Chapter 18: Training And Skills Transfer

Chapter objectives

In this chapter we shall:

  • Encourage you to ensure that training is high on the agenda when planning IT projects.
  • Explain why skills transfer is so important, especially for not-for-profit organisations.
  • Provide tips on appropriate training and skills transfer.

Catch the training

Most people wouldn't dream of getting into a car and driving without first having driving lessons.  Most managers wouldn't dream of letting an untrained clerk loose on their accounts.  Yet somehow many people take a "Heath Robinson" approach to IT and assume that they and others will be able to muddle through.  And this despite the fact that the equipment and systems running on the equipment are at least as difficult to navigate and use as the car and double entry book-keeping.

Many of us have been guilty of this mistake at times, as the mini case study below testifies.

Case Example Confessions of Ian Harris

When, as a trainee accountant, I first encountered spreadsheets, I was self-taught and proud of it.  After all, the Lotus (version 1) manual was OK-ish. Management accounting,  budgeting and cash flow forecasting for small membership organisations and occupational charities formed a fairly large chunk of this work and was my first foray into the not-for-profit world.  I was manipulating numbers in ways I had been quite unable to do before and ways that were impressing others. So what was training going to do for me?  I eventually decided to go on an advanced spreadsheet users course in the hope of picking up some tips and some "already half done spreadsheet models" which I thought might speed me up. 

I did learn a lot from the course.  Not only the stuff I expected to learn, but I learnt that some of my self-taught techniques were comparatively long winded.  I realised very quickly on that course that if I had subjected myself to some training sooner, the time and money invested in the training would have been recouped many times over within months through the extra efficiency in my use of spreadsheets.  Lesson learnt.

However naturally talented we might (or might not) be, some formal training is usually a good idea.  Different people learn well in different ways.  I am good at training from printed material and found that later versions of Lotus provided enough training manuals and  training spreadsheet models that I probably could have picked up what I needed from those rather than from classroom training.

Some people need the discipline and peer group you get with classroom training in order to learn. Others find a short burst of one-to-one training with an expert far more efficient and cost effective for them than standard classroom training.  Some people need a combination of the above.  Ideally, you should try to tailor training to individual needs and preferences as much as possible, although sometimes this is limited by budgets and timetables. 

You have a huge variety of training sources to choose from.  There is a competitive market place for training in standard office tool kits.  The same sources we set out for finding software suppliers in chapter "The Choosing Process" basically apply to finding potential trainers.  At risk of repetition, those sources are directories, consultancy advice, word of mouth networking, magazine articles and common sense.  When buying specialist package software (e.g. a fundraising system), it is usually sensible to use the supplier as your source of training and to evaluate their ability to train in that specialised software as part of your decision to buy.

Almost all of us, if we are being honest, need to get out of our own office environment to stand any chance of training in any meaningful sense of the word.  For some, being in someone else's office within their own office building, with a moratorium on interruptions is enough; others need to be in a completely different building.

Why is skills transfer so important to not-for-profits?

A key aspect of making progress with IT is to ensure that sufficient skills are transferred to your organisation.  "Sufficient skills" in this context can probably be defined as skills which your organisation will need on a regular and/or ongoing basis.   "Skills transfer" in this context means learning from your expert consultants and IT companies during the planning, implementation and evaluation stages of IT projects to enable your organisation to benefit from the project on an ongoing basis without constant recourse to the external experts.

Many of the relevant points are made in earlier chapters.  Skills transfer is vitally important in all sectors, but especially so for cash-strapped not-for-profit organisations, which almost certainly cannot or should not afford to rely on consultants and software houses for day-to-day skills on an ongoing basis.     

The problem for many not-for-profit managers is deciding which skills are "one-off" or occasional use skill and which skills are the continuous or ongoing skills which you really need in house.  Good consultants and IT companies should advise you well on this, but remember that such people can have a vested interest in a continuing income stream from your organisation, so you will need to be proactive in working with your trusted advisors to plan sensible transitions.

Despite your organisation's sensible desire for self-sufficiency, you should want to maintain good, long term relationships with good consultants and IT companies.  The following points might help you to find the right balance:

  • Self-sufficiency should not extend as far as self-support:  you should almost always have support contracts in place to ensure that core systems and equipment are maintained.
  • Self-sufficiency should not extend as far as "help yourself":  very rarely does it make sense for a not-for-profit organisation to entice a consultant or technician away from their expert employer.  Apart from the obvious moral issues, this is rarely a good idea for the not-for-profit organisation, IT company or the member of staff concerned.   The not-for-profit organisation will rarely acquire a star this way.  Even if that person is a star, many of the skills you think you are acquiring probably accrue from that person's ongoing training and development programme with the IT company, which will stop once they work for you.  Further, an otherwise good relationship between the IT company and the not-for-profit organisation might be soured by the transaction.  Very occasionally it makes sense for all parties for such a transfer to take place, but it should be seen as the exception rather than the rule and handled very openly, honestly and carefully.
  • Find ways of keeping in touch with your preferred suppliers: ways can include planned periodic reviews, involvement on advisory groups, social/semi-social contact, draw-down contracts for use of skills, ad hoc mini evaluations, etc.  Especially in the early stages after a large project, some of these ideas can be cost-effective ways of "hedging your bets" on skills transfer.

Getting training and skills transfer right

The table below sets out some tips that should help you plan training and skills transfer.

Table 18.1 Training and Skills Transfer Tips
Tip Commentary / sub-tips
Ensure that an appropriate amount of training is budgeted for and scheduled as part of an IT implementation project take soundings from organisations when you take up references to get a feel for appropriate amounts of training;
take into account the skills your people are already “bringing to the party” (for example, a member of staff who has regularly used a fundraising software package is likely to need less training on a new fundraising package than a member of staff who has never used a computer before);
if you think the supplier might be proposing more training than you need, it often makes sense to budget for the levels of training the supplier recommends while only committing to the amount of training you think you need, leaving the balance of training on a “draw-down” basis to be used if needed – with some suppliers you might pay a small premium for draw-down training but a small premium can be a fair price for flexibility
Tailor training to suit individual’s needs as much as is practicable different people can have vastly different skill levels prior to training and different people learn in different ways;
one of the benefits of being a smaller organisation is that you ought to be able to tailor training quite considerably without being accused of being wasteful, as there are only limited economies of scale to be had from standardisation;
in particular, with training on standard software packages, once staff have acquired a basic level of skill, it is often far more time and cost effective to get a trainer to work with your staff on specific problems they are finding, rather than scheduling full-scale expert user courses which might only spend 10% of the time covering relevant areas to your organisation;
tailored training can actually be very cost effective, as you can often “kill several clay pigeons with one stone”, as the on-the-job training is often best achieved by actually doing the tasks in hand;
larger not-for-profit organisations can also benefit from this principle, although we accept that an element of standardisation needed to ensure that systems are used in a harmonised way
Self-help is often the best help we encourage many organisations, especially not-for-profit organisations, to establish “super-users” or “champions” for particular packages, to help provide top-up training and encourage self-help within the organisation;
self-help partly takes the form of surgeries where users can gather to exchange common issues and problems – often you will find that a member of staff has laboured away for ages trying to solve an irritating IT problem that another member of staff has already solved;
self-help should not be used as a substitute for formal training, but it can supplement formal training most effectively and can reduce the need for formal top-up training. It can also act as a helpful mechanism for bringing new staff partly up to speed prior to their receiving formal training
Assess training needs right from the start and regularly reassess training needs consider IT training needs when hiring and do not shirk from assessing training needs as part of the recruitment process;
not-for-profit organisations can often acquire potentially excellent staff by selecting staff who need and seek specific training – this training need can form “part of the deal”, such that the starting salary is below the level normally expected for the job, but the organisation is prepared to commit to spending money on training and the recruit is prepared to invest time and effort in acquiring skills;
IT training is no different from your other training needs - it should be considered along with other training needs as part of your organisation’s commitment to its people through training needs analysis
Seek skills transfer when working with consultants and/or IT companies Although it is unrealistic to expect to acquire all the consultant's and/or IT company's skills “by osmosis”, your not-for-profit organisation should seek as much as possible to learn from the advice you use and plan towards increasing self-sufficiency over time;
you should state your aim towards reasonable levels of self-sufficiency up front and build appropriate mechanisms into your work programme with the advisor;
be wary of advisors who seem unwilling to co-operate in a transfer of skills to your not-for-profit organisation in areas where such skills transfer is appropriate to you.


  • Regardless of talent (or lack thereof), all of us can benefit from IT training at times.
  • Different people benefit from different forms of training and ideally training should be tailored to individual needs as much as possible.
  • Not-for-profit organisations should seek to transfer day-to-day skills from expert advisors and IT companies.
  • Getting the right balance between self-sufficiency and appropriate use of external experts can be difficult, but there are ways you can hedge your bets and it is in your organisation's interests to try and get this balance as best you can.
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