Societal impact through WIL, WIL experiences

Work-integrated learning in action – How do women entrepreneurs in small businesses learn and develop digital skills?

Entrepreneurship and innovation are the main local, regional, national, and international development drivers. However, there are gender differences as a majority of entrepreneurs all over the world are men. This gap has generated research interest and different perspectives have been studied and analyzed.

Contemporary digitalization of society affects all sectors and industries generating possibilities and challenges. Small businesses generally have limited financial resources and time, especially women entrepreneurs face the challenges of digitalization. How do women entrepreneurs find opportunities for workplace learning related to digitalization?

Our research contributes new insights regarding women entrepreneurs’ behavior and ways to acquire digital skills to keep up the pace in digitalization i.e. how women entrepreneurs learn new digital skills to develop their small businesses. The results have generated great global research interest.

We met eleven experienced middle-aged women entrepreneurs several times for two years and observed their digital presence. They shared their stories and perspectives on facing digitalization in mature small businesses. The women entrepreneurs were active in three smaller cities in Western Sweden and had been running their businesses for ten to 27 years.

What did the study reveal?

Continuous learning – to remain competitive, the women entrepreneurs constantly had to learn new digital skills. Learning by doing, informal learning from networks and other entrepreneurs, and step-by-step self-development were practiced combined with strategical recruiting of young digitally skilled employees (digital natives) to learn at the workplace emphasizing a reversed master and apprentice relationship.

Digital advantages and disadvantages – while digitalization offers advantages such as expanded reach through social media it also brings challenges. Limited resources and the pressure to prioritize learning can lead to digital stress or burnout. The constant need for social media presence, scanning, and the maintenance of all various digital channels and platforms is demanding. Women entrepreneurs strongly emphasized the continuous challenge of work-life balance. Further, dealing with negative social media comments impacts emotions, even though gender stereotyping is not a common issue online.

Balancing digital and offline processes – women entrepreneurs engage in step-by-step digitalization along with the development of small businesses but sometimes choose to revert to offline practices (digital decline). Women entrepreneurs have been reconsidering the potential and disadvantages of digitalization in learning new work practices.

To conclude, analyzing women entrepreneurs’ encounters with the ongoing digitalization displays work in transition with continuously changed learning conditions requiring adaptive behavior, learning new skills, knowledge, judgments, and strategic recruitment of digitally skilled employees. Digitalization disrupts traditional entrepreneurial work processes and necessitates adaptive behaviors related to the digitalization of small businesses.

Following the digitalization era, women entrepreneurs must act as digital entrepreneurs continuously finding new business opportunities to generate local, regional, national, and international growth. Women entrepreneurs are imperative in driving local, regional, national and international growth by embracing innovative ways of doing business.  Further research on small businesses and women entrepreneurs can deepen our understanding of work-integrated learning in action from an entrepreneurial perspective.

Policymakers play a crucial role in supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs with access to finance, education and training, networking, addressing gender gaps, and encouraging research to understand the unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs. As demonstrated by these women entrepreneurs, work-integrated learning in action reveals the dynamic interplay between learning and working, highlighting the importance of lifelong learning and adaptability in thriving within the digital landscape.

Anna Karin Olsson
Associate Professor in Business Administration, University West, Sweden

Iréne Bernhard
Assistant Professor in Informatics, University West, Sweden

Olsson, A. K., & Bernhard, I. (2021). Keeping up the pace of digitalization in small businesses–Women entrepreneurs’ knowledge and use of social media. International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, 27(2), 378-396.

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