Mr McLeish suggested Scotland was about to go through "a lifelong learning revolution", But he acknowledged: "We can't legislate for it and we can't finance our way into it. We can only do it by changing attitudes so lifelong learning becomes a recognisable factor which people are prepared to embrace."
Evelyn McCann, director of skills development at Scottish Enterprise, which leads the project, underlined the scale of the task by pointing to the agency's survey on attitudes to learning which found that even if there were no jobs to match their skills only 55 per cent of adults would undertake new learning . "A worrying thought," she said.
The new pound;4.3 million Internet-based network that aims to turn the situation round will be part of the learning web planned under the Scottish University for Industry. It is being backed by a pound;2 million investment from Scottish Enterprise and pound;2.3 million from the European Social Fund.
The ambitious targets to be achieved by December next year include persuading 5,000 adults to take up new learning, of whom 3,500 would be employed by small and medium-sized businesses and 1.500 would come from the newly unemployed.
These two groups will be the main initial focus of the new initiative which will concentrate on people who do not have Scottish Vocational Qualifications at level 11 or have fewer than five Standard grades at level 3.
"Our evidence is that this is the group most at risk of exclusion in the future and so we are doing important preventative work," Bruce Armitage, project manager of the SLN, told the launch.
Plans also involve setting up 500 online learning centres in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) by the end of next year and 100 community-based learning centres in colleges, libraries, schools and the high street.
Mr McLeish said small businesses were a particular challenge and it was essential to make it easier for their staff to participate in learning and training. An estimated 800,000 people in Scotland work for organisations with fewer than 50 employees, and a third of these small companies train fewer than one in 10 of their staff.
Mr Armitage, director of life-long learning at Grampian Enterprise, promised not to "parachute" into communities or duplicate what already exists. "Where there are gaps we will plug them," he said. The minimum provision For small companies will be one PC linked to the Internet.
He said effective support for learners was a crucial component of the strategy which plans to recruit and train 1,000 online tutors to deliver learning packages over the Internet. The Scottish Qualifications Authority has designed a new Higher National award for them, which Mr Armitage said was the first such dedicated qualification in Europe.
Sir Ian Wood, chairman of Scottish Enterprise, described lifelong learning as the "lifeblood" of Scotland. Sir Ian said he saw the new network as having a 'Heineken effect", stimulating the circulation and reaching people normally untouched by learning - specifically the 35 per cent of adults who have no further contact with learning after leaving full-time education.
The project is part of Scottish Enterprise's "know-how" action plan, which envisages a pound;160 million investment in skills and learning initiatives in the coming year.
The SLN website is at www.sln.co.uk