Improving dialogue: Two-way talk

The government wants employers to use dialogue to improve training and skills levels and is offering guidance. But some say this is all a bit simplistic.

It’s time to talk training. This is the latest skills message from the UK government, which has released a best-practice guide containing tips for improved dialogue within companies.

A joint initiative between the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the TUC and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), ‘It’s Time to Talk Training’ says the benefits of a skills dialogue are improved quality, reduced error rates and higher productivity reduced staff turnover and absenteeism improved internal communication enhanced staff recruitment and induction and improved learning cultures.

The guide also considers whether dialogue about training should be distinct from other forms of dialogue.

Underpinned

All this theory is underpinned by 10 case studies, detailing how a range of organisations – both unionised and non-unionised – have established and sustained an effective training dialogue with their workforce. The case studies, based on specially commissioned research from Leeds University Business School, claim to show what is involved and what benefits have resulted.

According to the report, all 10 boast very different characteristics. They operate across different regions and various sectors, and the workforces have a range of skills profiles. They include small businesses – 16 employees – as well as global and national organisations.

Richard Wainer, head of education and skills policy at the CBI, describes ‘It’s Time to Talk Training’ as a good, rather than a best, practice guide, which can help employers understand the value of getting their workforce involved in training.

“Clearly, a lot of businesses recognise the huge value that comes from this, but it might inspire them to try these things,” he explains.

“In terms of employee involvement, I don’t really think the training focus has been done before. The message is that employee involvement isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy – as the case studies clearly show. What works for one company won’t work for another, so we’ve included a spread of organisations to try and show whatever business you are there are a range of ways you can involve your employees in training.”

Applauds

Having reviewed the booklet, Karen Velasco, managing director of PeopleSolve and a director of the British Institute for Learning and Development, applauds what she terms an “excellent best practice guide”.

But she adds that the document, which she says is simplistic at times, will not be viewed as ground-breaking by any companies that have already gone down the Investors in People route.

In fact, Velasco says the stated benefits of dialogue could refer to just about any aspect of training and could have been thought-through a little more carefully. “The case studies are excellent though – and feature a wide variety of organisations,” she says. “Some of the points – such as measuring the return on investment from training activities – are also vital, and I think there’s a nice cross-section of organisations, both small and large, public and private.”

While it may be nothing new for experienced learning and development (L&D) practitioners, Velasco believes it will prove useful for any new training managers, as well as SMEs, who may be keen to look at what other organisations are doing.

“I would have liked to have seen more advice about how to embed a learning culture in an organisation,” she admits. “But it’s a very good best practice document in terms of stating what should happen with training and development in the workplace.”

John Freshney, programme design co-ordinator at the UK-based Righttrack Consultancy, agrees that any effort to increase dialogue within organisations should be praised, adding that the assembled case studies are nice examples of where employer-employee dialogue really works.

Emphasis

But while they illustrate the upskilling of staff, as well as the effect on motivation, Freshney points out that these companies may well have been doing this before the focus shifted to training and development. In fact, he claims that the emphasis the guide puts on one small element of a management style isn’t really going to make a huge difference.

“It would be better if they left well alone or focused on something that encouraged organisations to be much more open with their staff,” he says.

“I don’t think dialogue is a big problem in training and development. Having a two-way conversation just doesn’t happen in some organisations. Talking and listening to people is about making them feel worth and value. I fail to see how [the guide] has made such a link to training. What it boils down to is about having an appropriate chat with people.”

While he believes that L&D departments will welcome the guide in general because it puts the focus on dialogue within organisations, Freshney believes the emphasis on skills will frustrate them.

“It’s a bit of a nonsense to point this towards training and development,” he says. “It’s sort of saying that it is more important to have skills than motivated people.”

Case study: Mersey Travel

Mersey Travel, which achieved Investors in People Champion status in 2006, is one of the 10 case studies featured in ‘It’s Time to Talk Training’. A new system of dialogue around training and skills was spearheaded by the L&D manager, in association with trade unions.

A Joint Learning Forum was established to drive all training-related matters, with a formal learning agreement signed and a number of projects initiated, with financial support from the Union Learning Fund, under the banner of Merseylearn.

The learning agreement sets out the key principles around working together and the role of union learning representatives and is purposefully ‘firewalled’ from other industrial relations arrangements.

A Performance Development Review (PDR) scheme was also introduced for all staff to ensure employees have a direct path to discuss training needs with their manager. Three learning centres have now been established and there has been a 50% increase in staff qualified to NVQ Level 2. Some 95% of staff have a PDR.

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