As most readers who are in small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) can attest, there’s never enough time in the day or money in the bank to tackle every challenge your business might be facing.

One of the critical challenges facing SMBs is training—namely, how can you put in place a training program that is current, complete, and effective while at the same time keeping it affordable?

If you’ve found staff training and development a difficult beast to tame, you’re not alone. Bersin by Deloitte reports that while virtually every company wants to improve their capabilities in people management, a scant 14 percent can actually say they’ve made real progress.

Part of the reason so many businesses are spinning their wheels is indecision and paralysis on the part of business owners. With so many options for training programs and platforms available, wading through all of the noise to find a system that works well for your business is a daunting task.

On thing’s for sure, however…

Not training is not an option

Intimidating as the decision on how to train employees might be, failure to find an answer comes with enormous risks and tangible drawbacks:

  • Ambiguous and unclear expectations that frustrate your team members
  • A lack of process and documentation that creates inconsistent quality in the products and services delivered while creating more work for experienced team members
  • Poor onboarding of staff means that it will take much longer for them to become productive

And maybe worst of all is the loss of staff members who have become frustrated with the lack of clear process. The cost to replace and re-train an employee is as high as 20 – 213 percent of that employee’s salary. In a resource-limited small business where every penny counts, that’s a HUGE chunk of change to be pouring down the drain.

You may also be missing out on the chance to acquire top talent and more qualified candidates. Prospective employees are attracted to organizations with strong training programs. With proper training, prospective staff get a greater sense of security in the fact that there are defined processes and rules to play by, and steps they can follow to succeed on the job.

Even knowing this is not enough

Often, bottlenecks in the development and delivery of training can bring progress to a crashing halt.

In most small businesses, training employees becomes the sole responsibility of one department (those poor HR people), or even worse, just one person.

This creates a natural bottleneck where there’s a constant struggle to keep up; developing training programs becomes a longwinded process, and by the time something is created, it may already be outdated or require improvement.

There’s also an inherent knowledge gap—can one department really know enough about all the others to deliver training that’s effective on the job?

This bottleneck is part of the reason the HR world is now buzzing with recommendations for businesses to move away from individual training solutions and towards a “learning and performance ecosystem” comprised of multifaceted learning and performance options that enhance the environments in which we work and learn.”

Which is all well and good—but where do you even begin?

If you’re not sure where to start, there’s one thing you need to know

Whether you’ve set it up formally or not, your business already has a learning ecosystem.

No matter how smooth or broken your existing process, on-the-job learning is already happening. You just may not be able to see it from where you’re sitting.

Your staff are actively seeking out answers—whether that’s by asking other members of the team or searching for the missing information required online. In a recent survey conducted by Towards Maturity, 70 percent of staff said they sought out the answers they needed on Google, while 88 percent said they learned by collaborating with other colleagues.

There’s power in these casual and unprompted interactions; something you can channel into a more formalized training program. There’s no need to start from scratch, you just need to harness the power of the collaborative learning that’s already going on.

Here’s how to get this going.

1. Start by recognizing who your subject matter experts are

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are your go-to people that other staff members are turning to when they need advice on a process or task. They’re the ones with the experience and information locked up in their heads, far away from a documented process—and now, it’s time to bring that information out and capture it for everyone else to use.

In a smaller organization, these people can be fairly easy to recognize, but here’s a little help finding them if you need it.

  1. Speak to managers in every department and ask who they believe might qualify (including themselves).
  2. Often, subject matter experts are those who have often come forward with useful suggestions (especially those you’ve implemented) and solutions to issues that have been raised, or that they’ve encountered on their own.
  3. Don’t assume that a manager is your subject matter expert just by virtue of their role. Often, managers sit too high up the ladder to see into the weeds, where the real process and progress is happening. It’s not uncommon for assistants and coordinators to have deeper insights into how the work actually gets done.
  4. If all else fails, look to your highest performers—for example, those on your sales team. These are people who have found ways to win in your business, and with the right incentives (and the diffusion of any idea that business is a competition), you can get them on board to share the approach they’ve developed with the rest of the team.

2. Get those subject matter experts to collaborate on training

Enter this phase having an attitude of you, “don’t know what you don’t know.”

You need discussions surrounding knowledge gaps you’ve identified, guidelines you’ve put in place for the training, and the systems for delivery you’ll use to capture all of this information. You need to discuss formatting (videos, quizzes, questionnaires, and more are options available).

But keep it open-ended. You will learn things in discussions just by listening to your staff, uncover previously hidden problems, and identify opportunities you would have otherwise missed.

Then, come together and create.

3. Share it with everyone who needs it, get feedback, and refine

Once you and your subject matter experts have collaborated on the training, take it to the masses and test it out. You want to send as polished a product as you can from the beginning, but realize that revisions and improvements are not only inevitable—they’ll make everything better long-term.

Distributing your training doesn’t need to be onerous; remember that you have access to two of the most world-changing technologies without a whole lot of effort: the Internet and mobile devices. These can serve as your ever-ready access point for staff, and empower them to take on just-in-time training as they need it.

4. Encourage new subject matter experts to come forward, and keep stoking the fire

Your first wave of training is only the beginning—you need a way to sustain, improve, and continue it. People like to be recognized for their knowledge and contributions; look for ways to publically recognize this and facilitate sharing. Learning must become a cultural effort; you must work to let staff know that their contributions are having a very real impact on the way business is done. When they can feel this sense of meaning and control, it’s much easier to get them to want to contribute into building a better business.

Just start moving!

With the myriad of options available, it’s easy to get stuck in neutral while thinking about training. As I’ve outlined here, training is already happening—you just need to give it structure and a voice.

Once you’ve recognized this, democratizing training becomes much easier, and the mechanisms you choose for collecting, distributing, and organizing the training may be the only decisions left to make.

The bigger thing is that you’ve begun moving toward a better learning ecosystem; one that will help you retain staff, improve efficiency, and build a stronger culture of learning in the process.