PLAR and small business: what difference
can it make?
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
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:
Each of the obstacles is real and each poses
a substantial challenge to small enterprises. Let's look at each one:
Credit hours Lack of clarity about expectations
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.