Small business owners generally rate poorly when it comes to providing appropriate training for their employees. Their attitude is usually: 'Learn it on the job, by shadowing someone else - or you're fired!'
- Small businesses, especially those in retail, can't afford to give staff time off work to attend training offered during work hours.
- The available training is often not appropriate to the needs of the small business.
However, training can play an important role in your business's success. The right training can turn a mediocre employee into a good employee, and a good employee into a star performer.
More importantly, a person who hasn't been trained to do their job properly is bad for your business. They won't give good customer service, and in the long-run, it is also bad for the employee as it will impact on their morale and self esteem. Whether you are aiming for increased sales, more efficient production, better use of IT, or to create a reliable team that can solve its own problems, training is often the best solution. The best return on your training investment will be achieved by identifying your company's training needs and taking a systematic approach to sourcing suitable training and enrolling your employees on the right courses for the job.
You should focus training efforts on areas where you can reap the biggest, fastest and easiest rewards. But before you can do this, you need to identify the skills gaps or training needs in your company and prioritise them. Some training needs are obvious. For example, a company that has hazardous processes clearly has functions that can't be done by staff unless they have had adequate training. Other training needs can be harder to spot. Answer the following questions to help you identify the training your employees might need:
- Is your business experiencing problems or being held back in some way? Try to find the source of the problem and assess whether appropriate training could be the solution, or part of the solution.
- Do you receive customer complaints? If so, are these caused by a lack of knowledge or skills?
- Is part of your team or business underperforming? Will training help to bring them up to speed?
- Is your business changing? When you launch a new product, you might need to train your team on how to sell and deliver it. When you purchase new software, training is needed to use it effectively.
- Do you rely on one or two people for critical functions in your business? Many businesses rely on one person to complete a particular technical operation. It is vital to document the process and train other employees as a precaution.
- Do you need an Internet presence? The Internet has changed the business environment. Even if you don't have a company website, allow your employees to use the Internet. Keep building knowledge and skills in this crucial area.
- Do you have a shortage of a particular set of skills, or a likely future skills shortage? A one-hour photo business located in a mall built a website to sell digital cameras to a wider market than just passing trade. Suddenly, the owner needed an employee who could run the website, process orders and update information online - an obvious gap in skills that a training course could solve.
Keep training relevant
To keep training relevant and focused, set SMART (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time-limited) objectives. For example, tell employees attending a sales course that you hope to see a specified percentage improvement in their sales figures within six months. Or do a time-management course with the objective of clearing your in-tray by the end of each day to focus you, during and after the course.
Involve employees in training decisions
Once you have identified your business training needs, the next step is to ask your employees what relevant skills they want to improve through training. They may have some good ideas (although the all expenses paid trip to LA for an industry conference might need closer scrutiny!). Ask your employees what training they think would improve their productivity and how it will benefit your business.
Win support for your training suggestions by explaining the need for training and the objectives you hope to achieve. Explain that there are benefits for the employee and the business. Initially, train those who are keen. Then let them demonstrate the benefits of the training to the others.
Take learning preferences into account
It is important to take the learning preferences of your staff into account. Find out how each employee prefers to learn. Some people may enjoy group learning, while others prefer individual study. Some people learn best by listening, others by watching and some by getting hands-on experience as soon as possible. Explain the different training options you are considering and let people know their training preferences will be acknowledged.
Formulating a personal development plan for each employee is a great idea. This helps identify and prioritise training needs and provides a way to agree on how to best address these.Top
Developing your training plan
Once you have identified your skill or knowledge gaps, the next step is to find the best form of training to achieve the results you want. Try to avoid finding training first, and then fitting this to your employees. Too often business owners will receive conference and training fliers or emails, and will select one that sounds 'about right' (which means cheap and vaguely relevant), so they can 'tick' the training box for that year.
For optimal results, try to match your selected training option with the needs of your business and the way your employees learn best.
'Off-the-shelf' training courses
'Off-the-shelf' training courses are one-size-fits-all courses run by training companies (for example, a generic course on customer service). Your staff will join employees from other businesses on the course. Some of these courses are designed to achieve, or count towards, a particular recognised qualification. 'Off-the-shelf' training will generally be the cheaper training option, but possibly less relevant as you can't customise the training to suit your business.
Most in-house training takes the form of on-the-job training. This lets people learn at their own pace and allows them to apply new knowledge immediately.
Take care when deciding who will provide the training. The trainer must be technically able to do the task, and have the patience to teach or coach. Don't forget to train the trainers, including training on how to break information down into small steps, how to progress at the pace of the trainee, and how to set achievable training goals.
Job shadowing involves one employee following another employee, like a shadow, to learn all the aspects of a job. This is especially suitable for new employees as part of their induction. Shadowing is a painless way to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time.
Once a person can do the job, continue coaching the employee, and periodically review their progress. You can give feedback and guidance on how further improvements can be made.
Mentoring usually involves the informal transmission of knowledge and social capital over a sustained period, with some face-to-face meetings supported by email and telephone communication. Consider finding a mentor, and encourage senior employees, whose performance has a major impact on your business, to do the same.
A mentor is someone you trust and can consult for business advice and guidance to assist your business or professional development, and is usually someone outside the immediate team, or even someone from outside the company.
People can open up to an outsider in ways that are impossible with a manager - not least because the manager can be the biggest obstacle to progress. A good mentor is a good listener, with the experience to suggest practical solutions. He or she should also set an example and challenge the mentee's ideas.
Conferences, seminars, workshops and courses
External training can bring fresh ideas and energy into the learning process. Mixing with employees from other businesses can be an opportunity to discover how other businesses operate. A good trainer should challenge the way your staff think and operate. Training comes in a wide range of forms such as:
- Lectures and conferences - typically lots of information delivered to a large audience, with great networking possibilities.
- Seminars and workshops - giving people information and letting them practise problem solving.
Online courses as a training option
E-learning is a powerful and cost-effective way of introducing new ideas and approaches. It is especially useful when you need to train a large number of staff across different locations - for example, to demonstrate compliance with health and safety regulations.
It also allows:
- Trainees to progress at their individual pace.
- Trainees to complete the course at home or at work.
Assessing your training
Ask your employees to review their training experience. Try to find out if the training is relevant to the job and appropriate to their level of expertise.
Training assessment forms may help you discover more about the course and establish what worked and what didn't. Be aware that what your employee sees as a positive training experience might not necessarily be valuable to your business.
When employees complete any training, discuss how their learning will be put into action. This will help to ensure that new skills are implemented.
Monitor improvements in the performance of your business:
- Measurable performance indicators include sales, production costs, output, attendance levels and staff turnover.
- Qualitative improvements may include higher quality goods or services, better teamwork, fewer customer complaints and more innovation in your business.
When training isn't the answer
Before investing in training solutions, analyse what is really needed. If an employee is underperforming, they might be the wrong person for the job. The answer could be a change in roles, or in extreme cases, dismissal. Problems may be caused by inadequate systems and policies. For example, an overloaded employee who is unable to cope with their workload will not benefit from a course in time management.
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