How do I establish a training and development programme in my property business?

Posted on: July 21, 2007

This is one of the human resources topics I plan to tackle in the new book which will be published by EG in 2008. Here’s an early draft:

With staff taking up to 50% of a property business’s costs and with recruitment being such an expensive activity, it is important that your firm has a planned and structured approach to training and development. Training and development is an area that is considered carefully by those about to join your firm, it will be a major source of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction if it’s wrong!) with your existing staff and a vital tool in helping your firm grow the skills to serve clients and support the firm in the future.

A starting point is to do an analysis of the skill areas where there is the most need – i.e. those that are holding the firm (and the person) back. This enables training to be applied in a targeted way rather than like a sheep-dip. It is important to recognise that different people learn in different ways – so an effective learning route for some might be totally inadequate for others. A simple way of thinking about this is the learning styles model – and it is relatively easy to assess which of the various styles is dominant in each individual. The following model was developed by Peter Honey who explained that the learning cycle (how people learn from experience) comprised a number of stages: do, review, conclude and plan:

Activists

These people are “doers” and learn best from the something which happens to them (passive) or an experience which they deliberately seek out (active). Training for these people needs to allow them to “have a go” at something, get involved in short activities such as role plays, where they are thrown in at the deep end and where there is a lot of excitement and a range of changing things to tackle, usually involving people.

Reflectors

These “reviewers” take a non-judgemental look lack at what happened in the learning experience. They learn best when they can stand back from events and listen and observe, where they can carry out research or analysis, where they can decide in their own time and have a chance to think before acting and where there is an opportunity to review what they have learned.

Theorists

These people draw conclusions from the thoughts and notes made at the review stage, to identify lessons learned. Theorists will learn best when they are intellectually stretched, where they can question assumptions or logic, where the situation has a structure and a clear purpose, where they can deal with logical, rational arguments with time to explore them and where they are offered interesting concepts although they might not be immediately relevant.

Pragmatists

“Planners” will plan and test the lessons learned from the conclusions so that they can be related and applied to similar situations in the future. They will learn best when the techniques have obvious practical benefits, where they can implement what you have learned immediately, where they can try out and practise techniques and where they see an obvious link between the subject matter and a real problem or opportunity.

Whilst many firms still focus on training which is classroom based (often provided by an external provider at an outside venue) or delivered by senior members of the firm there are many other ways to ensure skills remain sharp. As you will have gathered from above, “lecturing” people will not be the most effective style of learning for many people. A study by Ebbinghaus found that 90% of what was learned in a class was forgotten within 30 days and 60% forgotten after one hour! So it is best to find training methods which gain greater involvement from those who are learning.

Developments in on-line training (e-learning) mean that standard programmes can be delivered to large numbers of people at different locations easily and cheaply. There are also web seminars where you can use PCs and telephones to enable people at disparate locations to hear what a speaker in a central location has to say while watching Powerpoint slides and other visual materials on their PC. In many firms, much training is done “on the job” with people providing specific help to individuals – this can be made much more effective if standard processes and explanations are documented and made available on the firm’s intranet.

Some firms find that quality accreditation will enable them to develop and run training programmes in a structured way that is focused on the needs of the business and incorporate “best practice”. A good example of this is Investors in People which requires every member of the firm to have a training and development plan that links their role to the firm’s overall business objectives.

Many firms appoint particular members of the secretarial and support teams, and particular members of the professional teams to act as training co-ordinators which helps spread the load and ensures that the firm remains aware of emerging training needs.

Training needs analysis might be undertaken at the outset in order to assess the views of all members of staff regarding their roles. This can be done through a questionnaire but is probably best done by having representative groups of staff gathered together for a short while for an informal discussion.

There are various elements of a training programme in a property firm that require attention:

Induction training

You should have agreed standard induction programmes for all new staff when they join. Obviously, these programmes need to be tailored to the particular types of new joiners. So the induction programme for new graduates will be substantially different from that of new secretaries. However, the core material in all induction programmes will cover:

    • About the firm – its history, values, organisation, work, services and clients
    • Technology – standard and specific systems for office support, technical work, billing etc
    • Procedures and policies – advise on observing the relevant quality standards, health and safety procedures, environmental policies and so on

Many induction programmes go beyond this and include things such as a tour of the offices, introductions to key staff, presentations from all departments to ensure that every new joiner is aware of the key personnel and major services and clients in each department.

Remember that if you cram all the induction training into a new joiner’s first few days they are likely to be overwhelmed so it may be more sensible to have a series of short (e.g. half day) sessions spread over the first few weeks. Similarly, it may be sensible to schedule in follow up sessions to check that new joiners have all the information they need and to determine how the induction process can be improved.

Technology training

Whilst every member of your firm will be using technology, their levels of competence may vary significantly. It might be worth undertaking a technology skills audit of all professional and support staff to ensure that everyone is working as efficiently as possible. Some firms offer a regular programme of technology training sessions (sometimes across lunchtimes) to ensure that people stay up to date with both standard systems and those specific to your firm and their practice area. If there is sufficient need at your firm you may find it more efficient to invest in e-learning solutions so that staff can learn at their desks and at a pace that suits them. Older and more senior members of the firm may benefit from desk-side training where a member of the IT team spends a short while helping them get to grips with new systems in a modular fashion and perhaps targeting those areas that are of most value.

Many firms fail to realise the efficiency gains of investment in new technology systems because they fail to provide sufficient cash and time to the training programme. When new systems are installed, there will need to be a major programme of training (and extra support) before the new system is installed and as the firm transitions to the new system. These extensive training programmes (and the necessary documentation and/or help posted onto your intranet) should be part of the overall project plan and your suppliers should be involved in the training programme.

Professional/technical training

New graduates will require a detailed training programme of both externally sourced and internally provided training to help them prepare for their professional examinations. Qualified staff will need support in meeting the requirements of their professional bodies Continuing Professional Education (CPE). Other members of your firm may also belong to professional bodies that require ongoing CPE.

Whilst most firms look to their staff to maintain their own CPD records, they will often provide some support with selecting the appropriate courses. Where there are major changes in professional practice, it may be necessary to arrange for large numbers of staff to be trained in new processes or standards.

Compliance training

Usually, compliance training is tackled as part of the induction process but sometimes – for example when the recent Money Laundering regulations were introduced – you may need to ensure that all professional staff are trained in new procedures. Your compliance officer should be aware of what training requirements are and there are often cost effective on-line training programmes available. If your firm has a quality programme, you will need to provide training in this on a regular basis.

“Soft” skills training

Helping people to become more effective in their soft skills is becoming increasingly important. The types of skills are hugely varied but common requirements here might be: communication, interviewing, supervising staff, presentations, networking, business development, dealing with the media, dealing with difficult clients and negotiation. Often, you will need to obtain external advisers to provide training in these subjects and you will often need to tailor the material to address the particular challenges and situations most commonly met in your firm.

These types of programmes can be delivered on-line but with soft skills training it is particularly important to allow face-to-face contact for questions, for individual issues to be tackled and to allow staff to “practice” their new skills in role plays in a safe environment.

Management development

As markets change and firms grow larger there is an increasing need for structured management development programmes. The senior people running firms are unlikely to have had any formal training early in their career and have managed to grow the business – while it was small – relying on common sense, commercial nous and a keen eye for the numbers.

But often, firms will reach a plateau where nothing they seem to do helps them grow any further. Or they hit a number of crisis – such as the inability to get the different types of clients that they want, or to make new offices and teams work, or finding that senior staff continue to leave just before they are invited to join the partnership or that the practice can no longer do the work it has always done and still make a profit. And it is not just those who are managing the whole firm who find they lack the necessary management skills – people managing offices or even quite small teams can find that they are inadequately equipped to deal with the management tasks that are beyond their technical professional skills.

There are many ways to tackle management development. There is, of course, the quick fix approaches. This means sending off key people for a few days on an external course. Trouble is, if the training is general and not tailored to the special needs of a partnership or the property sector then it is unlikely to be accepted by your partners. Alternatively, you can hire a management consultant to tackle the specific issue and hope that some of his or her skills are magically absorbed into your people. Well, that is a possibility but some consultants are more concerned with keeping their clients in the dark so that they are guaranteed their next assignment.

You might encourage your entire management team to go through a structured learning programme which tackles the main elements of management – strategic analysis, financial management, human resources management, knowledge and information management, technology and marketing – over a series of months. Whilst it may seem an expensive route (in both cash and time) think about the cost of continuing to run your practice in an unprofessional way! Reading a book like this is also an extremely good starting point! And coaching (see below) is a particularly effective method of helping people to take responsibility for learning and development throughout critical times in their careers (e.g. after a promotion, as they take control of a team or on admission to partnership) or to help fast-track individuals through a range of new learning challenges.

Training aims to help people learn new knowledge, develop new skills and subsequently work in a different way. This means that training is unlikely to have an immediate impact as it will take time for people to recognise that they need to change, accept the desired changes and build up the confidence to attempt to use and practice their new skills. This process is conveyed with the following diagram. What it means is that you must be patient with people when you require them to learn and do things a different way:

competance-curve

Whatever training and development programme you have at your firm, it is important that you have some way of assessing the effectiveness. After all, training is a costly business – there is the actual cost of the training and the significant amount of the time that your people spend in training. Of course, after each learning activity you can gain immediate feedback through a simple satisfaction form or, even better, a few weeks after the training you can ask the learners what they recall from the training and what they have done since to implement the new ideas and what results they have achieved.

 

I do not restrict access to the FAQs but I politely request that you let me know by email and acknowledge the source (www.kimtasso.com) if you wish to use the material anywhere.

As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.

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