Digital Tools for Entrepreneurial Networking in Business Development and Competence Formation

Digital tools have enabled cross‐border networking for identifying and creating new business opportunities, developing global partnerships and implementing innovative business models. It is important to study changing forms online networking and challenges that young and older networkers face. Research is focused on understanding networking priorities, enablers and barriers that are influenced by age, personal career aspirations, entrepreneurial orientations, applied digital tools and international business development stages of networkers. This leads to the research problem: Which factors support or inhibit face‐to‐face and online networking readiness and applying digital tools by students, entrepreneurs and managers for using cross‐ border entrepreneurial and business co‐operation opportunities? Research project integrates entrepreneurship and innovation studies with international business research and online communication studies in the context of developing and applying digital networking tools.


Keywords: entrepreneurship, international business, cross‐border networking, digital tools, intellectual property, competencies, open innovation, age cohorts.


This research project is interdisciplinary by nature and draws on the theory of open innovation (Chesbrough et al., 2006) that explains benefits of networking and open knowledge sharing for business development. Developers of the classical Uppsala research stream interpreted internationalization as a step‐by step learning process and also explained the role of business relationship learning (Johanson and Vahlne, 2003). These finding have to be re‐framed in the context of recent developments of digital tools, online media and blended entrepreneurial learning. Networking skills are crucial as the social and cultural framework of family, friends, peer entrepreneurs and role models is key to the decision making process that can lead to founding innovative businesses. (World Economic Forum, 2014). There is already extensive literature on social media and general trends in online social networking but the research gap is in insufficient understanding, how success factors in different types of business networking are linked to individual versus co‐creative orientation of networkers, to their cross‐border business development aspirations, type of the business model to be developed and implemented, stage in the entrepreneurial or managerial life cycle, to earlier experience and age‐related networking readiness factors. Understanding these determinants in the broader societal framework and also in the context of highly knowledge‐driven versus more traditional industries, enables more holistic research approach but also context‐sensitive research results that can be applied in organization development and in business learning. Social media use of students for career (Benson et al., 2014) and for knowledge sharing (Tapscott, 2008; Doerfel et al., 2016; Phua et al., 2017) but also the role of networking in digital transformation of work (Jürgens et al., 2018) are rapidly expanding empirical research areas that give input for proposed doctoral research  but mainstream theories about drivers and implications of using digital tools for online business networking are still in the process of formation. Making the transition from traditional to entrepreneurial university is challenging and requires that univeristies become less bureaucratic and more transparent and competitive in nature (Secundo et al., 2010). Networking competencies are essential for finding the right balance between competition and co‐operation. Doctoral student has the challenge but also opportunity to trace emerging discourse in this rapidly changing research landscape and to contribute to new theory formation.


The goal of this PhD project is to understand factors that support or inhibit successful international networking of entrepreneurs and managers and to develop learning tools and processes that improve cross‐border digital networking readiness of business students. Choice of research areas, countries and organizations for the research sample depends on the interests of the PhD candidate.

Research questions

Research questions are preliminary and will be chosen, amended, specified and tailored to the research sample in cooperation with new doctoral students:

  1. 1. To what extent applicants to bachelor and master's studies use digital social and business networking tools and what are their priorities in these activities that are related to professional self‐development and to finding new international business opportunities?
  2. 2. How trust, privacy, intellectual property and time management issues raise ethical concerns and influence practical use of digital tools for online networking?
  3. 3. How are supporting and inhibiting factors of using digital tools related to age cohorts and business experience?
  4. 4. How online networking readiness is related to local and cross‐border entrepreneurial aspirations?
  5. 5. How readiness to use online social and business networking tools changes during university studies, incl. under influence of Canvas use?
  6. 6. What are the main educational technologies and methods that support discovering and using digital entrepreneurial and business networking opportunities in the blended learning processes versus in such cross‐border digital learning processes that only apply digital networking tools?
  7. 7. How to involve corporate partners to cross‐border projects of student teams that mainly apply digital knowledge sharing tools?


Research methodology is based on the mixed method approach. The doctoral candidate will conduct surveys among entrepreneurs, managers and business students in order to collect data about their digital tools use and online networking priorities and challenges. Case research is applied to understand action drivers, self‐development logic and lessons learnt by these respondents, whose experience of applying digital tools for online networking has already contributed to creating new international business opportunities and to expanding cross‐border   partnerships   or   to   knowledge   sharing   for   innovative   business   model

development. OECD and other data sources about digital literacy and Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) data about early‐stage entrepreneurship will be also studied to create broader empirical framework for interpreting research results. Experiential learning concept (Kolb and Kolb, 2005) has been used for designing the action research framework. Action research is applied in educational experiments, where new digital tools are applied to enhance online networking both in the academic environment and in co‐operation with corporate partners. In the business education process, action research experiments will test Canvas features that support different tools and applications of online networking. Tallinn‐Helsinki joint online teams of EBS students in two campuses will be introduced in action research projects and if possible, such projects will be expanded internationally in co‐operation with CEEMAN partners from the Lead4Skills project.

PhD candidate profile

Candidates should have a completed master’s degree in managements, business and entrepreneurship, sociology, computer science or in another field that provides a sufficient background for current research. Entrepreneurial  orientation,  interest  to  develop international business and/or e‐learning would help to integrate  PhD  research  with candidate’s professional self‐development vision.

Expected output

The outcome of the project will be reflected in research papers published in international journals that will form the contents of the PhD dissertation. The project is designed to result in publications in leading journals in management, entrepreneurship and business education. In addition, project reports and tools for e‐learning will reflect applied results of this research.


The research group is headed by prof. Tiit Elenurm who will also act as the main supervisor. Prof. Elenurm has contributed to the entrepreneurial orientation assessment tools (Elenurm and Moisala, 2008; Elenurm, 2012) for identifying the priorities of different business networkers during their entrepreneurial journey and to understanding the  role  of  online teams in developing networking skills (Elenurm, 2015). Together with present doctoral students he has studied the strategic role of networking in the personal knowledge management context (Sula and Elenurm, 2017). International applied research is conducted in co‐operation with CEEMAN (Lead4Skills project) and with NordPlus partners from Denmark and Finland.



Societal relevance

Societal relevance of the project is linked to increasing international competitiveness and enhancing international knowledge sharing of Estonian organizations. Research results will be applied in cross‐border networks of potential entrepreneurs, start‐ups and established companies to enhance their online cross‐border networking readiness and to offer new digital

networking tools. Online knowledge sharing between academic applied research information providers and SMEs will be also one potential direction of practical application. Using open online courses for international marketing of master's and bachelor  programmes and  for expanding international business networking opportunities of EBS students is a practical application of the research results in global business education.


Scientific relevance

Theoretical contribution of the research is expected to be in developing the  model  that explains interplay between these success factors of online networking and applications of new digital tools that depend on self‐development priorities of young and older life‐long learners, linked to their entrepreneurial orientations and/or management priorities and to the types of business development and cross‐border partnerships they are focused on. The  research project contributes to understanding  face‐to‐face  and  online  action  learning  functions  in the process of developing networking competencies. These scientific results can offer new knowledge both to the management & entrepreneurship research and to the business education research.


Existing publications

Elenurm, T., 2012. Entrepreneurial orientations of business students and entrepreneurs. Baltic Journal of Management, 7(2), pp. 217‐231.


Elenurm, T., 2015. Combining Cross‐Border Online Teams and Field Projects in Developing Entrepreneurial Competencies. In: V.Taras, and M.AS. Gonzalez‐Perez, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Experiential Learning in International Business. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 186‐201.


Elenurm, T. and Moisala, A. 2008. Human Resources for Entrepreneurship: Comparing Orientations of Estonian and Finnish Business Students. European Journal of International Management, 2(4), pp. 454 ‐ 470.


Sula, O. and Elenurm, T. 2017. Strategic Role of Social Networking and Personal Knowledge Management Competencies for Future Entrepreneurs. In: V. Benson, G. Saridakis and R. Tuninga, eds. Analyzing the Strategic Role of Social Networking in Firm Growth and Productivity. IGI Global, pp. 248‐266.


Supervisor: Professor Tiit Elenurm