Knowledge management in small and medium enterprises: a structured literature review

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) make up 99% of private sector companies, however “these businesses are all too often overlooked by policy makers and the complexity of the SME leader’s job is grossly underestimated.”

Given this, is knowledge management (KM) in SMEs receiving sufficient attention in KM research?

A recent study has reviewed and critiqued the knowledge management (KM) literature relating to SMEs, providing an overview of the state of research and outlining a future research agenda. The study analysed 89 papers published in ten journals specialising in the field of KM using a structured literature review methodology.

Structured literature review (SLR) methodology

The structured literature review (SLR) approach is a newly developed alternative to traditional literature reviews, and aims to offer outcomes that are defensible.

The SLR conducted in the KM in small and medium enterprises study involved ten steps:

  1. Write a literature review protocol.
  2. Define the questions that the literature review is setting out to answer.
  3. Determine the type of studies and carry out a comprehensive literature search.
  4. Measure article impact.
  5. Define an analytical framework.
  6. Establish literature review reliability.
  7. Test literature review validity.
  8. Code data using the developed framework.
  9. Develop insights and critique through analysing the data set.
  10. Develop future research paths and questions.


From the SLR, several findings are made in regard to how the KM literature is developing for SMEs, and the focus of the KM literature within SMEs:

1. Author demographics

An analysis of the 207 authors who published the 89 articles analysed reveals that there are very few articles written by practitioners. Most of the articles analysed were written by academic scholars (88 per cent), with only 2 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively, written by practitioners or a collaboration between practitioners and scholars.
Additionally, only ten authors have published more than one paper, and only 19.1 per cent of articles are the result of an international collaboration between co-authors.

2. Regions of research

The regions with the highest representation are the EU with 23 articles (26 per cent),followed by Asia with 18 articles (20 per cent) and the UK with 14 articles (16 per cent). Within the 14 countries represented in the EU, Finnish and Spanish SMEs (four articles each) appear to have been studied most. In Asia, a similar pattern of dense concentration is found, with China and Malaysia (four articles each) being the location of the most studies in this region. Of the 89 articles studied, ten Asian countries are represented, and there appears to be a rising trend for publications originating in this region. Australia and New Zealand are the location for nine studies, which is a large number when the relative population of these countries is considered. In contrast, relative to the size of its economy, the North American region is under-represented with only four articles. Additionally, several emerging countries are totally ignored or poorly analysed (e.g. countries in South America and Africa).

3. Topics and common keywords

This analysis reveals that KM articles focus on knowledge as a process and, to a lesser extent, KM strategy, organisational culture and knowledge innovation. Interestingly,analysing their evolution over time, the results show that articles focusing on knowledge as a process continue grow, with the highest number of publications in the period 2010–2013.
A keyword analysis is developed to enlarge the analysis … keywords were extracted from the articles and a dictionary of terms was created by aggregating similar keywords (e.g. “SME”, “SMEs”, “small enterprises”, are all connected with the “enterprise” dimension). Arising from this aggregation, this study finds some anomalies — for example, it is questioned whether a global definition is available for knowledge value added, and manufacturing is identified as a diverse concept, even within the boundaries of a single country (e.g. China). Nevertheless, there is sufficient congruence of terms to provide a dictionary that was analysed using a social network analysis approach to identify relationships within the keywords.

4. Research questions and hypotheses

For the articles analysed in this study, 9 per cent provide research questions and hypotheses and/or propositions, 26 per cent provide research questions only and 17 percent develop hypotheses or provide propositions only. This leaves 48 per cent (43 articles)with no research question, hypotheses or propositions. As can be seen in Figure 6, the practice of conducting research using hypotheses and research questions is improving over time. It is possible that this is an indication of the maturation of this field of research into a more scientific phase.

5. Size and definitions of SMEs

The definition of SMEs provides researchers and policymakers with a country-specific dilemma. “Small”, “medium” and “large” are relative measures that vary depending on the robustness of the host economy.

6. Research methods and frameworks used

The articles were coded with respect to the research methods and frameworks used. The framework analysis reveals that authors rely quite heavily on existing frameworks (83 percent), with only 16 per cent of the authors proposing new frameworks. This supports the argument … that authors may be applying concepts to SMEs that have already been explored for larger entities … quantitative methods are most prominent (39 per cent), followed by case studies (31 per cent).
Further analysis of the quantitative methods used reveals the most common to be basic statistics (22 articles or 54 per cent use descriptive statistics or basic statistical tests like analysis of variance tests). The second most used approach is structural equation modelling (SEM) (7 articles or 17 per cent), followed by regression analysis. There are very few or even no studies using social network analysis (0 per cent) and multiple linear regressions (10 per cent).

7. Areas of implication of the findings

While findings are clearly identified in all 89 articles, and the majority elaborate on the implications of the findings for research (85 per cent), and the practical implications of the research (53 per cent), there is a very low incidence of explanation of policy implications (16 per cent).
The limited focus on the practical implications of research findings is less surprising,considering that the majority of researchers were scholars rather than practitioners. However, it highlights the inability of some academic researchers to address the relevance of their work to an audience beyond academia.


Several implications arise from the study:

Implication 1: Focusing on SMEs unique characteristics

Findings of this study confirm that there are few authors who specialise in the area of KM in SMEs, with only ten authors publishing more than one paper in this area. The low author specialisation could lead to the risk that scholars are applying concepts derived in different contexts to SMEs, rather than developing studies tailored to the specifics of SMEs.

Implication 2: Globalisation, entrepreneurship and business modelling in SMEs

This study found few articles that provide an international comparison. Additionally, only 19.1 per cent of the articles in this study result from international collaboration, and the inconsistent definition of SMEs across international boundaries inhibits the ability of readers to compare entities. Comparative studies that could help policymakers in developing knowledge-intensive economies are therefore limited. This shortage is further exacerbated by the low number of articles published in several emerging countries and the absence of SME-specific topics, for example the absence of studies on the role of entrepreneurs and some emerging topics like business models.

Implication 3: What is an SME? Not all equivalent sets are equal

…findings of this study highlight the need to reach a shared definition of SMEs, as identified by previous researchers. The results show that within the literature, different measures are used to define SMEs (e.g. annual revenue, balance sheet value) and even when the measure used is the same, statistics are very different (e.g. from less than 250 employees to less than 1,000 employees).
Additionally, findings of this study are that medium-sized firms are under-investigated.

Implication 4: KM is maturing but more interesting research that questions established conclusions is required

The results of this study confirm the evolution of KM as a scientific discipline. On the one hand, there is a growing trend towards using research questions and hypotheses. Additionally, studies that use a purely theoretical approach are declining. However … the implications for future studies is that researchers “need to think seriously about how their future research will be interesting enough and make a significant contribution”. Several suggestions can be developed. As [researchers] state, research on knowledge resources and their management “is facing an important epistemological debate”. On the one hand, statistical studies that embrace a positivistic ontology must be developed questioning established conclusions rather than applying a pre-set idea. On the other hand, different approaches like interventionist research or action research can be used to force researchers to “abandon research methodologies that take a helicopter view”.

Implication 5: Sometimes literature produces conflicting results, while other results reveal untapped knowledge that helps us to see further

The findings show a high concentration of articles covering a limited group of topics. KM with a focus on knowledge as a process seems to be the most investigated research topic in the field of KM (almost 40 per cent of the articles). The authors believe that the results of this study highlight both the need to develop more research for under-investigated topics as well as the need to realise research synthesis for more mature research fields.

Implication 6: Bridging the relevance gap and aligning stakeholders in the future KM research

According to this study’s results, scholars must be more engaged, especially with policymakers (84 per cent do not have a specific section) and practitioners (47 per cent of the papers do not have a specific section), showing practical implications of their studies. Considering the important role of SMEs in the recovery after the global financial crisis, there is a call to fill the gap. Scholars in KM must build future research agendas aligning stakeholders’ needs.

Originally published at RealKM.

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