Small businesses can't spare the time or money to send people away on courses, but they still need help with training, writes Sue Jones
Off-the-peg training programmes don't always suit small businesses. They often need something altogether less formal, and preferably bespoke.
Although they may lack recognised training programmes, small companies are often involved in a lot of informal learning that needs support.
The Government says colleges and training providers must tailor their work to meet the needs of industry, a demand that is at the heart of a forthcoming White Paper on skills. But first a report by the Learning and Skills Development Agency says colleges and other providers need to understand the needs of small businesses.
"Better support for informal learning in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may... be as important as exhortations to take up more formal learning opportunities," the report says.
Typically, small companies are working to very tight margins in highly competitive, rapidly changing, niche markets. They lack planning time and the leeway to send people on long courses. They need tailored support rather than one-size-fits-all training.
Structured interviews with 26 people at different levels in small and medium-sized enterprises across the country revealed that, while big companies have formal training programmes, small businesses have to find alternative methods: they are likely to use a variety of methods, such as colleagues explaining new systems to each other, using trade manuals and magazines, conferences, observation and learning by trial and error.
While those people who had done general management courses before setting up their business found it useful, experienced managers were more likely to describe them as costly, cliched and a licence to print money, the agency's researchers found.
However, those who had been promoted to management because of their technical knowledge and ability still needed to find ways to develop skills in strategic analysis and in dealing with people.
"I couldn't have been a production manager 20 years ago," said one. "So somewhere along the line I must have developed skills. I think that just comes with experience and learning to be honest, rather than training."
Other managers mentioned the importance of discussing things with colleagues they could trust. One director spoke of an older employee in the company whom they ran ideas by. He referred to this person as a wise old sage, a goldmine to the company.
Once a business is up and running, owners have no time for training, but many said they would appreciate mentoring. "We would have benefited from having a local business angel-type person to help in the first six months," said one. "Someone who creates a strategy, offers a lot of support at first but slowly gives less and less as the company progresses."
Small businesses often buy in consultants, suggesting that they are willing to invest in training where it is short, customised and directed at a particular problem.
Much of the learning companies need is in response to pressures from outside, such as health and safety legislation or inspection regimes. Some use processes such as working towards Investors in People or British Standard status to develop their operations. They also have to adapt to rapid changes in technology and the business climate.
TOO MANY FORMAL QUALIFICATIONS
The people who undertook research for the Learning and Skills Development Agency report* have drawn up the following feedback from the small businesses they spoke to
* Small businesses can find it difficult to get relevant and useful information. "Finding and using information is a key skill for operating effectively in a small company," says the report.
* It is helpful to be in contact with a network of similar businesses, although managers may need help in relating both general principles and other people's experience to their own needs.
* Training needs analyses should be in clear, everyday language.
* Even small companies increasingly work in the global economy. The report recommends more attention to economic awareness and business acumen in schools and colleges.
* The increasing emphasis on formal qualifications can have negative effects. Employers come to expect free or discounted training, and there is a "potential mismatch between the learning needs of the business (or individual) and the learning needs of the qualification".
* Small and medium-sized enterprises should be encouraged to develop in-house capacity for learning. This could be supported by registered mentors and advisers with specific and specialist expertise.
lAttention to the context of the particular business is paramount.
* 'Learning Without Lessons - supporting learning in small businesses' was produced by the LSDA in collaboration with the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative