Supporting small business skills needs

by | Nov 20, 2007 | Articles

An  argument that I hear very often is that we cannot transfer lessons from implementing e-learning in large businesses to small businesses.

At one level, I absolutely agree with this. Techniques and language that large businesses use to engage their learners and the budgets and resources  that they have available  cannot be compared to those supporting small and local business skills needs.

However educators in post 16 institutions who are   looking to support small and local businesses in a region might have more in common with the training departments in large organisations that they originally think. I would argue that a number of the business drivers for adopting e-learning are comparable ( albeit not in scale) and when it comes to barriers to e-learning,  both large and small businesses have more similarities than differences.

In a post Leitch world, there is renewed focus for education institiutions to support skills needs of businesses. There is also an increasing investment and support for post 16 educators to incorporate technology in their learning offerings. But how can technology help us to address skills needs more effectively and how do we avoid making costly mistakes?

Commercial training departments have been looking to technology to help them address some of the challenges above for some time. The budgets and circumstances may differ but there are a number of lessons that we can learn from the journey that some large employers have made.

Common challenges and opportunities

Preliminary research from the e-learn2work programme up in Yorkshire and Humber conducted  with over 400 small businesses identified:
> that ‘Small Medium Firms have difficulty in recognising and realising the potential business value of ‘technology enhanced’ workplace learning
> Small business are more interested in survival than qualifications
> that existing e-learning provision is not aligned to core business operations and objectives.
> Learning barriers in small business include lack of interest and time and cost.
> The most popular methods of  methods for gaining new skills in small businesses are from experienced colleagues, work shadowing, provision of workbooks and resources and the internet

When you compare these with the findings of Towards Maturity research, these challenges are not very different from those face most training departments in large organisations!!

Small businesses are unlikely to have their own learning and development organisation to support them, so they will be reliant on local colleges and work based learning providers. Large and small businesses face similar challenges in delivering relevant informal learning opportunities to organisations reluctant to release staff for learning.
Lessons from BAE Systems

Last month we covered the global learning implementation at BAE Systems.

In the late 90’s the aerospace and defence industry was competitive, BAE Systems was a diverse organisation which had been formed from a series of mergers with each business group having its own supply chain and processes for learning. Those responsible for learning had to offer a facility to disparate global companies all working within local systems.With over 500 competency sets in existence  across the business,  it was not easy for an individual to easily map a career path within the organisation. When it came down to developing learning programmes, divisions within BAE Systems were much more likely to reinvent rather than reuse.

BAE System’s challenging business environment could easily refer to a vertical industry sector where it is hard for an individual to map a career path. They also share a number of challenges that regional communities face – disparate companies spread over a wide region each with a focus on their own challenges.

First pass at using e-learning

BAE Systems looked to deliver a  new capability o provide a unified system that would  work across many diverse cultures and divisions within the business. Success depended equally on the technical infrastructure, the processes, the people (cultures) involved and the knowledge needed within the business. A range of web solutions were deployed to implement the strategy. They included a learning and development guide, access to information on courses, placements, mentors, career support  and over 350 generic online courses to address skills such as presentation skills, IT etc. All the resources were aligned to competency frameworks to create structure and support for the learner.

However, this did not make a significant impact on the satisfaction levels of learners. Their first offering

> The learner had to look for learning
> Barriers were created by the way the site was structured: competency management, online course, knowledge benchmarking were all in different areas on the site
> Learners might be provided with over 50 options from one question– too much choice was paralysing. How did learners know what to trust?

Lessons learned about engaging learners

On further investigation, they found out that staff did not want to search for the development they required, they wanted to be told  what is best for me? Staff had a learning challenge everyday – training was not just a single shot in the arm after annual appraisal. They wanted to know how to get quick access to all the other useful learning interventions that they relied on such as coaching, news information and conferences.

To address staff concerns BAE Systems created a governance and infrastructure that allowed disparate global companies – all working with local systems – to connect and share resources that could be adapted to local needs. They also used technology to help individuals and local businesses within the group to learn through from each other.
.
This new programme is about aggregating demand rather than mandating organisational learning – a similar challenge for many sector skills councils and regional learning strategies.  BAE Systems now operate as shared service and are looking at extending the facility to their customers and supply chain who will be provided with the ability to search and use same functions.

BAE Systems have been on a journey towards maturity. Their secrets included establishing systems and processes that would scale, and more importantly flex to organisational demands, allowing local ownership and governance and listening and responding to their customers. Lessons for us all!!
10 Top Tips from Richard West, Head of Organisational and e-learning, BAE Systems

1. Consider everything as a  potential learning asset
2. Sponsorship –
> top down (CEO endorsing programme, )
> Bottom up – family learning, learning events getting all help to get learning happening
3. Focus on capability needs of the business not the technology (however the right technology is a  key enabler)
4. Work with world class partners eg universities as external partners
5. See learning as a competitive  advantage, its not just about compliance
6. New capability needs to consider people, process, knowledge and technology – a four legged stool
7. Traction  – start small but then gain momentum ( However you  need all the  legs in place to be scaleable from the start)
8. Involve incentives and communicate with all stakeholders
9. Evaluate where appropriate
10. Be clear on business case.

For the full BAE Systems story click here


This article was originally created by the Work based e-learning project at e-skills UK and is reproduced with kind permission.

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