Employee_Learning_Body.jpgBy Cathie Ericson.


Adapt to survive. That’s the mantra for today’s small business, and an important component is continuous learning. And while ongoing education helps strengthen your business, it can also be a key factor in employee retention. In fact, most employees, especially millennials, consider it an essential job component: A survey from EdAssist, a continuing education company, found that nearly 60 percent of respondents would choose a job offering regular professional development over one with regular pay raises.

But let’s face it; most small businesses don’t have a lot of cash to invest in expensive conferences or educational courses. Here are some ways you can incorporate continuous learning on a budget.

1. Institute regular stretch assignments

New employees are often energized by the learning curve when they come on board, but then begin to stagnate. Employers can help keep jobs fresh by offering a project that is one-third or more outside an employee’s expertise, so that they have to learn a new skill to complete it, advises Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better in Boulder, Colo. “Choose an assignment that relates to a pressing business issue so you both benefit,” she says. “The employee has a new experience and expands their thinking, and you glean a potential business solution.”

2. Customize the training

Generic training can cause most of your staff to tune out, says Bob Hewes, senior partner at Boston-based Camden Consulting Group. When you tailor learning to an individual and their existing level, you can ensure they are learning something new and relevant. For example, when training for presentation skills, take into account the experience of the group and hold one-on-one sessions that are customized to each person’s specific job function and current mastery.

Employee_Learning_PQ.jpg3. Extend conferences to those back in the office

It’s often not feasible to send a whole team to an industry event, even if most team members would benefit. Tasking participants with teaching the rest of the staff shares the wealth, and also ensures attendees are attentive at the sessions, knowing they have to present key ideas on their return, says Kean Graham, CEO of MonetizeMore, a virtual ad optimization firm.

4. Hold a book club

Choose a book that impacts your business, but also inspires your employees, suggests Austin, Texas-based business strategy consultant Joshua Schall. After the team has read the book, order in food and convene to discuss insights, and then reinforce them regularly in future meetings. Schall recently recommended The Lean Startup by Eric Ries to a client, who then successfully introduced a new product using the book’s concept of “build-measure-learn,” a departure from traditional consumer packaged goods ideologies.

5. Make it a regular event

Learning activities become a priority when you incorporate them into your employees’ weekly schedules, finds Rasheen Carbin, co-founder and CMO of nspHire.com, a job-posting site based in Oak Brook, Ill. He advocates using online learning sites such as Coursera, Udemy or Skillshare and also suggests his employees allocate 10 percent of their time to side projects sparked by what they are learning. “Send a message to your employees that improving their skill set is highly valued by allocating company time,” Carbin says.

6. Encourage chances for cross-pollination

Offer employees an hour or two to periodically shadow people in other functions says Stan Kimer, founder of Total Engagement Consulting, a career development and diversity management consultancy in Raleigh, N.C. For example, he suggests sending a customer service representative to shadow a salesperson to hear how the help desk support is framed in a sales call. “This will give the help desk person an appreciation for how important their role is in winning new clients, and possibly ignite their interest in a future sales role,” he says, adding that it also allows a small business to develop possible backfills in case key people depart.


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