What’s stopping small- and medium-sized enterprises from embracing technology

By Lyndsay Green
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/17/2000

A few months ago, I had occasion to search for best case examples of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) using learning technologies. A cross-country scan, tapping the knowledge of hundreds of contacts, turned up only a handful of examples. This result was not surprising given recent workplace surveys.

The 1999 Impact of Technologies on Learning in the Workplace survey conducted by Ekos Research Associates Inc. and Lyndsay Green & Associates for Human Resources Development Canada, found 97 per of the 700 companies surveyed have fewer than 100 employees. Furthermore, the survey found that 26 per cent of the companies provide no employee training at all — with or without technology.

Only 19 per cent of surveyed companies use technology-based solutions for employee learning. The most frequently cited were:

•CD-ROM (78 per cent);

•other computer-based training (59 per cent); and

•the Internet (40 per cent).

Relatively low rates were reported for other technologies:

•televised courses (24 per cent);

•simulations (16 per cent); and

•videoconferencing (13 per cent).

What barriers are preventing SMEs from leaping aboard the learning technology trend and what does the future hold?

Barriers

When companies were asked about barriers to using learning technologies, they identified these top three:

•cost of new technology and equipment;

•cost of purchasing or developing new training materials; and

•difficulty in evaluating the quality of the learning materials.

The first barrier, concern over the cost of equipment, is well founded. In a full quarter of the sample, employees did not have access to PCs, CD-ROMS or the Internet — all within companies with fewer than 100 employees. Within these companies, 69 per cent of employees had access to a personal computer, and half had access to CD-ROMs. Only 47 per cent of employees had access to the Internet.

However, the equipment barrier is not insurmountable. Companies report they would be willing to invest in the necessary infrastructure, provided the expense could be justified. Some companies, especially SMEs, are not convinced that the value of the learning is significant to warrant the cost.

Herein lies the real barrier. The Ekos/Green survey found 39 per cent of companies think their employees learn better with traditional methods rather than with learning technologies. Even when the question was restricted to only those companies who use learning technologies, 21 per cent thought that traditional methods were better.

When asked, 77 per cent of companies rated the overall quality of their formal training as good or very good. However, only 58 per cent of companies that use learning technologies rate the quality of training using that method as good or very good.

Why the lower rating for learning technologies? There are a number of possible explanations. The most obvious is that, indeed, the training currently available through learning technologies is of poorer quality. Since we’re still in the early stages of the development of instructional design that is appropriate for learning technologies, learning outcomes may not be strong for a given product. Because the selection of training in a learning technology format is more restricted, it can be more difficult to match learner requirements with an appropriate program.

Sometimes companies ask too much from learning technologies. In some cases they look to technology to do the whole job, when the best approach is a combination of learning methods. Take the example of training employees in the procedures for a plastics injection moulding machine. To find the best strategy for this training task, the Canadian Plastics Training Centre compared CD-ROM users with a control group trained with hands-on and classroom instruction. Of the classroom-trained students, 98 per cent passed the practical hands-on test, compared to a third of the CD-ROM group. The conclusion: hands-on instruction needs to be added to the stand-alone CD-ROM approach.

Effective learning is a function of good pedagogical practice, and a well-designed training program using learning technologies can be just as effective as a traditional approach.

This leads to the second barrier — the cost of purchasing or developing new training materials. Companies need access to affordable, well-designed learning technology products or cost-effective methods of developing them. Most importantly, they need to see evidence of a return-on-investment. This brings companies up against the third barrier — the difficulty of evaluating the quality of the learning materials. There are some new tools designed to address this problem.

New tools

Quality Standards for Evaluating Multimedia and Online Training is an evaluation system developed by Lynette Gillis through an expert consensus process, refined by user testing. One of the purposes of Quality Standards is to help users select from available “off-the-shelf” courseware. The product is published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd. and has received the support of the Ontario Society for Training and Development and the American Society for Training and Development.

Another tool is Lguide.com (www.lguide.com), a Web site that rates online courses. The site offers course highlights, pros and cons, and a brief bottom-line assessment of how courses compare.

What many organizations want is a “seal of approval” by someone they trust who understands their needs. Over half of the surveyed respondents stated they would be willing to invest in learning technologies if the training were endorsed by a trusted organization.

The future

SMEs will increase their use of learning technologies as the supply of affordable, effective technology-based training products expands. One factor that will have a significant impact on the speed of this adoption is the role of sector councils and industry associations. Sector councils are non-profit organizations that bring together representatives from business, labour, education and other professional groups to address HR issues in specified areas of the Canadian economy.

These organizations have a pivotal role to play in the effective adoption of learning technologies because of the support they provide to companies in their sector, particularly SMEs. Often when SMEs look for this “seal of approval” they look to sector councils and professional associations for leadership. Developers and suppliers of learning technologies also see an important role for councils and associations in aggregating and defining appropriate content for their sector; many suppliers feel that the SME market is one of pent-up demand, but market fragmentation makes it hard to serve cost-effectively.

In addition, sector councils often taken the lead in defining curriculum-based training, and making connections to accredited programs. Training that is accredited provides a powerful incentive for employees. Nearly half of those surveyed said that at least some of the training provided through learning technologies was accredited.

Taking the lead

Two examples of sector councils taking the lead in developing learning technologies for their sector are the Canadian Professional Logistics Institute and the Textiles Human Resources Council.

The Canadian Professional Logistics Institute has a certification process to become a Professional Logistician or P.Log. which is offered through face-to-face sessions and self-study. The Institute has just launched a project to use the Internet to deliver the program, train trainers and create an online professional community. Their goal is to create an online development space — put tools into the hands of facilitators and allow them to develop the modules. (For more information contact Victor Deyglio at vdeyglio@loginstitute.ca.)

The Textiles Human Resources Council has produced Textile Training Through Technology: Textile Manufacturing Basics, a CD-ROM training program covering the manufacturing of yarn, and the weaving and knitting processes. The primary audience is new employees with little knowledge of the textile manufacturing processes, and employees in non-technical areas. The content was taken from the Textile Management Internship Program curriculum, and from a training program developed by Hafner Inc. of Granby, Que. Over 30 of the council’s member firms provided input into the program. A user guide provides information on the advantages and challenges of technology-assisted learning, in addition to materials on the CD-ROM modules. (For more information contact David Kelly at david.kelly.thrc@sympatico.ca.)

For more information

The Impact of Learning Technologies in the Workplace, by Ekos Research Associates Inc. and Lyndsay Green & Associates for Human Resources Development Canada, can be accessed at http://olt-bta.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca.

Lyndsay Green is the principal with Lyndsay Green & Associates, consultants in applications of learning technologies. She is the former publisher of The Training Technology Monitor. She can be reached at (416) 966-0794 or green@traintec.com.

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