Problem based learning for SMEs



Project Background
SMEs remain vital to the European economy accounting for 98% of companies and 67% employment. (Wymenga et al , 2012). 50% of SMEs fail in the first five years (de kok et al, 2011), it is important to ensure their survival.  Innovative companies have weathered the economic storm favourably. (de Kok et al, 2011). SMEs are geared positively towards innovation as they are relatively flexible in nature. However they often lack the knowledge and expertise and need to assist them in their approach.

Learning in SMEs 
Traditionally training and development in SMEs has been limited to informal approaches (de Kok, 2011; Admiraal, 2009)  or is trainer driven. Employees are flexible in nature adopting new roles and tasks as the company changes. Little formal training is provided and there is little reflection about how training can support ongoing company problems.  Significant research has been conducted in encouraging SMEs to make their training more flexible.  Many reasons for slow uptake of SME formal learning have been cited; time, cost and lack of relevance. Many projects have focused on addressing these issues through e-learning resources. Admiraal, 2009 found that SMEs were largely unsatisfied with e-learning offerings due to their static nature and irrelevant content.  In addition the readiSME project which investigated e-learning readiness in SMEs found that the main obstacles were the lack of Return on investment (ROI) in e-learning, the lack of relevant content, lack of time to find relevant content and  a reactive approach to learning. Despite this research the SME uptake of learning has remained unchanged. Based on his findings Admiraal, 2001 has argued for more attention for informal learning processes in organizations aimed at learning problems that really matter”.

Research in Informal learning and Problem based learning 
Informal learning accounts for over 75% of individuals and companies learning processes. Traditionally it has been criticised as being neither a cost effective nor creative solution which lacks credibility with employees and does not provide a sustained competitive advantage. 

In many cases informal learning does not have a known learning outcome and as a result it is not obvious that it has taken place.  For example Eby et al 2008  conducted a study of three types of mentoring youth, academic and workplace mentoring.  Of the three types of mentoring it was found that academic mentoring had the strongest association with outcomes and was the most successful. By aligning informal learning with learning outcomes such as solving a problem it may increase awareness that learning has taken place and increase its success as a result has been achieved. It also will allow such learning to be accredited more easily.

Readi SME is a project co-ordinated by one of the partners that conducted research into improving the e-learning readiness in SMEs.  It developed a framework to increase learning readiness and created booklets and informative material to implement the framework.  On evaluation of the framework with 34 SMEs and SME representative bodies respondents  wished for greater emphasis on mentoring and the project based learning aspects, joint learning and network co-operation, improving incentive systems for training and sustainability of training.

An accredited Problem based learning  supported with informal/social learning has the ability to address all these aspects, it encourages co-operation and reflection, it will provide ROI for the company and accreditation for the individual, it is sustainable as it builds transversal skills which can be applied in future contexts.

To date no research has been conducted into the adoption of problem based learning in SMEs.  Facilitated work based learning is a Danish project which examined the use of PBL in teacher training (Rokkjær et al., 2009) Saatci (2008) explored the use of PBL in an intercultural business communication course, however it was limited to introducing SMEs into the formal education curriculum by partnering with SMEs on real world projects which were predefined. A research group at the institute of future studies in Austria examined more the problems SMEs face with elearning rather than problem based learning. The ENsel project conducted by Henley
management college highlighted the fact that “Social interaction allows for co-construction of knowledge, which promotes engagement of learners in work based and problem-based learning” (Stewart & Alexander, 2006) in SMEs but did not examine the concept of PBL in SMEs and a model or framework for implementing such.

The learning layers project (Attwell, 2013) is currently focusing on technologies to support informal learning in SMEs, of which PBL is one strand. Similar to Saatci (2008) They are using PBL” to engage with student groups, who in computing or business ICT are often required to undertake a one semester programme undertaking a real project in conjunction with companies”.

There is a significant gap in the research in the use of PBL conducted in an organisational context, initiated by an SME and conducted within a work based environment. Archimedes aims to address this gap by offering a framework in organisational PBL and courses to support the implementation of this type of learning in SMEs.

Archimedes will be complemented by the outcomes of the Net Knowing 2.0 which is a project participated in by two of the partners. The Net Knowing 2.0 project developed training material to educate managers in SMEs of the use of technology in informal learning and put in place sustainable informal learning strategies in their companies.  This is based on knowledge sharing supported by Web 2.0 and net collaborative practices. It is expected that some of the findings in this project can be applied in Archimedes.

A proposed solution: Archimedes 

As a result of these findings it is important that a tailored approach to learning is developed, that allows those working in SMEs to determine realistic issues the companies are facing and address these with  relevant training while maximising ROI.  PBL allows this to occur while developing transversal skills that can be applied in future situations in the company. It is expected that it will foster a learning culture in small companies thus encouraging a proactive approach to training, and motivate employees to reflect and cooperate.

These techniques can be embedded into business and work processes in companies increasing the relevance to the organization while maximizing informal learning outcomes.  This project aims to develop an e-learning based course to teach employees in SMEs on how to use PBL and to cooperate; it will develop a mentoring framework with formal and informal forms using IT tools to support these employees to use PBL. This will allow SMEs to leverage off of external expertise at a low cost. It will provide practical, relevant training to SMEs. 

Each employee will identify a problem in their company and will be guided through the problem solving process using learning material and a mentor to facilitate them. Mentors will take a short course to guide them in their role. The courses will be accredited in each partner country.