In today’s competitive business environment, having the ‘tools’ no longer guarantees an advantage; the key is understanding how to use them. It’s that simple.
“The how, when and why we choose to use them is what will ensure the sustainability of companies in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world we currently inhabit,” says Darren Levy, director of short courses – executive education, at The University of Auckland Business School.
Unfortunately there are still business owners who focus on the obstacles to learning, rather than the advantages to be gained by increasing their knowledge base.
Short course-based training is an ideal way for busy people to increase their knowledge, skills and competency, and in spite of the slow economy, demand for business training is increasing with business owners finding the time – and frequently the money – to upskill not just themselves, but the people who work for them.
For a small country the options available are vast; workshops of just a few hours duration to courses lasting two or three days, to those which involve initial training plus follow-up meetings over a period of some months.
The banking sector is highly pro-active on the short course front. For example, anyone who owns or operates a small business – or is thinking of starting one – can attend ANZ’s free Business Growth workshops, regardless of whether they’re a customer of the bank.
Business banking MD Fred Ohlsson says in the past year they ran 264 workshops attended by more than 7000 people. “Our Smart Marketing workshops are the most popular as owners feel they need to know more about social media and search engine optimisation.”
Workshops on financials and cashflow, along with business planning are also in demand.” They’re also a great opportunity to network with other business owners who may share the same challenges.”
At the BNZ, David Blakey, head of corporate and specialised finance, says the BNZ Growth Programme workshops provide an ideal entrée to open business owners’ minds to the idea of improving themselves and the way they think about managing their business.
“Being an owner/manager can be a very isolating role,” says Blakey. “More business owners are reaching out for support in what’s become an uncertain world. People can feel very alone and this type of programme provides an opportunity for people to come together and connect with others in a similar situation and learn from each other.”
ATEED’s Fast Track Business Series offers workshops aimed at businesses wanting to grow, change direction, or develop and market an idea or innovative new product.
“The most popular were ‘Fast Track to Export’ and ‘Fast Track Global Marketing,” says Jane Finlayson, business growth specialist, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development. Because the topics are all too complex to be covered in a few hours, the sessions are designed to be ‘tasters’, she says. “The aim is to introduce each topic then direct businesses to further programmes for more assistance. For example, as part of ATEED’s Business Growth programme, run in conjunction with NZTE and MbiE (Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment), businesses may qualify for partial funding for courses best suited to their needs run by external providers.
“Most businesses gain their knowledge and experience from a variety of sources so a mix of offerings is always going to be important – workshops, courses, networking, reading, webinars, are just some of the ways to engage with others and gain knowledge,” says Finlayson.
Webinars are a comparatively new offering and EMA portfolio manager Craig Garner says they have been well received; although to date they’ve used the tool mainly to deliver member briefings and promotional sessions to create awareness of upcoming programmes.
“This year we’re introducing dedicated training programmes covering topics that include health and safety, time management and customer service.”
Webinars offer a viable solution to a wider audience at a fraction of the cost, says Garner. “However we still recognise the value and importance of face-to-face programmes and they’re still part of our offering.”
During the GFC there was a clear move to shorter and lower cost programmes but Darren Levy reports an increasing demand to deliver programmes offering more depth and breadth. “We’re working with more and more companies to establish the key success factors they seek from their learning initiatives and develop a learning journey relevant for individuals, teams and the company itself.”
The ‘fundamentals’ are proving to be very popular, he says. “Project Management, Finance for Non-financial Managers, Motivation and Leadership, Mental Toughness and Managing People are all in demand.”
Meanwhile, Mike Ashby, who runs the Owner Operator Programme as a joint venture with The ICEHOUSE, says 2012 was their best year ever and 2013 is tracking even better. They’re attracting people who are a bit more proactive and forward thinking than their peers, he says. “They recognise that if they’re going to grow their business they first have to grow themselves.”
There are three components to OOP workshops; growth, infrastructure and personal development. “Personal development things like resilience, risk-taking and leadership always rate best. Changing the performance of a company usually means the leader has to change his or her behaviour.”
“Our approach is that changes in behaviour are even more important than knowledge so our programmes run over a longer period and are focused on implementation as well as knowledge.”
Seventy percent of training is on the job; twenty percent through coaching or mentoring and ten percent – an amount that’s critical to doing a job well – requires attending a workshop or seminar, says Jim Huse at Huse Hill Associates. “Training should enable a business owner to go back to his or her desk and put their learning into action, but too often learners are not receiving the ‘how to’.”
Huse, who is author of business book Revolutionise the Way You Work, says their training is based on identifying what a client wants to achieve then providing the appropriate ‘how to’. “The training delivery needs to be tailored so that the learner does not have to translate the teaching to their existing tools and processes but can interlayer it, and understand why they need to do it and how to achieve the required outcome.”
Being ‘too busy’ or ‘time poor’ are often the excuses business owners use for not undertaking a training programme. That’s a mindset they’re seeking to discourage, says the BNZ’s Blakey. “A number of our programmes encourage people to step back and work on the business, rather than in it; see it for what it is and by doing so, enable it to grow.”
“[Running a business] takes effort and commitment,” says OOP’s Ashby. “But the point is, making positive changes only happens because people make the effort and stay committed.” He says it’s often the people who make the biggest effort that make the most of the programme. “One of our newest members travels from Gore and Skypes into his fortnightly meeting. He’s taking everything he’s hearing and applying it to his business. After just a few months he’s already seeing benefits.”
“Do it and do it now!” That’s Hamish Firth’s advice to business owners considering a short course to increase their knowledge base. “And go into it with a positive attitude. If you’re thinking ‘this won’t work for me’ it won’t.”
Firth’s company, Mt Hobson Group, offers specialist town planning consultancy services; he signed on to the Owner Operator Programme largely because of the effect it had on a friend. “I asked him about the changes I was seeing and the buzz and enthusiasm he was giving off. It was a transformation and I thought I need to do something like that.”
He then arranged to talk with OOP’s Mike Ashby. “The way he spoke and the vision he portrayed clicked with me – and the rest is history.” It’s also something of a success story; “In terms of revenue we’re up 30 percent, and staff numbers have grown. But that’s a crude output measure. It’s everything else that’s gone into it.”
He opted for a ‘boots and all’ approach to the course. “I decided to say ‘yes’ to everything and if it didn’t work we’d quit it. We adopted, or put in place, everything Mike said – and we haven’t abandoned any of it.”
Firth says introducing simple systems ensures growth is not retarded by poor process. They’re sending a monthly newsletter “designed to provoke thought” to a database of 2,500, and they’ve embraced social media. “I’m also conscious of the importance of time off and specific time for the family. I’m less IN the business and more ON it. And I’m conscious of looking after my staff and celebrating and rewarding success. The list is endless!”
He says he’s also more aware of his weaknesses and of the matters he can either improve on or delegate. “I find myself less concerned with micromanaging and more focused on the bigger picture. The programme has been a revelation to me.”
OOP attracts people from across the board that recognise if they’re going to grow their business they first have to grow themselves. Firth says he’s ‘a doer’, who lacked the experience to take the business to the next level. “I saw the benefits in seeking professional help to grow my business and it’s brought about the transformation that’s going on here.”
In the 23 years he’s been in business, Kieren Mallon has attended a number of ATEED’s Fast Track Business Series workshops. “And I’ve always come away with at least a couple of good points I can enact within my business.”
Mallon is managing director of Meridian Construction. He served his time as an apprentice in the joinery industry but was never taught any business skills. “The first years in business are always difficult and the school of hard knocks can be a very expensive classroom to attend.”
If you want to grow your business you need to seek out as much information as you can, he says. “As an SME owner you also need skills across a wide variety of fields and these courses do just that.”
Proof they work is the fact that the business has grown from a one-man operation, making kitchens in the basement of the family home, to a 1,300m2 factory employing 20 full-time staff and numerous contractors. The business has also been divided into several entities focused on different aspects of the construction industry.
Those workshops also whet Mallon’s appetite for more. “Thanks to a grant from ATEED which covered part of the cost, I’ve just completed The ICEHOUSE owner/manager programme. This takes all the small courses to a new level and I’d highly recommend it.”
Kieren Mallon recalls being told a lot of SMEs effectively buy a job. “And they end up working for not a very nice boss. If you want to take your business on a growth plan which will allow you to have a choice in your lifestyle, then have a real thirst for knowledge. Grab every piece of information that comes your way; sift through it, pull out the bits that are relevant and implement them. And keep going.
“If you’re always busy doing the day-to-day, you won’t progress. You need to make time to create time.”
Patricia Moore is an Auckland-based freelance writer. Email [email protected]