Northern Ireland's small businesses, which make up about 95 per cent of industry in the province, are falling behind other European countries and even Turkey and North Africa in staff training and development.
Trevor Morrow of Ulster University's School of International Business, speaking at the annual conference of the Irish Academy of Management at UU's Magee campus, said: "The message from our research is clear. Northern Ireland's small and medium-sized enterprises sector has a long way to go to catch up with its European and international competitors."
In footballing terms, business in the United Kingdom and Ireland would be considered premier league or first division, but many small businesses in Northern Ireland are third division or non-league, Dr Morrow said.
His team discovered a lack of integration between human resources and corporate strategy. "It's very difficult to ascertain what skills and training you need if you're not aware of what the corporate strategy is," he said.
SMEs in other countries had been quicker to learn from the more sophisticated human resource management systems in big companies, the UU team found. "In Turkey and North Africa, in clothing and textiles, the small business sector has made significant improvements, learning lessons from inward investors that we haven't learned," Dr Morrow said.
This was despite the fact that the province had attracted inward investors with world-class human resource tools and techniques.
He suggested that one brake on development might be the preponderance of family firms in Northern Ireland.
"Second or third-generation family-run firms can lack the breadth of vision and experience to keep up with contemporary developments in human resource management," he said. "They have problems offering clear career progression for staff who are not family."
Dr Morrow also reported an increasing interest from family-run SMEs in management training. "Increasingly, these SMEs are realising that without access to top-flight management expertise and knowledge, they will become more and more uncompetitive in the marketplace."
Encouragement had also come from policy-makers in other countries, he said. There could be improvements in Northern Ireland after the launch of a single economic development agency for the province, he predicted.