How upskilling and online learning boost SME growth

By Declan Moloney

Upskilling is hardly a new concept, but this technical term for providing employees with education to improve upon or learn new skills allows us to examine it on a deeper level. Upskilling is not to be confused with reskilling, which is education to replace outdated skills with new skills, but for practical purposes they can be lumped together

It may seem only natural that companies would want their staff to become more knowledgeable and therefore more valuable, but I find that SMEs still have a general lack of understanding of the benefits of additional training and education. Additionally, even the most well intentioned employers often fail to implement a successful upskilling program.

Some small business owners fear the cost involved with provided upskilling employees, but not providing such training may end up being a false economy. Over the years I’ve seen numerous companies lose employees to fresher, more fast-moving startups despite the inherent risks of joining a less established organization. The reason? The promise of growth and further education.

Companies with non-existent or stagnant employee education programs simply can’t compete for human resources with a competitor that is invested (both philosophically and financially) in furthering education programs. We probably don’t need to go into detail about why retention is important and just how much it costs a company to lose a member of staff, but suffice to say it’s expensive and probably costs even more than most of us think.

Other reasons why upskilling is necessary are focused on the need to match skills with the needs of the organization.

Increased productivity. Providing staff with the knowledge and tools they need to do their jobs better results in quicker responses, easier solutions to issues and a smoother operation.

-Client satisfaction. A workforce that is better equipped to serve its customer base, with more experience (and hopefully more empowerment as result of training), will result in happier clients.

-Opportunities for company growth. To take on new businesses, bigger clients or larger orders, employees need to be prepared in advance for the increased responsibility, and able to meet the organization needs for advanced skills. Having an upskilled workforce opens doors to new possibilities.

-Flexibility in other areas. Upskilling can often help members of staff branch out to other areas and pitch in where needed. In my experience, many offices and organizations have ‘one-trick ponies’ – employees who stick to what they do and shy away from new tasks and responsibilities. Further training can help break those barriers and provide you with a more flexible work force.

Online learning and successful upskilling

Productive and meaningful continuing education programs tend to have a few important underlying factors in common.

The first is appropriate time considerations, and this is where online learning comes into play. It allows employees to learn at their own pace, at their own computer, and can also be used for team-wide courses. And particularly for SMEs, online learning can be the most cost effective.

When choosing an online learning program, it’s still important to consider face-to-face and team components of the exercise. One way to do this is to have staff work through a module and then meet to discuss. HR professionals also recommend choosing an online program that asks users to complete a quiz or questionnaire at the end of each section to increase engagement levels.

Slots of time must also be provided for online learning to occur – there’s nothing worse than assigning an already-busy person an course and telling them to just fit it in somewhere. Do consider how you can give your staff a true break to focus on learning. The long term benefit is more productive employees.

Additional tips for upskilling include:

Individual training programs. Don’t make the mistake of applying a one-size-fits-all solution. Personalized learning plans tend to have better results.

Take advantage of existing human capital. Often current employees have a wealth of knowledge to share. The knowledge can be imparted during courses or mentoring programs.

Bite-size modules. Teach one new skill at a time, or break larger courses into shorter blocks.

With a good understanding of upskilling and the benefits of online learning to provide the education, SMEs can focus on positive growth from the very beginning.


Declan Moloney works for recruitment consultancy in the Cayman Islands. Since graduating with a BA in English and Creative Writing, Declan has gained eight years’ experience in recruitment marketing, working at leading graduate job boards, advertising, and recruitment agencies in the UK. During this time, he has delivered numerous multi-channel campaigns specializing in digital media and websites.


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