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Staff need to come first


With the present economic environment meaning that training budgets are shrinking, organisations are going to have to be increasingly creative with what funds they have. Kevin Young explains.

We live in a topsy turvy world. One minute we’re fretting over skills shortages and the scarcity of talent – the next we’re worried about being over-staffed and the need to shed jobs. Currently, there’s a tendency to think that, with the economic downturn, the two concerns will now cancel each other out.

However, life isn’t as neat as the statistics suggest. If a company lacked the right personnel before this crisis, the chances are that it won’t be in a position to mop up any spare talent that may now be on the jobs market. However, what does a business need more than anything during tough times?

Apart from a healthy order book, its best bet is loyal, professional and innovative-thinking employees. The past decade has been taken up making massive efficiency gains through implementing better processes and investing in technology. Almost everyone now has a computer on their desk and sophisticated systems offer unprecedented levels of real-time information.

"What is it that stands out about successful businesses? Not their advanced IT systems, but the enthusiasm and passion of their staff."

Stress in the workplace: A downward spiral

Even during difficult times, a request to purchase more advanced software will no doubt be greeted more favourably than a suggestion that budget is put aside for more people-focused initiatives such as training. Yet, a recent survey conducted by Onepoll on behalf of SkillSoft showed that the vast majority of employees (92%) are experiencing stress, with 44% losing sleep because of their worries about workplace overload and concern over redundancies. Alarmingly, almost a quarter (24%) admitted to taking time off work due to stress. We’re now looking at a complete downward spiral. And the skills gap hasn’t healed.

A further recent report revealed that more than three-quarters of managers are being asked to undertake tasks without receiving appropriate training. Then, to compound the situation, staff are depressed, demotivated and even suffering from a lack of sleep. So what is it that stands out about successful businesses? Not their advanced IT systems, but the enthusiasm and passion of their staff – and the way that this leads to new ideas and innovations that drive the market.

Best people and development strategies

Apple and Google are both cases in point. Each year the publication Business Week surveys CEOs from Europe’s top 50 companies on their main concerns. Naturally 'customer intimacy' and 'operational excellence' are old-timers on the list and always appear either at the top or very close.

However, a couple of years ago a newcomer 'best people and development strategies' leapt out of nowhere to take top place with around 75% of those interviewed rating it as their number one concern. So, all evidence points to the fact that even during hard times, businesses need to nurture, develop and guide the talent they do hold.

However, when the amount of money available is finite, difficult decisions and compromises just have to be made. Consequently, just like the rest of the business world, trainers and training providers need to show great flexibility and adapt to these evolving circumstances in order to survive themselves. Although there will always be a place for some classroom-based or external training, a less rigid approach to both methods of delivery and the courses themselves could prove to be the most successful and cost-effective answer.

"Evidence shows that employees are willing to learn in their own time if they feel the lessons learnt are going to benefit their own personal development."

In other words, this could be when elearning and blended programmes really come into their own. Evidence shows that staff enjoy the convenience and immediacy of having information at their fingertips whenever it is needed. As it suits them so well, they are more motivated and keen to learn. Because the learning is self-paced, it can be scheduled to suit business demands, making the most of any quieter periods without postponing client work or jeopardising potential sales.

As it concentrates on personal development, it can meet the individual needs of staff far more closely, so underlining their own particular contribution and increasing awareness of the need for self initiative and drive. Also, as well as formal skills-based training such as computer courses teaching Excel and PowerPoint, or business subjects such as Six Sigma, users can also enroll for courses to help them deal with stress, to cope with difficult situations and other personal matters.

These help to enhance their emotional intelligence and give them better resilience to deal with a tougher market place. Far from being the poorer cousin of formal learning, elearning can be more popular with staff than traditional methods. Evidence shows that employees are often willing to learn in their own time – either by coming in early in the morning or staying at their desks later – if they feel the lessons learnt are going to benefit their own personal development, as well as the future of their company.

The fact that the lessons can be paced to suit individuals - and learners can return to more knotty concepts and take their time in unravelling them, or move swiftly through ideas they are more familiar with - saves the embarrassment of being left behind or the frustration of wanting to speed ahead. If someone misses a couple of classroom lessons, the temptation is to give up - but with elearning, the lessons are always there waiting for a convenient time.

Return on investment

Those set on evaluating return on investment have discovered that substantial savings are made against the cost of delivering courses in the classroom. They describe a self-perpetuating circle with improved performances increasing sales, which in turn raises morale, which boosts performance.

“Growing your internal talent develops loyalty, commitment and people who will go the extra mile,” reads a recent ad placed in the national press and signed by the heads of organisations ranging from the CBI and Marks & Spencer plc to the TUC and UK Commission for Employment and Skills. “The skills of our people are our best guarantee of future prosperity,” it continues. It seems that the company that fails to invest in its staff puts its future prospects at risk. However, an open-minded approach to methods of delivery could be a way to address the budgetary challenge – and at the same time offer valuable inspiration and incentive to spur on a worried workforce.

Kevin Young is VP and managing director EMEA of SkillSoft.

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