|e-Learning in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is still at an embryonic stage according to a survey sponsored by the European Commission's Directorate General Education and Culture. According to the survey, while most large companies have integrated e-learning into their training portfolio, SMEs are lagging behind.
Unisys and its partner EuroPACE conducted the strategic study on e-learning in continuing vocational training, particularly at the workplace, with focus on SMEs. They have found:
Timeliness: SMEs devote little time to the learning activity: they are often guided by the daily pressure of the business. A need for training will only be identified when a problem arises. Therefore, SMEs will look for a quick fix, allowing them to proceed with the business. They need just-in-time, bite-sized, to the point learning.
Informal/Collaborative Learning: SMEs have specific constraints: the same person has several responsibilities, most workers have little time and will look for only what they need, they will need it as soon as possible and very specific to their needs. No standard training will match 100% of the needs of individuals from SMEs. Most of the learning in an SME is informal, i.e., it often takes place on the job, through a 'sharing of knowledge' rather than in a 'training.' When confronted with a need, the SME worker will usually contact his network of reference people whom he trusts. He will look for an expert in the subject matter who will answer his specific questions.
Needs Identification: Most SMEs do not have a person responsible for training, nor a Human Resource Department aligning the skills of the employees to the strategic objectives of the enterprise. SMEs are often not aware of the development needs of their employees. Before SME owners can talk of development needs, they might need help to identify where they want to be, and where they are today. e-Learning providers that meet some success will usually provide services to identify the needs at the level of the company and of the individual and explore with them the different learning options that are available on the market. This first step in the learning process usually takes place in a 2-hours face-to-face meeting. The proximity of the service provider and his good understanding of the local language are a must to support the definition of the needs.
Guidance in the Learning Offer: Once the skills development needs have been identified, the potential learning solutions must be analyzed and a training scenario has to be created. The existing e-learning offer is perceived as abundant, with little information on its adequacy and effectiveness. SMEs want support to help them find what learning opportunity will best match their business and development needs.
Quick Assessment Tools: One of the perceived advantages of e-learning is the quality of delivery - it will be the same wherever it is delivered, independently of the instructor or the time he had to prepare his course. Yet, determining the quality of an e-learning course is one of the major difficulties. Books are perceived as easier to assess: you can open a book, have a quick look through it and decide on the value of its contents. How can an SME owner make a quick assessment of an e-learning course? Easy access to figures and benchmarking information, quick assessment tools, as well as clear standards would provide SMEs with objective decision criteria.
Awareness Raising: SMEs are not well aware of what e-learning is. They will not be interested in e-learning as such, as it is only one of the means to deliver knowledge. They need to understand what the development of the skills of their workers could bring to them and where e-learning fits in the picture. Information should be very practical, providing SME owners with guidance for the assessment of the skills of their employees, for the definition of the development needs, for the learning options that will best meet these needs. Today, SME owners are not convinced of the effectiveness of e-learning, whereas they still trust that employees will get some benefits from classroom-based trainings. An awareness raising campaign will only be effective when there is a practical, user-friendly, easy-to-use offer behind it.
Contents: When analyzing the subjects that should be covered by e-learning, all the sources agree that the most important subject is the core business of the enterprise - everyday business. The current training offer is often evaluated as 'too horizontal,' covering the overall management and administration guidelines but not delivering the expertise workers need to do their job. SMEs do not have the critical mass to develop e-learning courses or have them developed for their sole use. They clearly need to be part of a larger learning community they can trust. Yet, SMEs are afraid to share knowledge and give away their business secrets: in some cultures, they will not share industry specific information. Besides the core business, the skills that need to be developed in SMEs are the ones that will give them the capabilities to survive in the market. Therefore, the learning offer should also cover general skills, such as management skills, accounting, office tools, language skills, etc.
Customization of Course: SMEs need courses that respond to their specific needs. Several options could be explored for the customization of course content. User-friendly authoring tools would enable the SMEs to tailor existing courses for their own environment.
Information Network: First of all, the information needs to be shared within the enterprise. SMEs often do not have documented procedures. They need to be aware of the importance of managing and sharing the knowledge and culture inside the company, e.g., via an intranet.
Sustainable Solutions: SMEs require solutions that will work in time and will preferably work with long established relationships.
Infrastructure: Though a lot of effort has been made in the provision of infrastructure, SMEs do not have the necessary infrastructure for e-learning and broadband connectivity. This continues to be one of the major barriers.
User-Friendly Instruments: The learning tools should be easy to install and use. SMEs do not have the time nor the resources to solve technical problems or learn sophisticated users' manuals. Installation and operations of the e-learning solutions should be simple and quick.
Access To Matter Experts And Support: A web course with no human interaction is a course where you have no opportunity to ask questions. Traditional learning has a considerable social aspect, which needs to be reproduced in a web-based environment. Students must have access to an expert who can answer their questions. The credibility of the expert needs to be established.
Cost of Learning: Learning has a cost, and the SME owner does not always consider it as an investment for the future. Depending on the size and turnover of the organization, learning could easily become an activity that is out of reach. The enterprise needs to pay both the salary of an 'unproductive worker' and the cost of the training. Not all SMEs consider that the development of the skills of their employees is part of their mission.
Individual Follow Up: E-learning requires more self-discipline than traditional classroom-based trainings. There is a risk to increase the skills gap between individuals: some could give up learning whereas others could become learning 'geeks.' An early education of the lifelong learner and an individual follow up should prevent the risk of having too high a 'drop out' rate.
Knowledge of Return on Investment (ROI): An enterprise should constantly evaluate how learning programs can help it achieve its business goals. The main objective of an SME when purchasing IT software or services is to improve the performance of its staff, hence have a better bottom line. Today, there is no 'rule of thumb' to calculate the effective ROI of e-learning, and experts have different opinions on the cost of e-learning.
Computer Literacy: Many SMEs are not using computers; some of their employees have never worked with a computer before.