Cutting back on training: a false economy?

Shanida Nataraja highlights how healthcare communications agencies are spending less on staff training and talent retention and she offers some low-cost solutions for attracting, retaining and cultivating talent.

Over the past decade, the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) has surveyed their consultancy members on an annual basis with the aim of identifying trends in evolution of the healthcare communications environment. One key trend that has emerged from this benchmarking exercise is that, in the face of increasing pressures on communication budgets, agencies are investing less in training their staff. In many agencies, budgets for training have changed little over the last 10 years. At the same time, in a highly competitive environment, agencies need to continuously adapt to survive, whether that be an increasing focus on digital or the growing need for clinical trial communications support or market access stakeholder mapping. The key to this adaptation, and to the success of any agency, is attracting, cultivating and retaining talent. It is difficult to imagine how this can be achieved without agencies placing more emphasis on investing in the right hires and investing in the ongoing professional development of their existing staff.

“The key to this adaptation, and to the success of any agency, is attracting, cultivating and retaining talent.”

Well over a decade ago, when I first left academic research to embark on a career in healthcare communications, the external training I received from the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA), and the support received from my first agency by paying for me to attend this training, helped to equip me with the necessary skills for my new career. The willingness of the EMWA workshop trainers to share their expertise, and the carefully thought out and comprehensive training programme offered, inspired me to eventually make the transition from trainee to trainer. Now responsible for implementing an in-house training programme at my current agency, I have identified three key ways to ensure that the training delivered to staff is effective. All three are associated with demonstrable benefits for the functioning and success of the agency.

Firstly, although budgets for external training can often be restricted, external training courses represent only a small proportion of the training an agency could potentially deliver to its staff. Harnessing the knowledge and expertise of your staff to deliver effective in-house training to the agency as a whole, and providing clear guidance to those trainers on how to effectively deliver that training to their peers, up-skills the team without the price tags associated with external training courses. Furthermore, in some cases, rather than sending 10 people to an external training course, if there is an educational gap within the agency, why not send one staff member to the course instead and agree with that individual that they bring back and share key learnings with the wider team. Not only does this consolidate the learning in the mind of the individual attending the training, but it also ensures the agency gets maximum return on their investment. It is also worth noting that the willingness of in-house individuals to share their expertise with the wider agency also cultivates a sense of team and an environment in which all staff members feel valued and supported. We have found that this helps retain talent and, increasingly, as awareness of our training programme grows in the marketplace, also acts as a magnet for recruiting new talent.

Secondly, training must take into account the different adult learning styles and the formats of training that best reach these different styles. In brief, an activist likes variety and enjoys collaborative group learning; team-based breakout sessions and varied agendas are therefore an essential part of delivering effective training to this type of learner. A reflector likes considering other peoples’ perspectives; group discussions are therefore important for this type of learner. A theorist enjoys testing learned ideas by applying them to practical situations; practical interactive exercises can therefore be used to effect with these learners. A pragmatist enjoys hands-on testing and practice; experience-based sessions that allow the learner to test a new technology or approach are particularly effective with these learners. Any training programme must speak to these different types of learning and incorporate a mixture of ‘live’ and offline training in a variety of different formats. Taking this approach not only makes any training delivered in-house more effective, but also shows staff, through example, how such an approach can bring added value when applied to the educational initiatives we implement for our clients.

“…why not send one staff member to the course instead and agree with that individual that they bring back and share key learnings with the wider team.”

Thirdly, training must be delivered by individuals at all levels of the organisation, not just the senior team. Everyone is an expert, or has the potential to become an expert, in at least one key area. As much as possible, it is important to try to cultivate topic and skills ambassadors within your agency, at all levels, and involve these ambassadors in delivering training to the agency as a whole. This is how agencies move into different spaces and develop new offerings for their clients. What starts with a member of staff having an interest in a particular field can, over time, become a key and differentiating skill or offering for the agency. Encouraging staff to find their niche, and up-skill their colleagues, not only cultivates an environment in which training is truly peer-to-peer and everyone is positioned as having something to contribute, but can also strengthen the business as a whole in the long term.

These three examples clearly illustrate some of the ways in which delivering effective training to staff can benefit the overall functioning of the agency as whole. They present a strong rationale for ring-fencing agency resources to invest in training even in the face of continuing austerity. An agency is only as good as the talent it attracts, cultivates and retains, so no agency can afford not to make this investment.


About the author:

Before entering the healthcare communication industry, Shanida completed a BSc in human science and neuroscience, and a PhD and 2 years of postdoctoral research into the neurophysiological basis of learning and memory.

During her 12 years in the healthcare communication industry, Shanida has gained experience in a wide range of communication strategy and medical education initiatives, including communication strategy and positioning workshops, market and competitor analyses, scientific story flow and key message development, advisory boards, scientific symposia, train-the-trainer and other educational programmes, product monographs, sales force training materials, and all aspects of strategic publication planning and implementation.

At AXON, Shanida is responsible for ensuring editorial and scientific excellence across all of the agency’s activities. She leads the training committee and has implemented a comprehensive training programme, including the Writers’ Guild, the Intensive Writing Course and the QC Masterclasses, as well as producing in-house resources, such as the Style Guide, QC Checklists and Editorial Handbook. Shanida has been an active member of the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) since 2001, sitting on its Executive Committee between 2005 and 2012, and running a number of training workshops as part of their professional development programme.

Do you think agencies should be spending more on training staff?