Technology is the engine for growth and development, as the moving and sharing of information has become a fundamental part of both our personal and professional lives. In today’s world of the gig economy, there are roughly 60 million microentrepreneurs comprising an agile workforce of independent workers. These microentrepreneurs have income-earning activities that are unlike those activities found in the more traditional employer-employee relationships. Over 6.5 million of these microentrepreneurs are involved in the world of direct selling. In research that we have engaged in over the past few years, we have seen the power of information communication technology (ICT) for women microentrepreneurs engaged in direct selling.*
ICT refers to all devices and applications (e.g., mobile phones, personal computers, mobile apps, and social media platforms) that enable people to interact with each other in a digital world. The tools are ubiquitous in the 21st century, with everything from email to live chats to virtual training used by large direct selling companies to interact with sales teams. These interactions provide opportunities to create new knowledge, participate in social conversations, develop new content, and build connections and networks.
The direct selling woman microentrepreneur creates her own model for doing business, which includes how she engages with customers, the tools she uses to facilitate that engagement, and the way she plans her own work schedule. Importantly, our research shows that a fundamental aspect of the woman microentrepreneur’s business model is at the nexus of ICT, self-efficacy, and social capital. We propose that the use of ICT – that is, the tools she uses to facilitate engagement with both customers and the direct selling community – has the power to improve a woman’s self-efficacy and increase her social capital. Self-efficacy and social capital are two key ingredients for a successful outcome as a direct seller. (We suspect these relationships are gender-neutral. However, our research has focused specifically on women in direct selling, as women comprise a larger percentage of direct selling microentrepreneurs with a ratio of three women to every male.)
ICT’s Ease of Use, Usefulness, and Use
The perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness of an ICT tool are determinants of a person’s use of the technology. Perceived ease of use refers to how much effort it takes to use a particular technology system. Perceived usefulness refers to a user’s expectations in terms of expectations that using the ICT will enhance performance. The combination of perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness suggests the degree of actual use of an ICT. For example, a woman who thinks a particular ICT is easy to use and believes that the ICT will be useful in her direct selling business will use the ICT to support her direct selling activities.
ICT’s Relationship to Self-Efficacy
Researchers have long suggested that a key personality trait of effective salespeople is a sense of self-efficacy. The “I Think I Can” mentality of the The Little Engine that Could is something we have long taught our children, and that same mentality has shown to be critical in the sales environment. Self-efficacy is the belief a person has in her abilities or, put simply, her self-confidence. Reports suggest, unfortunately, that women in sales tend to sabotage their own success due to a lack of self-confidence. The bottom line is that women who believe they can perform well actually will perform better than women who believe they will fail. In direct selling, the greater the woman’s self-efficacy, the more successful she should be in her direct selling business.
We found in our research that women microentrepreneurs who used ICT in their direct selling businesses achieved greater self-efficacy than those women microentrepreneurs who did not use ICT. This self-efficacy has a direct impact on the woman microentrepreneur’s belief in her skillset, her ability to mentor others, and her personal impact on business results. Interestingly, the impact is not only on the woman’s direct selling business but also in her other walks of life since the use of ICT enhances a woman’s confidence overall (i.e., creating skills that extend beyond the woman’s direct selling business and into her personal life).
ICT’s Relationship to Social Capital
Social capital refers to the links between and among people and groups. ICT has enabled social networks to form easily with platforms such as Facebook and Linkedin. These networks are comprised of what we refer to as bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital is the close-knit connection we have with family and close friends. Bridging social capital is the connection we make when we begin to interact with those whom we do not know personally. ICT platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn lower the barriers to both types of interactions. For example, a woman microentrepreneur can easily share information about her direct selling company’s products on her Facebook page, connecting with her close family and friends. These family and friends might then share the content with their friends, thus enabling a bridging effect for the direct seller to reach outside her personal network. At the same time, the woman microentrepreneur could have a professional presence on her LinkedIn account where she builds her personal brand presence as a businessperson.
In our research, we found that the use of ICT allows the woman microentrepreneur to increase both her bonding and bridging social capital. Increased bonding social capital enables women microentrepreneurs to rely on close ties in their personal community for support, while increased bridging social capital allows for making acquaintances with potential new customers or connecting with other microentrepreneurs. Interestingly, we found that the women microentrepreneurs with higher self-efficacy actually experienced higher bonding social capital. That is, they were able to create stronger ties within their direct selling community of family and friends, enabling them to connect quickly and effectively with women in their close-circle community to seek advice and support. Additionally, in terms of bridging social capital, women with higher self-efficacy used ICT tools to initiate communication with other microentrepreneurs with whom they were not previously acquainted, which enabled the women to have an even larger social network with whom to interact for support, advice, and sales opportunities.
What are Potential Consequences of this Nexus of ICT, Self-Efficacy, and Social Capital?
Using the affordances of ICT, women microentrepreneurs in direct selling can monitor social media sites, for example, to get a sense of how customers perceive personal sales efforts and company products, as well as monitor personal and company branding. ICT tools can also enable women microentrepreneurs to complete sales transactions online, with the traditional face-to-face exchange occurring virtually. Face-to-face does not have to be a physical interaction – ICT enables virtual face-to-face, which has become so very important in today’s world. Importantly, the self-fulfilling cycle of improved self-efficacy and increased social capital will lead to even greater self-efficacy and larger networks – resulting in women microentrepreneurs who are empowered to both grow their direct selling businesses and contribute even more to their personal and professional communities.
The Company’s Role
Earlier, we offered examples using Facebook and LinkedIn. However, given the carefulness with which direct selling companies would like to adhere to in terms of online interactions, direct selling companies may want to have company-owned ICTs for engagement. While these private ICTs might not enable the far-reach as quickly as the more public ICT platforms, gains in both self-efficacy and social capital are possible. Thus, we recommend having the constructs of self-efficacy and social capital as over-arching goals when rolling out new or updated ICTs.
From a company’s perspective, we suggest that the two key items to keep in mind with regard to ICT are ease of use and usefulness. Too often, we see companies (whether they be the direct selling company or the technology vendor) failing to heed the perceived aspect of both ease of use and usefulness. With an independent workforce of around 6.5 million women in direct selling, many of whom are engaged part-time, perceived is the operative word here. Each woman’s perception on ease of use and usefulness will vary.
The developer of the ICT platform, likely a developer who can do wonderful things with technology, has to, first and foremost, keep in mind the woman who will be using the platform. This woman may have considerable experience using ICTs or she may have minimal experience. Additionally, we have seen age differences in our data. Thus, while using a new phone app, for example, might be second nature for digital natives, even the process of downloading that same phone app may be very stressful to others. Thus, the key is to have very clear, step-by-step instructions to make the ICT tool easy to use.
When the direct selling woman microentrepreneur uses the company’s ICT, we believe she will improve her self-efficacy and increase her social capital. In doing so, she will be more empowered to grow her business and have a larger impact societally. The ultimate outcome of that will bode positively for the woman microentrepreneur, the particular direct selling company, and the direct selling marketplace as a whole.
*Our research on women microentrepreneurs in direct selling is published in the Journal of Business Research and Business Horizons.