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Scaling up the use of technology for learning through SME clusters

October 21st, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Much of the work we do in Pontydysgu is project based. And a lot of that work is funded by the European Union, inv0olving multi national consortia of partners working together over a period of two to four years. The two year projects are a bit tight for time, especially if this includes technology development. But the big problem is what happens after the project funding ends. In the best cases, the ideas and products get taken up, further developed and embedded in practice. For instance  work we undertook through the MOSEP project has led to the introduction of e-portfolios in German schools. And work piloted in the Mature IP project has led to the development of an open portal and database for labour market information to improve career choices and decision making in the UK.

But all too sadly, many projects just fade away at the end of the funding. Of course sometimes this is because the work turned out to be less impressive than we had initially hoped. But there are also two big problems more relater to the structuring and fincaci9ng of European projects. The major one is the scaling up of projects and innovations. If products and processes are to be used after a project ceases funding, whatever the outcome, substantial numbers of users are needed. This is true for software, for processes or for more traditional products such as handbooks. Of course it is difficult to scale up to substantial numbers of users with two years. But regardless of the length of a project it requires a strategy. And most projects do not have such a goal, let alone a strategic approach.

The EU funded Learning layers project has as a major objective, scaling the use of technology to substantial numbers of small and medium enterprises in the construction and health sectors. To do this we are looking at developing engagement with clusters of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Between 2002 and 2010, nearly 85% of new jobs in Europe were created by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are currently employing 67% of the total workforce (De Krok et al., 2011). Notably, it is the smallest and youngest SMEs that drive this trend, while more established and larger firms are shedding jobs on a net basis. Many of the new jobs created by these SMEs are knowledge intensive and demand specialised skills. According to a European Commission study, the number of low skilled jobs is expected to fall from 21% of total jobs in 2012 to 18% by 2020, while jobs that require higher skills levels are expected to rise by 20%. (European Commission, 2012).

Highly specialised and high-skill growth SMEs increasingly organise in regional clusters as competitive pressures and the difficulties in some sectors of finding skilled workers make collaboration even among competitors an attractive value proposition. At the same time, clusters have a unique negotiation advantage in the region compared to smaller actors, and have the power to influence educational institutions and policy makers. In theory, by joining clusters together with other firms and regional players, SMEs have  a means to influence educational and business development policy in their region and the bargaining power to lean on local colleges and universities to produce the skills and talents needed for economic advancement. Cluster organisations can drive innovation in learning at the workplace by helping SMEs and other cluster members in developing joint technology-enabled training and skills services, which in turn provide an additional funding source for the cluster organisation.

A recent study conducted by the Cluster Excellence Initiative (Meier zu Köcker et al., 2012) of over 300 European cluster organisations shows that the depth and breadth of services offered to their members is the most important contributor to generating impact on the business of SMEs. In terms of the type of service offered by the cluster organisation, our research indicates that currently, services focusing on training and skills development have the greatest potential in terms of generating revenues. This supports the Learning Layers project strategy of targeting cluster organisations as scaling partners and the focus on training and skills development services for SMEs in and across regional clusters. Inter-cluster collaborations in developing learning services makes economic sense since clusters in a given region share common actors, including regional policy makers in education and business development, universities, VET and general upper secondary schools, research institutions, and financial institutions and investors. (more to follow).

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