Blog post

How the pandemic has helped us modernise our approach to working with and training small businesses

The sudden onset of the global pandemic disrupted businesses worldwide. For many, almost every aspect of their business changed – having to create new business models, processes and roles. It brought workplace training and the skills agenda to the front of every leader's priorities – especially digital business and their own leadership skills.

4 February 2022

Driving innovation

One of the positive things Covid has done is to drive innovation to the learning and development environment. There is some irony in that the educational and training sector, which everyone suddenly needed to support their unplanned training needs, was one of those most significantly impacted by the Covid restrictions. Many organisations such as ourselves had to change overnight the way we provided training and business support services.

Traditionally, we’ve delivered training and support to small businesses face to face, with a primarily local market. It’s what we’ve always done, focusing on the added benefits of peer learning and networking that we know enhances the learning experience.

While the university has a robust online delivery platform for our online degree programmes, we recognised that we needed a simpler, more agile and lower-cost solution to meet the needs and capabilities of our small-business clients that could provide a similar experience to what we could deliver face to face.

We also realised very quickly that our content was suddenly out of date and not relevant with market growth plans being replaced by business survival and pivoting, business processes requiring to be digitised, and the responsibility, staff management and welfare weighing heavily on every business leader’s shoulders.

Thirdly, the pandemic itself created new demand streams and requests for support as those who lost their jobs or had jobs that were at risk wanted immediate solutions to help them refresh skills. As well as this, these employees who were furloughed took the opportunity to refresh and develop skills that could benefit the business when they returned.

Within two weeks, we were back up and running with refreshed materials and a tech solution that by no means was robust but allowed us to deliver the essential elements that were important to our learners, namely practical and relevant content with the opportunity to discuss learning and share experiences in a live and interactive environment with their tutors and peers.

The format was also different. No longer did people want to spend all day in front of a screen. A one day workshop was, for example, broken down into a live webinar at the start of the week, some self-paced exercises to help apply the learning and a seminar at the end of the week to allow for discussion and reflection.

How did we achieve so much in such a short time?

Our approach to address the challenges we faced was, in hindsight, to adopt many of the traits of our small business clients.

Although part of a much larger organisation, we are unique in what we do. Therefore, the team has learned out of necessity to develop a “we’ll find a way” entrepreneurial approach and culture. We’ve always worked together to develop ideas, not been afraid to pilot early-stage concepts and have open and collaborative relationships across the University and our most trusted clients in order to seek advice and act as sounding boards.

Moving to virtual tested both our own and our clients' digital capabilities but moving quickly was absolutely the right approach. We all learned together and, rather than incur cost and time at the start on developing more robust solutions, by trialling and testing in a live environment, we were able to refine our future needs using real-time data and feedback.

Ironically, our keep-it-simple approach has paid off. The rapid development of off-the-shelf platforms such as MS Teams and Zoom has provided us with a long-term user-friendly and inclusive solution.

Utilising off-the-shelf digital tools has also allowed us to continue to adapt our materials and delivery in response to the ever-changing challenges faced by businesses and leaders. We are able to continuously revise our content to ensure it meets the needs of the audience every time we run a course or event.

While we’ve always sought feedback and collaborated with clients on programme design, we had to take a fresh approach with our small business programmes during the pandemic as every new government announcement caused challenges and a change in approach for many. And our training and support programmes had to reflect this to ensure they remained useful and relevant. Therefore, we have engaged in an almost continuous dialogue with our closest clients.

We have tried things that haven’t worked. However, we’ve learned from the process. Adapting to a new world means new approaches and behaviours on both sides. However, we’ve always listened to our clients and taken feedback on board. We’ve all learned together from the process we’ve gone through. Alongside sharing our new-found digital skills, we’ve been very open about our own experiences of home working and managing remote teams.

This has had unexpected benefits as our small business clients now better understand us and see us as “one of them” rather than an public sector institution that comes from a different world. Now, we are better at communicating in the same language, which has helped us strengthen our relationships and have more open dialogue. This has allowed us to make better-informed decisions and be less risk averse in our own future planning.

Beyond the tactical, we are looking to the future. It is recognised that, with their entrepreneurial mind-sets, creativity and resilience, small businesses will make a large contribution to our future economic growth.

We are already working with small businesses to ensure they have the skills and strategic plans in place to deal with whatever the future brings. But we are also working with them on co-designing the future because it is also recognised that the way we work and learn have completely changed and won’t/shouldn’t go back to the way they were before.

The importance of the previously under-valued “enterprise skills” is now recognised in every business with flexibility, an entrepreneurial attitude, agility, resilience and an understanding how to future proof being key.

The way we train managers and employees also needs to reflect these same traits. Business support and skills programmes have to be dynamic and training models need the flexibility to adapt both content and teaching methods quickly in response. Employers and employees have also seen the productivity, cost and accessibility benefits of attending training programmes in a virtual environment.

Purely online does have its disadvantages, with many saying they miss the peer engagement and informal coffee break conversations. We are, therefore, developing new hybrid models of learning using a blend of digital platforms that not only allow live learning but facilitate the community network building interweaved with face-to-face events.

Why did it take a pandemic to put in place what we’d been procrastinating and planning for the last two years?

While we had a culture of innovation embedded already within the team, we are, by nature, perfectionists. Our clients should have a gold-standard experience whether they are a large global corporate or a micro business. The pandemic presented an urgency. In March 2020, doing nothing wasn’t an option. It made us ask our clients what was really important to them so we could prioritise and focus our efforts. It also opened the minds of our clients to what is possible. We’ve seen them become less risk averse and more confident to try new approaches.

In hindsight, our timing couldn’t be more perfect. With our new city-centre Business School opening in 2024, our new business services and enterprise digital platform will enable us to develop a virtual business school alongside the bricks and mortar. This will support the development of a vibrant community of businesses, students and researchers that truly supports diversity and inclusivity and helps us to fulfil both our regional and international commitments.

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