Training: make sure it's what you really need

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a yawning gap opening up in staff training for medium- sized companies. While large companies have enough cash to set up in- house training and small concerns are doing what they have always done - a senior family member informally instructs a junior partner - cash- strapped, medium-sized firms are missing out.

They are increasingly the victims of what might be called "the distant training package". Encouraged by their local Business Link, the arm of the Department of Trade and Industry which acts as an adviser to small businesses, to enrol their staff on a training course, they opt for the deal which promises so much and through which, they are led to believe, the company can forge ahead.

But more often than not they end up being disappointed. The venue and time for the two-day course is pre-arranged and the trainer arrives at the site with a pre-packaged course without having necessarily met any trainees.

"How can these trainers possibly know what the company's needs are without sitting down and talking to us first?" said Andrew Fulton, managing director of DISC UK, a Derby engineering firm employing about 20 staff. "We had our fingers burnt when we sent three people on a three-day, pounds 1,000, off- site supervisors' course. It turned out to be almost totally irrelevant to what they needed. The only bespoke aspect of the course for DISC was that we had our name and logo on the top of every sheet of paper. We could have been any company."

An enterprising two-person operation in the East Midlands is now addressing itself to the problem of training for medium-sized businesses. Arabesque has cottoned on to the fact that time spent visiting the company premises and talking to staff pays huge dividends later. After spending as much as two days in research, they compile a tailor-made course.

"We have found that this approach is very popular with both staff and management," said Peter Tunnicliffe. "The accent is on fun because when people enjoy what they are doing that's when real learning takes place."

Arabesque takes participants at companies like DISC through role plays in which people swap jobs. After one of their courses many want to change their job within the company, or even leave to work somewhere else. Its "holistic" approach to training in many ways turns back the clock to the more comprehensive coaching that was advocated in the early 1970s. Business was more leisurely then and staff could be sent away on two-week residential courses. But even in today's quick-fix business environment, if Arabesque is to be believed, a careful, listening-first approach pays off as employees only need to attend a short course.

Another company that received the Arabesque makeover was Stapleford Park, a country house hotel in Leicestershire, To any outsider its studied informality is a winner, but beneath the professional veneer there were problems. The stratagem that Arabesque devised was to encourage staff, in training, to do other people's jobs so that receptionists made and turned down beds, chambermaids invented and made cocktails in the bar and gardeners learned dining-room dodges.

It is a vital part of the staff's job to know enough about the 18th-century house to answer guests' questions. Consequently on the course a good deal of time was spent on the history of what has been called "the best country house hotel in the world".

Arabesque (tel: 01332 865817; 0585 740554)

e-mail: ARABESK@email.msn.com.

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