"Values" statements



Small Business
PLAR and small business: what difference can it make?

Susan Simosko
Graham Debling

As owners of small businesses and contributors to several networks of small businesses around the world, we know that prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) has an important role to play in the development and ultimate success of these enterprises. PLAR has the potential to bring many benefits to employees and to companies as a whole. We also know that there are significant hurdles that must be overcome before an increasing number of small businesses across Canada can make optimum use of PLAR.


In common with many larger businesses, we recognize that our most valuable asset is the people who work with us and for us. Nothing is more important. Unlike many larger businesses, small businesses simply cannot survive unless everyone in the organization feels-and demonstrates-a strong commitment to the business goals, to meeting or exceeding the customers' or clients' needs and to developing a quality product or service on time, within budget, every time. In a small business, even small mistakes or errors can have serious implications. A few unhappy customers who don't return could cause cash flow problems, leading to difficulties in meeting the payroll and a need to lay people off. It could also create a demoralized environment, stifling creativity and innovation, the mainstays of most small enterprises.

Secondly, most employees of small businesses need to be multi-skilled and willing to learn new skills as the volume of work ebbs and flows, even if it does not change in character. Flexibility and adaptability are key.

For all of these reasons, individuals working in successful small businesses must feel good about themselves. They need to see themselves as active, confident learners, and they must be able to take responsibility for their own learning and development. To give their best, they need to feel truly valued as an integral part of the business team. They also need to have confidence in the other members of the business as vibrant problem solvers, willing learners and essential contributors to common goals.

In our experience PLAR supports all of this. PLAR, with its emphasis on self-assessment, immediately conveys to employees that what they know and can do is important. It indicates that each employee has an intrinsic worth that can be recognized not only by the business but also often beyond. The recognition that individuals achieve through PLAR is a source of deep pride that promotes enhanced self-confidence and esteem.

PLAR also acknowledges the importance of learning. Although learning and assessment is at the core of our respective businesses, we know that we often do not take time to recognize our employees' learning achievements. PLAR allows us to do this in a very direct way.

The process of preparing for assessment is also critical to the development of employees because it requires self-direction, analysis and sound decision-making. In the better programs it also fosters collaboration with assessors and other learners. We need all of these abilities to ensure the success of our business. In other words, the very process of PLAR serves to reinforce those traits we most want to cultivate in each and every one of our employees-and in one another!

Finally, supporting our employees to seek new credentials through PLAR enables us to reward them in ways often more significant than their pay cheques. It allows us to recognize their valued contribution to our businesses, to celebrate their successes and explore with them new ways to apply their skills, knowledge and personal abilities to the development of the business and beyond. There is considerable evidence that valued employees are less likely to leave. PLAR is an important tool for helping employees feel valued by the business and supporting them to see their own value to the organization by promoting their personal development and career mobility.

There is another component to all of this that is almost as important, and that is what our employees' successes convey to our clients: It says that we are a learning organization, fully committed to the development of each of our employees. Since learning and assessment is our business, PLAR enables us to put our money where our mouth is. We take pride in letting our clients and sometimes our competitors know how we are doing as organizations. PLAR can have a vital role to play in promoting that pride. In other contexts, a commitment to employee development is often aligned with a commitment to providing high quality goods and services. In other words, learning not only enables us to delight the customer on one occasion but it strongly suggests that we will continue to make every effort to so in the future.


If these are the benefits, what do we see as the obstacles? Why is it that greater numbers of small businesses don't encourage their employees and themselves to make more significant use of PLAR? We think there are some good explanations for this:

  • Information failures 
  • Complexity 
  • Cost 
  • Credit hours Lack of clarity about expectations 
  • Relevance
Each of the obstacles is real and each poses a substantial challenge to small enterprises. Let's look at each one:
  • Information failures: The notion of PLAR is not well understood by many small businesses which, when coupled with a lack of knowledge or misunderstandings about credentials, education and training as a whole, means there is no demand for a relevant and accessible service.

  • Complexity: Many PLAR programs based in colleges or universities seem unduly complex. Learners are often expected to jump over unnecessary administrative hurdles. For example, required portfolio development courses seem irrelevant for many employees and only serve to take up time and money. In many cases, with clear written guidelines and explicit learning outcomes, employees can do an excellent job of constructing their own evidence.

  • Cost: In some cases, PLAR costs seem out of line with what our employees receive. We (or they) are expected to pay the same fees as those taking normal instruction. Based on our experience, we have found that many employees of small businesses put far less strain on the resources of an institution than traditional students. We believe that learners should pay for what they need, no more and no less.

  • Credit Hours: While we fully understand the historical imperative of credit hours, in today's world, especially in the world of small businesses, the use of credit hours tends to get in the way of fully recognizing what employees know and can do. This is particularly true when employees are unable to transfer their credits from one context to another because of a lack of articulation agreements among institutions. We believe that employers (of any size) often end up paying twice or even three times to have employees' learning recognized and credited. The first time is when we support them to learn at work; the second time is when we pay for them to go through PLAR at a local college. And the third time is when we have to pay again for them to "get the credit" recognized or transferred to another institution.

  • Lack of clarity about expectations: Finally, we have found that there is often a lack of clarity about what needs to be learned. Our employees usually have a good idea of what they want and need to receive credit for but most college and university programs do not seem able to help our employees easily relate their skills and knowledge to these programs. It is our observation that a lot of time and effort goes into trying to figure out what colleges and universities want-time and effort that could be better spent in preparing for the assessment process itself or focusing on new learning.

  • Relevance: Small businesses have very limited working capital for investment, whether in market research, product/technology/systems development, or employee development. They need to be confident that the learning required and recognized by the credential, after the PLAR process, is relevant to the needs of the business. Although efforts are being made to address this concern in many colleges and universities, ensuring that PLAR is a viable options within new credentials will be essential.

These obstacles deter many small employers from seeking out or supporting PLAR opportunities. To these businesses, it simply does not seem worth the time and effort.


We have observed that across Canada many institutions are making significant strides in overcoming these obstacles. We would like to reinforce these efforts by suggesting how PLAR can become more relevant to the needs of small businesses.

  • Simplify procedures: First and foremost, we would like to suggest that every effort be made to simplify and clarify the PLAR process-technically, administratively and financially. Make it less cumbersome, less bureaucratic, less expensive. And don't separate it out from normal programs and services. If all assessments are quality assured by the same faculty, why discriminate against PLAR candidates because of how or when they acquired their skills and knowledge?

  • Develop clear learning and assessment expectations: The clearer colleges and universities can be in describing what they want our employees to know and be able to do, the easier and less time consuming the process will be. We also believe that by clarifying the learning and assessment expectations, our employees will be in a better position to be active learners, more fully committed to learning and developing at work and elsewhere.

  • Form partnerships with small businesses: There is a tendency in Canada and elsewhere in the world for colleges and universities to seek out partnerships with large businesses. We understand the reasons behind this, but feel that more needs to be done to encourage small businesses to get involved with PLAR procedures and practices. For example, small employers might happily serve as assessors in collaboration with faculty; they might be willing to work collaboratively to offer opportunities to employees of small businesses as a group.

  • Foster the development of new credentials that better match the needs of smaller businesses.

  • Develop provincial promotional packages that could be disseminated through local chambers of commerce, service organizations and others by working collaboratively with post-secondary institutions.

  • Create mechanisms by which adult learners are entitled to student loans for part-time study and PLAR.

  • Increase tax breaks for small businesses willing to invest in learners by supporting them through the PLAR process.

Many of these ideas are not new. In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, effective ways have been found to begin to work with small businesses. They have been encouraged to work collaboratively and towards a common goal: enhancing the potential of their workforce-creating a "learning force" by which the social and economic benefits of small businesses can be sustained. We know first hand the many benefits PLAR can bring to small businesses. We also know that to embed PLAR as a meaningful, cost-effective tool for greater numbers of small businesses across Canada, the providers of PLAR services will need to continue to improve their flexibility and responsiveness. They will need to build new partnerships with small businesses and recognize the rich learning people acquire, either by choice or chance in small businesses, in their continuing efforts to contribute to their work, their communities and themselves.

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