Small organisations make a significant contribution to the economy through employment and GDP growth (Matlay 2000:324). However, while employers in small firms offer fewer training opportunities to their employees, they also complain of skills shortages (Matlay 2000:315). Although many training programmes and initiatives have been implemented in the United Kingdom, Curran et al. (1993) found little evidence of training and development in small firms. However, the ‘blame’ does not necessarily lie solely with employers: employees may not wish to participate, considering training and development to be of little relevance to their work. Therefore, it is important to consider both employer and employee perspectives on learning within the small firm context. Various factors influence training and development in small and medium sized enterprises, including size, sector, stage of life cycle and skills supply strategy (Hendry et al. 1991). There are also numerous triggers for training and development, such as new recruits, acquiring new technology, growth, management culture, and workforce expectations (Hendry et al. 1991). The way training is organised and provided depends, for example, on the value attached to it, the type of training, the cost, and the pace of change (Harrison 1997). Abbott (1994) found that lack of financial resources and time made training very difficult, but not necessarily absent or low - some firms engage in informal learning, which is not considered as proper ‘training’. Determining the level of training depends on how training is defined. Harrison (1997) distinguishes between ‘high’ training, which is planned and strategic, and ‘low’ training which is unplanned and informal, but argues that the type does not matter: the key question is - does it raise the skills base? Many factors considered as barriers to HRD in small organisations - such as access problems and time constraints - could potentially be resolved by electronic learning. However, while e-learning may offer new opportunities, it can also create other barriers. From the employer perspective, these can be lack of resources and lack of trust. From the employee perspective, these can be lack of confidence and IT skills. In addition, the use of ICTs, in general, to support any form of small firm activity is limited, let alone its use to support e-learning.
The purpose of this chapter is to explore the existing and potential role of electronic learning in small organisations.