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U.K.'s e-Learning Capital: Sheffield?

By Bob Little / September 2010

TYPE: OPINION
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When many industries first gain maturity, the individual companies that make up the sector often begin to cluster in certain geographic regions.

And Sheffield, U.K., is becoming one such magnet for e-learning businesses.

In the early days of industry, clustering happened because an area had advantages in natural resources that were used in a particular manufacturing process. Later, when many businesses became more reliant on knowledge than physical resources, we started to see clustering around universities, like Cambridge or the so-called Research Triangle area of North Carolina.

Of course, this is not just about resources and universities. Industry hubs happen when a big company, say Microsoft, Ubisoft, or Oracle, sets up shop, grows and, after a few years, has dozens of former employees lingering around the area, starting up their own companies and making use of the talent that has been attracted to the area.

Apart, perhaps, from access to broadband internet services, the e-learning industry is geography-neutral. However, the concentration of e-learning companies in one area does lead to the growth of a pool of skilled labor, from which all may draw.

This may be one of the key reasons the U.K.'s e-learning companies are now clustering in the Sheffield area, in South Yorkshire, on the eastern side of the beginning of the north of England.

Examples of companies in the Sheffield area which have spun out from other, larger local e-learning companies include PTK, set up nearly three years ago by Patrick FitzPatrick, and Xoolon, established some four years ago by Martin Spence, formerly of ACT E-learning and then Vantage. Others have moved within the industry. Among these are Wendy Weller Davies, formerly of Sanderson CBT, Tata Interactive Systems and Learning Light, who is now working for Kineo, recently named the second largest e-learning developer in the U.K. with more than $8 million in annual turnover, and Keith Downes, who left Peakdean Interactive to set up the Sheffield office of LINE, the U.K.'s largest e-learning developer generating some $11 million a year.

Another reason the city of Sheffield appears to be establishing itself as the capital of the U.K.'s e-learning industry, is the presence in that city of the headquarters of Learning Light, a centre of excellence in the use of e-learning and learning technologies in the workplace, established in 2006.

Since then, Learning Light has been promoting Sheffield as a venue for the U.K.'s key players in the e-learning sector. It also researches and produces the only independent market analysis reports on the U.K.'s e-learning industry—and is currently working on its third such report, which is due for publication in November.

Learning Light's David Patterson commented, "In recent years, Sheffield has established itself as the U.K.'s e-learning capital, taking over from the Brighton area (on the south east coast) where the first e-learning companies were concentrated in the 1980s.

"Key e-learning related knowledge and skills are now well-represented among the working population in the Sheffield area, and this is helping to attract e-learning content and systems developers to set up in and around the city," he added. "So we're beginning to see a virtuous circle develop, which should continue to benefit both the industry and the area by continuing to provide more and more e-learning related jobs—and the people to do them!"

The latest of the U.K.'s newest e-learning stars to re-locate to Sheffield is The Safety Train, which recently moved there from London. Jonathan Blythe, The Safety Train's business development director, said, "We first met David Patterson in 2009, and he convinced us of the benefits of moving to Sheffield. Indeed, David's advice and guidance on all aspects of the e-learning market as well as on our head office location has proved to be most valuable," he added. "The early signs are that this move to Sheffield is producing all that we had hoped it would in business terms."

It's interesting that Sheffield, having grown prosperous in the 19th century through becoming noted for making steel and steel products, should be following a similar path in the digital age to bring further prosperity through attracting e-learning and other digital industry producers.


About the Author
For more than 20 years, Bob Little has specialized in writing about, and commentating on, corporate learning—especially e-learning—and technology-related subjects. His work has been published in the U.K., Europe, the U.S., and Australia. Contact Bob at [email protected].



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