The Role of Higher Education in the Effective Delivery of Multimedia Management Training to Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises
Department of Business Studies, The University of Edinburgh
50 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9JY United Kingdom
Department of Cognitive Science, The University of Edinburgh
2 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh EH8 9LW United Kingdom
TEL: +44 131 651 1309
FAX: +44 131 668 3053
* Manuscript received Dec. 12, 1998; revised Mar. 05, 1999
The creation of the University for Industry (UfI) UK government initiative heralds an era of change in further and higher education. David Blunkett, the UK's Education and Employment Minister, places the UfI at the centre of the government's lifelong learning policies:
One of the reasons for its creation is the perceived failure of the higher and further education sector to understand the needs of industry. Another is the overwhelming choice of training offered to SMEs (a company with less than 250 employees as defined in the European Community) by both the education sector and private suppliers, and the lack of subsequent demand. The extent of choice often presents difficulties for individuals and firms, especially the smaller firm, to find out about what is available and how to access expertise (Woods, 1998). A third reason relates to the significance of the SME sector (European Commission SEC, 1996); since two-thirds of Europe's employees work for an SME, the fact that many small and medium-sized enterprises carry out only limited (if any) training is not just an important national issue, but an important European issue.
Multimedia and the SME learning environment
One proposed solution is to develop multimedia management courseware in the higher and further education sectors which can then be transferred to SMEs in order to meet their training needs. It is hoped that an organised government training support programme, incorporating the education sector and private sector partners, will effectively promote, distribute and manage such innovative training more effectively than current separate approaches in both the education and private sectors.
The process of developing multimedia teaching materials is protracted and challenging, requiring a combination of inputs from content specialists, pedagogy and communication experts, system designers, graphic designers, video and sound producers and system coders. The initial investment costs may therefore be exceedingly high but the potential for consequent widespread dissemination, especially of best practice management knowledge among SMEs, is great, and may help to justify the costs of such developments. However, it is unlikely that a simple transfer of materials will suffice. The content, delivery mechanisms, and learning and communications assumptions embedded in successful multimedia systems for the higher education and SME contexts will vary in important ways. This paper focuses on the delivery mechanism aspect; there is a real danger of viewing multimedia technology as a "black box" and disregarding the social and cultural elements at work which have an impact on how the technology is used (Pacey, 1983).
The term multimedia was originally used by distance learning organisations to describe their courses delivered via text, television, radio, telephone, etc. (Laurillard, 1993). Current recognition of the term multimedia refers to systems that support the use of text/numbers, audio, still images, animations, video and graphics. The following definition of the term "multimedia" is adopted by the author:
"the integration of two or more of: audio (speech/music), still images, video, text/numbers, graphics & animations to a coherent, manageable mix at the user interface" (for example a combination of text, graphics and audio-visual material available on a CD-ROM or via the World Wide Web) (Wallis, 1995). (We use the word "manageable" instead of the more common "interactive" owing to current debate about the possible misleading nature of the latter.)
Methodology and methods
This paper represents part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and International Computers Limited (ICL) funded research project examining the possibilities for transferring multimedia management courseware from higher education to SMEs. As such it is an initial step towards considering:
A pilot ethnographic study conducted a total of twenty semi-structured interviews (appendix 1) lasting between one to two hours with SME managers, SME trainers, multimedia management courseware developers and implementers, and those connected with the SME market in Higher and Further Education (appendix 2). As this area of study is an emerging one, selection occurred through a "snowball" effect but guided by the need to obtain a representative viewpoint from each of the groups outlined above. A qualitative approach was chosen owing to the lack of available multimedia management training case studies and the fact that ethnography "can be used to gain novel and fresh slants on things about which quite a bit is already known", (the SME learning environment), or "can be used to uncover and understand what lies behind any phenomenon about which little is yet known", (the delivery of multimedia management training to SMEs) (Strauss & Corbin, 1991). The pilot study is being followed by an evaluation of multimedia management training delivery to 50 SMEs at the University of East London's euroPILOT project, from February 1999 to September 2000.
Three main themes emerged from the analysis of interview data:
SME Training Needs
Pinpointing training needs for SMEs may at first be a difficult task because they represent such a diverse and fragmented group, ranging from "low-tech" cottage industries to rapidly growing "high-tech" businesses:
"SME training needs are wide and various..........."
But as the interviewees considered the issue further ideas about common training needs within the SME sector began to emerge:
"the whole range of management ….. business planning, financial planning, customer care, there's certainly a big demand for that. All the IT ….. how to use the Internet, email, word processing etc."
"I would argue that many of the needs are common within small businesses. Yes, a multitude of different products but the reality is that somebody who starts a small business almost invariably knows his product inside out ……. there are an awful lot of common issues in fact in small businesses and they're not product related.
An analysis of the interview data revealed that there are specific management training needs common across the majority of SMEs. The following areas were identified as the more common management skills gaps among SMEs:
The reasoning behind their identification as common SME management training needs is explored in the following sections:
A lack of understanding of finance was seen as a key issue for all companies, not just SMEs, pervading through to the highest levels in the largest companies:
" I did an analysis about twelve months ago, over a twelve month period of the sort of enquiries I was getting within the business development area and probably sixty percent of those initial enquiries related to finance. It typically starts, "I've got a cash flow problem"........ I don't believe many managers are very well trained or understand finance as a subject. Most small businessmen, if you talk to them about finance would think about their bank overdraft. They don't think about how finance should be structured. They don't think about the various sources of financing that there are. They don't understand about financial analysis and management within a company and what an impact that can have on the management and the decision making within a company".
Marketing and Sales
He went on to explain how this is intertwined with marketing and sales issues, but was careful to outline the differences marketing and sales:
"…….this question of, "I've got a cash flow problem", invariably links back to lack of sales and that in turn links back to a lack of understanding of marketing principles which can then include whether somebody has got the ability to sell or not, separating the marketing issue from the sales issue……My view there is I think it's a real hands-on problem or issue and I would actually argue that on the survey that I did, if you could answer the financial questions and if you could provide marketing support, you'd probably answer eighty percent of your enquiries."
Information and Communication Technology
Another area identified was the inappropriate use of information and communication technology owing to a lack of ICT training:
"I don't believe small businesses properly understand technology or the use of information technology and the benefits it can bring. Some businessmen have no idea what they [computers] can do for them..……. they're putting in these systems and they're not training people on them. Or they are assuming that people know how to use them. I suspect that what's going on is that if they have got as far as putting computers in they are being used at a very basic level, as word processors……."
It was also pointed out that a more efficient use of ICT could go some way to closing the skills gaps identified in the areas of finance and marketing by the use of accounting packages and client databases.
Human Resources (HR) management skills may be lacking depending on the background of the SME manager. If the manager has come from a background of working within a larger organisation it is likely that some training dealing with such issues as team building, motivation and leadership have been undertaken. But if this is not the case it is likely that these skills issues have not been formally addressed. Another issue related to the type of SME; whether it was a traditional family firm or a rapidly growing new business whose managers had a definite plan for where they wanted to be in ten years time. In the latter case the managers are more likely to set higher human resource management quality standards and focus on hiring multi-skilled employees that could adapt to a fast changing business environment.
Lack of training in exporting was also perceived as a common training need among SMEs trying to compete in a fast-changing global marketplace. Jackie Pillinger (LEEL) had examined some multimedia courseware packages designed to train companies in how to export but felt that none of them were adequate at present as they were pitched at a level too general to be of significant use. She pointed out that exporting products was not a suitable option for every SME but thought that this represented a definite training gap overall.
Strategic Planning also emerged as a particular training gap for SMEs:
"What tends to happen is they tie into a particular area that they're dealing with and have difficulty in getting expertise to see outside that area…………. they then trap themselves into that niche and when the conditions change they have great difficulty in changing with it"
Lack of Demand
Although the interviewees recognised the diverse and fragmented nature of the SME sector clear views emerged, as outlined above, about common training needs and the lack of existing training in finance, marketing and sales, human resources management, exporting, ICT and strategic planning. There tends to be a reactive rather than a proactive response to change, with the hiring in of skilled staff to deal with changes more common than expenditure on training existing staff. Despite this identification of common SME training needs, lack of demand for management training services is very evident:
"Based on our...experience in East London less than 10% "self select" or approach with modest stimulation. Another 10% maximum show any real interest in moving to new ways of getting training ...."
The next section considers the reasons for this lack of demand by considering the barriers to SME training.
SME Training Barriers
The Learning Age green paper (http://www.lifelonglearning.co.uk/greenpaper/ch0002.htm) sets out the following barriers to training for SMEs:
"A recent study of small and medium sized firms found that 20 per cent of the firms surveyed in the UK saw no need to raise their levels of training compared with just 4 per cent in France and 6 per cent in Germany. There are a number of reasons for this. Small firms say they cannot readily find cover to release people for learning off-the-job in working hours. They lack the time and expertise to organise the right opportunities. Individually they cannot influence private or further education sector providers to offer the right education and training. They do not have the purchasing power to keep down the costs of training. Too often training and development takes second place to short-term survival, and yet the business benefits to small firms are tangible."
Each of the barriers appearing in italics in the above passage are now examined in greater detail:
The green paper states that "small firms say they cannot readily find cover to release people for learning off-the-job in working hours." The following extract illustrates this point based on the experiences of an SME training provider in the further education sector:
"The number of students that come from SMEs is limited. ... they're willing to pay the fees but to lose that person out of their workforce during the day is a major problem for them. They are working to their limits, they have hired enough people to do the amount of work that they have got available. They don't have the flexibility to hire additional staff in order to allow training."
The organisational structure of SMEs does not allow them the flexibility to send staff away on training courses, unlike larger companies. Finding cover, or flexibility, is therefore a key obstacle to training provision.
This lack of flexibility goes hand in hand with a lack of time for undertaking training, particularly for the smallest firms:
"The managers wish the workers would use their common sense and get on with things, but don't have the time to train them..."
Because SME managers are under such time pressure, they also lack sufficient time to reflect on what they, their staff and their business may need in the way of training:
"SME managers have their heads down 90% of the time"
"They don't have time and the other problem is that they don't have vision. Now, some of them will never have vision other than the four walls that they sit in, others don't have time to develop vision......."
The time barrier emphasises the SME need for just-in-time training which is difficult for higher and further education institutions to provide using traditional methods:
"They've got a job just now, they've come across a problem, can you train this guy for tomorrow."
The interview data illustrates three elements of the time barrier; lack of time to undertake training, lack of time to develop a vision for training and the lack of availability of just-in-time training.
The training available at present for SMEs concentrates on transferring general management skills such as planning into the organisation. Fairly basic one-day courses are offered for start-up businesses, with more in-depth two or three day courses for established businesses. There are also more intensive one-to-one training sessions, or skills may be transferred to the SME by buying in expertise.
There is also a question of guaranteeing the quality of the training provided. Buyers of managerial training in small firms are frequently confused not only over the amount of what is on offer, the various agencies that "regulate" the market, the providers, but also about the quality of training in relation to its price. Further Education colleges and the Higher Education sector are not widely perceived as offering learning for businesses, particularly SMEs. Woods reports that SMEs are generally uncomplimentary about the value of educational institutions, either as providers of graduates and diplomates, or as sources of training and consultancy and that larger companies make more use of Further Education colleges than small companies. This emphasises the importance of training providers understanding and counteracting the obstacles to meeting SME training needs and to improve their own image in the SME market.
Purchasing power and transaction costs
The cost of training is another important barrier to SMEs, owing simply to lack of funds:
"The managers don't have a major budget for training."
"[SMEs], especially micro businesses [1-10 employees], haven't got the money."
As Woods (1998) reports, the smaller the firm the higher the percentage of turnover that has to be committed to finding out about what training is needed, who will provide the training and where the training will take place. He also points out that while the cost of training is a key factor in "buying" training, finding out, or to put it more formally, transaction costs, are also important barriers to SMEs.
The training budget is also likely to be the first to suffer when the business climate is unfavourable:
"Funds - there is always pressure on funds and the first thing to go when times are hard is the training budget."
Woods points out that the smaller the firm, the less it will be buffered against the external environment. This provides a strong incentive to manage for short term survival; training is viewed suspiciously as a long term investment and distraction that may actually be the firm's downfall in the short term. This realisation indicates how difficult a market it is for training providers to reach.
Tangible business benefits?
Woods also reports that the assumption regarding tangible business benefits for the SME through training largely ignores the empirical evidence, at least as far as management training is concerned. He provides several examples:
Research on training for business start-ups (Westhead & Storey, 1996):
"…….there appears little evidence that businesses where the founder received training performed better than those which had not".
Marshall et al. (1995, 1993) in two studies looked at the link between business performance and management training in SMEs. As Westhead and Storey report, the provision of a training subsidy led to a significant one-off rise in the quantity of training undertaken by small firms and once the subsidy had been exhausted to continue with a higher level of management training than had previously been the case. But Marshall et al were unable to show a clear link between training and firm performance.
However there is some good news; strategy training may be one area where management training results in business benefits. Joyce et al. (1996) found that long term planning leads to superior business performance. Based on results from just over 300 independent private sector firms employing fewer than 25 people the conclusions were:
"Small businesses should plan formally and should plan long term. However, as others have said, it is likely that strategic planning in small businesses may be very different from that found in large businesses. Strategic thinking and thinking longer term is probably what matters in the small firm".
The Learning Age Green Paper correctly argues that lack of cover, time, expertise, purchasing power and concerns with short-term survival are significant barriers to SME training. Overcoming these barriers represents a major challenge to SMEs , SME training providers and government initiatives. Even if the expertise and purchasing power barriers can be overcome through time the issue of changing SME culture remains - how do you persuade a company that lacks time and staff cover to devote time to training when its over-riding concern is short-term survival? The issue of tangible business benefits also presents difficulties as it currently neglects much of the existing empirical research in this area. This has important implications for the success of a lifelong learning strategy for SME training; in the absence of tangible business benefits SMEs are unlikely to take such a policy seriously.
Multimedia as a Solution?
Advances in telematics and a relative fall in the cost of telecommunications have prompted large companies to make greater use of distance learning in order to reduce the cost of training their personnel internally. For example, Hewlett Packard in 1994 reduced the daily cost of training a junior executive from ECU 2260 to 1500 and Olivetti moved all the training of its 12,000 maintenance technicians away from the training centres to the workplace and the home in 1995. Overall however large companies tend to confine the use of educational multimedia to the training of supervisory staff, engineers and technicians (http://www2.echo.lu/emtf/index.html). Even less use is made of educational multimedia in SMEs at present owing to many of the training obstacles outlined above, particularly lack of purchasing power. However there are certain benefits ascribed to multimedia training such as flexibility in terms of time and location, allowing the students to learn at their own pace, just-in time training, and (in the longer term) cost effectiveness, which may offer solutions to the training needs of SMEs.
This section presents a critical analysis of the proposed benefits of multimedia training applied to the SME learning environment in order to identify which of the existing training barriers may be removed. The proposed benefits of multimedia courseware for SME training are the removal of existing training barriers:
Multimedia technology is seen as a way of overcoming the time barrier faced by SME managers in that the training provided is immediate and on-site. The problem with this concept is that saving time may not be the perception of the busy manager getting to grips with multimedia courseware and that the learning is being delivered to a student who is likely to have been away from learning for a long time:
"I think that's one of the biggest problems not so much with the medium. I'm not arguing about the message that can be contained, it's this as far as SMEs are concerned is getting the time. It's really critical ……. no matter how good the product is, if the guy doesn't have time to use it...It's got nothing to do with the product as such as to how effective it is. It's getting somebody in front of your machine to use it. There may then be another issue as to how effective it is then to somebody who isn't a student. At least students if you've got them sat down, or somebody who has taken the conscious effort to go into an MBA course who recognises that that's going to take time has obviously allocated it. What we're talking about is to try to attract the attention of the busy businessman and say, "We think this might be of interest to you" and he's saying, "Well yeah"."
Multimedia provides a more flexible form of learning as it can be accessed when and wherever is suitable by the learner, that is they can in theory learn at their own pace:
"They don't have the flexibility to hire additional staff in order to allow training. ……. So by going onto open learning and flexible learning and delivery over the Internet, we're basically freeing up the system ……. to attract these students."
Multimedia offers the chance for on-site, and indeed off-site, training, a form of flexibility which is very important for SMEs who cannot spare the time to send their staff away on courses:
"Obviously one of the great bonuses of this method of delivery is you can say to people, 'you can do it in your own workplace so there's no travel, you can do it at home in your own time' and that certainly is a big attraction and that is one of the huge selling points of an on line delivery system."
But again this relates to the time barrier; even if training can be provided in the workplace will management find the time to undertake it?
At present multimedia courseware is not a cost effective medium for the fragmented SME market:
"…there's the cost of producing even generic, let alone bespoke, materials for SME use. Frighteningly expensive and no wonder there are no commercial operators rushing yet to develop it. There's no proven market, no obvious pay-back route. Only serious government intervention and stimulation can overcome these two fundamental aspects".
However costs are falling and there is the opportunity of subsidisation through government and European initiatives:
"I think it [multimedia] may become cost effective…….It's the staffing costs that we are finding are running away with things but we're bringing that down…….The costs of licenses of software, again those are coming down…….It is improving all the time……."
The issue of SME access to technology is an important one: many SMEs don't have the necessary ICT to even start thinking about multimedia management training solutions. If it is neglected multimedia management training material will be developed to exist untouched in cyberspace.
While multimedia may offer ways to tackle existing training barriers such as time, cover and purchasing power, other barriers specific to the introduction of multimedia itself are likely to emerge:
The problem of how to "socialise" multimedia effectively is ongoing. Some see the problem as one of self-motivation:
"I think it is where it comes down to the self motivated individual that doesn't need the group contact and the face to face contact ... they're trying to encourage the social aspect through discussion forums and chat lines. Some people take to that and some don't. They're more likely to be mature individuals, or those aspiring to be managers."
However SMEs, who tend to be used to face-to-face communication, may have different ideas (Commission of the European Community, 1998):
"Support is not so much necessary in technical terms but with a view to the persons involved. Learning by doing in workshops or working groups would be important; only then do newsgroups and chats on the Internet make sense."
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Skills
ICT is a term used to describe the information technology industry (computer hardware and networking) and communications industry including service providers and equipment manufacturers. As such it includes training in multimedia related skills. In the UK only 33% of companies give their employees training frequently or quite often and 43% of managers suggest that lack of skills is a major barrier to their uptake of ICT. A lack of ICT related skills could form another barrier to the successful implementation of multimedia management courseware (DTI Information Society Initiative, 1998).
86% of UK businesses see ICTs as being important for business competitiveness. However negative attitudes still exist: the image of the "anorak" IT user has continued to hold back development in some areas such as the Internet. Age is also seen by some as having an impact on attitudes, as does firm size: while all large companies in the UK have at least one computer, the uptake in very small companies is much lower (DTI Information Society Initiative, 1998).
Generic versus Bespoke Training
With the establishment of the UfI the hope is that costs can be reduced by creating a mass market for SME learning products, sharing resources across industrial sectors and particular skills. There are undoubtedly specific training areas common across the SME sector but opinions on the extent to which these gaps can be filled with generic solutions varies:
"I mean some guys are working from their back bedroom, some guys are working in small factories or small offices, some are renting office accommodation. I think the issues in all those place are identical. They're not looking far enough ahead, they're not planning properly, they don't understand in many cases the marketing issues, the finance issues, technology……. So they [SMEs] are many and varied but I think the problems they have got are very common. I don't think you have to write a separate plan out for each individual SME."
"When you go to talk to them and you tell them about the sort of generalised courses that we tend to run in an institution like that, they will actually tie down to particular PC's or outcomes and say, 'we want that but we don't want that, we don't do that..' rather than taking a more generalised view of it. We would tend to say if they have a wider knowledge then you get more leeway if the market changes whereas they tend to be far more specific in what they're looking for. They've got a job just now, they've come across a problem, can you train this guy for tomorrow."
Generic solutions to common training needs may be difficult to apply effectively across the fragmented and diverse SME market. In particular the smallest companies are likely to require training solutions geared towards own particular niche market; this has implications for the cost of providing such training and raises the issue of the need for bespoke training as another possible barrier to the effective introduction of multimedia management courseware.
Although multimedia management courseware may go some way to removing the time, and cover barriers it does not remove the purchasing power barrier and also brings some barriers of its own such as the issue of "socialising" multimedia, a lack of ICT skills, negative attitudes towards ICT and the need for bespoke training. Business schools developing multimedia courseware for this sector need to be aware that a simple transfer of existing materials will not suffice, and that although some training barriers may be partially removed other medium-specific ones are likely to appear.
The SME sector is diverse and fragmented but common training needs do exist. The lack of training and demand for training services noticeable in the majority of SMEs can be explained by examining training barriers. The Learning Age Green Paper correctly states that lack of cover, time, expertise, purchasing power and concerns with short-term survival are significant barriers to SME training. Overcoming these barriers represents a major challenge to SME training providers - how do you persuade a company that lacks flexibility to devote time to training when its over-riding concern is short-term survival? This requires a major shift in SME attitudes towards learning and in business schools' understanding of the SME learning environment. The issue of tangible business benefits raised in the Green Paper is more open to debate as it neglects much of the existing empirical research in this area. In the absence of visible business benefits there may be a reluctance on the part of SMEs to adopt a lifelong learning approach.
Multimedia management courseware may go some way to removing the time and cover barriers to SME training. However it does not currently remove the purchasing power barrier and also brings with it some medium-specific barriers (the issue of how to "socialise" multimedia, the lack of ICT skills, negative attitudes towards ICT and the need for bespoke training). Business schools developing multimedia courseware for this sector should be aware that a simple transfer of existing materials will not suffice, and that although some training barriers may be partially removed other medium-specific ones are likely to appear. The main issue for multimedia management training providers in the first instance should not focus primarily on developing appropriate content and pedagogical structure suited to the SME learning environment. The most important question is how to change the learning culture of SMEs and increase their awareness and demand for management training resources, be they multimedia, traditional or a combined offering. This is not to say that the development of appealing and relevant multimedia courseware for the SME sector is unimportant. Rather there is a more fundamental issue at hand if the delivery of multimedia management training to SMEs is to prove effective: that of promoting training to an as yet unresponsive SME sector. This can only be achieved through close collaboration between government, higher and further education and particularly the SME end users during the development of UfI and similar initiatives. As Laurillard (1993) states:
"The development of media-based materials is important, but delivery is paramount."
Appendix 1: Semi Structured Interview Schedule
Brief summary of project.
Purpose of this meeting: an examination of the SME learning environment.
2. SME training needs
What do you see as the main training needs for SMEs?
How are you addressing these needs?
What do you see as the main obstacles to meeting training needs?
3. Multimedia training
What do you understand by the term multimedia?
Have you considered using multimedia as a training aid?
What do you consider to be the main obstacles to implementing multimedia training?
4. University collaboration
Have you heard about the University For Industry Initiative?
Would you be interested in finding out more about it?
Would you be interested in forming collaborative links with a university/FE college?
What do you see as the main differences between training company employees and university courses?
5. Further contact
Would you be interested in follow-up interviews/further contact?
Appendix 2: List of interviewees
HR Manager, SME (anonymity requested)
Jim Gordon, Finance Director, Nimmo's Colour Printers
Eric Denton, Business Development Services Manager, Edinburgh Business Development Ltd., Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce
Jackie Pillinger, Multimedia Designer, Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise
Ian Graham, Multimedia Designer and Operations Management Lecturer, University of Edinburgh
Sue Godfrey, SME Project Manager, Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise
Bill Steel, Distance Learning Coordinator, Bell College of Technology
Anne Gibb, Enterprise Development Manager, Lauder College
Naomi Lawless, Lecturer in Innovative SME Development, The Open University Business School
John S Allan, Lecturer in Innovative SME Development, The Open University Business School
Margaret Allen, Director of "Graduates for Growth" (in SMEs), Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce
Simon Collinson, Japanese Education and Technology Services, University of Edinburgh
Soren Jensen, IT Manager, Scottish Prison Office
Colin Reith, Business Development Manager, British Telecom
Tony Myhill, Director, NETg (multimedia management training providers)
John Sivak, Director, Middlesex University Business and Technology School
Martin Laycock, Director, Business Development Centre, University of East London (two interviews)
Dr. David Hall, Director, Thames Gateway Technology Centre, University of East London (two interviews)