Forget trying to stay awake in a stuffy classroom or robotically clicking your way through an e-learning course, training has become much more sophisticated by blending man and machine together in an engaging way. And as Louise Druce finds out, it couldn’t have come at a better time for skill-starved businesses.
If you’ve ever had to sit in a hot conference room for the third day in a row trying not to nod off to the lulling drone of a lecturer clicking through an endless PowerPoint presentation, you probably wouldn’t be too upset to know that training budgets are traditionally among the first to be cut when a company is going through leaner times.
But it’s just that stuffy classroom image and the thought that bosses are losing money by turning employees lose from the office for a few days when they are both needed elsewhere, that is giving training a bad name at a time when it’s needed most.
Over three quarters of HR managers say their company does not adequately equip employees with the skills to thrive in today’s business world, according to research from e-learning experts WebEx. This is backed up by research from Investors in People which revealed that 60 percent of employees feel they need to leave their job in order to progress their careers due to lack of development.
Ian Bowbrick, manager of personnel and training, Royal Academy of Engineering.
And the need for training doesn’t stop at the doors of the ivory tower. A survey by the CIPD claims that 79 percent of leaders felt that training is a key part of success. On the middle floor, underperforming managers are estimated to cut productivity to the tune of £220 billion per year – again, training being cited as one of the root causes.
What some bosses could do with is an extra lesson on changing their mindset to embrace the more flexible training options available today and opening their eyes to the return on investment it can bring.
“People are realising that not only is training essential but we now live in a knowledge economy where their company moves forward when the skills and knowledge of staff are up to date and current,” says Ian Bowbrick, manager of personnel and training at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “You can’t be competitive without it.”
The academy has just awarded 72 training grants worth £315,000 to companies all over the UK to support innovative programmes. “Training is not just renewing people’s skills and knowledge or changing their behaviour,” he adds. “It makes people feel more valued and helps them appreciate how they are contributing to the bottom line.”
A classic mistake is only adopting one method of training staff. As Simon Jones, acting chief executive at Investors in People points out: “All too often employers confuse development with formal training and whilst this is clearly important, it can’t be the only focus.”
Some companies have chosen to go down the e-learning route. There are many advantages – it’s quick, easily accessible from anywhere, can save costs when compared to sending employees away on a course, and trainees can learn at their own pace. However, as Callum Meikle, managing director of training company Go Fast Forward, says, you have to make it engaging or people either won’t access it or lie back in the chair and put about as much effort into it as if they were watching EastEnders.
“Online training is a lot more flexible and richer than it was in the past but there are still some people who think they can get away with cobbling together something they call e-learning but doesn’t cut it with the sexy, seductive stuff multi-media technology can offer these days,” he explains. “There are also technology issues. We have clients who work on oil rigs. They would love to have super interactive e-learning but it’s not easy to get quick downloads in the middle of the North Sea.”
Instead, what both Meikle and Bowbrick advocate is a more blended approach to learning – a combination of e-leaning and face-to-face teaching. This has two distinct advantages. The first is human interaction. Instead of just being a captive audience to the internet, you can take part in real-life rather than real-time discussions and debates.
“The internet is convenient and remote but there are other, softer skills that suffer because you are not in physical contact with someone,” says Bowbrick. He cites the business school example of a group of German students who relied heavily on online training and subsequently had poor oral communication skills because they had never learned to form an argument or bring a point home.
Callum Meikle, managing director, Go Fast Forward.
Also, in a practical subject such as engineering, there are certain aspects to a role that you can only learn hands-on. After all, Meikle highlights, you can’t learn to drive by reading the Highway Code. You have to get behind the wheel.
The second advantage is that people can learn at their own pace. His company, for example, offers management courses with the option of fast-paced, 90 minute learning or the full six months – something that would appeal to companies with little time on their hands.
Built into this idea is a flexibility that reflects different behavioural styles. Using psychometric research, Meikle identifies four character types: the analyst who loves data, the amiable who likes nothing better than to interact with people, the driver who wants to get the job done as quickly as possible in whatever way, and the expressive, who wants the applause of the people but also wants a quick fix.
“All these different styles require different functions,” he explains. “If the course is too quick for the analyticals they will feel alienated because they will want to question everything. If you put the expressives on a long course, they’ll be bored.”
We are the champions
To even get to the stage of discussing training options, though, Bowbrick believes that every company needs a training champion – ideally at the top. He argues that if HR can prove what training can bring to the company, it is less likely to linger under the axe when it comes to cutting costs.
“Small companies are streets ahead when it comes to training because they have always had to be competitive with less resources,” he says. “Large companies have bigger budgets with so much inertia in them they really don’t understand the true concept.
“With the amount of work going on in larger companies, if you don’t have a champion to promote training the responsibility will be devolved and will just appear as a line on a report with no added value. Training is not a commodity, it’s a necessity.”