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SME Tools: e-learning

Online tuition is a popular way to train employees, but what must SMEs consider when choosing between this method and its face-to-face alternatives?

Last updated: 21 Jul 2020 6 min read

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  • E-learning platforms are becoming more popular for small businesses
  • They offer flexibility for employees to learn at their own speed without having to take too much time away from the workplace
  • A mix of online tutorials and physical training offers the best of both worlds

Smaller companies are more likely to feel the impact of individuals being away from the workplace, or tied up in front of a screen for long periods of time. So how can you get the balance right?

SMEs should weigh up the quality of the training available for the subject at hand, advises Andy Mee, regional director at training academy Business Doctors, which offers online learning for SMEs, with coaches available to support participants.

“Don’t distinguish initially between on- and offline – take a quality-first approach,” he says. “For instance, most people would agree that a face-to-face environment would be more appropriate for training technical skills, whereas leadership development modules lend themselves more easily to an online approach.”

Robert Rickman, general manager at SME Optical Filters, agrees that the content of any training course “is king” and warns against being seduced by “whizzy technology”. He also recommends piloting a scheme before rolling it out to all staff members.

“As a relatively small business, it’s difficult for us to find the time to release people to attend off-site courses,” says Rickman. “We simply don’t have anyone else to pick up the slack. E-learning has enabled us to set managers up to progress at their own speed, with their own start date and in their own time. We eventually chose a product that combined e-learning with coaching.”

And, how you train depends on your goals, objectives and budget, says Darren Hockley, MD of e-learning provider DeltaNet International. He says e-learning is an excellent way to share and gather information in knowledge-rich subjects, such as data protection, whereas he recommends face-to-face training when it comes to enhancing particular skill sets and putting them into practice.

“As a very general rule, e-learning can build a strong foundation of necessary knowledge for you and your team, and face-to-face learning is useful for special training that is specific to one’s job role or function,” he says.

Training on tap

Employee benefits platform Perkbox begins training its employees before they’ve even started working there. New employees are sent mobile-friendly links to videos that outline the mission, values and culture of the company. Shaun Bradley, director of people at Perkbox, says: “As a company that’s both growing fast and moving fast, we tend to use a just-in-time approach – giving training when it’s needed rather than having a traditional course calendar that outlines training for the year.

“We focus on mixing classroom training in small groups with follow-up coaching from managers, as well as getting people involved in special projects. E-learning is useful to supplement other learning interventions, especially when the learning is focused on taking in new information. E-learning is the ideal format for acquiring knowledge about processes and facts at a pace that suits the learner.”

“These new tools encourage employees to view or re-use their learning materials or access them out of work hours. As a result, SME employees rapidly acquire a continual learning habit and boost their own knowledge retention”Tim Thomas-Peter, MD, Ambidect

Tim Thomas-Peter, MD at Ambidect, which specialises in mobile learning technology, is another fan of cloud-based training. He says the new generation of ‘always-on’ platforms ensures digital versions of course materials, how-to guides and interactive games are instantly accessible on any trainer or employee’s device or computer, irrespective of their location or office IT set-up.

“By delivering highly accessible content for different ages and work grades, these new tools encourage employees to view or re-use their learning materials or product quizzes, or access them out of work hours, or move on themselves to the next knowledge level,” says Thomas-Peter. “As a result, SME employees rapidly acquire a continual learning habit and boost their own knowledge retention.”

A flexible fit

Another benefit of e-learning is flexibility. Nigel Davies, founder of digital workplace software firm Claromentis, says online training lets people learn when it suits them. He praises it for consistency, cost-effectiveness and the fact it saves time.

“Crucially, no one misses out if they’re absent or working remotely,” he says. “It’s also easy for businesses to add optional learning experiences that employees might never think of attending if they had to travel and take time out.”

However, he warns if employers don’t introduce e-learning with care, it can look as if they’re ticking boxes rather than being fully invested in staff training.

“For that reason, online learning shouldn’t replace physical training, which offers interaction with real experts and the opportunity to ask questions and practise what’s been learned,” says Davies.

When part of a wider training programme, e-learning is ideal for small businesses where budgets and time are at a premium, says Cathy Hayward, MD at communications agency Magenta Associates.

“This is particularly useful for us as a Brighton-based agency, as most PR courses are based in London, which requires peak-time travel and an entire day, or more, out of the office,” she says. Magenta Associates uses free and fee-paying training webinars for tactical aspects of PR, as well as those focused on the industries in which its clients work.

Hayward adds: “They typically last between an hour and three hours. Any longer and I think it’s better to be face to face as it can be hard to maintain concentration.”

Also, it’s not enough to simply provide the platform for the employee and leave them to it. Mee says that without the full support of their manager, a person learning online may not reap the maximum benefit.

“A truly supportive manager needs to schedule regular meetings with the learner and talk in depth about what they’ve learned and how it relates to their job role,” he says.

5 ways to optimise e-learning tools

  1. Save money by looking for ready-made e-learning that can be carried out on a smartphone or laptop
  2. Consider blending e-learning with classroom methods so learners can access direct support
  3. Remember that people learn in different ways – some like to read and watch whereas others prefer to be active
  4. If you’re unsure about e-learning, trial it first
  5. Ensure managers are dedicated to employees’ learning
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