Practical Training Tips for SMBs

Passionate about learning and development, our Training Manager, Debbie Wood was an obvious choice to put in the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, she rates the need for investing in learning and development as essential, and believes having a central resource to manage it and drive a learning culture is also key. Debbie brought a wealth of experience to Fasthosts, gained from the recruitment industry and her own consultancy business. In this article she imparts some insight on her number one passion…

How do you identify training needs within the business?

Firstly you need to recognise there are different types of training needs that are driven from either the organisation, departments or individuals.

Each training need should address a skills gap and be prioritised in relation to its impact on the business. An organisational led training need is most likely to occur as a result of a change to business strategy whereas an individual’s need may come about following an appraisal or personal development plan and be driven by career aspirations.

The key is to make sure you’re addressing needs from all three sources. Having the flexibility to react to urgent training needs escalated from the top down, for example rolling out new software training to the organisation is necessary. In an ideal world, we’d love to support all training requests raised by employees.  They can be extremely motivational, however they may not fit in with the bigger picture, help us gain competitor advantage or impact on the bottom line.

What training delivery methods do you use?

We adopt a blended learning approach now but it hasn’t always been the case. Going back five or six years about 95% of our learning solutions tended to be classroom style. Now, the percentage is more like 50% classroom and the remaining 50% is made up of e-learning, webinars, conferences, self-learning, shadowing, coaching and mentoring.

How do you assess training needs within the business?

People are keen to learn at Fasthosts and as a result are forthcoming with their training needs.   It’s important to probe those needs and assess them to make sure they will impact significantly on the business (as well as benefiting the individual).Firstly, you need to ensure that the training need is linked to business goals by asking whether the skill is business critical or a nice to have. The next step is to test the employee’s commitment to learning by understanding what their learning objectives are and what the training will result in them being able to do differently.

We achieve this by asking the person who requested the training to build and present a mini business case. This should explain how the training need has arisen through to how it will impact on the individual, team and wider organisation.

How do you ensure the training you deliver impacts on the bottom line?

This is one of the biggest challenges faced by training professionals. There are lots of theories and models out there but the one that lends itself well for Fasthosts is the Kirkpatrick model which identifies four levels of evaluation. So, rather than just assessing training by gauging delegates feelings, it forces consideration about the knowledge or skill that has directly resulted from the course, behavioural changes, and the financial or commercial implications for the business.

Even before you start designing a training programme, it’s important to think about how the training will be measured. To help integrate performance measures into the design phase, we use the balanced scorecard approach by Kaplan and Norton who acknowledge both financial and non-financial indicators. In short, we ensure that every learning and development activity impacts at least one of the four performance measure groups they classify as: Customer, Financial, Internal Business Processes and Learning and Growth.  This enables us to measure not only a return on the investment, but also a return on the expectations from the original stakeholder.

It is easier to establish and control measures when you’re designing an internal training course from a blank sheet than if you buy an off the shelf solution that will have generic qualities. Our preferred method when engaging with  external training consultancies is to have a lot of input at the beginning of the process into the course design, therefore ensuring our success criteria is clearly mapped out and measured constantly throughout the training cycle.

How do you manage the training budget?

Our budget has remained very healthy but it’s always a challenge to hold onto it in this kind of economic climate, particularly for small businesses. You need to prioritise where the money should be spent and sometimes have to make some tough decisions.

There are lots of learning opportunities you can implement that don’t cost money such as an in-house coaching and mentoring programme, knowledge sharing, job shadowing and  classroom courses that can be written and delivered in-house. Experience tells me that if people are learning whilst working, moral will be lifted and they’re more likely to display that discretionary effort which of course has a positive effect on the business.

One thing that works well is tapping into a relationship with a broker who can buy training on your behalf and offer good discounts. We book all of our external training courses through Knowledge Pool and this partnership enables us to receive generous discounts on public courses. There are of course certain criteria we have to meet in order to negotiate this level of discount.

Part of managing the budget is testing the employee’s commitment to learning as without their buy in, the training won’t offer value for money. This is particularly true of professional qualifications that require a significant number of hours study per week over an extended period of time. Drawing up a learning contract offers the organisation some protection in their investment as it enables some of the costs to be clawed back on a sliding scale should the employee leave prior to completing the course or soon after. Another option might be to impose some ground rules on a training agreement and only pay the full costs if the course is completed within a certain timeframe or only pay for one exam attempt. These types of restrictions make the employee confront how much they want to do the training and whether they can balance the demands with their work and home life.

What advice would you give to a business starting out who want to implement a training programme?

It may not be financially viable for a small business starting out to recruit a learning and development professional but there are lots of resources out there to tap into. The reality is, you can have state of the art processes, a clear strategy and leading edge technology in place but ultimately it’s your people who are the core of your business.  The answer is to keep them motivated and continually invest in them.

Networking with other learning and development professionals provides a great source of learning. Having someone in the business become a member of the CIPD would open up a range of specialist learning and development resources.  Attending seminars offers useful insights by professional speakers and exposure to other businesses that may be open to sharing best practice and offer a support network. The knowledge learnt can be adapted to suit the organisation and filtered down through its employees.  I’m also members of various LinkedIn groups such as E-Learning, Critical HRD, British Institute for Learning & Development, Trainers Network, Training Professionals and Training Zone.  All of these groups provide a great resource if you want to get some advice and top tips to help you get started.

How important do you feel it is to have a training strategy in an organisation?

Obviously I’m biased but I honestly feel it’s essential. Having a clear strategy set out and a process to support it has ensured a consistent approach and helped Fasthosts develop a strong learning culture. Our employees genuinely feel they are invested in, are keen to develop their careers with Fasthosts and I’m delighted to see that year on year, our employee engagement survey demonstrates significant improvements in this area.

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