Malcolm Peltu reports on how UCL's training experience is now helping the wider community gain a business foothold on the net
A training approach developed at University College London for teaching how the internet can help people start and run businesses has been applied successfully in a programme targeted at the unemployed.
Elizabeth Royston of UCL's special projects unit has led the programme for the European Virtual Enterprise Network (Event), which has trained about 150 people in the UK since 1996. It is funded until next summer by an EU initiative promoting workforce adaptability.
Ms Royston was previously UCL's deputy director of continuing education and saw Event as an opportunity to "take continuing education closer to the wider community". It focuses on "virtual enterprises" that use electronic networking to share costs, skills and expertise. Its second phase, named Encore, has highlighted "portfolio working", a structured form of freelancing in which individuals develop a planned range of skills.
"Event is about business development, not detailed instruction in internet technology," Ms Royston emphasises. "We intertwine training in business and technical skills to stress the importance of integrating the technology into planning, marketing, after-sales and all other business processes.
"Our prime aim is to help people build the multiple skills needed to respond to many different work opportunities in a rapidly changing marketplace."
Alfred Camp is sure his Event course achieved this for him: "It changed my life by arming me with a whole new grammar to help me understand and use the vital technological changes taking place around us."
Mr Camp is now involved in two ventures developing specialist internet-based services. He also uses the internet in various arts and sustainable housing development projects, including setting up his own company and a website for his London art gallery, called 97-99.
Music composer and producer Oisin Lunny also credits Event with "turning around" his life: "It made me rethink how to develop and market my skills. I now do that in a more positive and coherent way, which has enabled me to participate in the many exciting new internet-based possibilities for delivering music."
He is currently collaborating with music business web-specialists Hypnosis, while pursuing his own ventures, such as the group Firstborn and his own website.
UCL is developing a distance-learning version of the course with Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council, an Event partner. It has also learned much about differing virtual enterprise styles from partners in seven European countries.
Valuable assistance has come from many other enterprises. For instance, the Forum of Private Business advises on the needs of small firms and the 13-week London courses are held in the Docklands premises of Trafalgar Square 2000, a government project helping young people get jobs in the cultural industries. Microsoft, IBM and some major banks provided pump-priming sponsorship.
Each Event student is allocated a personal business counsellor from Business Link London City Partners. Devika Banerjee praises the support she has received from her Event counsellor.
"His invaluable advice is helping me to set up my own company to run exhibitions and other major arts events, in which I will apply technological knowledge from the course."
Julia Hitchens says an Event course gave a crucial "kick-start" in 1996 to the formation with her husband of Verve Interactive to provide graphic design services for web applications, such as online newsletters.
"Our business idea was made real by the practical information from Event about forming, running and marketing an enterprise," she says.
Event courses have been of benefit even when initial entrepreneurial ideas foundered. For example, zoologist Malcolm Whitehead intended to create a global "cyberbush" network for wildlife and conservation. Since the course, he has became head of education at a new wetland centre in Barnes, where he will establish internet links to similar centres and environmental organisations around the world.
Transport civil engineer Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood found her idea of providing continuously updated information on cargo movements was too complex. She then set up a web-based multilingual education company, TLC UK, with Event colleague Samantha Dunham. It is still running, but Ms Elaluf-Calderwood now works as a technician for Internet Network Services as she enjoys the technical challenge.
UCL's Emma Jacobs says the course has changed continuously to match technical and market changes.
"For example, it has become much harder to find jobs as general web designers and mass media coverage of the technology has escalated. We now start by correcting much misinformation, whereas earlier we couldn't assume prior internet awareness."
The trickiest problem has been to foster collaborations. "People are often wary of making commitments, even when they realise that banding together in flexible partnerships will be increasingly important to business success," Ms Royston says.
She plans to investigate innovative ways of motivating effective virtual enterprise alliances as her UCL unit builds on Event's achievements.
Event's website offers general information on virtual enterprises, as well as support for its trainees.