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Learning & Development: a complete guide

Learning & Development: a complete guide

Learning and Development is a term used to describe everything a business does to encourage professional development among its employees. Training courses, development programs, online learning, and development activities – all fall under the bracket of Learning and Development.

As Chief of Staff at CharlieHR (a startup that builds HR software for small businesses), I’ve always strived for an environment where people can grow: my job is to ensure our employees have all the right tools in hand to do so.

In this guide, I’ll share with you what I learnt from putting together an L&D strategy at a small business and how you can perhaps get some inspiration to do the same.

What is Learning and Development?

L&D is one of the traditional 'core' responsibilities of Human Resource management. It's usually taken care of by a company's Human Resources department or HR Manager. In smaller companies, however, the L&D strategy might be set by the Chief of Staff or Operations manager, someone like me.

Given that it's such a broad term encompassing so many different things, L&D strategies are usually very different from one company to the next. Let’s dive more into this difference.

What are the benefits of L&D?

A good L&D strategy has benefits for every kind of business – but arguably, it's at smaller companies where its true value really comes to the fore.

Giving your team members access to development opportunities allows them to learn new skills – skills that they then bring to work every day. In a small company, great team members are your competitive advantage. They are the cutting edge that you can use to take on bigger companies with their larger budgets.

Strong employee engagement has other benefits too. Having highly engaged team members is also linked to good employee retention rates – so not only will your people work more effectively, but they'll stick around longer too.

In corporate speak, this might be called talent management or talent development – but in a nutshell, it's about making sure your best people stay in the room.

Let’s see, however, how L&D can differ depending on the company you’re running.

Learning and Development in larger companies

In large companies, L&D is usually:

  • Highly structured – budgets can be very strict but usually larger than what they would be in a small business structure
  • Managed by a dedicated L&D team or a specialist working full-time to identify specific training needs
  • Very traditional – that could mean training programmes delivered by specialist training providers, or access to online courses

Larger companies may also focus on investing their L&D budget in senior roles rather than more junior ones since their pool of talent will be made of more senior people.

Learning and Development in small businesses

In smaller businesses, the L&D strategy is often a little more constrained by the available budget (find out more about how they managed L&D on a tight budget at Learn Amp).

Smaller companies are also less likely to have a fully-fledged Human Resources department, so responsibility might fall to an Operations Manager or someone in a similar role.

What this means is:

  • Learning opportunities offered to employees are less likely to be in the shape of formal training. Instead, it will be much more unstructured and casual
  • That doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable. In fact, many people choose small businesses because of the unique L&D opportunities they offer.

In small, fast-growing businesses, low budgets and small teams often mean people are regularly working way outside their comfort zone, regularly exposed to new skills and implementing them at break-neck speed.

This is often described as 'social learning' – learning that takes place just by working with team members whose skills and experiences will inevitably rub off on you. This isn't formal, corporate learning, but a form of continuous learning – the type of learning that happens without even realising.

It’s an intense way to work – but for some people, it’s a highly attractive prospect, offering much faster career development and a wider set of experiences than larger companies provide.

This type of learning happens at Charlie too, but it can’t be the only L&D you offer to your team. In fact, there are all sorts of tactics and policies you can implement at a small business to make impactful L&D a reality.

To help you along the way, I’ll share what we’ve been doing at Charlie over the years to make Learning and development a concrete way to help your business grow.

5 tips for Learning and Development at your small business

This is, of course, from my point of view as Chief of Staff at Charlie and doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll do the same for your business. However, I think these tips will provide some guidance and inspiration for what you may be looking to do – and if you want more tips on how to run your business, have a look at our HR for startups guide.

Become a “learning organisation”

This may sound like having L&D initiatives is enough, but becoming a learning organisation is not simply about allowing your team to have training.

In fact, it’s more about the ability to build on that knowledge and make sure it’s transferable.

What you don’t want to happen is a company where knowledge is held by one person, and when that person goes, the knowledge goes with them.

Here’s what we’ve put in place so that it doesn’t happen at Charlie:

  • Documenting processes from top to bottom so they’re all recorded in one place and easily accessible for training purposes
  • Communicating on processes – that means if these processes change, or if you find that they could be improved, your team is informed
  • Having new hires shadow their colleagues once they start – will be a good way for them to learn the ropes

These may seem like obvious steps, but they’re the first ones to build a learning organisation that you can be proud of and rely on.

Don’t be afraid to invest money in L&D

As I mentioned before, money can be tight when you’re running a small business or startup. When I started at CharlieHR, there was no one dedicated to HR.

But when I started taking care of Operations, it became obvious that L&D was going to be one of the pillars to implement for our team.

Since we couldn’t support expensive initiatives right from the start, it required a few iterations over the years.

As we grew, however, we were able to inject more money into all of these areas. Here’s what our budget currently looks like:

  • £750 per person available towards any books, courses or conferences that employees want to attend (they can usually discuss it with their line manager before buying to make sure this fits their needs)
  • A conference pot per function so they can attend events where the whole team can learn

Even though this is what we’re set on now, I’m confident this will also change year after year – so another tip is to always consult your team to find out what they want from your business.

Run regular performance reviews

It may seem like a given, but running performance reviews and L&D don’t always come in pairs in some businesses.

One can often be preferred to the other, but in my role, I quickly realised that both were completely intertwined.

Your team should always be able to link their performance with the way they evolve in the business and make sure they have the possibility to invest in their skills and make their career progress.

It’s no secret, however, that performance reviews can be difficult to implement when you’ve got no time and no HR processes in place.

At Charlie, we’ve long automated the process with our performance review software – we set our reviews in no time, and let the process run itself. Our team and managers fill in their part of the reviews, and they’re automatically chased when they don’t.

performance reviews charliehr what is L&D

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All in all, performance reviews are a great way to make sure you regularly check in with your team members – they also allow you to understand if they’re making good use of their budgets and figure out ways of doing it together.

It's also a good idea for you to keep on implementing continuous performance management at your business. Read on to find out more.

Put together Performance Development Plans

Performance development plans come right at the same time as your performance reviews.

But what are they, exactly?

At Charlie, performance development plans give structure to what your team member wants to accomplish. They work as a “north star” to link performance, growth and company goals.

When “plans” can often be left on the side when they’re not very concrete, our performance development plans include a lot of items to make sure this doesn’t happen. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Set a concrete development goal – for example, this can be “To be promoted to Marketing Manager in a year” when you’re a senior marketing executive
  • Get a concrete timeframe – timeframes will be essential to keep people accountable
  • Focus on one or several areas to execute your plan – for example, “increase organic traffic by 50% by the end of the year” – what are the opportunities day-to-day to accomplish this, are there any habits you need to form?
  • Find out ways to use the L&D budget for this – this is a great opportunity to recognise how valuable L&D will be to achieve that goal if there are any skill gaps keeping the person from achieving their goal

Differentiate yourself from other companies on the market

At Charlie, we have a strong sense of our brand as an employer – that’s why we want to make sure we stand out from the competition.

A good way to retain your team members is to ensure you have benefits that they can’t find anywhere else.

Although an L&D budget is not the only way to go about this, it sure helps as this will show your future and existing team members that you are committed to their growth and their career opportunities.

Ultimately, I’ve learnt that people who join startups really have a knack for the grind – they’ll usually enjoy having the freedom of booking courses that have meaning for their career development instead of being forced onto training courses they don’t need or want.

How to put together a successful L&D strategy without an adequate budget?

One thing I mentioned in passing is budget – it’s not always easy to have it when you’re starting out.

That doesn’t mean, however, that L&D should become something that you don’t care about – L&D will benefit you in the long run, as this means you’ll get employees who are much more qualified than when they started with you.

So how do you proceed when you don’t have a big budget for L&D?

At Charlie, we’ve explored a lot of options over the years, and I thought that maybe getting an overview of what they are would be helpful for you and your business:

  • Provide an online learning platform – there are many on the market that give you the opportunity to pay a fixed fee with plenty of options for your team members to learn more about the area they’re interested in. This can be cost-efficient if you’re not able to invest too much for now.
  • Pay for ad-hoc training – make decisions on a case-by-case basis. This can be a good way to not have a set budget (not everyone will use it after all) and instead, give your team the go-to when they really want to develop in a specific area.
  • Organise mentorship and coaching in-house – let’s say, for example, that you’ve got a developer with ten years of experience and one that’s just starting out. Pairing them on a weekly basis for an hour or two will be a great way for the junior dev to learn and for the senior dev to improve on their managerial skills.

At Charlie, we’ve also got three exclusive ways of making sure our team members have enough time to dedicate to their L&D.

This doesn’t cost us any money, and shouldn’t impact the team’s productivity, but is a great way to make sure everyone gives time to their own projects and learning.

Here’s how we do it:

  • A monthly exploration day that gives everyone the chance to work on their own project
  • 2 hours per week to dedicate to their learning and development (whenever they want to use them)
  • A slot for Lunch and Learn every month where the whole company can learn something new from each function

Hopefully, this guide has helped you understand a bit more about what L&D means for us at Charlie and how you can implement it for your own small business.

If you want to find out more about what performance review is, maybe have a look at our resources:

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