Cost-Effective Training for Small to Medium-Sized Businesses

It’s 2011 and most businesses are looking around at their internal talent and heaving a small sigh of relief—relief that the company survived the horrendous economic downturn and relief that they have been able to retain as many key employees as they could.

Even so, savvy leaders know that as the economy improves, their employees will be looking for what the company is doing to support them—including the key element of employee training and development. While offering quality learning opportunities to staff is a critical component for talent retention, small to medium-sized businesses often face bigger challenges in providing development and training for their employees. Frequently, without in-house training staff and always with limited budgets, these companies have had to do more with less, and they continue to do so in 2011 and beyond.

Some Positive Examples

MultiAd, a 200+ person marketing solutions company headquartered in Peoria, IL, has always believed in the power and importance of training its workforce. However, like most companies of its size, it has relied upon external resources for its workforce training programs. According to James Douglas, President and CEO, "we often look outside the company for training on subjects we feel will help continuously build and improve the performance of our employees. Even during the recession, we continued to offer classroom-based programs on topics such as goal setting, performance management, team work and even ‘Changing & Growing - Without Going Crazy!’" MultiAd is a member of AAIM Employers’ Association, a non-profit membership organization serving four Midwestern states, and it receives HR services, including interactive, classroom-based training as part of its membership fees.
MKTG Inc, a 200+ marketing services firm with headquarters in New York City and offices in Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, while still not large enough to have trainers on staff, has an HR Director with a passion for learning and a "think outside the box" penchant for finding solutions to budget and geographically-dispersed workforce challenges.

Marlena Wilmot, the company’s HR Director, started in the right place with a needs analysis. "My goal was to create a system for developing employee skills in a lifelong learning context by identifying key categories where employee development, training and education were needed. MKTG formed a multi-disciplinary training and development committee that gathered needs and worked through logistical and budgetary issues. The Committee identified training needs in the areas of workforce effectiveness, service delivery, communications, technology and financial acumen as top priorities. However, after researching both online training tools and instructor-led training, we determined that neither solution would allow us to train our widely-dispersed employee base with a limited budget."

Additionally, Ms. Wilmot says, "The average age of our workforce is 33, and with many GenY employees as well as the creative nature of our business, we considered creating our own web-based training platform. However, our next issue was identifying subject-matter experts within the company who had the time and the skills required to create training content for a web-based application." Again, when that proved too difficult, the Committee chose to go "low tech" but "high touch." Ms. Wilmot enlisted the company’s CFO to offer an in-person, lunch and learn workshop on the company’s budgeting process. Remote employees were able to participate via WebEx. She, herself, offered one-on-one coaching on managerial skills. Not only did that not require huge outlays of cash, but the employees who were able to attend received interactive, personalized training from the company’s senior-level, experienced resources. Since account management is so critical to the company’s success, it did invest in account executives who are in the early stages of their careers and offered a two-day account management "boot camp," focused upon the strategic side of account management and understanding how this role is changing.

As well, MKTG Inc has just switched payroll providers, and its chosen provider has a multi-functional platform that can accommodate performance management, training, online time sheeting, and online onboarding, so Ms. Wilmot believes that during this next fiscal year, she may yet be able to offer her diverse audience training and other skills without massively increasing the HR budget.

The Take-Aways

So what did these two companies do well to meet their training challenges? Neither gave up on offering training because they didn’t have a huge budget or in-house resources. Whether you find external, cost-effective resources, or you use your internal subject-matter experts, the fact that you offer employees knowledge and skills to help them be more successful in your organization is what counts. Furthermore, engaging management or a committee to help you identify the most critical training needs is a great place to start; that way, you aren’t offering training as a "nice-to-have." Additionally, both companies had support from the very top executives for providing development opportunities to their employees.

Some Final Considerations

Just as Marlena Wilmot did in identifying the learning preferences for her Gen X and Gen Y workers, those who wish to provide effective training programs, even in small and medium-sized businesses should not make the mistake of starting with the cost of delivering training. The best place to start is with understanding your audience and program objectives. You could ask:

  • Who should be invited to attend this workshop?
  • What background might they have in the subject?
  • What would their interest level be in the topic? (e.g., need to know the material to do their current job, passing interest in the topic, information would be useful for career development)
  • Any pre-conceived notion about the topic? (e.g., finance is only important for accountants to know, managing a team is easy, technology is only understandable to "geeks")
  • Learning style preferences? (e.g. people who must have "hands on" to learn, people with learning disabilities)

Regarding program objectives, you could ask, at the end of the training workshop or program, what it is that you expect participants to:

  • understand or have an awareness about
  • be able to do/perform

By doing this thinking upfront, you should be able to buy or create a best practice learning program that fits your company’s needs and challenges, regardless of the size of your organization or your budget.