Powerful Employee Learning For Small Businesses On A Budget

Small businesses don’t have a ton of money to throw at training. They have to fill skills gaps and onboard new people as efficiently as possible. But most training today revolves around expensive courses, simulations, or video games. So what can you do that will effectively help employees learn without killing the budget?

Start by focusing on essential employee behaviors.

Even the most cost effective program wastes resources if you aren’t training people in skills that improve your business. That means you need a good understanding of the working behaviors and habits that result in more revenue or lower expenses.

If you don’t already know what these are, take time to observe your best employees. What do they do well? What regular habits do they have?

Don’t overlook soft skills. Your super stars may bring in more business because they’re great with customers. So that will be an important skill to include in your training.

Ok, now you know what employees need to learn. How do you help them learn it without spending a fortune?

Turn learning into a culture.

Surprisingly, one of the most cost-effective ways to develop employees is to train all the time. Rather than separating out specific time as “training” and everything else as “work,” weave learning into everyday activities.

It’s not as hard as it sounds, but it does take some leadership.

In a learning culture, you help employees identify business-essential skills to work on, then provide them with resources and deadlines. As employees learn and practice new abilities, they’ll need support and reminders from you or a colleague.

At first, your team won’t know what to do. How do you learn something new while you’re trying to get your job done? But if you think about it, that’s when we learn most new things – by having to figure them out on our feet!

Still, you want to help people learn, not just throw them in the deep end and hope they swim. So guide their efforts with plenty of resources they can lean on as they work on their goals.

Here are some ideas for free and low-cost ways to support a learning culture:

Look for free webinars or training events.

For some products, such as software, vendors will offer free training. Or you can often find free webinars or seminars hosted by professional organizations.

Keep in mind that this training will be very general, so you’ll need to follow up and help people learn how to use the software according to your business needs. How can you do that? Check out the next few resource tips.

Ask employees to learn from each other.

Take a look at the skills in your team and encourage colleagues to share what they know with each other. Some will enjoy the mentoring opportunity, and you can lean on those folks to help get new people up to speed.

You can use technology such as company wikis, employee-generated videos, and discussion groups to cultivate sharing online, but traditional one-to-one mentoring works best for building relationships.

Make sure you acknowledge everyone’s contribution to the process. People who voluntarily teach others often receive little recognition for it.

Make cross-training a standard practice.

In addition to helping newcomers, employees can cross-train each other. A small team suffers when one or two employees are out sick or on vacation, so cross training can painlessly fill in those gaps. Plus, it builds strong working relationships and encourages knowledge sharing – the foundation of a learning culture.

Direct employees to online courses.

Some free online courses, such as those offered by Stanford University, can teach general business skills. You can also sign up for video programs, such as, for a minimal sum.

Again, these are general classes, so you’ll need to make sure they address the essential employee behaviors you need. Plus, you’ll want to follow up afterward to ensure people are applying the skills according to your requirements.

Emphasize reflection.

Reflection is an essential and often overlooked element of learning. And it’s a powerful part of a learning culture.

Make it a priority for your team to reflect on their day. You can give people 5 minutes at the end of work to write a few notes about the progress they did or did not make toward learning goals. Or you can ask them to discuss it with a colleague.

Reflection works well in groups also. If you want everyone to get better at handling angry customers, for example, the whole team can meet after an incident to discuss how it went and how it could go better.

Reflection is not for “I told you so” or blame. It’s an objective exploration of ways in which future work can benefit from the past.

Reap your rewards.

Small business owners know how to get things done on a limited budget. Training is no different. Fortunately, with some effort and focus, you can build an organization that constantly learns and improves, even without costly courses or video games. And that is priceless.


Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.

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