It takes less than a second – the time required to make just one bad decision – for a firm to set about losing a million dollars. And just about any employee can initiate the sorry journey. True: Some firms are large enough to budget for such losses, leaving its leaders feeling gratified when the amount actually incurred is less. But a loss is still a loss and, generally speaking, a source of bitterness when facts reveal that it could have been minimized – if not prevented altogether – had only the firm invested in effective training and education.
Training and education are not synonymous activities. Training comprises responsive behavior ingrained through practice. Thus, when a client representative asks, "Can you redo this and make it less expensive to implement?" the project manager (or whoever else is in charge) automatically responds, "Yes, we can. But realize we will need to perform additional analysis and review, and that will require more time and, of course, an additional fee. And also note that the less costly alternatives will impose more risk, and more risk is something we'll need to be limited from."
Education is different. From a professional-practice viewpoint, it gives personnel the ability to analyze attitudes and situations to identify risks and opportunities, and to recommend the best course of action – internal and external – preferably in conjunction with other, more experienced members of the firm.
Training and education programs – nontechnical professional development (NPD) – should be pursued purposefully based on the needs of the firm and its personnel. Too often, the "one-size-fits-all" programs firms offer are so advanced for some staff they become lost from the get-go, or so basic some staff quickly become bored and disinterested.
Have you within the last year identified the types of training and knowledge that are critical to your firm's success – for example, how to evaluate a proposed project or client; how to discern symptoms of problems ahead; or how to write, edit, and proofread? The issues your staff must contend with – from the CEO on down – comprise a diverse, sizable realm, but fortunately, one that has been extensively explored and charted.
How well do your personnel understand how they should respond to each situation they're likely to encounter given their current responsibilities? That's a key concern and one that can be handled easily through quizzes designed to identify how much individuals know about those things they need to know about. Clearly, education and training is required to help individuals overcome their deficits. Each employee needs a unique NPD plan that considers what each already knows and soon will learn to establish what the next elements of instruction will be. Potential organizational leaders – the rising stars – should have no problem investing the time required to take the plan forward; they are investing in their own future even more so than the firm's. (An individual who regards NPD involvement as an infringement on free time is likely not a potential firm leader.)
Will an effective NPD program be costly? If you have to develop all the training and education programs on your own, yes. That would be a somewhat wasteful endeavor, however, because probably 90 percent or more of what you need has already been created: books, manuals, and guides; seminars, webinars, and present-them-yourself lunch-and-learns; audio programs, video presentations, and computer games; and so much more. These resources allow you to present myriad NPD topics in the form most appropriate to your and your staff's needs.
Implementing a comprehensive NPD program will take commitment by the firm and its personnel, and it will not be foolproof. However, all things considered, it can be far more satisfying for your staff at all levels, and far more profitable than simply budgeting for a loss.
John P. Bachner, is the executive vice president of ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association, a not-for-profit association of geoprofessional firms – firms that provide geotechnical, geologic, environmental, construction materials engineering and testing (CoMET), and related professional services. ASFE develops programs, services, and materials that its members apply to achieve excellence in their business and professional practices. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.