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Abstract: Although relatively few very small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have yet been affected profoundly by moves towards a new information society or knowledge economy, many more are already affected indirectly. Information and communication technologies (ICT) are impacting on virtually all SMEs. Regular studies conducted by the OUBS-based Small Enterprise Research Team (SERTeam) and large scale EU and UK surveys of SMEs show near saturation use of PCs, widespread access to the Internets and increased use of networked computers, mobile telephony, palmtops and so on. However, local development and policy reports reveal a picture of poor management and lack of ICT skills prevailing among many SMEs. There are a growing number of policy initiatives, at regional, national and EU levels, to improve ICT capabilities among SMEs and to increase innovation and the development and sharing of knowledge within SMEs through encouraging lifelong learning. ICT is also seen as opening new possibilities for supporting e-learning in SMEs. Yet, once again, SME participation is very low, particularly among the largest SME sector, the microfirms with fewer than 10 employees. The most common reasons given by SME owners include lack of time, inconvenient locations and low relevance. Over the past 5 years or so, OUBS has been engaged in a number of longitudinal and cross-sectional surveys of management development, use of ICT and knowledge management in SMEs. Drawing on the findings from these regular surveys, plus relevant findings from recent large scale EU and UK studies, this paper examines SME learning needs and the effects of increased ICT-adoption on the acquisition of knowledge necessary for their survival, growth and success in the new economy, and whether ICT mediated e-learning holds the solutions for acquiring these necessary competences and skills, and overcoming the common SME participation barriers. Keywords: SME, learning needs, training, management development, ICT, knowledge management, e-learning.
There is tremendous pressure at government level (both national and EU) to encourage greater participation in the information society by small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This is reflected at policy level in pushing the role that SMEs can play in innovation, in improving the functioning and competitiveness of supply chains and in the wider spread and stronger effectiveness of e-commerce (DTI, 1998; EC, 1997, 1998). Two main related drivers appear in policy documents:
(1) increasing EU competitiveness in the face of global competition (especially from the US and Japan); (2) boosting sustainable local development in order to reduce social exclusion and to build a knowledge economy in Europe.
Although global competition and regional economies tend to be the province of large national firms and multinational corporations, the business effects impact on SMEs. As well as facing tougher resource constraints in marketing their products abroad, SMEs face tougher competition for necessary competences and skills in local labour markets due partly to a poor supply of such skills and partly to intensified competition from larger firms. In its 2002 report on workbased learning in SMEs, Britain’s Learning Skills Development Agency (Hughes et al, 2002), which has identified a number of critical skills shortages among different sectors of SMEs, summarised the policy challenges as:
‘In a fast-changing world of work, the ability to adapt and develop new learning and skills is a crucial ingredient in a successful economy. Globalisation and the knowledge-driven economy require the UK to develop a more highly-skilled workforce in order to compete within highvalue-added sectors of the world economy,’ (page, 14)
In spite of the strong pressures, however, the report also acknowledged that SME participation is very poor and that most training is informal. The report concluded that workforce learning is very important in developing knowledge in the firm necessary to its survival and growth but that ‘there are other ways in which the workforce may be developed and a wide range of methods may be used. The range includes open and distance learning (paper- or ICT-based)’. Increased use and commercial applications by SMEs of more advanced information and communication technologies (ICT) and related services are seen by policymakers as the key to improved competitiveness and a knowledge economy. A UK-government funded study by the Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition (CRIC, 2000) into the future scenario for SMEs of the ICT revolution drew strongly explicit links between the use and development of 1
ICT as a main driver of the new ‘knowledge economy’ and future economic success. CRIC adopted a fairly bullish approach to the future (it was conducted before the stock exchange wipe-out of many new ‘dot.coms’). Even taking into account the global shake-out in the ICT sector, the scale of change to their external business environments faced by SMEs as a result of the ICT revolution is already enormous. This paper describes the increase and changes in ICT use by SMEs, the knowledge management implications and the effects these changes are likely to have on future SME learning and management development, particularly the use of e-learning to overcome low participation by the smaller SMEs.
2. SME Knowledge Issues
Knowledge is vital to business success but, even if it is difficult to define with precision, it is not particularly mysterious. It sometimes thought of as part of a continuum from data to wisdom as in figure 1, which Amin and Cohendet (2004) term the ‘linear’ model (and suggest is too simplistic to describe how knowledge is actually formed in firms). Figure 1. Linear model of knowledge formation. Data Information Knowledge Wisdom
Although knowledge creation is a much more organic and even random process than the linear model suggests, the different categories provide a useful distinction between the related concepts. Putting the directional arrows to one side, data can be thought of as observations or ‘facts on the ground’ which become information when communicated, shared or used for a purpose. Knowledge can be seen as information that has meaning and is situated in a context. It can be learned through formal study and codified, it can be acquired through conscious reflection on experience and it can be absorbed directly from experience in a more hidden or tacit form. Wisdom can be seen as the ability to use knowledge to further deepen understanding and form insightful judgments and reflections. With respect to SMEs, the focus is on two main crucial areas of knowledge – (1) the functional areas of the business, which relate to the people in the firm; (2) strategy and the need to remain competitive, or at least viable, which relate to the firm itself as an organisation.
The degree of functional knowledge in a firm is related to the level and relevance of formal training, experience and the response by firms to their perceived need for capability in the functional areas. In turn, this seems to be related to levels of education, source of knowledge acquisition (college, university, consultant, etc.) and experience. In Britain, some 16 per cent of the workforce and university graduates but the proportion is higher among younger SME owners and those in manufacturing and business services (which includes consultants and the professions). In 2004, the Small Enterprise Research Team (SERT), a non-profit small firm research body (independent but based at OUBS), conducted a national survey on the highest formal qualifications held SME owners and their functional areas of knowledge need. Table 1 summarises the findings. Table 1 Graduate and other small firm owners’ development needs
ICT 44 39 40 Marketing 36 39 38 Finance 32 32 32 General mngt. 26 32 29 People/HR 23 23 21 Leadership 24 25 21 Personal devt. 19 23 17 Understand 14 17 14 small org. None 6 13 11 14 16 14 4 11 Sample (n) 79 206 237 157 262 398 55 585 % 14 35 41 27 45 68 9 100 Source: SERT, (2004) NatWest Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain. Vol.20, no. 2. Post grad 44 35 27 24 15 11 19 15 First degree 37 41 33 28 20 19 19 15 Prof. Technical vocational 36 40 38 27 26 24 19 13 A-level GCSE, O-level 41 40 33 29 22 24 19 15 No quals. 40 33 35 29 15 11 11 15 All
Overall, ICT and marketing dominate with finance in third place. In all these areas, the needs will be a mix of management competences and technical or operational skills. First degree graduates have a stronger preference for marketing skills, which is quite entrepreneurial, but the point that stands out is that there is a consistency across all types of qualification regarding the identified areas for development. On leadership, about which there has been a great deal of discussion in recent years, there is middling interest except from the post-graduates and owners without qualifications. SME owners with technical qualifications, in comparison with holders of all other qualifications, do not have such a strong need for development more effective use of ICT (this group would include those with ICT-related qualifications) but they do feel a need to improve their marketing and financial management skills. It is interesting that people who only have school-level qualifications were more likely to report that they have no development needs.
This suggests that there may be a lack of awareness among less qualified people on their knowledge gaps. This lack of awareness, plus the lack of ICT skills (which is confirmed by other surveys, pose real barriers to the spread of e-learning and the development of knowledge through sharing with peers. On the firm related knowledge, earlier work on organisational learning (Argyris and Schoen, 1978) has re-emerged in concepts such as the learning organisation (Senge, 1990) and knowledge management (Amidon and Skyrme, 1997). Essentially, the model is one based upon knowledge sharing and, through constant and open communication, the making explicit of often buried or tacit knowledge held by all employees. The drawing together of experiential knowledge of key employees (including the owner/manager) and the making explicit the effective routines developed within the firm in order to share, combine knowledge and create new knowledge is the innovative process that lies at the heart of knowledge management. With respect to the management of knowledge, it is important to note an important distinction between types of SMEs. There are also a number of SMEs, mainly those involved in tight networks, clusters or value-chains, where knowledge sharing is also fundamental to their business (as opposed to others where competitive edge comes from the more efficient management of existing routines that are fairly common across and industry). For both types off SME, however, there are a number of main areas of relevant knowledge – the existing organisational and technical knowledge base, the acquiring of new knowledge (usually through learning, training or transfer) and the creation of new knowledge (innovation and operational improvements). On the knowledge base, SMEs face two major challenges that reflect the two main types of knowledge – (1) how to keep the firm’s capabilities, resources and routines up to date, and (2) maintaining the owner-manager’s entrepreneurial and management competences. The acquisition of new knowledge raises issues concerning the source of information, the internal capacity for interpreting and absorbing the new information as applicable knowledge and the use of the new knowledge. The third area, the creation of new knowledge, raises very interesting and challenging issues concerning innovation, creativity, and strategy but is outside the scope of this paper.
ICT is seen as providing support for this process both internally and also in relations externally with other firms. The use of internal e-mail or intranets within the firm and e-mail, extranets or well managed, interactive websites externally with customers, suppliers or partners is the sign of advanced SMEs that are participating in the knowledge economy. It is a model that sees leadership more in terms of facilitation and support than of direction. Clearly, for some SME owners this could be a problem but for many it is reflects existing participative management styles. Furthermore, in keeping with the knowledge management model, it is also becoming clear that one of the most important factors of production that secure competitive advantage is the use of experienced and skilled labour. A lot of interest in knowledge management is more concerned with its potential to transform relations between firms. There is increased interest in supply-chain management, networking and partnerships between firms (Rhodes and Carter, 1999). Indeed, it is usually pressure from major customers that often pulls SMEs into using extranets and Internet links in the first place (Quayle, 2001). Over the past decade, the connectivity offered by the Internet has reduced the importance of physical location for many industries (Rhodes and Carter, 1999). ICT has a key role to play in managing the customer relationship and in seeking new customers. The development of ICT-mediated formal and informal links between SMEs and the growth of virtual clusters or industrial districts fits the knowledge management approach but it is an under-researched area and little is known about it. Indeed, little is yet known about how or whether the SMEs of the future will use and generate knowledge in the ways outlined above but, in its final report the UK National Skills Task Force (2000) was very clear that it saw networks and clusters as the way for SMEs to overcome their skills and knowledge gaps. It recommended the ‘development of new sectoral and local learning networks to support the training and development needs of clusters of small and medium sized businesses’.
Although there are few direct studies on knowledge management and SMEs, a 1995 survey conducted by OUBS among some 2,500 SME owners revealed that growth-oriented owners were more likely to be participative in their management styles and more likely to network (Gray, 1998). Later OUBS
research, as part of a study into the determinants of management development, revealed the high growth firms to be more systematic and strategic in their management development policies, including having higher commitment to development from the top of the firm and identified managers to be responsible for its implementation (Thomson and Gray, 1999; Thomson et al, 2001). These are practices associated with learning organisations that can benefit from using networks and clusters to use and create new knowledge. This is also a process where the increased connectivity of ICT might be expected to help.
3. SME adoption of ICT
EU and UK Regional development policy is concentrating less on individual enterprises and increasingly on enhancing regional value chains through encouraging more small and medium firms to participate in networks and interorganisational communications and cooperation. The broad aim is to boost knowledge and technology transfer and development. At the level of SME policy, the focus is now on increasing ICT adoption among SME in order to:
(i) protect their position in new international divisions of labour; (ii) facilitate more and better knowledge sharing and creation between SMEs; (iii) create new opportunities for 'on line' learning and support environments.
Increasingly, the Internet helps SMEs to participate in useful networks or to pursue commercial and industrial linkages without a strong need for spatial proximity. In a general, ICT adoption and use appears to be related to the size of the firm, with larger and growth SMEs using for more ICT applications and functions than other firms (Eursostat, 2001; Gray, 2003). Regular surveys conducted by OUBS-based Small Enterprise Research Team (SERT) reveal that only a handful of microfirms report that they do not own or use a computer. The patterns of ICT adoption by SMEs in Britain are shown in Table 2, which is based on the findings of the SERT quarterly surveys conducted over the past 20 years. Table 2. SME use of computers 1985 – 2003 (percentages of annual total)
Size (staff) 1-4 5-9 10-14 15-49 50+ All Total (n) 1985 20 29 38 61 72 36 1090 1991 56 71 79 82 97 68 984 1996 73 86 88 94 95 81 1099 1999 72 82 88 94 96 81 601 2001 82 86 97 97 100 88 720 2003 87 91 100 100 100 92 687
Source: Small Enterprise Research Team - NatWest Quarterly Surveys of Small Business in Britain 1:3;7:2;12:2;15:1;17:3;19:4
Despite the resistance of some very small microfirms, it is already clear that the vast majority of SMEs, whatever their driving motivations and business expectations, have become part of the wider ICT revolution to the business environment. This has increased their need to have up to date knowledge of ICT applications and of how to manage and use the massive increase in connectivity that ICT supports both within firms and between them. Over the past 20 years there has been a steady increase in the use of computers by SMEs, reaching effective saturation, with many SMEs moving on from stand alone computers to internal and external networks that facilitate the exchange of information and, in some cases, the exchange of knowledge. In the past SMEs have used their computers for accounting and little else, however, with the rapid adoption of the Internet this is now changing with an increasing use of the Internet to access to information (Lymer and Johnson 1997; Gray, 2003). The Internet also offers significant opportunities for improving competence, skills and understanding through rapid access to relevant and timely information.. ICT adoption seems to be linked to size, industry, and the growth-orientation of the owners. However, it is also clear that the implementation of ICT is also dependent on the type of owner manager and their attitude, the more enthusiastic owners adopting ICTs to a higher extent. The penetration the Internet and the use of websites is expanding rapidly though, as Table 3 shows, there are still important size-differences. Table 3. Size effects in SME adoption of network ICT 2003 (column %)
ICT Adoption Micro Small Medium All Networked computers 38 73 88 50 Intend to next year 11 8 3 10 Website 52 70 91 58 Intend to next year 11 11 6 11 Broadband 32 38 56 35 Total (n) 470 184 33 687 Source: Small Enterprise Research Team - NatWest Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain 19:4
The majority of all SMEs have adopted their own website and close to universal adoption looks likely within a few years. Microfirms are far less likely to network their computers and or to adopt broadband but both these rates are up significantly since 2001 and look set to increase. Thus, most SMEs already have, or will soon have, the right infrastructure to support learning online. Whatever barriers there are to e-learning among SMEs will be due to factors other than technical.
4. Prospects of e-Learning for SMEs
Although some ‘purists’ may insist that e-learning is conducted solely online, most educationalists tend to a broader definition, such as that by the UK Learning and Skills Development Agency, which defines e-learning simply as ‘the support or enhancement of learning activities through the use of the Internet and related technologies. ‘(LSDA, 2001). A common term used to describe methods that mix online and face-to-face elements is ‘blended learning’. Earlier forms of e-learning were delivered mainly through CD-ROMs, almost an extension of the even earlier computer based training (CBT) models, but over the past five years the Internet has taken over. Then and now, e-learning has tended to focus on training ICT and business/management skills as then main content areas (Sloman and Rolph, 2003). The experience of the Open University and other providers of open-learning material for SMEs provides little grounds for optimism even though plenty of individuals are attracted to this form of providing training opportunities. Managers in larger and medium-sized firms are attracted by the advantages of open-learning and, with more than 20,000 registrations, the Open University Business School (OUBS) is the biggest single provider of management training in Europe. However, only certain select segments of the vast population of small firm managers are attracted to this form of management or skills training. In general, most evidence suggests that the managers of Britain's smallest firms are resistant not only to training but also to other forms of wider participation. Indeed, it now seems beyond dispute that the active SMEs that do wish to expand and professionalise their management skills and structure through training and the adoption of appropriate standards are very much a minority. A marketing research survey conducted for the Build a Better Business programme at OUBS confirmed a high degree of interest in open-learning among growthoriented SMEs. In 1988, some 1,500 SMEs - most employing fewer than 50 people - from the SBRT Database were surveyed on their attitudes towards training and open-learning. Altogether 1,488 small business owners replied, some 37 per cent of the entire database. More than half of the respondents (55 per cent) were from firms employing 5-50 people (the target for the Build a Better Business programme), with a large proportion of respondents (44 per cent) employing less than 5 people and under 3 per cent employing more than 50.
Earlier management development studies conducted by OUBS found that one of the strongest determinants of the amount of management development undertaken in small firms was the presence of an explicit management development policy (Thomson and Gray, 1999). SMEs also engage in fewer management development activities than larger firms. Managers in SMEs are much less likely to have formal appraisals or discussions on their training needs (41% of SMEs reported no appraisal system compared with 27% of large firms). Table 4 summarizes the mean score differences on formal management development activities (5-point Likert scales, with 5 representing a very frequent activity). Table 4. Management development practices (mean scores; n = 701) Activities Link to competency Use internal programmes Use external courses Use mentoring Use qualifications Use job rotation Use e-learning Use external placements SMEs 3.61** 3.41** 3.32** 2.82 2.61** 2.22** 1.88 1.77** Large firms 3.83** 3.85** 3.58** 2.96 2.94** 2.68** 1.88 1.97** Nongrowth 3.64* 3.68 3.34** 2.79** 2.74 2.41 1.81* 1.85 Growth 3.85* 3.55 3.66** 3.06** 2.84 2.54 2.01* 1.93
Significance of t-tests: * = p <0.05; ** = p<0.01 Source: European Management Development Leonardo project. Gray (2004)
Reflecting their bigger scale and resource base, larger firms are significantly more likely to use their own internal training programmes and make time available for managers to attend external courses (though these are the most common activities for SMEs too). Large firms, with their higher numbers of line managers, are also more likely to value qualifications. The more strategic approach of the growthoriented firms is reflected in their significantly stronger use of external courses (which tend to be focused on bridging skills gaps through developing particular or sets of competences not present in the firm), the stronger use of mentoring (usually more bespoke than broader internal courses) and, interestingly, significantly more use of e-learning (albeit, still at low levels). General management skills, followed by sales and marketing then production were the most popular functional areas with the growth-oriented firms being markedly more focused on sales and marketing. On average, managers in entrepreneurial firms spent 16 days on their management development activities compared with just 11 days in non-growth firms but these differences were not significant. Nor
were there significant differences in average sums of money spent by firms on general HR development or, more specifically, on management development. However, all these activities relate to formal management and its development and it is unclear how they relate to the intuitive entrepreneurial knowledge required to run a successfully competitive small firm.
4. SME Learning Implications for the Future
There is little doubt that the increased diffusion of ICT applications and pressures from global competition are already having an effect on capabilities required for managing a successful SME. For instance, Freel (1999) identified the major skills gaps that impede successful innovation in SMEs as:
(1) technical skills in the workforce; (2) managerial competency; (3) poor marketing skills.
These impediments to innovation and knowledge creation have not gone away. This lack of competences and skills, especially those developed through experience over time, adversely affect not only managers and staff, but also the foirms capacity to communicate, absorb new knowledge and sell its own knowledge effectively. Indeed, supporters of the learning organisation approach would hold that competitive advantage between firms derives from the capabilities in encouraging and harnessing the development and use of that tacit knowledge. ICT offers an opportunity for that process to be further developed in scale and scope. The use of the Internet by managers on OUBS courses, irrespective of the size of their firms, to seek, gather and use information seems to be determined by individual learning styles and ICT capabilities and varies widely between students. On the social aspects of inter-active learning, OUBS evaluation studies indicate that collaboration via CMC can be very successful, but only if particular attention is given to the initial connection to the CMC system, and to the facilitation of the initial stages of collaboration. Current MBA courses are now concentrating on these two areas. Facilitation of collaboration is best engineered by reflective and interactive activities, which are very important for learning  and the intervention of skilled tutors on line to provide motivating individual support . Internal evaluations revealed that CMC enhances the distance learning media mix in the creation of a learning community.
Whether CMC can totally substitute for some parts of traditional delivery methods remains a challenge for the future. Through online areas for tutor discussion and the monitoring/mentoring system, the sharing of teaching ideas across a wide distance learning teaching community has been greatly enhanced. However, it is also clear that only around 10 per cent of students are really interactive (most read the interchanges in the CMC but do not participate, thus weakening their learning experience). Also, it is clear that the CMC has to be continuously moderated if it is to be effective . This can be quite resource demanding. Over the next few years, as the OU becomes increasing global and the concept of on-line courses develops, CMC is likely to assume a much more central role, alongside or integrated into the use of the Internet. A key challenge is whether CMC continues to enhance the distance learning media mix or whether it can substitute for some aspects- perhaps leading to full-scale on-line courses without the loss of academic integrity. Transferring well rehearsed and large scale monitoring and development systems, for tutors and for students, to the online environment remain for us one way of continuing to ensure high quality integrated student experiences in a challenging market arena. For instance, in the first stage where the inputs are being gathered relations with suppliers have always been important but small firms have often had limited choice on quality and price. Now, small firms actively use the search power of the Internet to improve the source of their supplies. ICT has enabled a professionalism to enter SME supply chain management. In the fourth stage, the marketing and delivery stage, the same enthusiastic use of the Internet has not yet taken place. The OUBS-based SERTeam quarterly survey (17:3) revealed an impressive increase in the use of networked computers and websites also reveals that less than 15 per cent of small firms with websites update them weekly and that less than 7 per cent have the capacity to accept payments online. However, with more firms using networked computers and having direct access to large customers, the scope for small firms to benefit from stronger market information as outlined in the fifth phase of Figure 1, has increased enormously.
The above discussion implies a strong role for a strategic approach (as opposed to a tactical or reactive approaches that characterise the majority of SMEs) business 11
growth objectives, the adoption of ICT and management development. Research into the take up and use of e-commerce by SMEs consistently identifies a lack of strategic planning in the field. The implication is that strategic planning skills will also be in stronger demand among successful SMEs in the future. This conclusion is supported by OUBS studies in management development which have linked formal management development policies and a learning supportive environment with SMEs that have a growth strategy. However, these more strategic and structured firms (the ones most likely to develop a properly integrated strategy that embraces a planned use of ICT, e-commerce and knowledge management practices) remain in the minority (Thomson et al, 2001).The pattern of intense change and uncertainty with only a small minority of active SMEs adopting a planned strategic approach to they manage the change is a familiar one. Indeed, the high non-participation rates among the very smallest microfirms and self-employed that characterises SME response to many small firm public policy initiatives is also seen in the take-up and use of ICT. The findings of a six country study on the impact of ICT on small rural firms that involved OUBS and SBRT, found that roughly one quarter of small firms did not want to use computers or link up to the Internet. For many of these firms, the lures of the information society are not relevant. For the small firms that do wish to engage, the existence of a formal policy concerning management development and ICT strategy seems likely to be one indicator of whether an organisation treats such development as central to its business strategy (Pettigrew, 1997; Thomson and Gray, 1999). Formal policies are more in evidence in organisations which give high priority to management and staff development and to the development of the firm as a learning organisation. The forces that seem to impel innovative SMEs towards this more formal approach relate to the firm’s growth strategy, customer pressure and competition, reflecting clear links between competitive pressures and the need to mange and generate knowledge effectively. The successful SMEs of the future are likely to be those that have developed themselves into flexible learning organisations which, in turn, implies the need for more innovative approaches to business and management development.
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