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Opinion: Is training really the answer?

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3rd May 2005
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Nick Hood, senior London partner of business rescue and recovery specialists Begbies Traynor looks at whether training really is the answer to improving workforce performance.

At the end of most job interviews, candidates are encouraged to ask questions about the role on offer.

If there’s one question that nearly always comes up, it’s interviewees asking about training and career advancement. Even bosses or HR staff working for smaller companies, which might have only limited staff development budgets, expect to be questioned about their training regimes.

Not all questions about training in interviews are genuine. Some job interviewees feel they must go through the motions about career development to demonstrate they would be in it for the long haul, but increasingly these people are in the minority.

Today, candidates genuinely want prospective employers to provide the skills and experience required for them to remain employed and develop long-term careers in fickle market places. Consequently, companies of all sizes must have training plans in place that meet the needs of staff, from juniors to senior management.

Output in the early 21st Century is information-led, measured in digits, phone calls, or pieces of paper. Accordingly, today’s market places demand flexible, highly-trained and skilled workforces that can be quickly scaled up or down, or remodelled if the market place has changed. For this reason, work place training and ongoing career development have taken centre stage.

Best estimates suggest that the UK is spending about £4.5 billion a year on training. It is argued that this money will lead to the creation of strong, adaptable organisations that can keep up or even ahead in fast-moving, never-the-same-day-twice market places.

The amount we spend on workplace training has also produced a strong belief, for which read faith, in the training process. This is shared by bosses and staff alike.

Training can never be a panacea for all human resources-related problems. If a team member of a small firm is consistently turning up late for work, it might be hard to justify spending money sending them on courses about how to manage their time and their lives better. Little firms just don’t have the spare capacity or the budgets for this.

Likewise, if a member of staff can’t use the computer properly, naturally there are plenty of training courses to send them on. But is this really the right solution? Surely it would be better to recruit from the outset someone who could use common software packages?

What it boils down to for organisations is to hire well, and this usually means testing new recruits have the essential skills already in place before they join. Today’s youth, for example, are much better at IT than their predecessors. It is not unreasonable therefore to test job candidates on their use of Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and how good they are with a keyboard.

Let’s face it, HR professionals would be better off spending more time trying to make the right hires, rather than wasting money on expensive remedial fixes for employees who start without the core skills. It must be recognised that no matter how much training someone receives, if they lack talent, aptitude and real interest, they will be hard to turn into good workers.

Neither does training turn a borderline rookie into the company’s number one employee. It simply won’t. Inevitably it comes down to the quality of the individual and that is something that has been in the hands of earlier influencers: chiefly parents, schools and universities.

My advice for younger organisations is to spend more time, effort and, frankly, money on improving selection and recruitment techniques to find the staff they need, rather than relying on training to right the wrongs afterwards. To resort to the old proverb: you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Organisations need the right people. Someone who is right for one company will be wrong for another. It’s that simple, and even more so in smaller companies.

Football managers learnt this fact a long time ago. Even with today’s sophisticated talent spotting and youth academies, most clubs are not turning out the likes of George Best, Pele or Zidane. The Beckham/Giggs generation at Old Trafford has turned out to be very much a one off. For these stars, football clubs have to go into the transfer market to find the best talent.

In the case of a business, it is the job of the HR director to acknowledge that good selection processes, followed by integration and team-led cultures, tend to be what delivers the value. Firms, however, should not be blind to the importance of influences beyond their control. Young employees are still being influenced by their parents, peers and friends, most of whom have no contact with the employer.

I’m afraid a lot rests in the hands of HR, on their skills and experience when recruiting. Only by careful shopping will you get the best ingredients. And only these will produce the best meals.

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Replies (11)

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By Nkellingley
03rd May 2005 16:55

There are some good points here in that it's true that more time and effort should be spent within the HR function trying to recruit people with the correct skills or at least the correct ability sets. Though competencies, decent job descriptions and assessment centres (exercises) all have their part to play in this and more organisations seem to be embracing these methods of recruiting for all the reasons stated in the article.

But this seems to be a call to abandon training completely, which is about as realistic as disposing of the HR function in it's entirety.

At a time where employers are bemoaning the skills shortages in the UK workforce, it's hardly realistic to expect every hire to come with the perfect set of skills for your role - unless the role is exceedingly junior or exceedingly well-paid for what it is.

In an ideal world everybody would leave college/university etc. with all the skills that employers could ever want and the endlessly talented labour pool could be easily fished by HR functions so that no recruit ever needed training. But it's not an ideal world and one of the best ways to get the skill sets you require for your business not just today but tomorrow is to train your people.

If people's jobs remain the same until they leave, it doesn't matter how good they were when they joined you - they'll leave as soon as they can find somewhere more rewarding to be.

And the only way to attract the best candidates if you're not going to train them is to pay them way over the odds. Candidates can and do calculate the material value of training when weighing up job offers.

I'll admit to bias here, I'm a trainer by profession and I'll admit that training has a way to go to ensure that it always adds value but no training at all? That path leads to the Dark Side, Obi-Wan.

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By AnonymousUser
05th May 2005 11:03

Most businesses ultimately make a profit out of the skills of their employees. Many (admittedly not all) businesses have more funds available to invest in staff training than individual staff have to invest in their own training - especially as many new entrants to the workforce are currently paying for their university education. Therefore, do companies have a moral duty to invest in training their staff? If employers all stopped investing in training who will pay for development of the skills of the UK workforce, or will we just end up with such poor skills that our jobs are outsourced overseas? And is a culture of poaching the best staff rather than training them really going to help businesses (or individual employees)in the long run?

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By curranjta
05th May 2005 11:05

I think it’s good to question the effectiveness of conventional training programmes and the effect they have on improving employee performance but to suggest that the solution is to recruit ‘trained’ people completely misses the point. The issue in our ‘knowledge economy’ is to ensure that both people and organisations make learning central to their day-to-day existence. Most learning occurs informally in the workplace – for ‘informally’ read ‘haphazardly’ so one of the big challenges for HR is to manage this learning more effectively and make it less haphazard. This means looking at innovative approaches to learning – and moving from a spoon fed approach to a self-service approach.

See a recent weblog entry

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By AnonymousUser
05th May 2005 11:13

Nick Hood makes a good case for better selection and recruitment practice and organisations do need to be smarter about getting the right people into the organisation. However, there is a naivety in his argument about the lack of value in training employees. Individuals develop skills through life and work experience, on the job and off the job training.

Using IT skills as an example, people are not born with the ability to use Microsoft packages to their full extent. They usually develop their ability through initial training on the packages, followed by experience of using them. So, someone has to train people along the way.

It appears that Nick Hood is implying smaller organisations should seek candidates who have already benefited from training through other employers, thereby saving money by recruiting skilled people. However, these people usually come with a premium price tag, which a lot of smaller organisations cannot afford.

Better advice would be to improve recruitment and selection practice by utilising a greater variety of assessment methods than just the simple, and often flawed, interview process. Focusing selection criteria on an individual's ability to learn as well as their current skill set will mean that organisations can confidently invest in developing those new employees and see a return on that investment.

Employee Survey and Exit Interview data constantly reinforces the importance of training for individuals. Organisations need to get smarter at investing in creative development options (not just offsite training courses), evaluating the return on their investment as well as improving their selection processes. This way leads to the biggest bang for your buck.

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By GAust
05th May 2005 11:24

I am very surprised that it should be considered that training is not part and parcel of corporate and personal life. What is life if it is not a continual process of learning and development. In businesses the journey starts with recruitment and flows through the organisational systems and operations. Look at the TV programme last night with charismatic entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar - why did he pick Tim? Tim said it himself, he was at the right age to grow and develop within the organisation - he wanted to develop. How then can anyone claim that the people are fully aware of all the right skills at recruitment? For instance - personal impact, team awareness, social and political interaction, IT knowhow etc - skills need to be developed by experience, training and coaching. In my opinion "learning is a life long adventure"...

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By AnonymousUser
05th May 2005 12:26

To quote the last paragraph of the original article...."I’m afraid a lot rests in the hands of HR, on their skills and experience when recruiting. Only by careful shopping will you get the best ingredients. And only these will produce the best meals"

~Many chefs have made a complete dog's breakfast, even with the best ingredients.....
~Does the person doing the shopping always get a good shopping list from the chef?

Line managers need to take their responsibility seriously as regards recruitment and development of staff... then the HR function/L&D people need to do their job well...it is a team effort

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By amybarnes
05th May 2005 12:30

I found the article a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, it is important to recruit the 'right' people. I echo the point made by Penny that if you are looking for people who are self-motivated, keen to learn and possess all the skills necessary then you may have to pay more the the market rate in order to attract the right person. Then there is the question of space and headroom- let's face it, if there is no room for growth or learning, why would someone take the job? Where's the challenge? So it's not just a question of recruitment. It is also the mindset of the business leaders, the culture they create and their aspirations for the business that determine the competitive stance and the context of how people in that business can be engaged. If I am self-motivated, keen to learn, want to be involved and the organisation does not meet my expectations then what should I stay?

I'm curious to know Nick, what did you mean by a 'borderline rookie'? Weren't we all once a rookie? I would argue that if you are not a 'rookie' in some aspect of what you do currently then maybe you are not pushing the envelop far enough!

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By Mark Alcroft
05th May 2005 14:34

Er hang on a minute, isn't there a logical flaw in this argument? If no-one trains anyone then eventually there won't be any trained people in the market place for us to recruit. A perfect example of short-term micro policy having long-term macro implications, which is already happening with qualified engineers. For years manufacturing has recruited skilled craft workers from the ranks of those released from the privatised industries, coal, steel, electricity etc. Now that this cohort of engineers is reaching retirement, I hear cries of pain from recruiters about the dearth of young, qualified engineers. Too late - we should have been recruiting and training them years ago, but we didn't. Why not? Because there were plenty available in the market.

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By suemanton
05th May 2005 14:57

I fully agree that we must use robust and fair recruitment and selection systems, but I would not like to belong to an organisation which did not develop its staff. What about the concept of CPD and Lifelong Learning? What about changes to systems, processes, legislation, laws, new technology etc. etc?

Instead of ditching training we should look at a more blended approach so that people are not simply 'sent on courses' and ALL development should impact on the organisation - both with its Business Strategy and with its Recruitment and Retention policies - word of mouth is a powerful tool and it soom becomes known which organisations do not invesst in staff development.

[email protected]

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By AnonymousUser
05th May 2005 21:06

Mr Hood is correct in that recruitment is the first step for ensuring that people are able to do the job they were employed to do. Clear guidelines from the manager of what skills they are looking for and the current team environment would assist HR in finding the right people.
However managers rarely step into a role where they have a blank canvas and can recruit the team right from the start. Most of us have had to work with the encumbents and training is necessary to help those existing folks increase/improve their skills.
Training is seen by employees as an investment by the company in them. Failure to invest in them will lead to them not investing in the company and a complete lack of loyalty to their employer. This will become even more important as attitudes move away from the security of finding a job to stay in for 30 years to finding a job that meets other needs of the individual.

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By jones-c
30th May 2005 18:11

If the only discussion about training at a job interview was a last-minute afterthought, I would not be joining the company. This indicates an organisation not serious about continuous improvement, developing its products, services and talents and, by definition, its competitive advantage? Such an organisation would surely not be around for too long. No organisation ever progressed by standing still.

Also, I'm surprised at the discussion focussing on ‘Training’ rather than 'Learning'. In continuously successful organisations, learning is central, and the appearance of learning in their strategy is not down to 'faith' or moral duty. Training and Learning have no automatic right to be in any organisation's strategy, but must earn their place. Staff development is not an optional extra for the organisation serious about its future. This does not necessarily mean a large budget for external courses. More important is for senior leaders to model and encourage the right organisational culture, where all managers (not just HR) build great teams, encourage innovation and ideas, and motivate people to share knowledge and get involved in identifying areas for improvement and giving people opportunity.

The primary focus of staff development should be the benefit to the organisation. Evaluate the time and money spent on developing staff in the light of the observed improvement in staff skills and behaviours, the impact on their work, the flow of new ideas, development of new capabilities, exploitation of new technologies, succession of new products or services and gauging how well the organisation continues to develop and evolve.

In addition, current research shows 1 in 6 people in this country have some degree of difficulty with literacy or numeracy skills. 1 in 10 have dyslexia-related problems - irrespective of the academic level they may have reached. And in my part of the country where unemployment is low, most of these people are in work. Under these circumstances, staff learning and development is vital.

Good recruitment and selection is a necessity. If organisations are fortunate enough to tap in to a good pool of talent, Great! But if organisations don't develop talent, they will have to pay dearly to retain it. Why would these people stay? And who would replace them?

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