Survival in the Digital Era: A Digital Competence-Based Multi-Case Study in the Canadian SME Clothing Industry

Survival in the Digital Era: A Digital Competence-Based Multi-Case Study in the Canadian SME Clothing Industry

Dragos Vieru, Simon Bourdeau
DOI: 10.4018/IJSODIT.2017010102
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Although the literature emphasizes the link between digital competence (DC) and IT adoption, there is a lack of understanding of how DC can be conceptualized in an SME context. Drawing on the literatures on SMEs and DC and on the change agentry perspective, this multi-case study proposes a multi-dimensional conceptualization of DC and empirically tests a typology of three DC archetypes of SME employees: Technical Expert, Organizer, and Campaigner. The results from a multi-case study of three Canadian SMEs suggest that the development of DC should focus on the complementarity nature of the technological, social and cognitive dimensions of the DC.
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To compete in global markets, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need to develop new business strategies and processes involving the utilization of information technologies (IT) (Bharadwaj & Soni, 2007; Nguyen et al., 2015; Kim et al., 2016). It has been shown that the ability of SME businesses to innovate relies on investments made in IT infrastructures, the success of which, in turn, depends on employees having expertise and the appropriate competences to maximize the IT use (Kotey & Folker, 2007; Peltier et al., 2012). The literature suggests that SMEs, in general, have reduced human and financial resources and are therefore likely to be less ready to adopt new IT and change their business strategies (Cragg et al., 2013; Morgan-Thomas, 2015). A review of extant literature reveals that, for SMEs to benefits from IT, SME employees’ needs to better understand the challenges confronting SMEs that hinder the adoption and use of IT. Thus, SME employees need to have the appropriate digital competence (DC) (Caldeira & Ward, 2002; Ferrari, 2012). The ability to align business strategies with existing IT skills was found to have a significant impact on the level of IT adoption and use in a SME (Fillis & Wagner 2005; Bharadwaj & Soni, 2007). On one hand, SMEs need to adopt IT strategies to keep up with the digital economy. On the other hand, they lack employees with appropriate DC. But, how do SMEs’ managers assess what DC their employees have or need to have? The lack of a precise understanding of what DC is represents a significant challenge in determining if SMEs are capable to compete in the digital economy (Ashurst et al., 2012).

Competence in general is a widely-used concept, which represents different things to different people. The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017) defines it as “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently”. This is a broad definition, which may explain why competence has been conceptualized as an umbrella-type of notion wrapping almost every attribute that might influence performance (Bassellier et al., 2001). In the context of a 21st century digitized society, DC is an essential life asset (Ala-Mutka, 2011) which represents a “set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, abilities, strategies, and awareness that are required when using IT and digital media to perform tasks; solve problems; communicate; manage information; collaborate; create and share content; and build knowledge effectively, efficiently, appropriately, critically, creatively, autonomously, flexibly, ethically, reflectively for work, leisure, participation, learning, and socialising” (Ferrari 2012, p.43). This long and detailed definition suggests that DC covers more than the plain know-how and technical skills usually associated with IT competence in an organizational context and accentuates the idea that DC must also take into consideration contextual/social aspects and be complemented by cognitive and socio-emotional knowledge, skills and attitude (Ala-Mutka, 2011).

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