Employee Training in a Recession

There never are any guarantees when training is involved.

As organizations reassess their staffing levels, many employees are being asked to do more with less. Aside from reducing headcount, many organizations are cutting back on employee-related expenses, even if they can provide long-term benefits. Examples include application training and travel to user groups in which employees can network and exchange best practices. This article discusses the increased importance, benefits, and risks related to employee training in a recession with respect to enterprise systems.

Growing Organization Risks

While understandable and often imperative for the continued survival of an organization, the aforementioned cutbacks promote a vicious cycle of increased organizational risk:

  • Organizations reduce or eliminate formal training and informal opportunities for end-users to learn how to better use enterprise systems.
  • This solidifies many end-users’ bad habits and suboptimal processing methods.
  • At the same time, organizations trim staff, resulting in more work among fewer employees. This means even less time for cross-pollination.

Organizational risk is compounded if key employees exit  and, as is often the case, end-user documentation is lacking. Incumbents may scramble to figure out how Alex ran regular interfaces, Neil matched invoices, Julian filed tax reports with the government, and Nancy created database backups. If Alex, Neil, Julian, and Nancy are no longer with their organizations, then they are in all likelihood unable and unwilling to assist their former employers in the event that their help is needed.

Often, the best case scenario is that jobs performed by ex-employees are partially understood by their replacements. This may very well result in increased risk of error, financial irregularities, expensive engagements with external consultants, or some other highly undesirable outcome. In the extreme, a single employee’s departure may result in a missed payroll, an eventual government audit, or security breaches.

Opportunities and Benefits

Organizations with tight budgets may not need to reduce headcount at present. There is a fundamental tension between lean staffing levels and organizational bench strength. Lack of widespread end-user application and technical knowledge is dangerous in the event that a key employee decides to walk. Yes, even in these economic times some employees voluntarily leave their jobs for whatever reason.

Organizations should consider expanding employee training, not cutting back.

To this end, organizations should consider expanding employee training, not cutting back. Whether employees are being cross-trained in different functions or learning new technologies altogether, the benefits of training can more than offset their costs. First and foremost, training mitigates the risk of key employee turnover. Second, the mid- or long-term savings of training may more than pay for itself. Two super users with substantial skills and a global perspective may be able to do the work of three or four limited end-users, especially if they are skilled in different automation methods. Finally, while hardly tantamount to reassuring nervous employees about their employment futures, training can send a strong message to attendees: the organization wants you to develop your skills. Despite current economic challenges, we are committed to growing our employees’ skills and abilities. This may reduce the likelihood of voluntary employee attrition.

Considerations and Caveats

Training for training’s sake is fruitless. Learning a robust new technology over the course of a three day class does not equate to mastering it or deploying it in the organization, even for highly motivated and skilled attendees.

Consider two examples. Boris attends a class on Cognos PowerPlay, a robust business intelligence (BI) tool. Patty attends a class on Crystal, a powerful reporting application. Boris and Patty are both highly skilled end-users who have long expressed to their managers a desire to learn more about each application. During and after their classes, they are excited about the new features and possibilities now available to them. Both are excited to begin using their new toys in their jobs.

This is where the similarities end. Boris simply has no time to use PowerPlay. Building cubes of data takes time and he is simply swamped with his daily responsibilities. While he finds half hour increments every two weeks or so to play around, the phone invariably rings and he forgets much of what he has learned. His excitement for-and knowledge of-the product wanes and PowerPlay never gains traction in the organization.

On the other hand, Patty immediately begins writing Crystal Reports and distributing them to others throughout the organization. She builds on the knowledge and excitement from class and joins online discussion groups promoting best practices. She is able to “kick the tires” on new reports and experiment with different ways of extracting, manipulating, and presenting her organization’s data to her internal clients. As a result of her efforts, many end-users now save hours every week; they no longer have to manually compile reports from disparate sources of information. Now, reports arrive via email as attachments with no further manipulation of the data required. Patty’s employer saves thousands of dollars in overtime and now has access to accurate and actionable business information.

Simon Says

The benefits of employee training cannot be viewed in isolation or in a vacuum; they must be considered within the context of the real world. The organization that sends an overworked, overwhelmed end-user to class is wasting its money. Forget the fact that the attendee’s mind may be back at work throughout the class. Knowing what an application can do-but ultimately not having the time to play around with it at work-will result in attendees not using their newly acquired skills and knowledge. Ultimately, neither the end-user nor the organization will reap the benefits from the class. Even if the end-user returns to the application six months or a year later, it is highly unlikely that s/he will remember

Sure, there are no guarantees that an employee will use a new technology in his or her job after class (much less effectively).  Still, organizations can take steps to maximize the chances of this happening. Ensuring that employees have the time to learn and use new technologies and applications is essential. Holding those employees aEccountable to deploying them via annual objectives and performance reviews can also ensure that employers actually benefit from their training investment. Along with potentially reduced risk from key employee turnover and greater internal system knowledge, application training can be a wise investment for an organization even in a tough economic environment.

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