Making learning practical for small business owners

Innovative learning module could be just the thing for staff training on a tight budget

All businesses need to keep their skills up to scratch, but finding time for training courses can be difficult, especially for those running or working in small and medium-sized enterprises.

Some SMEs also take the view that training is a waste of money because course content don’t address their needs. But eschewing training completely is not in the interests of SMEs for one very important reason: training can help increase a company’s chances of long-term survival by making them more proactive and better able to adapt to change.

Recognising that many SMEs struggle with issues of time and relevance, Emma O'Brien, a research fellow from the Enterprise Research Centre at the University of Limerick, began looking at how the use of problem-based learning might hit the spot better than traditional training.

In addition, O’Brien wanted to marry a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to a learning structure that avoided people having to leave their desks.


“In many cases, SMEs are slow to undertake formal training despite the fact that it has been proven to maintain employee productivity,” she says. “Amongst the main reasons given are lack of time, cost, lack of planning and lack of relevant courses.”

According to O’Brien, the PBL approach “could provide a practical model that allows them to solve real problems that arise in a pedagogically sound manner – and develop key skills such as problem-solving, self-directed learning, critical thinking and communication”.

Learning module

O’Brien began her EU-funded research in 2014. What has now emerged from her study of the learning needs of 340 European SMEs is Archimedes, a new problem-based learning module aimed at the owner-managers and employees of small and medium-sized businesses. Archimedes is run by the university’s Kemmy Business School. A pilot involving a group of 20 has just been completed.

Problem-based learning is a student-centred and -guided approach, used widely in higher education and a favoured method of training medical students. It is known to have a positive impact on learning outcomes and to “develop the skills that are critical in today’s workplace – namely problem-solving and logical and creative thinking”.

Through Archimedes, business managers and owners develop skills in problem-solving, management, communications and teamwork. At first glance, are all pretty standard fare in business training. What makes the programme different, however, is that these skills are learned by participants while they tackle problems within their own organisations.

Students are taught to use a nine-stage process to tease out the issues and come up with their own solutions. They are assisted with online learning material, a weekly session with a tutor, and by interacting with their peer group.

“The platform guides the learners through the problem-based learning process and they record their findings at each stage,” O’Brien says. “In addition, the learner can access case studies of similar problems as well as working on solutions with other participants.”

Archimedes has been picked up by educators in Lithuania, Portugal and Romania. In Ireland it is run in conjunction with the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association.

“We became involved in Archimedes as it offers another way for SMEs to engage with training,” says Isme’s training and development manager, Liz Carroll. “What’s really unusual about this programme is the fact that the learning is highly relevant because participants are working on their own problems. It’s very company-specific and they get a return on their efforts straight away.”

Investment in training

Asked about the level of enthusiasm for training among Isme members, Carroll says there has been a definite slowdown.

“In 2015. it was very busy as business sentiment was generally optimistic. This fell back in 2016 as uncertainty crept in. And now, with Brexit, we are seeing companies holding back on investment in training as they’re really not sure what’s coming.”

Derek Kiely, an electrician with Kirby Group, a Dublin-based engineering and construction company, is studying for a degree in business management and administration at the University of Limerick. He was one of the participants on the Archimedes pilot.

“What I liked about it was that it was very real as people were posting problems they were experiencing every day in their businesses,” he says. “If you were interested in their particular issue, you became part of that group. And the group had people from very different backgrounds, so you were getting the benefit of varying points of view.

“The course itself was 10 weeks, which was manageable when you’re working and you had to take an hour out each week to join an online tutorial. I really liked the idea that you were being taught a transferable skill you could bring to bear on the problems in your own business.”