Social competence in small firms

A study on fostering workplace learning and performance

Social competence is the ability to interact with others in a certain position and context to develop, engage in and maintain social networks. Social competencies are crucial for the success of small firms. As one owner-manager in this study explained: “Sharing information with colleague is an art, to share not too much information and to get a lot in return.”

Small-firm owners use relationships to invite questioning, criticism and reflection from others. They use feedback on their practises to rethink or even change their practices. “He [pointing to colleague in the other room] came up with this idea. We discussed it internally and decided that we should try it. Subsequently we started experimenting, which already resulted in something workable. Subsequently in discussion with our sales head we decided to really pursue this opportunity before our competitors did.” Thus small-firm owners learn from their networks and social competences substitute formalized learning activities.

The importance of social networks to small-firms is widely accepted, but studies on the specific contribution of social competence are scarce. This study combines qualitative and quantitative research to demonstrate the importance of social competence. The qualitative study elaborates the social competence domains most frequently employed for workplace learning: a social learning orientation and the ability to interact with strategic social partners. The quantitative study shows the positive influence of social competence on small-firm performance and shows that the relationship depends on the strategies that small firms pursue.

The conclusions of the study highlight the importance of social competences for small-firm owners, next to entrepreneurial and marketing competences. Moreover, small-firm owners can learn other competences by developing their social competences, first.

This paper was published in Human Resource Development Quarterly and received the Richard Swanson Award winning paper for 2016. The combination of expertise from educational/HRD sciences, economics, marketing and management to study the role of social competence was particularly appreciated. As the committee indicated: “this research addresses an interesting and important topic utilizing a mixed-methods approach. Through covering both qualitative and quantitative approaches, it addresses many gaps in the research at once. Inasmuch as research on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is needed, and in particular research taking a social capital/social network lens because it is decidedly sparse, this manuscript is timely, valuable, and begins a relevant conversation.”

Full text of the paper is available at:

Lans, T., Verhees, F. and Verstegen, J. (2016), Social Competence in Small Firms—Fostering Workplace Learning and Performance. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 27: 321–348. doi:10.1002/hrdq.21254


Frans Verhees

About Frans Verhees

Frans Verhees is assistant professor at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Group. He studies small firms' marketing management in the agricultural sector.

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