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Evaluate your training needs

Training its staff in new skills not only can make a firm more efficient, it can also have the equally beneficial, morale-boosting effect of creating workers who are motivated and clear-eyed about their role.

No business is too small or, for that matter, too successful to benefit from staff training and development. The problem for many is, first of all, identifying where a skill deficit may exist and, then, being sure how to remedy it.

Identifying training needs

Training, of course, is not an end in itself; it must mesh with the objectives, culture and organisation of a business or else it simply wastes resources. It must also address a real, rather than an imagined, disparity between the skills and knowledge that staff actually possess and the skills and knowledge they need to have.

The most effective way of determining where and how a business can benefit from training is to conduct what is called a training needs analysis. Although this needn't be an overly complicated exercise, it will introduce an important element of discipline and cost-efficiency into the process.

A training needs analysis involves examining different areas of the company in turn. For example, it would mean looking at whether the most is being made of a company's IT resources and whether a software training course for staff would result in a more efficient or effective use of them. The same can go for service staff: are they handling customer relations in a way that is likely to encourage loyalty and repeat buying? Are sales staff best equipped to identify potential customers and win their business? And are production staff as well qualified as the people working for rival firms?

Properly conducted, a training needs analysis does a number of things. It will tell an employer just what the current skill levels are within the company; it will provide a profile of the skill levels of individual employees; it will establish the gap between current skills and the skills required to compete in the future; and it will help suggest how that gap can be closed.

Nor should any appraisal be limited to employees alone. An evaluating eye ought also to be cast on management to make sure that those leading the company are able to motivate staff, offer believable leadership, communicate persuasively and set the business realisable objectives and strategies.

Skills: reviews and appraisals

A good training needs analysis needs to be conducted from a series of perspectives. One of these, of course, is from the top down. Most good employers - those with their fingers on the pulse - will be in the best position to see where the business operation is not running as smoothly as it might and will recognise if a skills shortage is the reason for the lack of performance.

The views of staff, though, are equally important. Often workers will have a clear idea in which areas skills can be sharpened or knowledge built up. Provided the appraisals - which can be made through self-assessment or peer group evaluation - are carried out in a way that does not threaten or undermine staff, they can offer acute insights into how and where improvements can be made.

Indeed, the more involved staff are made to feel, and the more supportive managers are, the easier it becomes to isolate genuine skills shortages.

It is, however, important to remember that the purpose of any training analysis is to add to the firm's ability to compete with its rivals, and it is to this - rather than to staff development as an end in itself - that the training programme must be directed. The skills acquired must be relevant.

Closing the skills gap

There are two basic ways of remedying any skills deficit pinpointed by the needs analysis. The first answer is simply to recruit new staff with the appropriate aptitudes. The other, of course, is to make more of the abilities of existing staff.

Skill development can often be the most cost-effective method of making good any skills shortfall. And it has the added benefits of improving staff morale and increasing job satisfaction.

The training needs analysis will have provided both a picture of the skill levels among staff and a guide to the sort of skills development plan that is suitable for individual workers and yet geared towards the broader business requirements of the company.

Sometimes an analysis will show that a company is not putting the abilities of its staff to the best possible use. It could be that people with certain skills and attributes are not being given the opportunity to exploit them properly in their current positions. So moving staff to new or different roles and assigning others new responsibilities might be enough to boost a company's productivity.

It is a mistake also to regard skills as some abstract phenomenon. Skills only have a real value within a specific company context; as such it is vital to review that company context as closely as the skills themselves. The analysis could, for example, reveal that while staff are, in fact, as well trained and knowledgeable as employees elsewhere, they are being hampered by the system in which they are working. Changing the way in which a business or an individual department operates so that it matches staff skills could actually be effective in realising the business's potential.