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Conditions for employee learning and innovation: Interweaving competence development activities provided by a workplace development programme with everyday work activities in SMEs

The aim of this article is to investigate how the formal competence development activities provided by the Production Leap, a workplace development programme (WPDP), were interwoven with everyday work activities and to identify the conditions that enabled learning and employee-driven innovation that contributed to production improvement, in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Sweden. The study adopts a qualitative case approach and draws on evidence from research conducted in four manufacturing SMEs that participated in this Swedish WPDP. Funded by EU authorities, WPDPs provide competence development activities to SMEs in order to boost their production capabilities and/or promote innovation. The findings reveal that the competence development activities provided by the programme triggered learning in everyday work activities and fostered the development of different approaches to employee-driven innovation in the enterprises. The conclusion is that it is essential to consider that employee-driven innovations may take different forms and involve functions that can support innovative learning that goes beyond minor adjustments to the existing standards of production. Moreover, employee-driven innovation may impose new demands on management leadership skills. The findings provide important guidance for future WPDPs, for vocational education and training or university activities that are customised to SME contexts to promote production capabilities, and for SMEs that aim to strengthen employee-driven innovation.