Lifelong learning in SMEs

As school and university students start a new academic year, this serves as a reminder to SME owners that learning should also be embedded into their strategy.

14/09/2015, blogs

In an increasingly dynamic business world, it’s not realistic for current or future employees to stop learning once their formal education ends. Far from just a buzz word, lifelong learning is vital for SMEs that want to stay ahead of the game.

While SMEs are the lifeblood of the UK’s economy, they are characterised by high failure rates. Over half of SMEs fail within the first five years, and lack of innovation is one of the key factors that puts these SMEs at risk.

Investing in and encouraging lifelong learning among employees is key to ensuring that SMEs are innovative and remain competitive. SMEs are only as strong as their ideas, which are derived from employees that understand the market, can predict where it is going and spot new opportunities for growth.

Encouraging a learning culture among SME employees also prevents their skills from becoming redundant. This is particularly the case in high tech industries such as software development and digital marketing where the shelf life for certain skills, such as knowledge of a specific programming language, can be very short.

SMEs are often time and resource strained, but there are still many things they can do to facilitate lifelong learning among their employees:

1. Free training resources – There is a plethora of free training resources available for SME employees, covering topics ranging from marketing and social media to finance and human resources. Many of these are offered by local business schools and business support organisations.

2. Professional qualifications – Free training courses aren’t always sufficient, as employees may be looking for a more structured course that takes their skills to the next level while providing a recognised qualification. Sponsoring employees to take professional training courses may seem like a considerable investment, but SME owners can reduce the burden by offering to part-sponsor an employee or signing a clause which stipulates that the employee will stay for a determined period of time post-training. This will ensure that the company benefits from the employee’s newly acquired knowledge and skills.

3. Provide flexibility – To incentivise employees to commit to lifelong learning, SME owners need to provide the flexibility that enables employees to balance full-time work with studying. Providing time off for exams and classes will seem like a small price to pay in the long-term, as employers who invest in training will see higher levels of productivity and employee retention.