The nature of work, existing skills, style of delivery, learning preferences of participants and available resources must be considered to help choose the best and most appropriate learning methods.

Some learning needs are obvious: new equipment or IT systems might require some form of training, while individual skills may need refreshing due to changes in roles. Other needs are less clear, based on assessment of existing levels of skills, attitudes and knowledge against the requirements of future needs.

This ‘learning gap’ approach – the gap between existing and desired levels – has been criticised as limited only to “putting things right that have gone wrong”. Positive learning should be concerned with the future rather than the past – forecasting rather than fixing – identifying development needs in advance to help people acquire new skills for changing demands or to take on extra responsibilities.

A formal learning needs analysis, based on data about employees’ capabilities and organisational skill demands, is effectively a ‘health check’ on learning needs arising in teams, groups or departments. These can be identified by working with line managers to understand the needs of individual teams, using data on productivity, quality and performance to establish differences between actual and required performance.

Analysing learning needs

Analysis can take the form of an ongoing approach (e.g. appraisals), a project-based skills audit, or a combination of both. Analysis can also cover several levels: 

  • linking individual personal learning needs to those of the business 
  • new opportunities or restructuring which require new ways of working for specific projects or areas of work
  • to ensure all employees have the right capabilities to deliver its strategy for the organisation as a whole

The RAM approach

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) has developed an approach to focus analysis on key business outcomes – Relevance, Alignment, Measurement – RAM – by establishing:

  • relevance of existing or planned training provision to new business opportunities
  • alignment of the plan to other key organisation strategies (e.g. reward, engagement)
  • measuring and evaluating learning in terms of expected change and improvement, ROI and KPIs.

Responsibility for learning

Line managers have long initiated a high percentage of training. Successful L&D is often the result of a joint initiative between the executive team, HR, line managers and L&D experts. Many organisations now anticipate greater responsibilities devolving to line managers, with stronger links between team-working, on-the-job learning, coaching and guidance, and levels of employee satisfaction, commitment and motivation. 

Line managers are thus the gatekeepers to individual learning and development, and need support in carrying out their learning and development role. Where there is recognition and reward for these responsibilities, it is more likely they will be effective in coaching and learning activities. Their involvement is most effective when responsibility for learning and development is integrated into leadership expectations and line managers’ learning and development activities are not compromised by conflicting work demands.

Responsibility for learning will continue to devolve to line managers and learners themselves. About a third (32%) of UK L&D departments expected their budgets for learning and development to increase, while 42% expect them to remain the same. 

Two-thirds of UK companies (67%) spend up to £400 per employee on L&D, one in eight (12%) over £1,000. Companies spending more than the UK average per employee (£300+) report an average retention rate of over six months, and were twice as likely to say employees were highly satisfied.

Learning and development for SMEs

Smaller companies often face three issues:

  1. meeting the cost of learning and development
  2. giving employees time to learn or train
  3. fears that employees who develop new skills will leave.

Although many free or low-cost online courses are available, companies and participants will still have to make some investments, monetary and time. Even though the government has cut many of its skills programmes, there are still a few options:

  • Tech Nation – short courses for tech start-ups. It also offers a wide range of courses under its ‘Becoming an expert’ on all aspects of running a small business
  • National Careers Service – its ‘Find a course’ section list providers contracted the Skills Funding Agency and includes colleges and training providers
  • The Growth Hub Network, a network of public and private sector partners to support businesses. There are 38 Growth Hubs in England.

Other ideas for talent development include:

  • an alternative to sending employees on courses is to arrange for inhouse courses. These can be tailored to your need and become more cost-effective when you have four or more participants
  • embrace networking opportunities – encourage staff to attend industry events and webinars. You could even set up your own network or join other organisations in your sector to share learning and training courses or events
  • share the knowledge – with limited budgets, maybe only one team member can attend a course. Making sure that he or she shares the knowledge gained not only delivers good value, it also creates a positive company culture
  • take on an apprentice – see apprenticeships.

Training basics

Training in the more traditional sense may be required when introducing, for example, a new IT system or software, as well as emergency procedures. It is also a legal requirement in occupational health and safety, to assist in achieving the duty of care for the health, safety and welfare of all employees. Such training might cover:

  • first aid delivery
  • machinery and vehicle operators
  • return-to-work induction
  • handling hazardous materials. 

Depending on the nature of your business you should have a substantial list of aspects of work and work-related requirements to ensure the healthy and safe conduct of your business and its employees.