Shifting e-Learning in SMEs to a Work-based and Business Oriented Topic

Ileana Hamburg, Institute for Work and Technology, Gelsenkirchen, Germany


Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe account 99% of European business and prove employment for 74 million people. They embrace very different organisational structures from traditional handicraft enterprise to enterprises with 250 employees and several branches. These different types of enterprises have different demands for knowledge and competences and so also for learning programmes to achieve them "just in time" in order to do their business successfully.

E-learning (particularly relied on Web 2.0 services – e-learning 2.0) through the flexibility and facility of access and of personalization could fulfil such requirements, could support needed staff upskilling and be an enabler of life long learning. But an increased use and impact of e-learning can be observed in large European companies; in the most European SMEs it does not meet initial hopes and expectations.

One solution to improve this situation is to provide SMEs as users and as service providers with training models based on the integration of learning in their work processes and supporting their business. Groups of SMEs have to be identified for building such models based on quantitative and qualitative criteria because it is too expensive to develop solutions for individual SMEs. These models have to include cooperative and communicative forms of learning.

In this paper after a presentation of results of some European surveys and projects [1], [2], [3] about the situation of e-learning in European SMEs (part 2), some aspects about the development of e-learning models and the role of the Web, a short description of the ongoing European project SIMPEL (aimed at participative development of e-learning models for SMEs) (part 3) and some conclusions (part 4) will be given.

E-learning in European SMEs

European Commission funded survey analysis about the reasons why e-learning in SMEs is still at an embryonic stage [4]. The authors of this paper work and coordinate some projects aimed at vocational training in SMEs (e.g. ARIEL – Analysing and Improving e-learning in Europe [5] – In the following we give a list of factors decisive in influencing the development of information and communication technologies (ICT) for learning in SMEs and aspects that have to be considered when developing training models for them. They are based on results of the above mentioned studies and projects and on expert opinions.

The most significant factors identified are:

  • Training culture within the SMEs – often this is dependent on trainer and conventional training methods one and skills that foster a more independent approach and the use of new media for learning are missing.
  • Lack of appropriate materials – the major part of commercial e-learning software is modelled on the requirements of big enterprise or higher education. Software development is cantered on big inclusive e-learning platforms, usually consisting of a basic product and additional modules.
  • The attitude of managers – they are often not convinced of the effectiveness of e-learning, whereas they still trust that employees will get some benefits from classroom-based training.
  • Lack of time, of access to sufficient bandwidth to ensure high quality training and of user friendly instruments – SMEs do not have the time not the resources to solve technical problems or learn sophisticated user helps.

In the following we present some aspects that we take into consideration at the development of suitable e-learning models for the SMEs.

First aspects refer to the Needs identification and Choice of the right training in the SMEs. Many SMEs do not have a Human Resource Department or a training responsible to identify exactly the skills of the employees corresponding to the business objective of the company. A need for training is often identifies when a problem arises. So the owner of the SMEs should be helped to do this before the training process begins. Once needed skills have been identified, the right e-learning offer which best match the SME business, development needs and company learning culture has to be found.

Another aspects are the Timeliness and Form of training used. SMEs staffs are often guided by the daily business pressure and devote little time to learning activity. So they prefer informal forms of the learning taking place often on the job through sharing experience with colleagues about the job tasks.

Last but not least aspects refer to the Training Courses. The most important subject for Training courses in SMEs should be the "core business" of the company and should refer to the competencies the staff need for their work tasks. Other subjects should be norms and procedures helping SMEs to survive/integrate into the market. But also management skills, accounting, language skills and last not least Internet skills are important topics.

E-Learning models for SMEs. The role of the Web

E-Learning is generally addressed as a means to improve the educational system rather than a tool to enhance the competence that keep organisation going. Progress in the field of e-learning has focussed mainly on the domain of technical infrastructures and some pedagogical innovation. But the European enlargement and the bad situation of SMEs particularly in the new member states require access to e-learning services for the companies in order to achieve competencies and skills necessary to integrate into the European market. It is important to develop sustainable models for market players, such as e-learning service providers, users (companies and individual learners) and market regulators. Some aspects to be focussed at the future research in this context are economic feasibility, commercial relevance, usability and educational benefits in order to enhance the competitiveness of European industry and European society. In our projects we concentrate to SMEs as e-learning users and as e-learning service providers.

Advanced technological possibilities like broadband and mobile learning will change also the e-learning scenarios in the next years and the demand for e-learning services for different users will grow. The emergence of Web 2.0 could improve the e-learning because it is not only a technical revolution but also a social one. For example blogging which is very different from traditionally assigned content facilitates learners to refer not only to course content but to show their own range on interests in topics of learning.

It is very difficult to develop models for e-learning providers in order to achieve a market development with profit and to avoid financial mistakes made by Internet start-up companies. Referring to the users of e-learning, models for users which support their work and aim at optimizing organizational and financial matters of the learning process are required.

Successful e-learning models are based on a coherent, harmonious concept including organisational, social, economical and technical aspects [7]. Benefits and costs are combined with its overall complexity. Each component of the e-learning system (see Figure 1) has its proper benefits which can be adapted to the company (learner) needs and the specific goals of the e-learning application.

An e-learning model for a company describes the e-learning strategy of the company. It is important that the e-learning model is supplemented with a corresponding business e-learning model in order to for provide a framework for the economical part of an e-learning strategy in the SME linking the planning of the e-learning strategy with the process level of the implementation. Such a business model is useful because it reduces complex events and relationships focussing to make e-learning efficient and provides a basis for future decisions concerning e-learning activities in the company.

e-learning business models supplements models and theories of e-learning focussing on pedagogical and/or technological dimension of e-learning [9] and serves to the improvement of the overall quality of learning environments on different levels.

Figure 1: e-learning system

A basis for building an e-learning model is a reference model (concept) which sets out:

  • the learning, teaching or research problem addressed
  • a set of tasks needed to fulfil this
  • the human and computer based workflows
  • the agents, applications and/or tools used
  • the data flows and operations involved
  • the services that will be called and the service interface specifications.

Figure 2 shows how the model allows user needs (related to a particular problem) to be met through a combination of services. A design can then be created based on this information leading to an implementation which can then be referred to by others who are trying to solve the same problem.

Figure 2: Reference model as a bridge between user needs and services


Sustainability e.g. medium- and long-term profit maximization of an learning model bases on the integration of all partial models of the system which should be defined consistently. Some aspects to be considered for the consistency of a learning model are the following:

  • Target group from the e-learning program and for the e-learning providers and the market segment have to be adequately,
  • The e-learning strategy and the planned investments to realize it should aim on long-term or medium-term generation,
  • Costs have to be concentrating on core activities in order to be not very high,
  • The e-learning system should be adaptive and scalable.

Based on the results of the observatory project ARIEL (coordinated by the authors of this paper [5], [6]) we started this year the new project SIMPEL funded also within the EU eLearning Initiative aimed to provide sustainable models of e-learning (2.0) including also business e-learning models. These should be developed in cooperation with SMEs and consultants and support work and business of SMEs staff. First results of this project will be presented later.


The existing e-learning approaches for SMEs are often inadequate and do not meet their needs. E-learning models supporting specific tasks of SMEs and including also a business component have to be developed for groups of SMEs having similar profiles. SMEs themselves have to develop new organisational structures for the implementation of cooperative and collaborative forms of learning. taking into consideration these models. Learning should not take place besides the work but with and through the work. Formal and informal forms of learning should be combined to make learning more attractive and efficient.


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