Round table debate: How does talent management in SMEs compare to larger businesses?

Getting the right people on board and boosting their development is a challenge for organisations of any size in the current climate.

In a recent round table debate, organised by the Epson Business Council, a group of microbusiness (10 or fewer employees) owners and industry experts discussed their approaches to recruiting and developing talent.

Although companies in the private sector are beginning to hire again, many training budgets are still restricted while organisations recover from the cost of recession.

However, according to a survey by XpertHR, more than two-thirds of employers say that cutting costs has not reduced the efficiency of learning and development in their organisations.

It seems that the pressures on training departments to cut costs are forcing them to look at what really works and be a bit more creative with what they’ve got. But what are the challenges for new businesses with even more restricted resources? And could their ideas be beneficial for the wider talent field?


  • Chairperson: Jo Fairley, co-founder, Green and Black’s;
  • Chris Price, managing director, Epson UK;
  • Becki Edwards, HR manager, Epson UK;
  • Sophie Cornish, co-founder,;
  • Claire Martinsen, founder, Breckland Orchard;
  • Tim Hutchings, chief executive, Herts Chamber of Commerce;
  • Karen Velasco, chairman, Institute of Learning and Development;
  • Donna Wilson, founder, Donna Wilson (Knitted craft designer); and
  • Professor Lynn Martin PHD , board member of Institute of Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship.

Training in a downturn

Karen Velasco: During a recession, training and development are one of the first things to get cut. What are the risks involved in doing this? I think there are many. In times of recession, organisations should be investing in their staff to give them the skills, the knowledge and the attitudes to be able to cope with change. Organisations have to change and unless the staff within them change as well they are not going to grow and move forward. There are risks of stagnation, especially if investment in training and development stops or is cut.

Prof Lynn Martin: I think it’s a more varied picture. Manufacturing is really going through a boom phase, so, in that sector, we are still seeing people training. I think it’s the larger companies that have taken that step of cutting the training budget, maybe because smaller firms don’t tend to have a training budget as such. However, it also has a lot to do with the owners and managers themselves because the tone comes from the top of the company. It’s your baby, it’s your business and if you don’t take time out to renew your own creative space why should other people feel that it is a good thing to do?

Tim Hutchings: I’m not convinced that providers have actually been selling what business owners want or need: a college or university that says “we are going to provide training in the evening or in the morning or at someone’s workplace”. There are very few places that do that and, if you look at the research, small businesses do spend a lot of money on training but maybe not at the universities and colleges. They buy what they require.

New approaches to training

Becki Edwards: In the last year, we have really focused on talent performance management and have kind of taken it right back to the bare bones, looking at our appraisal process, looking at how we interact with our staff and making sure that our line mangers are comfortable having coaching conversations with people. This is because once line managers are comfortable talking about career aspirations or the developments required within their team, they can then start to draw out the information from the individual and then, as a business, we can use that to try and feed into the talent management.

My advice would always be to start with a conversation to understand what your people want, how they want to develop and then how you and the business can benefit from that and how you can get them there. If you start down that road then you’re going to succeed.

Karen Velasco: There are several things that small and medium-sized enterprises can do [to develop talent] and the first is to take a step back before deciding that a course is the answer. All too often, we have an issue in organisations where we think that someone needs development to gain the right skills and the immediate thing which springs to mind is “let’s send them off on a training course”. I would always question why a training course is the answer.

Have you looked at other options? With technology today there are so many other opportunities for people to learn while they are on the job through self-regulated or informal learning. Always question whether or not a formal training course is the right thing. Can you do it in a more flexible way that would suit your environment?

Claire Martinsen: Sometimes it’s about utilising training opportunities. For example, there might be a networking meeting or there might be a discussion about leadership. You have to have a conversation around what you want to achieve. It may not be need to be a course – that opportunity may be a free training opportunity. It’s how you utilise it that matters.

Sophie Cornish: Isn’t it the case that training just needs redefining? We bring people in and we say we need our staff to be better trained in clearly defined things, for example handling a difficult phone call, selling, closing a sale – key skills that we know everybody would benefit from. We also have a knowledge-sharing culture where you share lessons learned. People go to a lot of industry events but the rule is that you have to come back and tell everybody what you found and what you saw; that’s how you earn your day out. It’s as much about educating people about what’s going on in their company and the wider commercial world as buying a particular place on a course, which is just so risky.

Recruiting the right talent

Jo Fairley: There is one particular juicy role at Green and Black’s, which is head of taste, and Michael Carhill, who possibly has the best job in the world, gets to work on all the new flavours. We decided that Michael should have an assistant, so to recruit that person we decided that, instead of using a recruitment agency or some form of media advertising, we would solicit applications through our website and that was spread through Facebook and Twitter which resulted in 3,500 applications.

They all had to be looked at, they all had to be assessed and responded to, and in the end the job went to a young food blogger from South London who blogs under the glorious name of The Boy Done Food. I think that you will agree that it is a fascinating way to recruit a new member of the team and a very powerful use of social media to tap into a pool of talent that may not otherwise have been accessible.

Sophie Cornish: Recruiting through your customer base is effectively something we did from very early on, not just because it saved us on recruitment fees, which we didn’t have a hope in hell of being able to pay, but also because people came to us with a completely ready understanding of what we were, so the cultural fit was already there. That is half the job in terms of training and nurturing talent.

Donna Wilson: For me, it’s really important that I get along with them; that I like them and they like me. You have to have a rapport. The last time I recruited was through work experience. We get quite a lot of people coming from universities and doing work experience for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. I managed to recruit someone who had done work experience with us and it was really good as we knew them already. I would try and do that again as it gives you a bit of time to see what their work ethic is like and shows you if they are going to fit in with the team. It can still go wrong as it takes a while to get to know someone and how they work, but it was really good for me on this occasion.

Claire Martinsen: Mars [Claire’s previous employer] has an inbuilt reputation for really great talent management and the recruitment process was quite strong. I would say we literally interviewed people for about 10 hours at a time and it was a very robust recruitment process, but at the end of the day there was always something we looked for and that was attitude over skills. There was a firm belief that you could always train skills and I’m an absolute advocate of that.

If it’s your business and you are not there, you want someone to be representing your values and beliefs. If they’ve got the right attitude then everything else can come.

Epson Business Council, set up by printer company Epson, provides business insights, support and advice to small businesses. The council is made up of four leading European business experts, including Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green and Black’s, and chairperson of this debate.

More information on how organisations are balancing cost and efficiency in learning and development is available on XpertHR.

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