Skills are precious commodities in a world where knowledge - knowing how to exploit technology, knowing how to adapt to change - is increasingly the difference between achievement and underperformance.
In such a world, the better trained, the more flexible a firm's staff, the more productive, competitive and, ultimately, profitable the business is likely to be.
Training its staff in new skills not only can make a firm more efficient, it can also have the equally beneficial, morale-boosting effect of creating workers who are motivated and clear-eyed about their role.
No business is too small or, for that matter, too successful to benefit from staff training and development. The problem for many is, first of all, identifying where a skill deficit may exist and, then, being sure how to remedy it.
Identifying training needs
Training, of course, is not an end in itself; it must mesh with the objectives, culture and organisation of a business or else it simply wastes resources. It must also address a real, rather than an imagined, disparity between the skills and knowledge that staff actually possess and the skills and knowledge they need to have.
The most effective way of determining where and how a business can benefit from training is to conduct what is called a training needs analysis. Although this needn't be an overly complicated exercise, it will introduce an important element of discipline and cost-efficiency into the process.
A training needs analysis involves examining different areas of the company in turn. For example, it would mean looking at whether the most is being made of a company's IT resources and whether a software training course for staff would result in a more efficient or effective use of them. The same can go for service staff: are they handling customer relations in a way that is likely to encourage loyalty and repeat buying? Are sales staff best equipped to identify potential customers and win their business? And are production staff as well qualified as the people working for rival firms?
Properly conducted, a training needs analysis does a number of things. It will tell an employer just what the current skill levels are within the company; it will provide a profile of the skill levels of individual employees; it will establish the gap between current skills and the skills required to compete in the future; and it will help suggest how that gap can be closed.
Nor should any appraisal be limited to employees alone. An evaluating eye ought also to be cast on management to make sure that those leading the company are able to motivate staff, offer believable leadership, communicate persuasively and set the business realisable objectives and strategies.
Skills: reviews and appraisals
A good training needs analysis needs to be conducted from a series of perspectives. One of these, of course, is from the top down. Most good employers - those with their fingers on the pulse - will be in the best position to see where the business operation is not running as smoothly as it might and will recognise if a skills shortage is the reason for the lack of performance.
The views of staff, though, are equally important. Often workers will have a clear idea in which areas skills can be sharpened or knowledge built up. Provided the appraisals - which can be made through self-assessment or peer group evaluation - are carried out in a way that does not threaten or undermine staff, they can offer acute insights into how and where improvements can be made.
Indeed, the more involved staff are made to feel, and the more supportive managers are, the easier it becomes to isolate genuine skills shortages.
It is, however, important to remember that the purpose of any training analysis is to add to the company's ability to compete with its rivals, and it is to this - rather than to staff development as an end in itself - that the training programme must be directed. The skills acquired must be relevant.
Closing the skills gap
There are two basic ways of remedying any skills deficit pinpointed by the needs analysis. The first answer is simply to recruit new staff with the appropriate aptitudes. The other, of course, is to make more of the abilities of existing staff.
Skill development can often be the most cost-effective method of making good any skills shortfall. And it has the added benefits of improving staff morale and increasing job satisfaction.
The training needs analysis will have provided both a picture of the skill levels among staff and a guide to the sort of skills development plan that is suitable for individual workers and yet geared towards the broader business requirements of the company.
Sometimes an analysis will show that a company is not putting the abilities of its staff to the best possible use. It could be that people with certain skills and attributes are not being given the opportunity to exploit them properly in their current positions. So moving staff to new or different roles and assigning others new responsibilities might be enough to boost a company's productivity.
It is a mistake also to regard skills as some abstract phenomenon. Skills only have a real value within a specific company context; as such it is vital to review that company context as closely as the skills themselves. The analysis could, for example, reveal that while staff are, in fact, as well trained and knowledgeable as employees elsewhere, they are being hampered by the system in which they are working. Changing the way in which a business or an individual department operates so that it matches staff skills could actually be effective in realising the company's potential.
While it goes without saying that a company will gain from having among its employees a wider and deeper pool of skills, the gain will be greater if any skills training is directed towards a specific goal.
For instance, the purpose of some training might be to help an employee do their job better or to a higher level. This could be a matter of learning how to use new equipment or adopting a new industry standard or practice.
Then again, the object of the training might be to prepare an employee for taking on extra responsibilities or an entirely new role within the company.
Whatever the particular aim, however, the training must always make sense as a part of the overall growth strategy planned for the company.
Qualifications and accreditations
Measuring the progress that staff are making in their training - are they up to standards at other similar companies? - can be difficult if there is no benchmark against which to judge them. That is why, in certain sectors at least, national or industry-wide qualifications and accreditations can be very useful guides to skill levels.
To begin with, staff qualifications allow a company to set their employee targets and, in doing so, add a reliable, fixed element of measurability to the training process. Accredited courses also offer firms the reassurance that certain standards have in fact been reached; standards, moreover, that have been objectively and independently assessed.
There is a less obvious advantage too. By encouraging staff to train a company is also likely to strengthen their loyalty and their commitment to the cause.
One of the more significant sets of qualifications and courses available are the National and Scottish Vocational Qualifications. NVQs are designed to map a staff member's progress from carrying out quite routine roles to holding down positions of genuine responsibility.
Skill development may not be the only answer to a company's underachievement. What training cannot address are structural problems such as lack of investment in equipment, misdirected management, or misplaced strategic planning.
That said, polishing or enhancing the skills of its workforce will invariably bring measurable, tangible benefits to a company: better productivity, a sharper competitive edge, and a more committed and contented workforce. In a business environment where knowledge is increasingly king, and where businesses must adapt to thrive, training may no longer just be an admirable option but a growing necessity.
Training is an investment in that most vital of a company's assets: its people. But like all investments, it is important for a business to assess its value, and its likely returns, before making a commitment.
So even when a company has conducted its training needs analysis, there is still one other exercise that needs to be carried out. That is to measure the cost of any training, be it in terms of money or time, against the benefits in efficiency or productivity it will bring.
No business wants to pay for training that fails to deliver any material, practical advantages. Equally, comparing the gains to be made from having a more skilled workforce with the cost of achieving an improvement in performance will help confirm the real value of the training.
Most training will probably involve one or both of two sorts of cost.
There are specific costs, such as the fee that might be charged by a training provider. And there are longer-term, continuous costs, such as those incurred in lost production while staff members are training.
Offsetting the costs are the benefits of the training. Although the benefits might manifest themselves in different areas, it is important to identify where the improvements will occur and what value they will represent to the company. As a result of a training programme, for instance, a business could see a rise in productivity levels; or greater administrative efficiency; or less waste; or more effective sales tactics.
There are other, less tangible results that a business may wish to consider when assessing the benefits of training. A boost to staff morale might be one such; greater motivation another. And while these might not have immediate outcomes, they could still have an effect on a company's profitability. Staff turnover might drop; absenteeism might end; or the business might start attracting better quality recruits.
Finding a training programme
Once the training needs analysis has identified the areas where training will be relevant and in line with the company's aims, and the cost analysis has demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the costs, all that remains is to decide how those needs and benefits can best be delivered.
The first step might be to examine whether a company already possesses the answer to its training.
It could be that more senior members of staff already have the requisite skills and that training should be a matter of arranging the best way of passing these on to newer, or less experienced, employees.
Tutoring roles, for example, could be assigned to certain staff, who would then take responsibility for training others. IT staff could share their knowledge of the company computer system or specific software applications. The sales team could monitor new recruits, explaining their various new business techniques.
There are, of course, several advantages to conducting training in this in-house way. An employer will know that the training is addressing requirements that are specific to the company. It is easier to arrange and find the time for training, especially if it is on-the-job in nature. It is also straightforward to measure the progress being made by the trainees. And there are cost savings to be made.
That said, there can be drawbacks to this approach. Those who carry out the training duties may actually be more productively employed devoting all of their time and energies to their job. Or they might not be natural or effective tutors. But perhaps the most important consideration is that of new skills. While in-house training might be perfectly adequate for getting people up to a certain standard, it may be not sufficient to the task of introducing new skills and knowledge to the company.
The job of training providers is to perform just that role. They can supply not only an objective perspective but they can also fill gaps in a company's pool of skills.
There are a great number of training providers in the market, all vying for a company's custom. So choosing the right provider can feel a daunting prospect. To simplify the process, however, a business should go through a list of criteria and judge whether or not a provider meets them. At the least, this should help separate the irrelevant from the possibles from the probables.
Firstly, the provider must demonstrate they properly understand the training needs and aims of the business. It might also be helpful if the provider has experience of the same or a similar market or sector; and the more recent the experience, the better.
A company should ask if the training is to be customised to meet its specific needs or whether it is to be general. The level at which the training is pitched is also vital: too high and it will be lost on people, too low and it will simply duplicate skills staff already possess.
Some providers fit in better with certain company cultures than others. Would the employees respond best to a more or less formal learning regime?
How the training is to fit in with the ongoing practicalities of running the business is a further consideration.
Essential questions also need to be asked of the way in which the training itself is assessed. Providers that have been approved by recognised bodies and have been evaluated by independent organisations, like the Learning and Skills Council, can offer extra re-assurance that their service is both relevant and to an industry standard.
A business could do worse, in the first instance, than to turn to a trade association or a business organisation in its sector for advice on training. Such bodies have the immediate advantage of understanding the market in which the company competes, and will in all likelihood be well informed about the latest industry thinking on training. They will be perfectly placed to recommend a choice of reputable private sector training providers, even if they can't offer the training themselves.
If the training that is being sought is more general in nature - it could be in IT or marketing or exports - then it might be better to approach a professional body in the relevant area. They will be able either to provide or to point a company in the direction of training courses that are accredited by the profession.
Private sector providers
Peruse any business directory, the web, or even the local telephone directory, and it will turn up a plethora of training providers.
Before drawing up a short list, a business should try to narrow its options. It can do this by checking its trade press for recommendations, asking suppliers if they know of a good provider, consulting with trade associations to find out if they have given any of the providers their approval or calling the local Learning and Skills Council for suggestions. Once it has a few names, it can begin investigating each one for its suitability.
Public sector providers
It is not always necessary to go to the private sector for training. Several public sector organisations can help out either by offering training programmes themselves or by finding providers on their behalf.
The Learning and Skills Council organises training for the over-16s in England.
The task of the Sector Skills Councils is to help companies and professional bodies solve skills shortages. Government-licensed but independent, SSCs can help businesses find the training provider best able to offer them a solution specific to their sector.
For those businesses that are looking for a more flexible approach to staff training, Learndirect can offer an alternative. Sponsored by the government, Learndirect provides its training online and covers such skills areas as management and IT.
Staff training not only helps to make good any skills gaps but also enables a business to adapt and grow.
Some businesses choose to source their training externally. Others, perhaps for reasons of size or resources, opt to focus on internally organised or in-house training.
For smaller businesses in particular, in-house training is attractive because it can be arranged around the working day; it can target quite specific skills needs; and, by cutting out on travel and time spent away from the workplace, it can be cost effective as well as flexible. Compared to attendance at an external course, in-house training sessions are more confidential too.
A business can put together its own in-house training programme. Alternatively, it can purchase an existing programme from a training company or commission a company to create a programme that meets its precise requirements.
On-the-job training can be just as productive if it is properly and consistently managed.
Before any training programmes are planned or implemented, a business must first analyse its performance and decide where training - IT, sales, communications, for example - is most needed. Consulting with employees will help identify some of those areas. To be useful to a firm, training must have set, specific aims which can be sensibly achieved and which can be measured. The aims must also accord with the broader and longer-term objectives of the business as a whole.
Training employees while they work is the most inexpensive form of in-house training, one that can be afforded by even the smallest employers.
There are several ways of conducting on-the-job training. These include job shadowing for new employees; coaching sessions to introduce employees to new tasks, procedures or responsibilities; and mentoring of more senior managers, perhaps by someone from outside the firm who can provide extra knowledge and experience.
Rather than sending every employee on a training course, just one staff member can be assigned to attend the course and then pass on what they have learned to their colleagues and fellow employees.
Another effective way of carrying out on-the-job training is to create a knowledge and skills library to which employees have access and which offers guidance on business operations and procedures.
Some firms may wish to set up their own training programmes which are specially designed to fill particular skills gaps.
But not all firms have the resources and facilities to do this. For them, it may be more efficient to buy either an off-the-shelf training programme or one that has been created for them by a training company.
Training companies offer courses on almost all aspects of running a business, from effective recruitment and IT skills to debt management and development planning. Such courses can be run by a representative of the training company or by a member of the business itself.
In-house training programmes can be managed as a series of meeting room sessions or they can be conducted via the internet. One of the advantages of a meeting room-based course is that it enables employees to ask direct questions, share thoughts and learn as a group. Online courses programmes are either live - a trainer will lead the session at an appointed time and employees can interact - or pre-recorded. Most online courses provide discussion boards so that employees can exchange views and ask questions.
As with all skills programmes, it is important to evaluate the effects that any in-house training has.
This can be done by appraising the differences the training makes to the performances of individual employees. The effects can also be measured by improvements in sales, productivity, absenteeism and staff turnover. Other measurable signs may include higher customer satisfaction levels, better quality of work and greater workplace efficiency.
The views of employees about the training are equally critical. Staff feedback, perhaps in the form of questionnaires, will indicate whether the training has been relevant or not, whether employees found the training easy to implement, where changes in the training need to be made and what aspects of the programme were most effective and helpful.