Access to learning is becoming a major pinch-point for businesses looking to pursue an upward growth trajectory. A third of UK small firms face skills shortages, according to a recent report from the Federation of Small Businesses and attempts to fill these gaps with training are frustrated by factors including the existing workload of employees, cost of training and lack of local availability.
Having the right skills and knowledge in place is consistently identified as one of the major success factors in business growth, but with more and more businesses becoming virtual, and with digital technology working its way into every corner of our lives, it comes even further to the fore: ‘as the very fabric of the economy changes around us, the need to invest in one’s own skills and the skills of others is more pressing than ever’.
According to OECD research, there is strong evidence to suggest that investing in the skills of the workforce is one of the most significant factors in achieving strong, inclusive and sustainable growth.
We might assume that technology had made things easier for small businesses to some extent: after all, anyone with an internet connection has (notional, at least) access to all the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. However there are indications that the digital revolution is making things even tougher for smaller companies, not easier.
A skewed playing field?
We hear a lot these days about the vulnerability of large corporates to competition from smaller, nimbler competitors disrupting their business model. So much so that it might be tempting to think small business are laughing all the way to the bank in the present business climate – that digital technology has levelled the playing field so drastically that smaller businesses have nothing to do but simply pick their targets and commence feasting on the sclerotic carcases of their larger, less agile competitors.
Nice dream. And it may be a dream come true for successful disruptors such as Airbnb (now twice as valuable as Hilton) or Uber. However the day-to-day reality for entrepreneurs whose companies have not yet achieved that critical mass will be different. They still face a tough struggle battling better-resourced incumbents in their respective markets, because those firms will have worked hard to erect barriers to competition; barriers that can still be effective, even against disruptive plays.
For smaller and fast-growing companies in sectors dominated by larger players it might feel that they are locked in a David & Goliath struggle. This is especially true where these competitors have enterprise scale, and with it access to resources, data and specialist skills of which smaller companies can only dream.
Size matters when it comes to creating barriers to competition. Category-killer behemoths of companies have the ability to place a formidable array of lock-outs against their smaller competitors. This lack of a level playing field makes itself felt in areas such as bidding frameworks, preferential access to suppliers, pricing aggression, superior marketing reach and spend, etc.
And now new barriers to company growth may be emerging around the key areas of knowledge, skills and training.
Learning technologies out of reach?
Technology can offer answers to these challenges. However, it has to be said that the learning technologies industry has been principally focused on the needs of enterprise customers since the term e-learning was coined at the end of the 20th Century, and largely continues to be so. Table stakes for getting into digital learning have been a big catalogue of elearning courses, a learning management system, and the internal staff to run and administrate it all.
When you think that many companies with headcounts around 100 don’t even have a full-time HR person, let alone a dedicated learning and development manager, you can see how top-heavy learning’s tech stack has become.
There is a world of digital learning content focused on the needs of business, in a proliferating range of content formats – but for many companies below 1,000 headcount, the people to recommend appropriate, relevant learning and register and track learners as they access this learning are simply not there. So effectively, it’s a shut-out.
The pain points of ‘free stuff’
The internet might also seem to offer answers to the challenges – in the shape of the vast amount of free learning content available online. But this is of variable quality, and again, learners and their managers will face the problem of creating an effective learning path that will result in enhanced performance and capability, without the specialist knowledge and guidance that comes from having dedicated learning professionals in-house.
In a world where millennial workers (among them those with the most hotly-in-demand digital skills) cite opportunities for learning as the number one thing they look to from an employer, this has to give larger companies the edge in the war for talent, especially when you factor in the generous benefits packages they are able to offer. In fact learning is increasingly being perceived as a benefit in itself.
The implication of this change of mindset among millennials is that the challenges smaller companies face in providing access to learning will also negatively impact their ability to attract and retain the right talent. A double whammy.
What can they do to compete?
Next generation learning platforms break the mold
The good news is that a new generation of learning platforms is gradually making learning more accessible, more learner-centred and more agile.
The MOOC phenomenon has opened up access to a lot of more tech- and academically-orientated business learning, without any requirement to purchase a learning management system up front. Video learning platforms such as Lynda offer all-you-can-eat access to many basic level courses. But there are limitations to both of these offerings
me:time from Lumesse Learning can give an organisation simple no-LMS access to enterprise quality learning in a flexible way that ideally suits growth companies, but it also provides AI-driven recommendations that perform the basics of what a dedicated L&D person would bring – i.e. curation and recommendation of quality-selected resources.
The essence of me:time is that it supports self-directed learning – something more powerful than any technology product or platform could ever hope to be in helping companies achieve faster growth and better productivity.
Self-directed learning boosts competitiveness for SMBs
Self-directed learning has grown up within the workforce as a result of changes in technology and the nature of employment. It is being seen as a tendency to nurture and support a culture of learning within an organisation, where employees are invested in their own professional development, and in steering their own learning in order to get or improve the skills they need to succeed in their roles.
Forward-looking corporates such as Barclays and Virgin Media (and other Lumesse Learning clients) are moving to support self-directed learning within their workforces. However this represents a leading edge among larger companies. The mainstream lags in adopting this more agile model – which could be good news for their smaller, nimbler rivals.
Corporate world slow to move on self-directed learning?
Benchmarking practice Towards Maturity has tracked the growth of this phenomenon in organisations of all sizes and reports that for management it can mean ‘making some counter-intuitive decisions’.
In its latest report The Transformation Curve, it says that business leaders ‘have to be willing to let go of:
- Control: making decisions on behalf of learners does not lead to better engagement
- Ownership: recognition that learning is occurring naturally in the workplace means releasing the sense of ownership that current management systems have established
- Technology: rather than seek the silver bullet of the latest technology, we need to address its application in elegant ways that make sense to individuals.’
Significantly, organisations that Towards Maturity defines as ‘Top Deck’ report three-fold advantage over the rest of the field in growth, productivity and profitability. However the good news for growth-minded smaller businesses is that Towards Maturity’s ‘Top Deck’ represents only 10% of the organisations it surveys. Much of the remainder, according to the report, remain stuck in the mould of top-down, mandated learning and lower learner engagement. Though the analyst community has been preaching the benefits of self-directed learning for quite a while now, Corporate are actually being quite slow to adopt.
Seen from this perspective, sponsoring self-directed learning could be an important lever of competitive advantage for growth companies. Next-generation learning platforms that support self-directed learners, such as me:time, can therefore be powerful tools in helping your business unlock business growth – the slingshot that any aspiring David needs to overcome the Goliaths in their market sector.
You can read more about self directed learning and me:time on our dedicated mini-site metimelearning.com.