Rehabilitation Review Volume 5, No. 2, January 1994

Staff Development on a Shoestring

Kathleen K. Biersdorff

We leave school with a certain amount of knowledge, some skills, and a set of values. But while education prepares us in a general way for what we will face as rehabilitation professionals, it cannot fully prepare us to cope with changing service directions, technological advances, or the increased responsibility that comes with promotion. Staff development is necessary to support this growth, but it is often costly. This Review discusses some ways to get staff training on a shoestring budget and makes some suggestions for do-it-yourself staff development.

Despite the significant role that staff development plays in helping people adjust to change, many people underestimate its importance. Some funders have identified staff training as a reasonable target for cutbacks, seeing it as a less essential element of agency contracts (August 19, 1993 press release, Department of Family and Social Services). Some agencies have assumed that staff development will just happen without the active commitment of management. Indeed, staff sometimes see training opportunities primarily as a holiday from the stresses of direct service delivery. Unless we change the way we approach this subject, staff development runs the risk of becoming a privilege rather than a given.

If we are to get the most value for our shrinking staff development dollars, we need to get over the idea that good staff development is inherently expensive. At the same time, not all of the staff development we need will be inexpensive. Therefore, we must meet some of our needs on the cheap so that we can take advantage of expensive training where we must.

Inexpensive External Resources

Guest speakers. Many groups are happy to supply speakers and will tailor presentations to a particular audience. Disability advocacy groups (e.g., Epilepsy Association, Society for Treatment of Autism, Prader-Willi Association) are committed to helping us provide more knowledgeable service to people with a particular disability. Other advocacy and self-advocacy groups (e.g., Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities, Independent Living Resource Centre of Calgary) often have information on special projects or topics that they are eager to share. Government programmes have a vested interest in ensuring that people understand how they work. Question-and-answer sessions with staff from the Office of the Public Guardian or Public Trustee can be relatively easy to arrange and very informative for staff. Other areas for presentation by government representatives include AISH, individualized funding, Client Services, Vocational Rehabilitation for Disabled Persons (VRDP), etc.

Speakers from outside the rehabilitation community can provide information on a variety of relevant topics. For instance, the John Howard Society is knowledgeable about the impact of incarceration, community service alternatives, and related topics. A variety of immigrant organizations can share knoweldge about cultural issues. The business community is often willing to share its resources on topics ranging from time management and supervision skills to financial planning. A key element in helping guest speakers provide effective training is to give them the background to understant your staff's needs.

Fill empty spaces in corporate training sessions. Organizations in the corporate sector may be willing to let staff from a rehabilitation agency fill seats in their training sessions which would otherwise be vacant. Workshops on computer packages, writing skills, supervision, and stress managment address many of the same issues regardless of the setting. Alliances can be built on personal contacts in the business community or through suported employment or volunteer placement connections.

Make use of media. Public libraries have film collections which cover common hot topics such as stress and coping, time management, conflict management, communication, supervising others, and even how to make effective presentations. These can usually be taken out at no cost. College and university libraries can be another source of similar materials, but they may be more difficult to access. Service agencies and professional organizations (e.g., Alberta Association of Rehabilitation Centres) often have work-related films or videos which they are willing to loan. Make a list of your agency's films or videos and swap them with other organizaitons for theirs or other resoruces. Another option is to tape and replay TV shows (e.g., Disability network, Tom Peters specials, 20/20 segments).

To make the most effective use of media in professional development, it's important for staff to be actively involved in the process. Have a discussion about how the show relates to your roles or workplace. Have someone take notes on the film and/or discussion that follows. Does the film suggest that we should do things differently? If so, agree to implement the change and evaluate whether it works.

Share the expense. If we share expenses among service organizations, we can access more expensive staff trainers. This is the principle behind training and development consortiums. In addition to ongoing alliances, one-time-only arrangements can be made between organizaitons in the same or different cities to share costs to meet a pressing need. Likewise, if there is space available in a presentation or in-service at your workplace, let other agencies know. They may think of your agency when similar opportunities arise there. A key to making this work is to find out who knows what's going on and can get the message spread throughout their agency.

Do-it-Yourself Staff Development

The most cost-effective way to fill staff development needs is to build expertise within the organization and share knowledge internally. However, there are a number of myths about staff development which need to be exploded before this may occur.

Myth: Only those with staff trainer as a job title have a responsibility to train others.

We often hear people say, "It's not my job" when they are asked to share what they know or have learned from workshops they've attended. Even if there is someone designated as a staff trainer, no one person is able to meet all staff development needs directly. Each of us has the responsibility to help our colleagues provide the best service possible. Likewise, organizations must show that they value this contribution to staff skills by giving people the time to develop effective in-services.

Myth: Staff trainers are experts on everything connected with a topic.

Perhaps because of the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis in supporting consumers, staff seem to be more aware of what they don't know than of what they do know. Staff may not share their knowledge because they are sure that someone else must know more than they do. We need to be willing to share what we know and invite others to add what they know. Just because there are questions we can't answer, that does not invalidate the rest of what we know.

Myth: Staff training mainly involves someone lecturing.

Even those who know how to do something may feel that they lack the skills to teach that thing to others. Public speaking is one of the most common fears people have. But the most effective teaching methods do not involve standing before an audience and speaking. The most effective methods are those in which the learner is most actively involved. Introduce the key concepts, give an example and then put the learners to work. Draw out real-life examples from the audience. Have them discuss solutions as a group. Put in your two cents only when needed. Summarize the main points to give closure.

One of the easiest mechanisms for staff development is the topic-based discussion. This type of activity is beneficial both for clarifying values and exchanging information. Having someone record the discussion and distribute notes to those attending ensures that there is a tangible reminder of the ideas shared. In addition, discussions can help staff find "experts" in their own workplace. They can also lead to action, including but not limited to identifying needs for more formal (i.e., costly) staff develpment (and creating a commitment to take advantage of it when it's offered).

Making the Most of Expensive Staff Training

Most organizations which pay for staff to attend workshops or courses have a policy indicating that staff are to report on what they learned. However, most organizations do not provide the time for newly trained staff to prepare to share information effectively. Sharing the information may be limited to a brief presentation during a meeting with the immediate work team plus an offer to provide handouts "if anyone is interested." A good workshop leaves staff enthused and ready to change the way they work, but this style of brief report is not effective in spreading the enthusians across the organization, and the momentum for change is soon lost. Given some time and management support, staff can sometimes develop an in-service which is as good as or better (because it takes agency characteristics into account) than the one they attended. It may take a few tries with feedback to hone presentation skills and the marerials. This strategy can be fery cost effective when the workshop addresses the needs of a large number of agency staff: however, one would not expend the effort to develop an in-sservice which is of interest to only a few staff or one that is available elsewhere at a low cots.

Much of traditional staff development has been too expensive to have its impact stop with the individual who received it. With increasingly tighter budgets, all of us need to have the benefit of each person's experience and skills.