Your business is only as good as its employees’ skills and knowledge. Constant training is crucial to success in our rapidly changing economy. Every year, new technologies are introduced that replace old ones, render skill sets obsolete, and sometimes replace employees entirely. To keep up, it is critical for businesses to help their employees stay on top of the latest tools and practices in their industries.

The Value of a Training Program

Employee training is often considered costly. Not only is ongoing company training relatively rare, but many companies actively avoid having to train employees at all. If they have an open job position, they will try to hire someone who held that exact position previously in another company, which is not hard to do when unemployment is at 9.2%. However, this approach often backfires. Seldom does one company have the exact same procedures as another. Simply hiring a person who held the same job title in the past cannot take the place of specific training for the same position in your company—it only reduces the time such training takes.

Furthermore, you cannot rely on new employee training alone to maintain a competitive advantage unless you plan on having high employee turnover. (And high employee turnover is never an effective strategy.) You always need the latest, most up-to-date skills in your company. You could hire a new employee who already has the latest training and have them train their coworkers, but that approach does not always work out. The ideal approach is to create an ongoing training program and rotate your employees through it.

Planning a Training Program

Implementing ongoing training does not have to be expensive, though the typical approach often is (bringing in outside experts to teach a class). To design an affordable training program, you need only start with your employees. By giving them time to research the latest industry practices and gather to discuss them, you enable them to train themselves. The productivity you lose now as you give them that training time will quickly be made up for later when it comes time to adopt new practices. When affordable, training time can be supplemented by bringing in experts for one-time workshops—much cheaper than having an expert teach a whole class.

Employee-directed training programs are only as effective as their agendas. You definitely need to do some preliminary research and give your employees a starting point for their training via an agenda. This requires you to do some research yourself. This might sound difficult, but it is a logical extension of competitive analysis: to figure out how they produce their products or services. You also want to look at new process and strategies coming out of universities and think tanks that your competition may adopt. If you are not yet doing these things, assign them to your competitive analysis team.

The research you gain from competitive analysis and new practice research will serve as a starting point for your employees. When you (or your analysts) find a new practice, simply turn it over to your employees and let them look at it during their training meetings. With their expertise and experience, they are in the best position to figure out how the new procedure works and whether it will work in your company. The following agenda shows a good way to kick start a new training focus.

A Sample Training Agenda

Objective: To learn additive manufacturing techniques, particularly in relation to 3D Printing.

Background: Our industry analysts believe that our primary competitor has reduced their raw material input by 40% by using 3D printing and other additive manufacturing techniques.

Your task: Spend the next five training meetings researching and discussing these new skills under the direction of Training Chief Johnson. On the sixth training meeting date, you will report your findings to Production Management in a group presentation.

Presentation format: We want to hear the opinion of each employee. Make certain each employee is included in the presentation, but keep it to 20-30 minutes. We specifically want to hear:

  1. How we can implement more additive manufacturing
  2. What tools and skills will be required to implement it
  3. How employees will likely react to the changes, and what their primary concerns will be

A Sample Training Meeting

Training meetings will be most effective when conducted in small groups. One member of the group will be appointed as a leader and discussion moderator. He or she makes certain the group stays on task and sticks to the agenda. In the above example, it was “Training Chief” Johnson. Johnson may be an official company trainer, or he/she may just hold the title in the context of the training class. Either way, he/she is just as close to the production process as the rest of the group. The following conversation illustrates how such a meeting may proceed.

Johnson: Our industry analysts believe that our primary competitor is using more additive manufacturing. They’re making a lot of parts with 3D printers now. We need to teach ourselves everything we can about this technology?

Employee 1 in a semi-joking tone: Should I be worried about my job?

Johnson: No one’s going to lose their jobs here. We’re just trying to figure out how to reduce our raw materials overhead so we can get our costs down.

Employee 2: I know a little about 3D printers. They’re only used for semi-functional prototypes, right? I mean, are our competitors really producing quality products?

Johnson: That’s what we’re here to find out. Has anyone here bought one of their products recently?

No one raises their hand.

Johnson: Come on. We’re not going to fire you for buying a competitor’s product!

Employee 3: My mother-in-law bought one of theirs. She’s been raving about it ever since and says I should quit here and go work for them. (Worriedly) I don’t plan to, though!

Johnson: Okay. I’ve got us a subscription to all the major manufacturing periodicals. Let’s start reading and see what we can learn about 3D printing. You, take July through November. You, take January through June. You two, split up last year’s issue. The last two will take the year before that. Take 15 minutes, and let’s see what we can find.

15 minutes later

Employee 2: 3D printers look a lot more useful than I thought they would be.

Employee 1: They do require fewer employees, though.

Johnson: In which case we’ll increase our volume, not lay people off.

Employee 3: I see why my mother-in-law was raving now. The latest 3D printers can put out top-quality products.

Johnson: Okay, so… how will we use them in our factory? Tom, you’ve been pretty quiet so far. What ideas do you have?

We won’t try to script the whole meeting here. Suffice it to say that Johnson keeps them on task, leads them through a literature review, and they toss ideas back and forth about how they would use 3D printing in their production process.

Getting Started

Meetings like the one described here provide a venue for employees to train themselves in new procedures. In this particular example, they are studying technology that could reduce raw material requirements while increasing production volume. Such a venture will pay for itself—their time spent away from the production process will boost company value in the long run—and the process required no experts. Small training groups of 5-10 employees can teach themselves new skills and prepare to implement new technology without large training costs to the company.