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How do you approach learning as a small businesses? Contrary to popular belief, you don't need an expensive technology system, or hours of classroom lectures to guide employees toward success. Excellent teachers and coaches are right there in your organization.

Using internal resources for learning is a win-win for both those who learn and those who teach. The employees who know the intricacies of the business are given a voice—and recognized as experts—and their peers learn new skills.

Learning promotes dialogue, which helps the organization frame what it could be, and what lies between. Here's how to define and launch a learning program aimed at small business success.

1) Focus on Individuals

A mistake that both large and small organizations make with learning is trying to make everyone an expert on everything. So they create copious policies, nauseating training classes and take up time that could be spent doing real work.

But learning isn't “one-size-fits-all"—everyone comes to the table with different levels of knowledge and experience. Instead of creating blanket classes for everyone, managers can step in as teachers by having regular conversations about what each employee needs in terms of knowledge and resources, and be creative about finding resources. Engage those who exhibit expertise in a particular behaviors as coaches for others.

2) Make Sure the Lesson Plan Is Clear

There are three parts to learning, and each is important. First, decide what you want the end result to look like…. in detail. Then create a method for the learning to occur, and finally, stop along the way to see if the results are being delivered and tweak, if necessary.

If customer service is your hot button for a few employees, determine what behaviors will achieve the level of service you want and integrate the lessons into your daily work. For example, dedicate 10 minutes on every meeting agenda to discuss what good customer service. Be practical and solicit questions. Set targets, and get everyone involved in evaluating progress. Learn from the dialogue, and you not only develop individuals, but you help the organization learn.

If your customer service expectation is to have customers feel as if their needs are being met, define that carefully. Should employees do everything a customer wants? Probably not. Where is the line, and how do they recognize it? If they can't deliver, how do they inform the customer? That's your learning plan, and it's a simple matter of designing a few role play situations for that 10-minute meeting agenda item.

3) Define How to Evaluate Progress

Ideally, any work done in an organization should lead to better business results. But as long as you define the desired results, they should provide a yardstick against which to measure progress.

If you are working on meeting customer needs appropriately, you can use comment cards to see if the learning program is making the difference you want. If not, don't throw the program out; figure out why it isn't delivering. Is your learning program teaching employees to do something they aren't able to do now? For example, lets say the employee directly in front of the customer tries to accommodate the request, but is not supported by another part of the organization. That is an issue that must be resolved before learning can be effective, but it isn't an issue with the learning: Changing behavior works only when the system supports the change.

Learning doesn't have to be complicated. But it does have to be intentional. By spending the up-front time describing what you want to see as the results, focusing only on a few changes at a time, and by engaging the experts within your organization, you can devise a very powerful learning and development program.

Photo: Twenty20