Learndirect Scotland and colleges across Scotland are collaborating on nine innovative projects to support e-learning and "blended learning" in small businesses.
The projects are said to be creating a demand for learning within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Scotland, "building capacity and learning infrastructure, while developing content and supply methods", according to the organisers.
Funding for the projects was committed by Learndirect last September and so far almost 2,000 new learners have been involved and more than 1,000 SMEs have participated. Almost 200 companies have training plans as a result of their involvement and 45 partner organisations are engaged in the delivery of these programmes.
While SMEs are increasingly aware of the need to raise skill levels, it is never easy to find the time and resources to train employees. The workplace may offer excellent learning opportunities, but FE principals are under no illusions about the fact that employers do not see them as places of learning.
Sue Pinder, principal of West Lothian college, and Craig Thomson, principal of Glenrothes college, say that the shift in thinking required to ensure learning opportunities for SMEs are effective is "a significant one".
In a paper presented to an international conference on "human-system learning", they argue: "The assumption that learning relationships that have failed in the past can be dusted off and used effectively in ICT-supported learning has to be recognised as fundamentally flawed."
FE colleges are now attempting to work with SMEs concerned with activities from care to construction. College representatives spend time with individual learners, focusing on improving core skills in numeracy, literacy and ICT. Learning materials provided by the colleges are developed specifically for SMEs to make sure they are appropriate to their unique needs.
Among those on board are a husband-and-wife team who run Petrie Fine Foods near Dunlop in Ayrshire, which sells vegetarian products through farmers'
markets and the internet. Owner Howard Wilkinson works with other small businesses and with Kilmarnock college to develop their products and services.
Mr Wilkinson believes SMEs are more open to change. "They are interested in learning about new ways of working. And, particularly in these days when your next competitor could be from anywhere, there is a growing realisation that small businesses have to work collaboratively in areas like training - which benefits the owners as well as the staff."
The nine projects are diverse, from Langside college's development of online materials for three HN business accounting units to Cardonald college's contribution to expanding introductory IT courses for SMEs.
The plan is to make these initiatives complementary so they can be integrated into a single model or a menu of training approaches for SMEs - which will in turn improve the competitiveness of these businesses and allow them to expand into new areas, thanks to their new skills and approaches.
Livingston Football Club, for example, is backing West Lothian college's efforts to deliver learning at its stadium, and this model could be replicated elsewhere.
There are also programmes aimed at changing the "learning culture" within SMEs. Reid Kerr college has produced an online interactive programme to help develop individuals within SMEs who will take on the role of "learning champion" - to encourage other colleagues, provide information on learning opportunities and promote independent learning.
Fife college is working with others to develop core skills training within SMEs. As well as acquiring valuable new skills, employees who participate can take introductory units to SVQs.
Colleges believe that, despite the challenges, they have made great progress in working with small businesses. A wide range of course provision is now targeted directly at the SME sector, covering everything from gas safety to management training.
Messrs Pinder and Thomson state: "The structured way in which the projects have been established, the range of work that is being carried out and the strong foundation of previous experience on which they have been based provide significant grounds for optimism that they will collectively achieve an important further step in realising the 'virtual promise' of ICT-supported learning in SMEs."