Training for Success: How to Develop and Allow the Growth of Individuals and the Team
Staff training and development is an integral part of the success of any business large or small in any industry. It is particularly important in a professional services business such as a veterinary practice. Blake (2007) defines training as "a formal learning event intended to produce a demonstrable improvement in workplace performance" and stresses that it needs to be formal and that "demonstrable improvement ensures that the training is relevant and the effect measurable".
Veterinarians are in effect selling knowledge and peace of mind to our clients through the authority of our training. The better we are trained and the more knowledge we can pass on to our staff and through them to our clients and customers then the more successful will be our business (Garner 2001, Heagle and Heagle 2006). The need to train our staff is an international one that is valid for all veterinary practices large and small, city and rural. I should point out that we use the term "staff' here to include all the people working in a veterinary practice, including veterinarians.
The concept of knowledge management became almost a cliché in the last decade of the twentieth century (Von Krogh et al 2000) but I still think it reflects an enduring truth. Businesses that value what they know and develop systems to share it within the organisation and with their customers will gain a competitive advantage over those that don't. It may just be the management jargon that is the turn off. It is essential for veterinarians to value what they know so that they can charge appropriately for their services. It is also essential for businesses like ours to develop knowledge sharing processes to improve productivity and maximise the services we can provide to our clients.
Why Should We Train Our Staff?
It seems like an obvious question but there are still practices that invest little time or effort in training their staff, particularly their non-veterinary support staff. There are business owners who fail to see the benefits of a more knowledgeable staff and to be fair it is in some ways a difficult thing to do, particularly in an industry where profitability is relatively low, resources underdeveloped and resistance to change provides a significant inertia. A fully trained workforce also challenges the traditional structure of a veterinary practice that is centered on a veterinarian as the knowledge source rather than a team approach to customer service and animal care. The benefits of staff training accrue at several levels.
At an organisational level the benefits include:
Improved staff retention--staff loss has a very significant financial impact on any business and well trained staff tend to stay with a practice where they can feel appreciated and valued
Improved customer satisfaction outcomes
Standardisation of service and treatment protocols as staff will be taught to perform tasks in the same way
Improved teamwork, better staff relationships and a happier workplace
Higher productivity and profitability
Mark Opperman (2007) says it best: "In most work situations there is a direct cause and effect relationship between lack of training and high employee turnover. When you don't provide team members with proper training, you set them up for failure."
At a personal level for individuals there are benefits as well:
Improved career paths
Better financial rewards
Higher self esteem
Happier and more satisfying lifestyle (Hay 2007)
Our animal patients also benefit from better treatment by educated and well-trained staff with an emphasis on preventative health programs. The owners and carers of these animals are more likely to accept our recommendations when they are made confidently from a firm basis of knowledge. Heagle and Heagle (2006) identify three benefits from training their staff:
Increased client compliance
Ability to effectively leverage support staff--this leaves veterinarians to do what they do best--high quality veterinary science
Client benefits--the entire team can make health care recommendations
We should therefore develop staff training programs not only because it is good practice management but also because it is good for business, our patients, their carers and especially good for the people we work with every day. It should be seen as an investment in the future of the business as well as the individuals that work in the business.
Where Do We Start?
Like most things in practice (or any business really) you start by looking in the mirror! It is pointless to develop a policy about staff training unless you as the leader, owner or manager are committed to that training. Staff training requires a commitment to lifelong learning that can't be faked so learning must become one of your core values that is incorporated in your business and a recognised part of the mission of the practice. It really is a time to "walk the talk".
Once a commitment to learning becomes part of the culture of the practice then a training program can be developed. It is important to start the communication processes early and to start hiring people who want to learn. The culture of lifelong learning must be imbedded in the day to day procedures of the practice. It is also important to understand that different people learn in different ways and that team members should understand their own learning style and those of the other members of the team. This means that learning opportunities can be fashioned to the needs and personalities of individuals. (Stowe 2004) The funding of a training plan needs to be included in the practice budget before training costs start impacting on practice profitability (see next section).
Another part of the plan that needs to be implemented early is to incorporate effective and training oriented team meetings into the weekly operation of the practice. (Garner 2001 and Heagle and Heagle 2006) The time spent on training in house is time well spent. Training opportunities come throughout our days as "teachable moments" but it is important to schedule formal time as well both for the learning opportunities it provides and improved staff communication. It is also important to teach people about communication and help them develop communication skills. This is important when dealing with clients and customers but is also important internally. These necessary skills include reading and using body language, active listening, making eye contact and speaking clearly and plainly.
What Will It Cost?
The cost of training needs to be budgeted for realistically. John Blake (2007) makes the point that we tend not to budget as accurately for training costs and benefits as we might do for other overheads. He says:
"Managers will need to pay increasing scrutiny to training, its costs and returns, in the decade ahead. No longer are trained individuals available for hire: they are all employed! Future productivity advances will be realised through raising the capability of the existing workforce rather than just adding more labour."
The cost of training includes:
Direct expenses--including costs of training, travel, accommodation, facilities and equipment hire
Training equipment and infrastructure
Opportunity costs--time lost to production by staff being in training
The budget and plans for training should also include the acquisition of appropriate texts and support material as well as technology to facilitate learning. It is also important to set aside study time in trainee rosters within normal work hours to assist study and mentoring. It is my personal view that the practice should support any reasonable costs associated with training in particular non veterinary staff.
There are difficulties measuring direct benefits to production and some benefits are intangible but setting and measuring production goals before and after a training event or process can be measured in a particular area such as, say dental procedures.
Career Development Interviews
It may be useful to regard performance evaluation interviews as an opportunity to discuss ways of improving the training of an individual for the future rather than looking backwards to what has passed. The changing of focus of the interview will still allow performance feedback but in the context of how the performance can be helped by training in the future. Discussions with staff will help shape planning for the future. Staff loyalty will be returned with interest if businesses are seen to have the career of their staff as a high priority--even if that means we eventually train our staff to the point where they want to "spread their wings" and move to another business opportunity.
This is the easy part as by and large veterinarians are keen to build on their knowledge and will welcome the chance to learn (and if they don't then you have recruited the wrong person)! There are many opportunities for vets to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge thorough courses, conferences, distance education, workshops, journals and lectures all around the world. It is up to employers (and associates) to plan the training program to match the needs of the practice and interests of the veterinary associate. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that the opportunity is there and it is the responsibility of the employee to attend and gather the information. It is essential then for the knowledge to be shared with others in the practice through a process of debriefing and discussion at staff meetings.
Training Support Staff
This is by far the harder part of the equation. In most parts of the world it is not mandatory for hospital staff to have qualifications and as a result there is an enormous range of levels of knowledge and competence. There are people who have learned on the job and there are people who have tertiary degrees. We must grab every opportunity to train our staff in a formal and informal way--sharing knowledge is by far the best way to build trust and relationships in a practice. Formal training can be either external or internal.
External training includes institutional training at university or training college and distance education offered by these institutions as well as courses and conferences offered by industry professional organisations and companies in the veterinary industry. Staff should be given every help to attend--perhaps even more so than the veterinarians. In Australia there are Government Traineeships that provide financial support to businesses willing to employ and train staff. There is no replacement for formal training for veterinary nurses or animal technicians but it is needs to be augmented by other training and development opportunities. Don't forget local community colleges have excellent courses in a wide range of areas such as computer skills and human resources management. The explosion in distance education and web-based material has also opened up many opportunities.
There are also opportunities in Australia for formal "external" education to be delivered internally through the use of registered training organisations working in the veterinary industry. This form of training offers significant advantages over TAFE based external training for some practices and coupled with government incentives can be very cost effective. It is in some ways harder for the participants (student and practice) as it asks a lot of the students and sets higher standards than external college classes. Students tend to need more support with study time and mentoring and for people new to the rigor of formal study it can be daunting. The benefit for the practice is that training outcomes are much more aligned to practice culture and procedures and students are much more likely to develop strong practical skills.
Internal training includes the more formal supervised process described above but that is the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways of delivering information and training to staff within the practice but it needs to be planned and structured. It starts by setting aside the time to do it through scheduled meetings preferably on a weekly basis. There are many sources of training material:
Staff veterinarians can develop presentations
Trainees can present material they have prepared for study assignments
Veterinary companies are very keen to talk in practices and establishing a good relationship with trade representatives can be very useful--they have a good range of material of high quality to present
Staff who have attended an external event can share the knowledge with others (this should be compulsory)
Veterinary interns have communication tasks as part of their time in practice
In New South Wales it is mandatory for all businesses to have Occupational Health and Safety meetings on a regular basis
Less formal training occurs all the time every day in practice. Heagle and Heagle (2006) regard these as "teachable moments" and they arise all the time. They are particularly potent if a mistake has been made and it can be turned immediately into a positive to be learned from. It is important to create a practice culture accepting of change and willing to try new things so that mistakes are seen as learning experiences rather than something to be feared.
There are fewer training opportunities for reception and management staff but don't neglect them and it is best to search and encourage them to attend. The most important area of all is to train everyone in the practice to focus on excellent customer service.
What To Train?
Veterinary training and technical training is pretty obvious and important but it is not the only things in a practice training program. Other areas include:
Standards of care and standardised procedures and protocols
Customer service material including communication skills, phone answering and problem solving
Basic knowledge for healthcare advice including parasitology, immunology, nutrition and the like
Scripts for phone enquiries
Understanding different customer types and profiles
Grief management and euthanasia
Occupational health and safety material
Practice procedures and protocols
How Do We Document This?
Protocols and procedures need to be documented and shared in a manual in either (or both) a hardcopy and electronically. A computer network provides a perfect place for the material to be made accessible to all staff. It is best to include staff meeting minutes as well. A well developed intranet is a good tool for knowledge sharing within the practice and improving communication. Access to the World Wide Web from workstations on the network also facilitates study and research.
1. Blake J (2007) Training metrics. Management Today March 2007 issue 32 p38 Australian Institute of Management
2. Garner S (2001) AVPMA Management Stream Proceedings at AVA Conference Melbourne 2001
3. Heagle C and Heagle (2006) Training. AVPMA Summer Seminar Series Proceedings Creating the Effective Veterinary Practice. p28
4. Von Krogh G, Ichijo K, Nonaka I (2000) Enabling Knowledge Creation. How to Unlock the Mystery of Tacit Knowledge and Release the Power of Innovation. Oxford University Press
5. Opperman M (2007) Make 'em Stick. Managing Smart. Veterinary Economics February 2007 p 50 Advanstar Veterinary Healthcare Communications
6. Hay L (2007) Staying in balance: keeping pressures to a minimum while still doing our job. AVPMA Conference Stream proceedings at AVA Conference Melbourne 2007
7. Stowe J (2004) Talents not Job Descriptions. AVPMA Management Stream Proceedings at AVA Conference Canberra 2004 p47