key research objectives: What are the learning needs and challenges faced by Irish SMEs? and How could PBL satisfy these needs through integrating formal and informal learning?


An action research methodology was adopted using Lewin’s (1994) action research cycle. In the reconnaissance stage, surveys and focus groups were conducted with a purposive research sample of Irish SMEs regarding their learning needs and challenges. Based on these results, a plan was formulated to adapt the traditional PBL model into a workplace PBL model (wPBL). Lastly, the wPBL model was implemented and evaluated in 42 SMEs.


The research identified several specific learning needs for SMEs, namely, learning that is cost-effective, tailored to the company and its challenges, immediately applied, demonstrates a tangible outcome (is measurable), organically fostering a learning culture, addresses knowledge gaps, continuous, develops communication, team work, problem-solving and technical skills. The traditional PBL model was adapted into a wPBL model to meet the above learning needs of SMEs. It was found that the wPBL model had the potential to address long-standing company problems (making it cost-effective), facilitate continuous learning and develop horizontal and transversal skills such as problem-solving and communication.


Much of the learning that takes place in SMEs is incidental or informal, and often does not contribute to the long-term sustainability of the organisation. This paper aims to propose a practical framework using wPBL to structure incidental and informal learning in SMEs so that it provides an immediate benefit to the company. To date, there has been little research into the application of PBL outside higher education, and the paper proposes a framework to assist the transition of PBL to a workplace environment.



O'Brien, E., McCarthy, J., Hamburg, I. and Delaney, Y. (2019), "Problem-based learning in the Irish SME workplace", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 31 No. 6, pp. 391-407.



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Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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