by Alan S. Kay
To train, or not to train: When it comes to learning new businesses strategies and technologies these days, that truly is the question. And once you get beyond the dilemma of who to train and how to train, things can really get hairy.
Consider two very different scenarios:
Henry Lee started his Little Rock, Ark. brewpub and pizza parlor, Vino’s Pizza Pub Brewery, 10 years ago. He’d never before owned a business, much less a restaurant. His only credential was an engineering degree.
Lee quickly figured out he needed help, and he found it in courses being offered locally at a university-based small business resource center, the Arkansas Small Business Development Center
(ASBDC). “My first course was on writing a business plan,” he recalls. “And I took that after we had the business.” Since then, he says, he’s been through most beginner level financial offerings, and he’s now looking at intermediate management training. And he’s sent his general manager in for some training as well.
Etensity is a very different kettle of fish. Based in Vienna, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., the young but fast-growing 80-employee company offers end-to-end e-business services for both bricks-and-mortar companies and dot-coms seeking to enhance their offerings or positioning. It is so committed to ongoing training as a strategic part of its business plan that Etensity has brought in a neighboring recruiting and training consultancy, Professional Resource Services, as a partner and outsourcer. Among PRS’s assignments: create a training apparatus, and a fledgling corporate university; to get new employees up to speed, teach them Etensity’s business methodology; and provide training in specific skills.
Where does training fall on that too-long list of things to be done to secure and grow a business? Your answer to that question says a lot–perhaps more than you want–about the state of your business and your attitude towards it.
Peter Mellen, co-founder and CEO of Headlight.com, a young online training portal for small and medium-sized businesses, declares, “Every company, whether it describes it as training or not, trains their employees.” He’s right, of course. The issue is that training often isn’t planned. Instead, it happens covertly, or by accident, or in response to a problem.
That problem can involve the business’ financial status, as was the case with Vino’s. Or it can involve business tools and technologies. B&G Contract Packaging Inc. is a four-year-old, five-employee company that provides packaging and warehousing services for manufacturers. According to company president Peggy Gulledge, the time has come to develop a database that will help B&G do a better job of costing contracts and production processes. “We’ve been struggling to get our hands around volumes of data,” says Gulledge. “It’s become quite apparent, even overnight, that in order to have some type of custom tailored tools in house, we have to learn some of the basics, the fundamentals.” So several of the employees currently are learning how to work with Microsoft Access.
Then there’s the staffing issue. When a business grows beyond its initial handful of employees, recruiting the right staffers and keeping those who’ve grown into their jobs becomes a priority issue. That’s particularly true in areas such as computers and information technology where demand for experienced employees is high. Kevin Oakes, president and chief learning officer at Click2learn.com Inc., a Bellevue, Wash. based online training portal, reports that most surveys he’s seen recently rate training very highly as an effective tool for retaining staff. “I do believe training is a real-life retention factor for an employee. I think if employees feel like they are learning at an employer, they are engaged and excited.”
Statistics confirming this concept for small businesses are hard to come by. But data from larger companies is at least suggestive. At KPMG LLP, for example, human resources director Mary Sullivan argues that retention is in large measure about connecting people to the company. She views KPMG’s week-long management leadership training for new employees as key to building that investment and commitment. It works, she says; company statistics show that the turnover rate is twice as high, at about 15 percent, for employees who haven’t take the orientation course as for those who have.
Geneca, LLC of Naperville, Ill. is also a consultancy, though a much smaller one specializing in software development. In this environment, coding skills are of course essential. But that hasn’t been the focus of the training Geneca provides its employees, according to Mark Hattas, the company’s vice president of business development. Instead, it’s been providing business and communications training designed to turn its consultants into advisors who can look at a client’s problem from a business solution perspective rather than a technical perspective.
The course has received phenomenal reviews, Hattas says. And, he adds, “In an industry where turnover is extremely high, to be able to do something that impacts how our employees do business in their careers long-term has actually helped with turnover: people see you’re not just out there to make money off them, but to make them better people.”
You don’t need to be told that the market is unforgiving. A small business needs all the help it can get. At B&G, Gulledge says she’s trying to get a better handle on the sales and marketing end of the business and to learn how to analyze competition better. Then there’s the need to develop leadership and communication skills, as well as to learn how to deal with personnel matters.
According to commercial training vendors, though, much of the training sought by small businesses involves technology. While Headlight.com’s Mellen reports his company is beginning to see demand emerging for “soft” skills and management training, the bulk of the requests still are for courses on how to use the new tools of business. Topping the list, he says, is training on Microsoft’s office suite products – Excel, PowerPoint, and Word. Also popular are certification courses in the programming languages C++ and, with the rise of the Web, HTML. Oakes reports that about half of the subjects small businesses ask for are IT related. Kevin Karschnik, director of business development at ProsoftTraining.com, a supplier of online training materials, says the materials topping training vendors’ wish lists involve computers in general and Microsoft products in particular.
There’s no mystery why: Virtually every PC bought today comes with Microsoft Office — not the most intuitive set of applications around. “Our computer came from the retail store,” says Gulledge. ” You get the package in here and you don’t necessarily know what you have and how to use it.”
Ray Johnson is president of UsefulIT, a Houston-based systems integrator that serves small businesses. In a market crowded with computer resellers and network installers, his company seeks to distinguish itself by offering training as an integrated component of the systems he sells. And he reports he’s finding a ready market. Why? “Current training methodologies stink,” he says. “People don’t get a lot of value out of it.”
Johnson is particularly critical of the standard off-site batch training, in which employees are placed in a large room at computers not their own with non-standard components, walked through the basics, and then left to fend for themselves.
Employees find themselves in that room because small businesses lack the resources to create a dedicated training apparatus. Many, if not most, small businesses choose live instructor-led training from a local company, educational institution, or nonprofit. They aren’t alone: Live classroom training remains the preferred delivery mode for businesses. In 1998, according to International Data Corp., 70 percent of the IT training delivered from sources outside the company was traditional instructor-led.
Learning in a classroom may not be the most efficient way to get it done, for the employee being trained or for the business that’s paying his or her salary to be away from the office. It is, however, certainly familiar.
“I want a class because it gives me a broader view of the subject,” says Lee. And Gulledge says, “The live classroom appears to work best for us.” It’s a little more hands-on, and sometimes individuals are more forward in a group of peers, less intimidated, and more willing to ask questions.
Tracy Schoenleber, senior manager of the Training and Development Solutions Group at Professional Resource Services, the consultancy that’s helping Etensity with its training, notes that classroom training also contributes to building a shared sense of a company’s culture. It has a social component, she notes, that makes it an experience far different from sitting in a room staring at a computer screen for a day.
What of the well-documented concern that instructor-led classroom training is expensive, both directly and in employee time off the job? “Obviously, you have to balance it with the day to day work,” says Gulledge. “But as a business owner I feel I have an obligation to train people, to develop them. There is an investment on our part. So you write it as you go.”
At UsefulIT, Johnson delivers value to companies trying to make cost-effective use of networking and groupware technologies by delivering live, on-site training on a regular monthly schedule. The tradeoff is that he can do that only if the right infrastructure is in place. “We can’t just walk in and say we’ll train you. We have to support a standard platform.” That’s why he installs and trains only on Microsoft’s Windows NT and Exchange Server.
Johnson’s model works for J&E Associates, a 12-year-old Houston-based company providing janitorial services to businesses. John Berry, J&E’s director of administration, reports that before UsefulIT personnel come out for the monthly training session, he and Johnson discuss what topics and problems need to be addressed. This allows Johnson to bring materials relevant to J&E’s business issues.
“It works out well,” says Berry. “They’re learning more and more without me having to take time away from my business schedule.” And, he notes, the arrangement gets him someone familiar with the technology to talk to about issues that have come up.
Johnson’s vision is to some day be able to deliver both training and support to a client’s employee at his or her computer via remote control. “Let’s say you have a sales guy who’s working on his machine on a PowerPoint presentation and can’t get the background to be blue. I want him to be able to click on an icon and get our people talking to him, taking over his keyboard, showing him how to do it.”
That vision is already becoming reality in larger corporations. But small businesses have always had to wait for innovations to move down the ladder. They are now, though. Prosoft’s Karschnik, for example, reports that his company and others are working to offer more customized solutions involving breakout sessions and workshops. There’s also a trend to create modular, popular courses – Word training, for example-so a company can decide to teach only sections on common issues. While each module is a standard offering, the resulting package can look customized.
The future of cost-effective business training is online. What was once computer-based training, or CBT, is now e-learning. And a number of online training companies are creating “learning portals”-Web sites that allow a company to customize a training program using off-the-shelf courseware combined with training management tools, all packaged together on a company-branded, custom Web page.
Says Click2learn’s Oakes, “This will be a tremendous boon to small to medium-sized businesses. They can now take advantage of a learning portal and set up, almost for free, a virtual university that can provide a potpourri of training to the employee base, ranging from how to use Microsoft Office to soft skills.” Mentors are available 24×7, he says, to answer e-mailed questions about content. And, he adds, access to a portal makes it easy to address some thorny human resources concerns, such as the need to certify that employees have been through sexual harassment or ethics training.
The appeal of such a customized Web portal is undeniable, and the training industry is now evolving to the point where soft-skills training as well as technology training can be offered on line. Sam Shriver is a training specialist and managing partner of Performance Impact Systems in Cary, N.C., which developed and delivers customized training solutions for businesses. He acknowledges that he came late to the view that soft skills can be conveyed through the medium of the Web.
“Technology is just getting sophisticated to the point where it can replicate, for example, the HR driven issues managers may face in the field. You can now touch a screen and go through a situation that’s diversity and performance based, you can access company policies and procedures, you can look at coaching models. You can, for example, go through a live simulation and get some feedback before you sit down to a real-time live personnel discussion.”
This, says Shriver, is the next level: just point an employee to a training Web site, and for a modest fee he or she can go through a series of timely, specific coaching sessions, scenario simulations, and case studies on team-building or selling skills.
The beauty of this new direction, says Brian Witchger, director of sales operations for the Redwood City, Calif.-based company, is that small businesses can have access to essentially the same solutions enterprises have had available. In the meantime, start asking yourself the training question–do I pay now. . .or later?