Vocational education and training in small businesses: setting a research agenda for the twenty-first century

Education + Training

ISSN: 0040-0912

Publication date: 1 June 2000


Harry Matlay, D. (2000), "Vocational education and training in small businesses: setting a research agenda for the twenty-first century", Education + Training, Vol. 42 No. 4/5. https://doi.org/10.1108/et.2000.00442daa.001



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Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Vocational education and training in small businesses: setting a research agenda for the twenty-first century

Vocational education and training in small businesses: setting a research agenda for the twenty-first century

Much has been written, in recent years, on training and related issues such as organisational learning, knowledge management and human resource development. The literature that focuses upon the development and management of small firms has also grown considerably. A sizeable proportion of the current literature is dedicated to the training and human resource development (HRD) needs of small business owner/managers and their workforce. This is not surprising: the importance of the human resource aspect of small businesses and its crucial influence upon their success and growth was first highlighted by the Bolton Commission of Inquiry on Small Firms (Bolton Report, 1971). Initially, scaled-down, large-business training solutions were offered to those owner/managers who sought support in solving their firm-specific HRD and skill shortage problems. Policy makers were slow to realise or accept that small businesses needed focused and often customised support for their particular needs. Requests were made by David Storey (the most committed champion of the small business sector in the UK) for a comprehensive review and a dedicated Small Business White Paper (Storey, 1994). These, however, were met with reticent silence from otherwise vociferously supportive cabinet ministers in consecutive Tory governments. Similarly, the New Labour government, which came to power in 1997, is yet to deliver most of its election commitments in relation to the small business sector (Matlay, 1999).

It is important to note that 30 years since its publication, the research agenda set in the Bolton report remains just as topical at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Even though the small business environment has undergone significant changes, brought about by rapid advances in information communication technology (ICT) and the rise of the "global village", the importance of training and HRD to the delivery of organisational goals in this type of firm has not diminished. On the contrary: the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW) and electronic commerce (e-commerce) together with related advances in ITC have accentuated the need for continuous training and multiskilling in smaller firms. Much of the credit for the topicality of, and awareness in, the benefits attributable to training and HRD in small businesses must go to those academics and researchers who have dedicated themselves to the study of the "Cinderella" sector of the UK economy. Their commitment to a small business agenda is even more remarkable considering that funding and career advancement could mostly be derived from research and consultancy in large organisational environments.

Fortuitously, this is no longer the case. In recent years small business research has nudged its way on to the socio-economic and political agenda. This has resulted in a mass of publications on small business topics. Unfortunately, much of it is overly simplistic, naively romantic or thoroughly dogmatic and patronising. Such a vast volume of literature presents the potential reader with difficulties in terms of the variety of empirical content and the inconsistency of research definitions and methods. Moreover, a large proportion of the literature is characterised by strong polemical overtones, making it difficult to differentiate between political dogma, idealistic speculation and reasoned debate based upon objective and rigorous research.

On the basis of a comprehensive overview of existing research on training and HRM in small businesses, Storey and Westhead (1994, p. 17) argue that they were unable to consistently document methodologically well-conducted research, which produced reliable results that could be generalised across the whole sector. Following their devastating and widely acknowledged indictment of the existing research in this field, a new and rigorous research agenda has emerged. The new literature on training and related issues concentrates on three distinct methodologies:

  1. 1.


  2. 2.

    qualitative; and

  3. 3.


Although each of these identifies and, to a large extent, defines its own research sample, the results are not only compatible but also comparable and often complementary. Although seldom encountered, longitudinal research is particularly useful as it produces, in addition to "snapshot" results, a measurement of relevant changes across time periods. A small number of exploratory, mixed-method research programmes have successfully triangulated the results of quantitative and qualitative studies that focused on the same population or sub-samples of the wider sample.

This special edition of Education and Training is a celebration not only of the new research agenda for the twenty-first century but also of the diversity and importance of the small business sector of the UK economy. It incorporates a variety of research styles, methods and results that, hopefully, will make a significant contribution to the body of academic knowledge on this pertinent topic. In common with previous special issues, it has taken a great deal of time and effort to plan, referee and put together. I sincerely hope that it will do justice to all those whose hard work and commitment to academic rigour has made its publication possible. I am very grateful to all the authors who accepted my commission and took up the challenge to disseminate, edit and deliver their contributions to tight deadlines. Special thanks are due to the journal's editor, Richard Holden and to the referees, for their advice, hard work and support over such a protracted period of time. Not all the articles could be included in the special issue. Other related papers will be published in the journal, at a later date, together with a number of international contributions. Finally, I would like to thank John Peters and MCB for the opportunity to publish a double edition of Education and Training, one of the top journals in my field of research.

Dr Harry MatlayKnowledge Management CentreUniversity of Central EnglandBirmingham, UK


Bolton Report (1971), Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Small Firms, Cmnd 4811, HMSO, London.Matlay, H. (1999), "Vocational education and training in Britain: a small business perspective", Education and Training, Vol. 41 No. 1, pp. 6-13.Storey, D. (1994), Understanding the Small Business Sector, Routledge, London.Storey, D. and Westhead, P. (1994), "Management training and small firm performance: a critical review", working paper no.18, SME Centre, Warwick University, Coventry.