Research on entrepreneurial learning tends to focus on formal environments while entrepreneurs typically learn in non-formal environments such as business incubators. Despite this, incubators are rarely designed with learning in mind. Recent calls for the application of learning theories in incubation research along with a lack of prior studies on the subject led to informal learning theory as the lens to understand the qualitatively different ways in which social entrepreneurs experience learning within an incubator. The research was conducted in South Africa, characterised dichotomously by a relatively advanced economy with an immense social need.
Through twenty phenomenographic interviews, eight conceptions of incubator-based learning were found: learnability, business concepts, entrepreneur concepts, practical application of knowledge, business transformation, personal transformation, having a champion, and co-created learning. Previous phenomenographic research has focused on formal learning environments but utilising the methodology in a non-formal learning environment led to two differences in commonly held conceptions of learning – no evidence of memorisation and two additional collective-focused conceptions. The eight conceptions were then used to create a model of the informal learning experience of social entrepreneurs within incubation programmes, contributing to the theory by demonstrating that this learning experience is different than informal learning experiences in other contexts.
Further analysis showed the conceptions are experienced in five varying ways, characterised as learning by the archetypes of Maximiser, Transformer, Collaborator, Student, and Consumer. As a concept, learning archetypes are not new, but the creation and application of learning archetypes in the context of incubation programmes is novel. A phenomenographic outcome space mapped the characteristics of each archetype across each conception, visualising how different archetypes experience each conception, and therefore the overall experience of learning, in a distinct way.
Incubators can utilise the findings to better support social entrepreneurs’ learning by providing content relevant to social entrepreneurs, focusing on participants’ identities as learners, and offering flexible and customisable programmes. Additionally, to create a more collaborative learning environment, incubators should consider relationship dynamics and learning potential when selecting participants.