Training is vital to the modern business that wishes to remain competitive. Or so it seems. When Arie de Geus, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of business development, published his ideas in the key Harvard Business Review article, ‘Planning as Learning,’ he concluded: “The greatest competitive advantage for any organisation is its ability to learn.”
This has been quoted many times as the key to long-term business success in modern times.
The creative communications industry is one that moves faster than most; with new technology being introduced at a rapid rate giving rise to a need to make working practices more efficient. Those that are not quick on the uptake can often get left behind.
Tom Madden, director of Quix – a training and support company for the creative industries – believes that you have to be able to keep up with your competitors to stay relevant: “If you are standing still, you will actually be falling behind. The industry has gone through a few major changes in the last couple of decades, for example, who buys in typesetting theses days, and how much colour planning and layout is done manually? Some – but not nearly as much as in the past. Carrying out these tasks electronically has brought increased speed of delivery, and more control to designers.”
However, Zach Watt, a director at Parallel56, a leading e-business provider, that also offers clients a range of training programmes, argues: “I don’t think it is important to be at the cutting edge, or ‘bleeding edge’ of technology as it’s sometimes called. I would rather we work with technologies and methodologies that are resilient and well proven, and add value to our clients and ourselves in terms of enabling us to deliver the benefits their solutions are looking for.”
But it is the speedy technological uptake that has brought about expectations, and often to meet such expectations of speed and quality, you have to be at the forefront of technology.
Yet, training in isolation should not be seen as a quick-fix solution. It must be imbedded within a company’s ethos.
This is a view supported by Louise Scott, director of Tidalfire, a training and consulting company: “It is critical to businesses, and individuals, to keep abreast of new technologies. I appreciate that we can’t all be trailblazers, but I believe staying up-to-date with technology gives any business a competitive advantage.
“But training programmes should be in keeping with the general ethos of the company. I don’t agree with the philosophy of paying lip-service to training – sending people on courses because it’s the ‘right thing to do’. That really is a waste of money. There has to be a positive, healthy, forward-looking culture to the organisation and people will, by default, feel more open to learning.
“Whether you are at the ‘cutting edge’ or not is about where you want to position your company. If you are offering services that say you are at the forefront of anything then you have to demonstrate that by example. You cannot profess, with knowledge and experience, to others what is best practice if you do not practise it yourself.
“The business should have a principle policy on training – stating attitude and ethos to training and development – as well as a plan that underpins the objectives of the business.
“I appreciate that this is an ‘ideal world’ view, but if you plan on leading the way in your respective field you have to make sure that as you forge forward you actually have an army behind you that is capable of achieving the task, and negotiating a safe path en route.”
The frequency of training which staff should complete very much depends on an organisation’s changing requirements. But the reality is that, because of the nature of the environment, people seem to have less time to dedicate to training and, therefore, depend on ‘on the job’ learning.
Watt says: “Training is an integral part of a company, but that does not necessarily just mean courses – as they often don’t deliver what you really need. Training as part of a mix, including internal peer-to-peer training, books and online courses, is vital. It all depends upon the subject-matter and the knowledge and experience internally, as well as the trainee’s needs. If you look at it holistically then training is about improving knowledge and skills, and experience of using those skills and knowledge, and that can be delivered through mentoring someone through the delivery of a piece of consultancy or web development, for example. If a company has that ethos of sharing knowledge and skills, then this is an integral part of its development.”
However, Will Gregory, new media training manager at Learning IT, says: “All trainees I encounter have real enthusiasm for upgrading their knowledge and speak of training as a real benefit provided by their employers. Not only does this ensure that the employee's skills remain leading edge, but will also aid retention of skilled and talented employees. An added advantage of external training programmes is that employees have the opportunity to network and share ideas with peers within the industry. Delegates return to work refreshed.”
A limiting factor when it comes to training though can be the expense. However, Madden believes that the cost of training is justified: “Training should be at the heart of every company, as well as every individual’s development. But in many companies, especially smaller ones, they cannot afford to spend thousands of pounds on something they expect their staff to already know. Some companies have a policy of recruiting only staff with the skills already in place, but what does this say about their commitment to the further development of staff?”
This is a point backed by Tidalfire’s Scott: “Training obviously has a direct and indirect cost to the business (the cost of the training plus the cost of the employee’s time) however, if you view it as an investment then you see that there is an input (time and money) and an output (staff that are better equipped to take your company forward through increased skills, efficiencies and motivation).
“I view the employer/employee relationship as a two-way street. There should be give and take. Both sides have different needs, which cover common ground – when both parties get what they want from the relationship there is progress in harmony.”
Training gives both the individual and the business higher productivity, less errors and enhanced new skills that can open new markets or bring additional business from existing clients, agrees Madden, “for example, the next boom area, for those who embrace it, is video. With tools like Final Cut Pro and with new, semi-pro HD cameras coming down in price, it is becoming more cost effective to produce video in-house. But this requires new skills, not only in the operation of the software, but also other areas like lighting, sound, visualisation, and continuity.”
Yet, in practice, many companies expect the staff to teach themselves, without giving the time, or a proper structure to achieve this. “The truth,” says Madden, “is that most people will learn one or two new features of an updated application, then use the rest of the application exactly as they did the previous version.
“A trainer has the additional knowledge and experience, which isn’t in a manual, and often can tell you which part of an application to concentrate on, as well as which parts may be ignored. Quark XPress, for example, has the ability to create indexes, tables of contents, alter tracking and kerning pairs, but almost nobody ever uses these.”
The market has matured, though. From the late-80s to mid-90s, when companies were installing their first Mac, or were moving towards web development, they would embark on a course of training. “Now,” says Madden, “everyone is familiar with Macs, and many of the applications, having used them at college – although, speaking to several recent graduates, the quality of applications training at most colleges is poor.”
Scott also believes that training has fundamentally changed: “How you train is now a much broader consideration than it was 20 years ago. Online, CD/DVD along with more traditional methods – evening classes and instructor-led training – are all part of the mix. This development is great, providing people with a choice that best suits their learning style and budget. Each method will have its pros and cons.”
Learning IT’s Will Gregory adds: “IT training is becoming an ever increasingly competitive market, therefore it is vital that training companies offer the best quality training promoting the best codes of practice. This quality, bona fide training material is often only available from the software vendors themselves, so training companies who are authorised to deliver these materials offer a reliable source of up to date training. This endorsement increases confidence when comparing competing training suppliers.”