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Talent development tips for SMEs

Green grass growing

How to Grow Talent in your SME

There is no doubt that training costs. Even with the rise of cheap (if not free) online courses, training will generally require some form of investment – if not in monetary terms, then at least in terms of the time invested by the participants.

For SMEs (Small to Medium-Sized Enterprises) in particular, this can be a big challenge. Though resources may be scarce, a failure to invest in talent development can lead to decreased motivation, lower productivity and poor employee retention. The key is being able to focus your efforts on the right kind of initiatives and development opportunities in a way that maximises the return on your investment, benefiting both your staff and the business at large.

With this in mind, here are 5 tips that will serve any SME well in the battle for talent development.

1. Encourage knowledge-sharing.

This may sound banal, but many businesses don’t work hard enough to ensure that the knowledge and competencies already existing in the business are shared among employees. In smaller organisations, it is particularly crucial to take full advantage of these skills and actively create opportunities for best practice and knowledge to be shared among your employees. Everyone stands to benefit and grow from such opportunities, in part because they can all learn something new, but also because it can be stimulating for individuals to feel like they are being given a chance to make their voice heard.

In smaller organisations where collaboration is crucial, this can make a big difference. And it is perhaps even more important in circumstances where budget considerations only make it possible for a small proportion of employees to attend external training. You may realise, for example, that sending even a small team of employees on an open course is beyond your means, and that you can really only afford to send one person. Many organisations will choose the most senior member, while others may choose to "reward" individuals who have made particular contributions to the business or who are perhaps most in need of fresh ideas and/or motivation. Regardless of how you make this decision (and bear in mind that it can have a big impact on team dynamics and morale), make sure that whoever attends the course then takes the time to share key topics and learning outcomes with other staff. The objective here is twofold: on one hand, the person who attended the training will have an opportunity to refresh and solidify their learning by virtue of having to present it to their colleagues. On the other, those who did not attend will be given the chance to indirectly benefit from that person’s learning, contributing with their own ideas and thoughts and helping the whole team better understand how they can modify their working practices for the better.

These knowledge-sharing occasions don’t need to be particularly formal or rigid, but they do need to be encouraged and held on a regular basis. The goal is to create a company culture in which discussion and the sharing of ideas happens in a natural way, for the benefit of everyone working in your organisation.

2. If you can train a group, bring it in-house.

You’ve probably heard that in-house training can be one of the more effective ways of training groups of staff at relatively low costs – and it’s true. The magic number here is 4; if you have 4 or more employees, in-house will save you enough time, travel & accommodation costs to be preferable to sending the same number of delegates on an open course. In addition, you are also often given the opportunity to tailor the course content so that it is highly relevant to your business and your specific challenges.

The benefits are clear – rather than taking a chance on an open course that may not end up being exactly what you were looking, you can ensure you train more of your staff in a way that is highly personalised and ensures significant savings. But there is an added benefit – in-house training, regardless of the topic covered, can be a good team-building exercise too. And this can have a greater impact on their performance than you may think. Even if they work together on a daily basis, team members may be too focused on their personal responsibilities and deadlines to really dedicate much time specifically to improving their teamwork and ensuring that they collaborate as effectively as possible. An in-house course can thus be a great opportunity for them to develop technical skills as well as learn how to work together more effectively as a team.

3. Take advantage of networking opportunities.

People love to talk, and most people have a lot to share, too. Knowledge transfer doesn’t necessarily need to take place in a classroom, or to involve a teacher figure preaching to a group of students. Business is a lot about creating relationships and about keeping up-to-date with best practice in your industry, and the only way to really do this effectively is to build solid, effective networks with other professionals.

As a result, you shouldn’t discount the opportunities presented by industry events, including conferences, round-tables and meetings as well as web-based initiatives such as podcasts and webinars. Though some will require a participation fee, they provide crucial and often hard-to-come-by opportunities for staff to interact with individuals from beyond the confines of their daily business environment. As a result they can be highly stimulating and inspiring, giving them insights that are not based in theory and conjecture but in the practical day-to-day activities of businesses facing similar challenges.

If you realise that these kinds of events are lacking in your area of activity, why not try organising something of your own? In the digital age, this can be done with minimal resources but highly rewarding results. Aside from giving your own staff new ideas and insights, it can be seen as a branding activity that will simultaneously allow you to start building a positive reputation as a trusted "facilitator" in your sector.

4. Explore the Government initiatives at your disposal… and use them!

Government may not be perfect, but when it comes to supporting small businesses, there are a vast array of Government initiatives and resources designed to support SMEs in different sectors.

The website is full of useful information on this front, as is the Great Business website, which provides advice for new businesses across a range of essential areas. When it comes to employment and skills, you may be surprised at how much is already out there in terms of funding and support.

Here are some examples of current initiatives:

  • Employer Ownership of Skills – A fund jointly overseen by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Education and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), which offers employers in England direct access to public investment to design and deliver their own training solutions.
  • Growth Accelerator – A funding programme offering up to £2,000 of match funding for the development of management and leadership skills.
  • Online learning from ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) – training in people management, disputes and other employment issues.

So if skill and talent development is economically difficult for your business, remember that there are tools out there that can make the financial burden much easier to bear.

5. Hire an apprentice.

According to the National Apprenticeship Service, 96% of employers who have taken on an apprentice have reported benefits to their business.

The evidence would suggest that apprenticeships make a lot of business sense in general, and especially for the small and medium-sized companies that can access a significant amount of funding* for them. Though apprentices cannot help with the training and development of current members of staff, they help businesses grow their talent base while enhancing productivity by virtue of combining employment with training. Businesses benefit from getting a constant stream of new ideas that all staff can benefit from, while developing a workforce that is skilled, qualified and also highly motivated.

It’s not difficult to do the math. High rewards – low costs = something probably worth doing.

Though apprentices will obviously start out as unexperienced novices, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of them having their training embedded in your organisational practices. Everything they learn will be somehow related to your business, which will very likely make them develop a strong attachment and loyalty to your organisation, as well as a profound understanding of how it works and a genuine interest in its future. Coupled with the experience that they will slowly but surely gain, this can make apprentices a key ingredient in your organisation’s broader recipe for effective talent development.

If you're interested in reading tips for business connectivity for SME's check out this helpful guide.

*Businesses with less than 1,000 employees can receive a £1,500 grant per apprentice (for up to 10 apprentices), as well as have 100% of training costs paid by the Government if the apprentice is between 16 and 18. Those between 19 and 24 can have up to 50% of their training costs funded.

Last updated: 07 Nov 2019

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