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e-learning in Small and Medium Enterprises- Graham Attwell

e-learning in Small and Medium Enterprises- Graham Attwell

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Published by: Graham Attwell on Jan 07, 2010
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e-learning in Small and Medium Enterprises
Graham Attwell
1. Assumptions around e-learning in SMEs
Policy discourses for of use of e-learning in SMEs have seen its introductionas unproblematic, based on a series of assumptions. Assumption number onewas that SMEs appreciated that in order to become and remain competitivethey must train their staff. Assumption number two was that one of themajor reasons SMEs do not train staff is due to the difficulties in releasingstaff for training. Assumption number three was that e-learning could solvethis problem by allowing just in time training, taking place on-line and at theworkplace. As such, SMEs were a major target for extending the market fore-learning and for both private e-learning providers and for pubicinstitutionally based providers.Research undertaken through the seven country, EU funded, ICT and SMEproject, in line with other surveys and studies, has shown that none of theseassumptions hold true. Many SME managers are unconvinced of the benefitsof continuing (and in some cases, initial training), either believing that theirenterprise already possesses the required skills, that if additional skills andknowledge are required the workers will gain these primarily throughexperience or that it is cheaper and more efficient to but in trained staff thanto provide training themselves. Of course, this is a generalisation. The termSME covers a broad range of different enterprises, and the results of ourresearch suggests that attitudes and involvement in training may vary bysize and by sector. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest thatinvolvement in training varies by country dependent on different culturesand systems.Nevertheless, in the seven countries involved in the ICT SME study, there hasbeen little evidence of consistent involvement in formal e-learning on ageographical or sector basis. That is not to say that learning is not takingplace in SMEs or that computers are not being used for learning. In the casestudies we have undertaken in Wales we have found a surprisingly high useof ICT for learning. This learning is not taking place through organisedclasses, face to face or through computer mediation, but is predominantlyinformal and social and utilises business and social software applicationsrather than purpose designed e-learning software. The Leonardo da Vinci ICT and SME project has undertaken an extendedliterature review, a series of policy interviews, a survey of more than 3501
SMEs, focus group meetings and perhaps most importantly, around 90 casestudies in the seven different countries. The case studies took place between2002 and 2005 and were based on a semi-structured interview. The findingspresented in this paper are based mainly on case studies, whilst the analysisof the findings is base dn a wider review of literature and research inpedagogy and learning. Enterprises were selected for the case studies on thebasis of being representative of the target group. However, we would notwish to pretend in any way that the enterprises sampled are a representativeor either the regions or the sectors as a whole. It was not the aim of the casestudy activities to undertake a representative study, even if it had beenfeasible. Instead the case studies were seen as a source of rich data, to beaggregated with the other research findings of the project. The findings areconfusing in that the patterns of use of ICT vary greatly between differententerprises. Nevertheless, we believe it is possible to advance sometentative hypotheses about the use of ICT for learning in SMEs and toextrapolate some lessons for policy development and intervention. The following section explains the main findings of the study.
2. The realities of e-learning practice in SMEs
Education and training policies
Few of the enterprises studied had a formal policy for education and training.Neither did they have a budget for training or was there any individual withformal responsibility for training. This is not to say that managers wereunaware of the importance of the skills and knowledge of their workforce. They saw those skills as being acquired through recruitment of skilled staff or from informal work based learning. Most SME managers saw their staff ashaving a personal responsibility to acquire new skills and knowledge as partof a collective responsibility for the company’s profitability and growth.
Attitude to formal qualifications
Few of the enterprises were greatly concerned with formal qualifications,other than in those limited areas – such as in the restaurant and foodindustry – where formal qualifications were a regulatory requirement.Previous experience was seen as much more important. One enterprise saidthey did not even look at qualifications on an application form but reliedtotally on job interviews. All of the SMEs had strong involvement in informalsector and / or geographical networks and these networks were often thesource of new recruits, rather than job advertisements and formalrecruitment procedures.
Limited formal training and learning
As might be expected given the lack of formal training policies, there wasvery little formal training, either face to face or using ICT. Where formaltraining was seen as necessary, or where formal training was required forregulatory reason, enterprises tended towards buying in participation in face-to-face courses from public sector education and training providers. Wherethis was unavailable, private trainers were used and selection was onreputation obtained through word of mouth.
Little knowledge of e-Learning
Few managers or staff in the SMEs we studies were aware of the potential orpossibilities of ICT for formal learning. None had received any informationfrom public bodies in this area. Although some had received advertisingmaterial by post, this had been seen as junk mail circulars.
Much use of Information and Communication Technologies
Whilst obviously the use of ICT in the workplace varied according to sectorand occupation, SMEs were using computers extensively in their day-to-daybusiness operations.Users of ICT included:
For administration and accounting
For business to business transactions (including trading through e-Bay)
For customer communication
For advertising and promotion
For stock control and logistics
From our interviews it would appear that the use of ICT in SMEs is increasing,particularly for e-commerce and for business to business transactions. Anumber of the enterprises felt they were not exploiting the web as fully asthey should and were planning further activities in this area. The particularareas of concern were that whilst the web was being used for business tobusiness transactions with suppliers, few of the enterprises were themselvesoffering sales or services through e-commerce. A number of the enterprisesalso felt their web sites to be amateurish and offered little functionality.
Much informal learning
In contrast to the paucity of formal learning provision in the SMEs westudied, there was a great deal of informal learning taking place. From ourstudy most informal learning appeared be learner driven, rather thanplanned in conjunction with others in the enterprise, and was problem3

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