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Promoting Workplace Learning with ICT: Modes and Models for Organisational Change

Jo Pye and the Marchmont Observatory*

University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Edinburgh, 20-23 September 2000



The contribution of information and communications technologies (ICTs) towards stimulating collaborative learning is by now well established in academic institutions throughout the world. Rapid expansion of global information networks, and complementary advances in software applications, have reinforced the potential of innovative technologies to foster educational communities worldwide. Higher learning to degree level and beyond in universities has progressed in parallel with developing online environments increasingly able to deliver flexible learning to dispersed students remote from centre.

Not so universally recognised however are the capabilities of ICT rich environments to transform the experiences of learners in the workplace. As with academic communities benefits are gained individually and collaboratively, and positive facilitation of employee development also acts as an effective vehicle for enterprise wide cultural change. More commonplace in the US1 , as yet online learning is present only within a small minority of European companies - mainly large organisations with continuing investments in a robust ICT infrastructure, dedicated human resource development departments and training budgets. In recent years however there has been an increasing shift of focus towards staff development provision in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), exemplified within Europe by the European Social Fund Objective 4 ADAPT programme which also seeks to embed the use of innovative technologies in SMEs.

The UK government is promoting the concept of lifelong learning to SMEs as an integral part of their strategic business planning for organisational development. According to recent labour market statistics (summer 2000), SMEs in Britain account for over 99.2% of all enterprises, 45.7% of employment and 38% of turnover. Yet the full wealth generating potential of SMEs is not being realised, which endangers UK's competitive position. In comparison with Europe, SMEs provide a smaller share of total employment (58% versus 66% in Europe), turnover is a third lower than the European average of 65%, and their productivity is up to 30% less than their French and German counterparts. Some analysts attribute the poor support in the UK of workplace training to the constant change of national training systems when compared to Germany and Denmark over the past forty years.

The developing UK context

In the United Kingdom a new focus on the training needs of SME employees is being launched through the developing University for Industry (UfI), which is about to launch in autumn 2000. Under the UK's Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), the UfI remit seeks to extend and widen access to learning opportunities for 'non-traditional' learners at home and in the workplace. Extending the infrastructure opens up a range of challenges to both established and new training providers to reach much more diverse learning communities. To guarantee cost-effective connectivity and quality standards is of paramount importance to win and retain learners in the SME workplace, where training cultures and frameworks often demand significant organisational change.

UfI will be particularly important for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that face particular problems in ensuring that their employees have access to the skills and knowledge they need. Difficulties involved in accessing appropriate training can mean that there is little or no effective skills or management development in SMEs, thus making it difficult to improve performance and meet business objectives. UfI's mission is to promote employability for individuals and competitiveness for companies. Strategic objectives are to stimulate the demand for lifelong learning by businesses and individuals and to broker the provision of learning opportunities to meet skills needs. UfI will aim in particular to:

UfI aims to put the learner first with a customer approach to learning, both in the design and content of learning and its delivery. Its customers will be businesses, including the smallest companies, and individuals. For SMEs, UfI will allow employees, and indeed employers, easy access to learning in the workplace with complete flexibility in timing. UfI's objective is to help people improve their knowledge and skills in a way that best suits their lifestyles and the needs of their businesses. However, UfI will not be a provider or educational institution in the traditional sense, and will not have its own students or lecturers. Instead, UfI's products and services will be delivered through partners in a range of areas, encompassing the education and training sectors, employers, trade unions and local, regional and national government bodies.

The piloting of the UfI in the UK has been reinforced by parallel Government initiatives within an overarching review of post-16 education, which is heralded as the most significant shift to national VET policy and systems to be implemented in many years. The Department for Education and Employment's 1999 Learning to Succeed2 White Paper, following on from The Learning Age3 Green Paper, announced widespread impending changes to the UK vocational education and training system. Amongst the many far-reaching developments will be the introduction of the national and local Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs), to take over from the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) in spring 2001. The revamped Small Business Service is also poised to inherit responsibilities for SME advice and guidance from Business Links within the same time scale. These three agencies will take joint responsibility for promoting workplace learning in organisations large and small through innovative information and communications technologies (ICTs). Developments have the potential to 'dramatically open up the post-19 learning market, where there is the prospect of genuine innovation'4.

The Marchmont Observatory

The Marchmont Project at the University of Exeter is the only European Social Fund ADAPT project to operate at national level in the United Kingdom. Its objectives are:

Like other ADAPT research in Europe it is geared towards encouraging innovative training programmes for SMEs, with a particular remit in Britain to underpin and support UfI development. Unlike other UK projects, its project scope includes the establishment of an Observatory to support the Government's current lifelong learning initiatives. The Marchmont Observatory was conceived to make the links between theory and practice in SME learning outcomes and highlight what works and why, especially in the context of electronic learning using ICTs. Observatory research is geared towards exploring issues relating to the uptake of innovative ICT-based learning in UK small businesses and to identify, analyse and disseminate good practice.

Marchmont has been charting successful learning achievements with a wide range of public and private sector partners around the UK to inform UfI development since summer 1999. Project partners reflect the multilayered Marchmont approach and include national private and public sector organisations from the media, trades unions, industry-specific and government training bodies, as well as regional higher and further education institutions that actively investigate the potential of ICT for transforming organisational cultures in SMEs. By creating links between published research and reported practice amongst its partners and wider network, the Observatory draws on the active participation of policy makers and practitioners to disseminate findings and experience amongst training providers and intermediaries, pilot projects, learning centres and policy makers. At this important developmental stage of the post-16 review of UK education and training, Marchmont research contributes not only to the UfI but to the future shape of adult lifelong learning in the 21st century in the UK.

The Observatory is mindful of the transnational aspect of the ADAPT programme, and soon after its programme started sought to establish links with other research observatories outside Britain to align and exchange good practice in workplace learning. Although a number of monitoring units had been set up under ADAPT Rounds 1 and 2 across Europe, these were found to be mainly regional and sectoral in the scope of their activities and short-term in their funding cycles. More useful contacts have been established with wider networks of researchers both in Europe and beyond, with like-minded umbrella organisations that carry out similar roles and functions to the Marchmont Observatory. In Europe, groups such as the European Consortium of Learning Organisations bring together corporate partners and individuals interested in instilling a culture of learning in large and small businesses.

Other synergy exists with the FORUM Network of European vocational education and training (VET) researchers, into which Marchmont contributes a UK VET perspective. Through exchange of theory and practices from across Europe in such fields as national VET systems and cultures, employment identities, continuing vocational training and human resource development, our Observatory is better placed to put our activities within a European context and learn of successful practices elsewhere. Other collaboration with overseas institutions in areas of mutual interest is under development and awaiting the outcome of research bids under consideration by the European Union. Links are enhanced by visits of researchers and placement opportunities for interns from abroad to work with Marchmont, to complement their own research projects or to develop their skills through Observatory services. Beyond Europe, Marchmont links informally with the American Society for Training and Development, the leading professional body for workplace trainers with its own active research programme in online learning.

National and regional partner research

The multilayered and geographically dispersed nature of the Marchmont partnership is reflected at national, regional and local level. National partners are led by the University of Exeter, where the central Project management team is located; the Marchmont Observatory Director is based in London, and research is also carried out in Cornwall. The distinguished national partnership is fortunate to be able to draw on the experience of large public and private sector organisations with key interests in workplace learning and innovative technology, and includes:

The Observatory commissions and undertakes selected research into national issues affecting all stakeholders involved in the UfI vision of ICT-based learning for all. A current Marchmont initiative underway researches into the ICT network infrastructure developing within the UK regions to assess the preparedness of local learning centres to deliver UfI. Our collaborative work with the UfI complements their own programme: to scope the learner support needs of UfI learners in the workplace, at home and at learning centres, and links into one of our major learning themes (see below). Marchmont also hosts joint workshops with UfI and works closely with their special interest cluster groups on SME learning and learner support. Another strength of the Marchmont partnership relies on linkages of common interest to identify and broker opportunities for joint research between partners at national and regional level. Products of this approach include a study by the Open University into the needs for support of non-traditional learners within unionised workplaces for the national Trades Union Congress. Further research, conducted jointly by partners Bournemouth University and IBM, looks at the transferability of corporate university ICT-based learning approaches into UK small businesses5.

The Marchmont Observatory itself exemplifies the potential of innovative technologies to promote and transform learning within organisations, and take best advantage of its benefits for employee and organisational development. The Open University's International Centre for Distance Learning (with expert input from the OU's Knowledge Media Institute) hosts the Observatory's Web site (at its evolving portfolio of online services and resources for those involved in providing innovative learning to SMEs. Of particular note is the rapidly growing database of good practice of 'what works and why' in SME learning, under development by Marchmont in partnership with the OU, to collect and disseminate accumulated experience from throughout the UK and beyond.

Other services available to all via the Website include:

The Website also gives access to the following resources:

Further activities centre round weekly selective dissemination to partners of resources of interest, quarterly partner meetings and a major workshop to round off each learning theme (see below).

Marchmont regional partners reflect the strengths and interests of a cross section of public sector bodies, including training providers in the shape of higher and further education institutions and economic development agencies with expertise in business growth. Each regional partner maintains their own local network of SMEs and larger enterprises, intermediaries and training providers, and tests a variety of approaches to promote organisational change through learning using ICTs. They are:

Research activities of the partners are summarised below. As will be seen, organisational change and learning are central themes for their pilot projects. Further details on regional partners may be found on the Marchmont Web site.

Bournemouth University: Dorset / Isle of Wight Project

The aim of the Dorset / Isle of Wight project is to learn from firms large and small who are already developing approaches to using ICTs as part of a training/learning strategy, and/or are interested in Ufi. The project examines the applicability of these approaches to SMEs, which will form the subject of a final report. The work plan includes surveys of a group of small and large firms and intermediaries of their preparedness for UfI and related approaches, and facilitation of action learning sets and a learning network for stakeholder firms.

Current progress is underway in analysing results of the completed surveys and interviews with participating firms, in parallel with an ongoing programme of learning network events, focus groups and feedback sessions. Parallel research by Bournemouth includes joint research into corporate online learning with Marchmont national partners IBM (see above) and development of online learning materials under the TISCAM project.

Welsh Development Agency

The WDA project focuses on exploring attitudes to Ufi among a) policy makers, b) intermediaries, and c) SMEs, and assessing how these, and consequent actions, need to change for the Ufi to work.

The work plan consists of five phases. 1) set up - to recruit policy makers, deliverers and SMEs to participate in pilots; identification - to work with SMEs and potential deliverers of distance learning to identify attitudes to/issues raised by UfI and key change factors necessary for participation; change management - programme design and development to influence attitudes and approaches to supply and demand; tool development - for providers and SMEs to a) create a distance learning implementation action plan and b) self-evaluate readiness to provide or receive distance learning via UfI; piloting - to a) plan b) implement c) evaluate how Welsh SMEs/providers might adopt/deliver distance learning, using the change management tool; reporting - confirming qualities for deliverers of innovative learning support for SMEs; likely structures of deliverers; categories, shape and culture of 'most promising' SMEs.

The change management toolkit has now been successfully developed, piloted and finalised and is a significant Marchmont product. It will soon be made available to learners in UfI Wales as a key component of its offer to Welsh SMEs.

Tyneside Training & Enterprise Council

This project will identify and address the key issues that must be tackled to make UfI a reality in the North East by: a) strategy/policymakers, b) providers/intermediaries, c) participants /learners. The North East region has a 'head start' on UfI as the location of the original pilot project spearheaded by the University of Sunderland in 1997, and hence a high awareness of the potential of demand-led learning to transform the economic and social landscape of the region.

With the benefit of advanced identification of UfI stakeholders, the Tyneside project targets their separate concerns for UfI and tackles these in parallel, in a series of focus groups and reports. The strategy/policymakers group seeks to: develop understanding of the implications of UfI among senior decision makers, form a strategic partnership for delivery of UfI, develop roles, success criteria and plans for change, and steer development of Ufi at a strategic level. For providers and intermediaries, understanding of the implications of UfI is linked to the change process required for an innovative learning model together with skills development for learner support by stakeholders. Participants and learners work with employers to scope customer requirements of UfI and develop pilot delivery to meet SME requirements. A programme of focus groups and surveys identified a number of issues concerning regional preparedness for UfI and existing supply and demand of online learning. A 'short, sharp' research project was commissioned which includes findings on skills shortages, ICT access and lessons from the UfI pilot project.

North Lincolnshire College

The North Lincolnshire project aims to understand and drive demand for training among SMEs in the engineering, building and food sectors through the development of learning-focused clusters, benchmarking of current patterns and attitudes to learning, identification of change factors to be addressed by stakeholders and the potential of Ufi to address the solution.

The original work plan aimed to recruit participating companies and key players, develop and implement a change audit to establish change factors for businesses, identify a strategic role for UfI in helping businesses adapt, and examine how training supports the change process. Ufi preparedness would be established among cluster participants, including staff ICT training requirements and provider capacity to deliver online training for change. ICT provision is seen as a way to instil skills and knowledge for 'future proofing' into SMEs.

North Lincolnshire has developed and piloted an evaluation toolkit and designed and prototyped a business mechanism to foster a learning culture. Its interim report addresses formal and informal learning in SMEs and its relationship to business performance and skills development. Pilot surveys of participating companies were followed by a training needs analysis whose implications are currently under evaluation for product refinement.

Newham College of Further Education

The aim of the project is to investigate aspects of the Ufi model with reference to its applicability to ethnic minority SMEs. Its work plan includes: establishment an action learning group to develop local understanding of UfI implementation, investigate what has worked to date, identification of key change factors, implementation of a change management programme with UfI Hub stakeholders, and pilot Ufi implementation for local SMEs.

Outputs will include a community UfI audit, case studies, identification of good learning practice in the target group, and a report on provision of sub-regional support for UfI and Small Business Service. Results will particularly inform UfI delivery for disadvantaged learners, through innovative partnerships and business development.

Marchmont Observatory research programme

A continuing action research programme addresses practical issues of central importance to workplace learning under UfI, providing Website online discussions, good practice, resources, workshops, research briefs and reports to a rapidly growing national network of policymakers and practitioners.

At its outset the Observatory tasked itself with three main research themes for collaborative development amongst the partnership. These include: widening access to learning (the role of e-learning, learner support and networks, developing workplace strategies); managing organisational change, especially for intermediaries and SMEs (preparing the workforce, accessing and developing services); and funding learning (best practice in funding learners, the economics of e-learning, funding bite-sized chunks).

After consultation with partners, the Observatory articulated its research programme into five 'learning themes' that would form the focus for collaborative exploration amongst partners and the wider Marchmont community. Launched in September 1999, selected topics are as follows:

Topics are typically opened up for discussion on the Web site as a series of leading questions that examine sub-aspects of the subject of interest. In parallel, an extensive literature review looks at existing published resources, summarises their key points on the Web site and feeds findings back into discussion proceedings as and when relevant. Over a period of two to three months successive sub-topics are introduced at intervals and are addressed in turn by partners and practitioners in the Marchmont community. A concluding facilitated workshop is then hosted by the Observatory at which all interested individuals and organisations are welcomed, whether active or passive participants to date. The openness of attendance permits the widest possible cross-section of views to be gathered. Workshop presenters are selected for the relevance and currency of their contributions to topic, and key issues are drawn out and highlighted from delegates' feedback in follow-up breakout sessions.

Finally a themed report is produced to round off and present all elements of the learning topic, as covered in online discussions, resources, good practice case studies and the workshops themselves. The report is disseminated widely to policy makers and practitioners alike, and acts as a distinctive Observatory medium: to open communications channels between these groups and ensure that practical experience feeds into policy. The Observatory have now produced themed reports on the first three learning topics above, together with a series of research briefs summarising findings from literature surveys, which can all be found on the Web site. Reports have been well received by policy and strategymakers in Government and have provided key findings for UfI, as well as informing developments within the post-16 review. A selection of these is listed below.

Understanding SME learning: the challenges for UfI6

Interesting correlations exist in the contribution of training towards firm survival. Firms providing both internal and external training are more likely to survive than non-trainers, particularly for innovating firms. External training significantly improves the survival probability for older firms but not for younger firms. Whilst training improves the survival probability at all levels of profit margin, this is most significant for firms in the lowest and second highest profit margin quartiles.

Drivers to train include: external factors, such as EU and UK legislative and regulatory requirements; the competitive environment, with supply chain issues and market positioning for customer care; and firm-specific factors, such as policy - in quality standards and human resource development - or practice, in innovative work organisation or introduction of new equipment.

Problems with training amongst SMEs often relate to an inability for them to articulate and scope their learning needs. There are common difficulties in assessing the merit and value of offerings available, which are often perceived as failing to meet firm-specific needs. Finding appropriate training is also made more difficult by culture clashes with external training providers, especially in the public sector, who are seen as unable to understand business processes. Even when the case for training is made, there are continuing issues around the cost of training programmes (and associated travel and subsistence) and problems in releasing staff, particularly in micro-SMEs.

Benefits of training were amply demonstrated to Observatory workshop delegates through a presentation by a human resources development (HRD) manager of a medium-sized construction firm. The changing nature of legislation, health and safety requirements and equipment has raised the profile of training throughout the construction sector in the UK, who continue to operate a voluntary training levy scheme which has been discontinued for many years in other sectors. Tangible 'bottom-line' benefits demonstrate reduced costs and accident rates amongst workers, inclusion on selected tender lists and increased repeat business. 'Softer' benefits include fewer customer complaints; improved performance and staff motivation and morale, and a generally greater responsiveness and adaptability to change.

Market analysis and marketing learning7

Recommendations concur that building on existing good practice improves potential uptake, whether via existing or innovative networks, new technologies, or locating learning within overall business development programmes. Partnerships also have a key role to play, to foster collaboration, co-ordination and quality of provision. Marketing learning to networks adds value, improves economies of scale and streamlines efficient provision. Networks also deepen market penetration for learning by providing better access to supply chains, industry sectors, geographic locations and trade associations.

Being close to the market is important to training providers, if not by their own reputation then by working with those bodies credible to SMEs. Beyond the local environment, national training organisations, professional bodies and industry sectoral groups are all in touch with the skills and learning needs of their constituent members. Collaboration and complementarity, not competition, should be encouraged amongst training providers.

In designing provision and delivery, training providers should pay attention to the expressed preferences of SME clients and respond with sustainable programmes of transparent and immediate advantage. Informal learning channels present in SMEs suggest that collaborative, episodic and flexible provision is more appropriate to their needs, built around problem-based learning with relevant outcomes. Assessment of prior and experiential learning (APEL) is useful to broaden access. Training champions, whether companies or individuals, play a key role.

The potential of ICT-based learning to respond to open and flexible learning in SMEs, particularly in networks and shared environments, deserves much fuller investigation by training providers.

Funding for learning8

The wide range of stakeholders involved in funding learning represented diverse interests at the Observatory workshop. The report targeted its recommendations severally towards the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), UfI, intermediaries and public and private sector training providers. For DfEE, the workshop provided a timely opportunity to receive feedback on the progress of the post-16 review. To ensure success in stimulating funding for learning, culture change needs to be addressed globally at every level and the 'value proposition' must be made explicit to potential investors, developers and learners.

Global lessons confirm that the potential contribution of technology to transform the corporate learning experience is vast, and overseas investors have not been slow to provide finance to support innovative training environments. Successful case studies of public-private learning partnerships abroad confirm that there is much scope for profitable collaboration in e-learning, which the UK would do well to explore further. Although SMEs and individual learners are not considered as profitable a market, their eligibility for public subsidies and future potential for expanded demand are still important. The changing nature of the labour market will ensure that training will continue to be required to keep pace with shifts in technology, legislation and the economic environment.

To shift towards a demand-led model for learning and away from historical supply side frameworks, performance and quality measures must also be responsive to learners' needs. Hopeful signs are seen by the introduction of such new mechanisms as Individual Learning Accounts, and sharing of good practice in collective support via dedicated funding, such as the Union Learning Fund. UfI itself needs to fund learner support at the heart of its offer.

Responsibility for learning, and for its investment, should be shared amongst the state, companies and individuals, to ensure closing of the gap between 'knowledge rich' and 'knowledge poor'. National and regional organisations and initiatives can stimulate sector-based funding, and investigate the potential to transfer funding benefits into local economic regeneration.


The Marchmont Observatory continues to develop its research programme and its links with other international, national and regional organisations with interests in stimulating learning in SMEs using innovative technologies. The Observatory is aware of much relevant experience gained by pilot projects under the European Social Fund ADAPT Programme, and is seeking ways to share, disseminate and mainstream good practice to ensure that valuable lessons are not being lost. The concept of an 'observatory' is taking hold in the UK, and we are often approached for guidance on how to set up similar networks, regionally and nationally, looking at electronic learning, skills development or economic regeneration. The forthcoming implementation of the UfI this autumn, and the new post-16 education and training framework in spring 2001, will further raise the profile of organisational learning. We anticipate that our next learning themes, in learner support and widening participation/partnerships, will continue to be seen as timely and relevant by our growing network of practitioners.

The Marchmont partners have their own say on the benefits of the learning community approach:

'Significant learning about different approaches to solve common problems'

'Huge amount of learning...signposting to good practice'

'Just in time' style ... stimulates interest and easily digestible'

'Contributions have provided deeper, thought-provoking thinking and learning'

'Learning is on two levels: personal, job-related experience and being part of Marchmont'

'Many new skills learned, via training and on the job'

'Developing keen interest in the progress of e-learning: progress, longevity, sustainability'

And the final word comes from Tony Myhill of NetG, e-learning provider for the University for Industry, in Marchmont online discussion:

'The ultimate challenge is to manage the change process effectively. E-learning places demands on the corporate intellect. In many cases our 'Learning Organisations' are having great difficulty with the management of change. In my view, the survivors beyond 2010 will be represented by those organisations who have exploited e-learning to its maximum.'


  1. Hambrecht & Co. Corporate eLearning: exploring a new frontier. Apr 2000. (
  2. Department for Education and Employment. Learning to Succeed: a new framework for post-16 learning. London: DfEE, 1999.
  3. Dep't for Education and Employment. The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain. Green Paper. London: DfEE, 1998.
  4. Jones, H. L. Time to end the conflict. 't' Magazine, Jul 2000, pp 16-19.
  5. Beamish, N.G. E-learning in the context of the corporate university. Interim report by Marchmont Bournemouth, Bournemouth University Centre for Organisational Effectiveness, Mar 2000.
  6. The Marchmont Observatory. Understanding SME learning: the challenges for UfI. Report of joint Marchmont/SME Cluster Group workshop, University of Sheffield, Dec 1999.
  7. The Marchmont Observatory. Market analysis and marketing learning. Report of the Marchmont workshop, Manchester Metropolitan University, Mar 2000.
  8. The Marchmont Observatory. Funding for learning. Report of the Marchmont workshop, Aston University, Birmingham, Aug 2000.


*Marchmont Observatory:

Chris Evans, Observatory Director; Ben Neild, Marchmont Project Manager; Andy Dean, Marchmont Project Coordinator; Annie Howes, Marchmont Project Administrator.

Marchmont Observatory, University of Exeter, St. Luke's Campus, The Annexe, Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU.

Tel: +44 1392 264850 Fax: +44 1392 264966 E-mail:



This document was added to the Education-line database on 21 November 2000