'Boarding school' training not working

A ''boarding school'' approach to staff training is hampering its effectiveness for Kiwi small businesses, say workplace training providers.

They said while ongoing workplace learning for employees could be crucial in helping small to medium enterprises (SMEs) grow productivity and profits, there was little point in generic courses with little connection to a business' specific processes and needs.

Martyn McKessar, director of workplace learning and development company The Learning Wave, said the key was ensuring any ongoing staff learning was relevant and applied to the job in question.

While generic training courses cost less for small businesses, their effectiveness required a lot of employer follow-up, he said.

''The boarding school model doesn't work, where an employer sends employees off to training and expects them to do it all themselves," McKessar said.

"Managers of small businesses need to accept they have a responsibility to make sure their staff are trained and help them to apply those skills to their jobs when they get back; to make that connection between the training and the work."

And that may require further training for the manager also.

''Those are quite specific skills for a small business owner or manager to have,'' he said.

Katherine Percy, chief executive of Workbase workplace literacy specialists, agreed making sure employees were aware of the relevance on any training, and making sure they understand the wider context of a business rather than just their own job, were both vital to making sure training was effective.

''Training works when you are clearly able to identify, and mutually understand with the participants, what the performance or productivity skill set you're addressing is, and its relevance to the workplace,'' Percy said.

The first part of that process was identifying where training was needed in the first place. Percy suggested looking at areas of the business that owners wanted to grow, or quality issues, to see where the road blocks were.

''Look at what the skills and knowledge gaps are in those areas and what training can address them.''

Though many SMEs were put off regular or ongoing training because of costs there were some government subsidies available, Percy said, and the costs of not keeping staff trained could be hard on a small business.

''I heard of one business owner complaining that he trained staff only to have them leave, then someone pointed out that he should calculate the cost of not training the staff and keeping people who don't know how to do their job,'' she said.

''Growth and productivity rely on who have a full understanding of what needs to be done, and can make appropriate decisions when things change.''

Ongoing training was probably of greater importance to SMEs than large corporates due to the compact nature of their structure. In an SME staff were often required to be flexible, and take on multiple roles rather than sticking strictly to a job description, Percy said.

''You usually need a much broader skill base and to multi-task. Plus you have less access to specialist advice,'' she said.

Without an HR department or a financial services department as part of the business, key staff needed to be more generalist, rather than dealing just in their specific area of expertise, and that would require training.

''It broadens the range of potentially quite complex areas you need to be across,'' she said.

McKessar added the other major advantage of ongoing staff development for a SME was the loyalty it generated.

Ongoing learning can make staff feel more valued, have greater pride in their work and a clearer understanding of their role within an organisation. As a result, they were much more likely to be flexible in their role and stay with a business longer, he said.

''In small businesses you need much more flexibility from your staff. If you look after them people will do huge things for you,'' he said.

''And if you have staff who are aged under 30 or 35 they'll be thinking about what the job is doing for them - what they are getting out of it - rather than what they can do for the company.

''If they don't feel they are valued and their skills are being developed, they'll start to look elsewhere. That's quite a shift from previous generations,'' McKessar said.

While large corporates had long recognised that developing staff was a huge motivator for success, ''I'm not sure small businesses have necessarily seen the importance of it'', he said.