Processes of bottom up cluster building assumes the balanced and sensitive support of a set of methodologies and tools that match ad hoc specific requirements of the cluster partners while enabling and promoting their mutual understanding and adjustment towards a shared vision/common goals. On the other hand, particularly at formation stage, these processes are strongly individual- centered which means that supporting cluster teams with flexible methodologies and tools –or likewise, channeling them through flexible learning environments –seems critical. Flexible options cater for larger and diverse cluster partners –individual and company dimensions.

Flexible Learning is a set of educational philosophies and systems, concerned with providing learners with increased choice, convenience, and personalisation to suit the learner (Wikipedia). It is multi-layered and multi-faceted. In its broadest sense it is a continuum of approaches in terms of time, place, pace, content and mode of learning applied in varying degrees. Its overarching purpose is to increase opportunities and options available to learners and give them greater control over their learning through a variety of learning modes and interactions. It is not an alternative mode of education but an overarching driving force that provides learners greater choice (Palmer, 2011). By extension, Flexible Learning Environments could be seen as the setting (physical and virtual) flexible learning is embedded in.

Similarly, Jones (2011: 55-56) defines Collaborative Learning Environments (CLEs) as “fully flexible workspaces equipped so that groups of different sizes may actively engage in experiential learning processes – whether for formal learning, innovation or decision-making purposes. The basis of the Collaborative Learning environment is a Learning environments flexible space or theatre for learning. …(I)t is about creating enabling environments in which diverse groups from varying disciplines and contexts are able to interact, exchange and create new forms of knowledge. These environments are equipped to support group processes that promote the exchange of both tacit and explicit knowledge forms. CLEs are rich knowledge environments.”

FLEs /CLEs place the learner at the centre of the learning experience. This means but the recognition of the cluster partners’ diverse nature and the acknowledgement of individuals’ different emotional, psychological and social needs. Individuals vary in the way they understand and make sense of the same facts and information –i.e. not two individuals are equally receptive to the same information or the same channels or formats through which it is delivered. This has some very practical consequences when planning an event, for instance. Every detail needs careful planning …and due communication since the expectations that it will generate in the potential audience will greatly determine the possibility that these will finally be matched.

For purposes of collaboration, becoming aware of these aspects and providing an overarching, open and flexible environment that could accommodate all these differences is especially relevant. Inasmuch as the setting affects the ability of people (cluster partners) to generate ‘connections’, they affect too their possibility to engage in mutually productive IC flows. In turn, from the strict lens of the methodologies and tools made available to the cluster partners, this means that the design of the environment and the blending of those methodologies and tools will affect its very effectiveness, and ultimately the capacity of the cluster to thrive through to fruition. CADIC offers online support for these processes through CROFT, which can provide, in the context of each FLE implementation, a safe virtual collaborative space for the participants, together with services and tools for the facilitation and support of group, private and interpersonal work, integrated both the real and virtual space.

Again, these considerations pose tremendous challenges on the roles Cluster Facilitator and Country Coach. Their professional competence is key but their capacity to understand the needs and requirements –stated and non-stated – of the cluster partners and the people that make them up, create the necessary trust and confidence in the person CF/CC and in what they do, is not less fundamental. It is always about trust.

See below some brief and illustrative comments on FLEs of UK CC Beth Vokurka and her experience with the SITEKIT cluster. For background information on this issue, go to „Case in Point: SITEKIT Scottish Cluster“, esp. the point on Flexibility,.

Finally, so as to have a better idea of how FLEs/CLEs could look like in practice as well as of some of the benefits the cluster can obtain from them see the CADIC reports on the two Evaluation Workshops so far implemented.

Case in Point: SITEKIT Cluster

With regard to selling the FLE to other clusters/facilitators, testimonials are key, so SMEs can hear from other SMEs how they benefitted.

One of the issues with moving from a non-standard seminar format for workshops with SITEKIT was the fact of people being concerned about it just being blunt.

Importantly, the CC had already built up enough trust with the SITEKIT staff for them to know that she was not going to intentionally damage their relationships with the audience and that she was focused enough on making sure it would benefit the group or, contrarily, would not have suggested it. They „owed the CC“ because of the other work that she had done with the group, so they were more willing to let her run the workshops in a different manner.

Only after SITEKIT seeing the engagement of the group and the information they received from the different format, they were impressed and convinced that an FLE was more useful to them than a standard series of talks and some networking time afterwards.

The main benefits were:
Increased engagement with the audience.
Improved communication, knowledge sharing and market feedback.
More of an ability to focus the event to the needs and interests of the audience.

Also there were some disadvantages to it:
Doesn’t work for all audiences (e.g. customers would have likely benefitted more from educational talks).
Significant barrier to adoption due to fear of change and being comfortable with status quo seminars.
Requires a facilitator who understands the dynamics and interests of the audience reasonably well.

Jones, G. (2011), “Learning environments. Innovative Workspaces for the 21st Century”, Developing Leaders, Issue 5, pp.55-59
Palmer, S.R. (2011), “The lived experience of flexible education: Theory, policy and practice”, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, Vol. 8, Iss.3, Art.2, [online]