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ICT-BASED LEARNING IN KNOWLEDGE INTENSE MICRO-SIZED ENTERPRISES
The Share Studio, The Interactive Institute, PO Box 24081, SE-104 50 Stockholm, Sweden, E-mail:
Recent studies point to the important role of information and communication technology (ICT) for learning in small andmedium sized enterprises (SMEs). The lack of e-learning is often pointed out as a problem. The present paper, however,shows that lack of e-learning in micro-sized businesses does not necessarily entail lack of ICT-supported learning, anddefinitely not lack of learning. We report findings from two case studies of knowledge intense micro-sized businesses inSweden, focussing upon learning culture and the use of ICT for learning. Interviews carried out with managers andemployees show that the studied businesses lack formal but not informal training policies. One of the companies alsolacks organised training. However, interviews indicate that non-organised learning is well integrated in the daily work ofthe studied businesses. The learning takes place within informal contexts within the businesses as well as within theexternal social and professional networks managers and employees belong to. ICT-tools play a prominent role insupporting this type of informal learning, e-mail and Internet search being the most frequently used tools.
Education and professional development are often pointed out as key factors in the productivity
development and competitiveness of companies. The potential of e-learning in realising educational goals
within companies has attracted a lot of attention. Reduction of costs for classrooms and teachers and
flexibility of learning are mentioned as examples of advantages with e-learning. Especially, e-learning
would be able to provide solutions to learning problems within smaller enterprises. Compared to large
enterprises, these have smaller budgets for education and they also have less time to spend on learning and
training . However, recent findings indicate that e-learning in small and medium sized enterprises
(SMEs) has not lived up to expectations. A study carried out by Cedfop and the European Commission
found that e-learning has had a limited impact in SMEs both in terms of people who use it and in subjects
. The use was almost always limited to managers and ICT based staff. The study included cases in five
European countries and concluded that a number of factors are decisive in influencing development of ICT
for learning in SMEs, the most significant being lack of access to bandwidth, lack of appropriate learning
materials, attitude of individual managers, and SMEs lack of training culture.
The Swedish study reported in the present paper set out to further investigate the use of ICT for
learning in SMEs. This study is part of a larger European research project initiated through the Leonardo da
Vinci programme and involving seven European countries. In the particular study reported, we were
interested in examining the extent to which knowledge intense micro-sized enterprises use ICT for learning.
Previous research has not focused on knowledge intense enterprises and this is, thus, a gap to be filled. In
particular, we were interested in how ICT tools are embodied in the learning culture of knowledge intense
Three case studies of micro-sized businesses were carried out, each business considered the unit of analysis.
The cases were chosen according to size, sector, and geographical accessibility. As the focus of the research
project was micro-sized enterprises, the number of employees for each enterprise had to be less than or
equal to 10. Cases were selected from two different business sectors, where up-to-date knowledge was
thought to play a central role for the business. An overview is presented in Table 1.
The cases: two micro-sized enterprises
Founded year and
business have a
Semi-structured interviews were carried out with employees and managing director in the two businesses.
In total, four interviews were made in Business A and three in Business B. Each interview was carried out
according to a questionnaire guide, indicating fundamental issues to be discussed: Work organisation,
production processes, use of ICT, and learning culture including formal and informal learning. The
questions were open-ended and follow-up questions were asked when needed. The interviewees were
encouraged to be as open-minded as possible. Each interview took in average around 2 hours.
3 Results and analysis
Interviews were transcribed in full-text, resulting in a total of seven verbal protocols. Protocols were, then,
read several times by two researchers on the project team. For the analysis, mainly a pattern-matching
technique was used . In accordance with this technique, the data – in our case verbal statements – were
matched against the factors outlined in the questionnaire guide. The verbal statements were interpreted in
terms of what they related concerning the fundamental issues from the questionnaire, mentioned in the
previous section. The resulting interpretations are presented in the following section.
3.1 Case A: Organisation, division of labour and production
Company A develops, produces, markets and sells a hygiene product for women. Initially, the product was
marketed and sold only through the company’s website – their E-shop – but it is currently also sold
through retail dealers. All, but one employee, are women. Company A has a formal organisation,
structured around the areas 1) administration, 2) distribution and production, 3) marketing, and 4) research
and development. Each area has a director who reports to the managing director who also is responsible for
the recruitment of staff. Each employee has a well-defined job description, which is discussed in a dialogue
with the managing director twice a year. The production process starts with an idea inspired by customer
feedback or by medical research results. The product is manufactured outside the company, involving a
close collaboration with suppliers. The company also hires external consultants to carry out product tests.
Information is communicated internally mainly through weekly meetings, larger conferences twice a year,
and through production, budget and management meetings.
All employees have their own computer and e-mail address. Computer use is essential for the business and
well integrated into the administrative processes. The company has a website, which markets the product
and allows customers to buy it and provide feedback. Also, a company newsletter is sent by e-mail to
customers. The company receives around fifty e-emails a week from customers getting in touch through the
company website. The website, thus, serves as a valuable link to customers. E-mail is frequently used for
internal communication and for communication with suppliers, but telephone use is also emphasised in the
contact with suppliers. The Internet is used for searching information about suppliers and for keeping up to
The development of the product is based on research in biotechnology and it is essential for the company
to keep up to date with knowledge in this area. All employees have a university or a corresponding degree
and some even have double degrees. There is a documented policy stating that all employees may ask for
training relating directly to future work tasks. But there are no specific training accounts within the
company. If an employee should experience a need for specific training she has to discuss this with the
managing director, who decides whether or not to invest in a course. However, salary is not related to
Organised and formal learning is well integrated in Company A. Employees participate in a number of
organised courses, internal as well as external. Course subjects vary from quality management, clinical
testing and marketing to courses in English. The larger conferences held twice a year include educational
meetings focussing on a specific subject. Still, the need for more organised training is expressed:
“You always have to develop your professional competence . I think there would be money for it, but there is not enough time. Ithink this is the situation for many small companies. It sounds good to let everybody have training, but there’s nobody here to backyou up if you’re away from work.”
E-learning is not used by Company A. The main reason is that employees believe that taking e-
learning courses would mean that they would miss out on valuable discussions with other participants. The
need to meet other people is emphasised. Also, some employees have a negative experience with e-learning
courses using a silly and over-explicit pedagogy. But taking e-learning courses would not be excluded. As
one interviewee put it, referring to a recently taken face-to-face course:
“Some things are suited for self-instruction, some require discussions…I think the discussions around this course were the wholepoint of learning for us."
Since Company A heavily rests its product development on scientific research, the study of certain
medical publications is considered part of the daily work for some employees and is encouraged by the
managing director. Another source of learning is the feedback the company gets from customers. The
feedback is almost exclusively delivered through e-mail and it plays a decisive role for the company’s
improvement of the existing product and in developing new products. Employees also learn through
communicating with external consultants and researchers, mostly through e-mail but also through meeting
them face to face. When learning through communicating with colleagues, employees have various
strategies. E-mail is frequently used, even when employees share the same room. This is because care is
taken not to disturb other colleagues and because the person may reply to the mail when it is convenient
for her to do so. One employee describes a strategy of systematically interviewing her colleagues in areas
where she needed more knowledge. Having a good relationship with colleagues and striving towards the
same goal are pointed out as important factors in being able to share each other’s knowledge.
3.2 Case B: Organisation, division of labour and production
The organisation of this software developing company is characterised by informality. Four of the six
members founded the company and everybody knew each other prior to joining the company. All members
of staff are men. Although the managing director officially takes the formal decisions, these are usually
preceded by discussions with the rest of the staff. The working hours are very flexible meaning that all
employees work a lot outside normal office hours and that their work is carried out in their office as well as
in their homes. Although there are definite roles within the company, the division of labour is quite
flexible. Everybody is said to be able to do everything. In addition to carrying the overall responsibility for
the company, the managing director manages the company’s website, and programs and documents the
products when this is needed. The software developers also educate customers and help with marketing.
Computers are indispensable for the company’s existence. They are the most essential tools and they are
used for most tasks in the business, e.g. for developing their product, for internal and external
communication, for documenting products, writing reports, for course preparation, for budget work, for
information seeking and for marketing the company on its website. Demos of the products are available on
the website, but they are not sold through e-commerce because of the product’s complexity and high cost.
For internal communication e-mail is the most commonly used ICT-tool, but the chat-function MSN
Messenger is also used a lot. E-mail, electronic work spaces, and telephones are used in communicating
with customers and project collaborators. Mailinglists and Internet search are used for discussions of topics
important for the product development. Employees sometimes use telephone conferences in contacts with
Learning is vital for Company B and the survival of their products. Their knowledge of the software
technology, on which their products are based, has to be in the frontline. As one of the interviewed said:
“Our business has always implied competence development for ourselves. It’s almost fundamental. You can’t be working withexisting technology in six months’ time. New things happen all the time…that you have to learn.”
All employees have university degrees in computer science. The whole staff used to belong to the same
research organisation and they all keep in touch with colleagues in the research world. Skills acquired from
their education and from previous employment are well suited for their work within the company.
Company B does not have a formal training policy. Nor are salaries related to formal competence
development. Since the recession of the ICT sector during the last two years, spending money on formal
training has not been a priority. However, knowledge is constantly developing within the company. Just as
the organisation of work, the context of the company’s learning is informal, meaning that the learning is
not planned nor organised. Rather, the learning is driven by concrete problems to solve both originating
from customers, from colleagues within the company and collaborators in research projects.
E-learning is not used at all for Company B’s learning. The main reason is that the type of
individual, organised learning implied by e-learning does not comply with the way work is organised in
Company B. Learning from an e-learning course would not be prioritised amongst the daily tasks.
Moreover, employees would rather take a live course because they believe this would generate better
discussions and because it would give them the opportunity to leave the company and meet other people.
There are wishes expressed in taking general courses, such as marketing, but the company can neither afford
the time or the money to do that. Finally, the lack of sufficiently advanced subject material is pointed out
as a barrier to using e-learning courses in Company B.
4 Discussion and Conclusions
The paper has reported observations from two micro-sized businesses, supporting previous findings that e-
learning is generally not used by small enterprises. Our interviews revealed that e-learning was not even
perceived as a desirable alternative to other types of learning. However, the lack of use of e-learning
programmes within the studied businesses does not entail lack of learning or lack of use of ICT for
learning. On the contrary, both cases exhibit strong learning cultures and intense use of ICT in pursuing
In addition to belonging to different business sectors, our cases differ in several respects. Case A has a
formal organisation with well-defined roles, whereas Case B has an informal organisation with overlapping
roles. Case A has a documented policy for training, whereas Case B lacks a formal documentation of a
training policy. In Case A employees are encouraged to take courses in specific subject areas. Employees in
Case B do not participate in formally arranged courses, but some participate in external seminars and
conferences. Although the production processes of the two cases seem to differ in essential aspects, they
share an important similarity in that they both often emanate from customer feedback.
Clearly then, the two cases studied differ in many aspects, mostly concerning the degree of formality
of organisational processes. Nevertheless, both companies may be characterised as having strong learning
cultures and the staff as being advanced users of ICT. These conclusions differ from conclusions drawn in
other studies on learning in SMEs [2, 5]. A plausible explanation to this difference is that our cases are
characterised by a high level of academic knowledge, skilled workers and a continuous flow of knowledge
in their production processes. The managing directors and employees are well educated and they have
positive attitudes towards knowledge and learning. Another reason is that research is central to carrying the
respective businesses forward. Employees realise that without keeping up to date with the current
development in their respective knowledge areas, the businesses’ and their respective products would fail to
develop further. In both companies employees strive towards a common and well-defined goal. This is a
decisive factor in stimulating people’s motivation to learn .
The findings in the reported study support conclusions drawn by Atwell  that the focus on e-
learning might be forcing the development of learning in SMEs into an inadequate paradigm of thinking.
Rather, a new paradigm ought to be addressing the nature of informal learning in SMEs and how to
provide support for this type of learning.The reported study suggests that the failure of e-learning in small
businesses may partly be due to a failure of considering specific needs of these businesses, e.g. needs to
discuss face to face with people with similar interests.
In pursuing this problem-focus, there are at least two major challenges for future research. One is to
analyse conditions and processes for learning in the workplace context of SMEs and to study factors
characterising informal learning, taking place in this context. The other challenge is to focus research on the
further development of electronic resources, such as e-mail, mailinglists, work spaces, chat functions, to
1. Admiraal, W.; de Laat, M.; Rubens, W. And Lally, V., ICT support for workplace learning: eLearning
in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Paper presented at ECER 2003, Hamburg, Germany
2. Atwell, G., The challenge of e-learning in small enterprises: issues for policy and practice in Europe.
Report from Cedefop Panorama Series. Luxembourg: Office for official publications of the European
3. Ellström, P-E., Arbete och lärande: Förutsättningar och hinder för lärande i dagligt arbete. Report from
Arbetslivsinstitutet, Stockholm, Sweden
4. Gibb, A., Small firms’ training and competitiveness: Building upon the small business as a learning
organisation. International Small Business Journal
, 15(3), 13-29, (1995).
5. Thomson, C., Working and learning together: ICT supported learning in small businesses.
Proceedings of the Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference, University of Colorado
6. Yin, R.K., Case Study Research. Design and Methods. Sage publications
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