By Mike Wright

Business Acumen at SHRM

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June 28, 2010 | Categories: Articles & Insights

We're back from San Diego. It was our first time attending the annual SHRM conference, which is the biggest human resource conference in the world. Exhibitors ranged from the expected, like Yahoo Hot Jobs! and ADP, to the unexpected like the guys that make frozen bunt cakes. Bunt cakes - HR? Who knew? Along with the expected and unexpected, there was us. We learned a few things from attending. One thing in particular we learned is that a company has to reach a certain point to implement business skills training in their company.

Everyone Has an HR Person…

As small company after small company approached our booth, it hit us that just about every company has an HR person… but not every company has someone over training. For example, a 16 employee widget maker would likely have someone over HR, but training… not likely. With that said, the person over HR would likely also be over training, but they would probably focus on HR topics like safety, harassment, etc. (i.e. Train our employees on topics that will prevent us from getting sued.).

But when it comes to employee development or skills training, the small company's we talked to at SHRM were very interested - but not interested enough to make it a priority. Meaning business acumen training was appealing and needed badly, but not as bad as anti-sueing training, or recruiting efforts, or benefits packages, the list of HR responsibilities and priorities goes on and on. And I don't fault them, if our company makes widgets and I have to choose between an employee with business acumen and an employee who's limbs are chewed off by my equipment… well the choice becomes pretty clear.

And yet this logic begs answers. For instance, when does a company all of a sudden decide to implement employee training that teaches leadership and business skills? Is it a matter of budget or is it based on a certain number of employees? I'll admit right now that I don't have the answers to these questions, but my guess is that there's some point in time that budget and number of employees converge. When this convergence happens someone within the organization can make a compelling argument for skills based training pretty easily, "Look, we have the budget and these employees need to be trained."

That's not to say that someone couldn't make a compelling argument for training and squeak out a few dollars from a tight budget, but it's not done very easily. Since there's not a budget for it they'll look for ways to provide the training with no budget and that will likely land right back on your lap. Let's say you make a compelling argument for negotiation training for your team and there's no budget for such training. You'd better be prepared for someone to ask, "Is this something you could teach your team?" Now be careful how you answer, if you say no then you could look incompetent. And if you say yes, you could end up working overtime trying to balance your real job with your new assignment that's really a pet project. Faced with the inevitable questions, you'll have to be prepared upfront why the training is important and potentially more important than other budgeted items. Such an argument will likely pull you away from your other responsibilities, take a tremendous amount of time and effort, and since there's no budget for it, your proposal may get flatly rejected despite your effort. So you have to ask yourself if it's worth it? You could easily argue that training is a) not in your job description and b) requires a ton effort to make the right sales pitch. Therefore it's not worth pursuing.

Likewise, for a small group of employees the argument for skills training is probably a tough sell because it's easy to pick out who's lacking a particular skill and assign a manager to help the employee improve performance. For example, if I have four customer service agents and I know that Betty is not as customer focused as her co-workers I could go to the boss and make a compelling argument for customer service training. But wouldn't it be smarter to assign your best customer service agent to mentor Betty, or since it's just Betty why don't you, her manager, help her out? A small number of employees makes improving performance relatively easy. So would you really stick your neck out to push training for a small team?

But, if the budget is there and there's more than a handful of employees that would benefit from the training, then pushing training is likely an easy move to make. So the million dollar question… When does budget and employee count converge?