Employment Today – June 2002 issue      back to articles menu

“Public Courses – the small business solution?

I won’t labour you with ‘Best Practice’ in terms of the maximisation of training interventions - for those that don’t know it, I apologise – but how does ‘Best Practice’ occur in small businesses where there is no ‘Training Manager’ on site? Simple answer – in 99% of cases, it doesn’t. While I know most of you are not in ‘small businesses’, nevertheless in this article I’m addressing my professional colleagues to see what improvements can be suggested, and offer a couple of my own for comment

The debacle over the appointment (and then sacking), of the CEO of Maori TV high-lighted several issues, but for the purposes of this article one issue sticks out: There are no regulations governing who may set themselves up in business as Recruitment consultants. Anyone can do it. Well, whether you’ve realised it or not, the same applies to Training companies. Anyone can set himself or herself up as a Training Services provider. It is left totally and completely up to the marketplace to determine whether or not a Provider has merit. Unless the Provider elects to become NZQA Registered (only required if you want to offer qualifications on the National Qualifications Framework), there is no regulatory body that ‘vets’ those setting up in business and offering their services to the market.

What you’re about to read is simply my opinion, that’s all, it’s not based on academic research, only anecdotal experience spread over many years, and I’m probably saying things that others will find difficult to accept or, in some cases, admit to. In terms of the market for Training services, larger client organisations are ‘buffered’ to an extent in that they are more likely to use in-house training workshops (where the external Provider is selected by a Training Manager), or have full HR Departments where the people involved have a pretty good idea of which Providers are ‘kosher’, and experienced enough to determine whether a new Provider has any integrity. If they get it wrong, the damage is less because of their size, and that Provider simply does not get asked back.

Small businesses on the other hand are largely (if not wholly) dependent on public workshop Providers for any training they are fortunate enough to be able to afford, or far-sighted enough to budget for. A public course Provider operating in such a ‘dependency’ context is not necessarily driven to provide Quality. Where else can the Customer go? Competition should have an impact on Quality but in the public course market it doesn’t seem to drive quality at all – it just drives pricing – since Word of Mouth is not a significant driver in market awareness, among the small business group.

Does the small-business Customer know how to maximise their investment? Typically not. In 12 years of facilitating public training workshops it has been a rare joy when an individual participant has said (in their introduction) “I know what this workshop is all about, my manager and I discussed the content of it, we both know what I want to get out of it and the changes that should occur as a result. We’ve also checked out the trainer.” A rare joy indeed.

Knowing that in writing this article I am (or should be!) preaching to the converted, means that I can drop out whole paragraphs of explanation, come right to the point and get you to simply agree that while Public Workshops can often be the best answer where only one person (or a small number of people) is in need of training, they are more often a band-aid answer, at best a crude and inaccurate ‘shotgun’ method of addressing needs, and in some cases, an outright waste of money. However, the customer demand is there, and therefore it will be met by anyone with a nose for the commercial opportunity with some marketing clout who can throw a course together. All you have to do after that is locate a wind-up human who can talk at people, put together a 300-slide PowerPoint presentation, find a cheap venue and away you go. It’s not rocket science, and there’s little or no accountability since the market you’re addressing doesn’t generally know what quality Training is in the first place, wouldn’t know how to compare it, and typically doesn’t complain.

Most days in my PO Box there is at least one, usually more, glossy brochures advertising some new workshop or seminar, often from an overseas base operating through an 0800 number. Some of them do tell you who the trainer is (with some attempt at integrity), most don’t. It’s a simple marketing exercise, chuck enough brochures out and you’ll get a .02% enquiry return, that’ll give you ‘x’ bums on seats, once you have enough bums to pass the trigger point of break-even, every extra bum is profit less the cost of the meal and the workbook. “OK, we’ve passed the trigger point – which wind-up trainer are we gonna use for that day? – and make it a cheap one ‘cos the numbers aren’t great…” What allows these Organisations to survive and operate? The answer is simple. There is absolutely no regulatory control. None. Zip. Nada. Zero.

Therefore the drivers are purely commercial ones, with a tendency to offer only the tried and true (and boring and stagnant?) or at the other extreme to pick up on the latest groovy flavour-of-the-month package from overseas and ride the gravy train as long as it lasts, instead of doing some research on what the Kiwi enterprise really needs and then investing in programme development. If they did that, they could produce pragmatic programmes that contain less dogma and more practical skills and knowledges that might create actual change.

I once asked a trainer (actually a bloody good trainer) why she stuck with one particularly low-paying Organisation and she replied “I’m just on my own you know – I don’t know how to get business in – I’m kinda dependent on these people, without them I probably wouldn’t survive”. Isn’t that sad? Her workshop participants have no idea how lucky they are.

Consider this: An experienced Trainer with a positive reputation, good referees and a good network should be able to charge between $1500-$2000 for a one-day workshop on a direct-to-client basis, yet Trainers who contract to some of our public course providers are being paid $600 per workshop, some even less. I’m sure you can figure out what that driver produces - once again, it’s not rocket science.

Part of the difficulty with public courses is that the cost of marketing the courses is so high. You can’t just produce an annual Directory, duplicate it on a website, mail the hard copy to your intended audience, and sit back expectantly waiting for the phone to ring. Well, you can do that, it’ll cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the phone still won’t ring. You can’t open a magazine without a confetti of flyers advertising seminars, conferences and workshops slithering all over your desk. Your PO Box is crammed with them. Your email in-box is littered with them. Am I guilty? Hell yes. I advertise courses for HRINZ (the Auckland Branch Professional Development series) via email -only to our members, mind you-, and of course we at STA have our own small range of public courses that we run in Auckland Wellington & Christchurch.

Along with others, I am concerned that the battle to provide the market with quality training will be lost, the winner instead being decided by the organisation that has the best, and longest, Direct Marketing legs, and the deepest pockets. The digger you deep to advertise, the less you can pay your trainers. Can you see where this is going?

However, there is yet another, newer, more insidious factor to consider:

No Provider can compete with ‘Free’, no matter how good their cost control is, and here’s another problem, with the entry into the market of free ‘training programmes’ provided by a government sponsored and funded body. Aimed squarely at small businesses, and offering 63 free ‘programmes’ on a National basis, it is no surprise that existing Providers in that market are struggling or, as is the case in Wellington, some have more or less withdrawn completely. Unfortunately, the small-business market has no idea of the difference between:

: An interactive one-day workshop with perhaps 18 people in it, including a mixture of presentation, debate, team exercises and simulation, facilitated by a qualified Adult Trainer, where the objective is actual behaviour change, and:

: A ‘canned’ stand-up-and-spout data-show presentation of perhaps a couple of hours duration presented by a ‘subject matter expert’ and up to 100 people sitting and listening.

Therefore they see the free stuff as having the same value, can’t differentiate, and make their choice accordingly. In ignorance, I’m sure you would too. Are they getting information? Yes. What will they do with that information? Even if they remember it, even if they understand it, they will vary in their ability to apply it. Are they getting training? Clearly not.

When I look at a list of names of fellow trainers in New Zealand, most of whom are NZATD/HRINZ members, I find I know, or know of, many of them. When I scanned the providers named on the website of this Government-sponsored organisation, I couldn’t find even one Provider that I’d heard of before.


Let me put my hard-hat on first. And my flak jacket. Right, I’m ready…

  1. All training provider organisations should be Registered with some form of regulatory body, and two spring to mind – the New Zealand Association of Training and Development (NZATD) or perhaps NZQA. Please note that in NZQA’s case I am talking simply Registration, not Accreditation, since unless you intend providing Unit Standards-based training, the overhead and administration costs of maintaining Accreditation are prohibitive. Registration means your Organisation is ‘kosher’, you have a Quality Management System, your finances are soundly managed and externally audited, and every year your organisation is subject to Review.

  2. All trainers should be Certificated and not allowed to practice unless they are, Certification being awarded to those who can show both academic and experiential qualifications in Adult Learning. Someone with the academic qualifications but lacking the experiential, (or vice-versa) would operate under the ‘cover’ of a Certificated person who takes responsibility for the standard of that persons training provision, and their self-development towards Certification.

If you tie the two together, Organisations would be required to use only Certificated trainers (and those gaining experiential or academic qualifications). A Certificated trainer could set up her/his own business but would need it to be Registered.

And then of course we would need to educate the market place as to the difference between a training workshop as one thing, and a ‘seminar’ or ‘presentation’ as being something entirely different with a different set of benefits.

In closing, and while we’re on the subject of ‘Seminars’, there is one other thing I’ve never really understood that someone might like to help me out on. Every so often I get a call from one or other of the Conference organisers, inviting me to speak at their up-coming seminar. When I ask what the fee offered is, I get “Oh, we don’t pay a fee. You do it for the exposure”. The paradox I grapple with, is that if I need the exposure, should I be the one speaking? That’s why I’ve always politely declined, in honour of all those attendees paying thousands of dollars to be there and who clearly deserve the best, and now that I’ve brought this to your attention I’m confident those of you with integrity will do the same in future. I’m sure my colleagues out there will have their own input, and I invite comments through our illustrious Editor.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2002 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu