Training has reached a status akin to motherhood: a 100 percent approval rating. So, for all businesses the clarion call has gone out: if you want to be more profitable, train your staff; if you want to attract the best staff offer training. But a businessman, writing a training budget into his financial plan wants a return on it, in exactly the same way as he expects results from his advertising spend. So whats available, how do you choose and what benefits accrue?
Availability is no problem, training is a major growth industry. There is a course available for any skill you want to learn, likewise for any skill you want to improve. Courses can be part-time, full-time, evening. They can be short-term, long-term of intensive. They can be wholly, partly or non-government funded.
This then presents the first dilemma how do you select training? The logical route is to start with the definable needs of the business. Where are we short of skills, where are we lagging behind our competitors, where are the new opportunities to be grasped?
Then you need to fit this to your staff. Who needs these extra skills, who will benefit from them and in so doing benefit the business? Here you hit one of the classic dilemmas of training can you afford to lose the person you want trained while theyre being trained?
Equally, does the right person to learn the skill value the training, or if the course is during the evening, will they give up their own time?
The key issue to address is simple to define: what can benefit my business the most? There is no simple answer. Sales, production, finance and IT are the obvious areas, but this says nothing because it virtually represents the world for a small business.
Sales and production tend to get the focus. If we sell more well be more profitable; if were better at making it, well get more customers and so be more profitable. Changes in skill levels here have to go hand in glove, though. Whats the point of training your production staff to produce something that the sales staff dont or cant sell> The same applies the other way round too.
Its tempting though, to encourage both sales and production staff to go to seminars and training days run by your suppliers when theyre free or priced cheaply. Just be aware that if they come back brimming with new ideas that you cant actually use right now, that day out could create a disgruntled staff member.
So, making your specialists into experts may not be the be-all and end-all. It may prove more effective all-round to uprate the whole organisations skills in key areas. IT trainers make a good living out of this. Everybody in the organisation they say needs to know how to use the computing power to gain best effect from it. Well, OK< but theyre more than a touch biased.
Sales trainers are adopting the same approach. If an organisation is to succeed they say it must be customer focussed from ceiling to floor. That requires training in handling enquiries, talking to customers, basic sales skills, throughout the company.
Again, theyre biased but again you can see the potential.
Once is agreed that an individual or individuals need a specific type of training, who choose the course? The obvious route is for the trainee to select his or her own training. After all, they and they along know what to do and dont need and what structural format they are happy with. Fine, except that not many of your staff will have much experience of training and will find it difficult to differentiate between good and bad.
More important, in these circumstances, the person being trained will address their own wants and needs before those of the company. Since they are not footing the bill, they dont much care whether the final product fulfills the companys needs and expectations.
If, for example, you want someone who understands internet marketing, sending your most IT literate salesman on a course is a natural starting point. If hes a canny lad, he may pick a course thats heavy on the practicalities of website design, because he fancies an entertaining sideline designing sites. This benefits the employer not one whit, especially if youve already got a professionally built site.
By definition, tailormade course are more expensive and invariably better than the off-the-peg variety. Being certain that they are better value is another matter. They are also time-consuming and inconvenient. First, youve got some fairly serious management time involved in selecting the trainer and then agreeing the course structure.
Remember, if youre paying for bespoke, bespoke is what you should get, not off-the-peg with some minor alternations. This is especially applicable for trade organisations who offer training: how relevant is the training to the trade?
How, why, when, where?
Choosing training has been likened to picking a pension. You only know if you got it right after the event and getting it wrong is an expensive mistake. So, just as with pensions, go to an independent broker. Er, there arent any.
Thats not totally true because there are Business Links, part of the old TEC structure. A Business Link advisor will help you assess your needs and then point you in the direction of a training provider. This advice is impartial and free. It also ensures you go to a reputable organisation. It may, however, be that the Business Link approach proves rather ponderous and even intrusive because it comes as part of an overall assessment of the needs of the business.
Whilst the claim of Business Link to be impartial is true in relation to recommending suppliers, it should be noted that they have an agenda, and at the very top of it is funding. As with all government bodies, increased funding (and the pay rise or promotion that goes with it) is dependent on achieving.
But results for government bodies are quantitative, not qualitative. They want and need to be able to point to numbers of previously untrained people now possessing proper qualifications. Does it prove to benefit the trainees employer? Did the trainee actually understand what he studied, as distinct from rote learnt to pass an exam? Questions like these are beyond their concern, they are in the volume business.
If you are paying for staff training, do you want them studying for paper qualifications? Superficially, it seems a daft question: whats the point of people studying if they dont get anything to prove they did? Theres also a suspicion that any training not aimed at an exam of some sort is a soft option akin to basket weaving at evening classes.
This is flawed thinking though. First of all, training that is aimed at NVQs and HNVQs (exactly the sort of thing that Business Link and the Departments of Education and Employment are mustard keen on) is, by definition, not remotely tailored to your business, your needs. The trainee may get plenty of out if, but your gains are dependent on his ability to apply the general to the particular.
Such comments may seem deeply negative towards the whole principle of training, but I think it is pragmatic instead. The biggest barrier between employers and training is the fear a real fear, too that they will pay to train their staff only to find them up sticks and leave for more money elsewhere. Of course the new employer has more money for salaries, hes not spending on training. To be entirely fair, far more staff are bound to a company by its commitment to training them than take their qualifications and run.
We should all encourage staff to invest their time in training. But I see no sound reason why they should not also be expected to contribute to the financial investment involved where the training is general rather than specific to the company. Half the cost of course materials and books seems reasonable half of the benefit is going onto their CVs.
If they dont see it this way, are staff just using training as subsidised time away from the pressure of work? When they do contribute financially you can be absolutely sure that they will put effort in to achieve the qualifications they are working towards. This approach is a classic element of the life-long learning attitudes that have contributed towards the success of the American economy.
So, is the principle of training a panacea for the countrys ills flawed? No, we are, as a nation, under-trained, but we should not pretend that a few hours a week at the local tech college for all staff is going to turn businesses into overnight success stories.
Paul Clapham runs marketing company Junction 13. A version of this article first appeared in Printwear & Promotion, September 1999.