Training in business Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

If you are toiling over what to do about training, you’re not alone.

Tuition reimbursement and continuing education look good on paper and are great recruitment and retention tools, but, as businesses are finding out, in today’s economy, those types of programs could also look more like a dispensable employee perk than a business necessity.

While academics will tell you it’s a mistake to cut training from the budget, those closest to financial reality will suggest trimming the fat and adopting a leaner training strategy that ties education to the company’s immediate needs. For most businesses, this means doing away with the nice-to-have training and focusing on the must-haves that affect the bottom line today.

“Training isn’t an overhead expense, it is part of the cost of doing business,” says Dennis N. Ulrich, executive director, Workforce Development Center, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. “The most efficient manufacturing is necessary in tough economic times, and education can help teach those methods for each industry. Keep this type of training as streamlining production, product quality and customer service is essential to keep up with the competition.”

Keep in mind that the usefulness of what is learned today doesn’t last as long as it once did. Technology’s rapid evolution makes knowledge obsolete when it isn’t built on. Still, the average number of formal training hours has dropped from 25 hours per learner in 2007 to 17.2 hours in 2008, according to Bersin & Associates’ 2009 Corporate Learning Factbook. The report reflects an 11 percent reduction in corporate training spending and claims a trend shift in the types of education that businesses are pursuing.

Goal setting

Training that educates employees on ways to increase revenue or decrease expenses or that improves relationships with customers is a business necessity and has a place in your training regimen.

Determine what your company needs to work on and what areas you need to continue to grow in as well as the basics to keep up with the competition.

“Keep in mind what you’ve done in the past — what worked, what didn’t work and what direction you need to go in order to improve on past mistakes,” says Victoria Culbreth, executive director, educational outreach, Northern Kentucky University. “Ask employees what it would take to do their job better. You can do this through survey or just asking them.”

Considering who will be receiving the training is an important step. Being wise about your budget means training those who are in a position to benefit the company most instead of offering a la carte training to whoever is willing to trade a few hours of work for classroom duty.

“Look at opportunities to reduce costs, period,” says Thomas E. Murphy, executive professor, Miami University. “You can’t think about the employee selection as an emotional choice. People that want to keep learning are the best employees to educate. Not growing or challenging these minds stops the ability to progress as a company.”

Considering the type of education you need has equal importance to the way the education is delivered. While some companies find online courses give employers the best return on investment while saving on travel and driving time, others find in-house courses or a classroom setting to be the best delivery method for employees.

Choosing a trainer

Your company’s goals help determine what institution you’ll use to provide employee training. Look at local colleges and universities first, as these organizations have flexibility in training formats and delivery.

“Colleges want to forge relationships with businesses and have the flexibility to provide what companies need,” Culbreth says. “They have close ties to the community and are willing to work with you to provide a service.”

Universities are often willing to consult with businesses to determine what the immediate training needs are. Community colleges, business schools and specific work force training centers can also provide tailored programs as opposed to off-the-shelf training that serves as a one-size-fits-all education.

“There are many benefits to working with a local university,” Ulrich says. “It’s not uncommon for them to design a class that will teach to a business’ specific needs. Businesses can also get bonuses that don’t cost anything like access to the university’s students seeking internships.”

Don’t think of continued education as a perk to employees, but think of it as a way to keep the business growing.

A common error employers make is accepting a program where the employee misses a significant amount of work to go to school. Options exist that allow you to dictate, within reason, how, when and where your employees are educated.

“If you’re not getting the answers you want from one educator, go to another source,” Murphy says. “There are hybrid teaching opportunities — some online and some on-site, all online, all in the classroom setting. Decide what you need and you can find someone willing to accommodate.”

After you select a program and a university, your strategy must carry over into measuring tactics. Make sure you have a way to calculate the benefits of training and the reason you have selected the specific program.

“The methodology of training is often not thought through, but it’s an essential step,” Murphy says. “You’d be amazed that companies don’t test after the training has been received. You need to test before training, after and six months later to make sure it was retained and is being used.”

Measuring results

Before an employee begins training, testing the skills that will be built upon is important. Testing will help determine where the employees’ skills are today and where they need to be after training. Making sure the employee, trainer and you are on the same page with expectations will help eliminate any miscommunication about future performance expectations.

“In this economy, training has got to be all about the company,” Murphy says. “It has to tie back to the company and meet what the company’s needs are. Results can be measured through testing but also with employee retention, revenue increases and post-education growth.”

Prior to training, discuss the reason for the education and the way the training will be measured with the employee. Tell the employee how the new knowledge directly impacts his or her daily responsibilities. Managers should tie the training into performance evaluations to determine its true impact on the enhanced ability to perform.

“Measure how the training impacted the bottom line and process improvement,” Ulrich says. “Setting up metrics for efficacy of training will help you monitor the impact training has on job performance and revenue in years to come.”

Even after trimming the education budget, some companies say the cost is too much to handle right now. If you still believe in education, but can’t afford it, reassess it in nine months. In the meantime, use in-house training and coaching capabilities.

“Speak with the university to see what options they may have for you when money is tight,” Murphy says. “Don’t run too quickly to, ‘We can’t do anything right now.’”