How SMEs can drive employee development

July 19, 2021
Hot topics 🔥
Entrepreneurship Insights
Elvire Jaspers
How SMEs can drive employee development

No matter the size of your organisation, it is important to recognise that your people are your most valuable asset. Continuous development of the skills, capabilities, and proficiency of your workforce is paramount to the success and longevity of your business. In today’s business landscape, it is beneficial for organisations to develop the competencies of their existing employees rather than running the time and patience gauntlet of continuous recruitment.

Benefits of a developed workforce

Investing in employee development is crucial for any organisation’s growth as developed workers are far more intelligent and productive, they perform at a higher level of efficiency, and they require less hands-on management. Additionally, developed workers reduce staff churn, close the skills gap within an organisation, help businesses adapt to changing business structures, and align their development with the needs of the business: all of which benefit your organisation tremendously.

But despite its overwhelming benefits, employee development remains a process often overlooked by management as it is positioned low on the totem pole of importance when day-to-day business operations take centre stage. Many of the world’s most successful Enterprises make employee development a priority as they understand the impact of a lean, highly skilled, and competent workforce. However, not every company will have the budget for detailed employee development and wellness programs.

Employee development on a budget

Luckily for SMEs that do not have the budget or capacity to develop and execute a robust internal or outsourced employee development strategy, there are a few cost-effective processes that can be implemented internally to drive employee development. 

Here are our top 5 ways that SMEs can enable tangible employee development on a budget. These can be done on the job by management or skilled experienced co-workers within a business context, without costly after-hours training.

1. Coaching and mentoring

Employees benefit greatly from being coached, guided, and advised by an experienced or skilled co-worker or manager. Coaches provide guidance on how employees can learn new skills, improve their performance, and boost the quality of their output, thus ensuring a richer career path. Coaching within a business context hinges on a personalised and customised approach that defines specific business and career objectives, achieved via a one-on-one approach. A clear plan and strategy need to be devised in order to set goals and chart progress over time.

Mentoring is another beneficial approach to employee development and differs from coaching in that it aims to match less experienced workers with highly experienced ones through either formal or informal structured programs. Both mentor and mentee are held accountable for the success of the initiative, and thus establishes a bond and mutual desire for growth and impact. Most experienced employees should be matched with a ‘newbie’ early on in order to ease the onboarding and acclimatisation to new work environments and business protocols, with all soft skills being focussed on the development stages. This creates a quickly adaptable workforce aligned to the same business objectives and strategies.

Both coaching and mentoring are great ways to provide less experienced workers with personalised guidance to fast-track their growth and impact within the organisation. Having a coach or mentor on hand benefits employees greatly as they have a direct channel to those who can assist their career development on the job.

2. Cross-training

Cross-training is a tried and tested approach designed for the holistic development of employees within an organisation. It involves training team members in the short-term or to perform job duties outside the scope of the roles they are usually assigned to. It is often used in smaller teams where an absence of a team member will not halt processes as a colleague will have a broad understanding of the required responsibilities. This is aimed at covering broad roles to fill competency gaps within an organisation.

This approach helps to develop an employee’s broader job skills and competencies outside of their expertise to create a well-rounded, highly valuable worker who is experienced in the various business processes within their entire organisation. When each team member has practical, first-hand experience within a number of different departments, it provides them with a detailed overview of the business mechanics at play which leads to increased efficiency and quality output. 

Cross-training creates a workforce of diverse skills and knowledge, establishing a unified business culture where all team members are aligned with the broader objectives of the company. Employers often prefer this approach to hiring new people, as ‘keeping things in the business family’ goes a long way in retaining staff, improving employee morale, and fostering a unique company culture of professionally invested and diversely skilled people. 

3. Stretch assignments

Stretch assignments are considered one of the best practical approaches for employees to learn and develop on the job. Stretch assignments involve tasking an employee with a project that is beyond their current knowledge and skills level in order to ‘stretch’ their development in a hands-on approach. Often, employees will discuss with their managers areas of their career development they wish to improve upon, and are then given roles that aim to strengthen their capabilities. Stretch assignments challenge employees by placing them into demanding situations in an attempt to provide an opportunity to develop new skills, knowledge, and competencies necessary for higher-level positions.

Stretch assignments mutually benefit both employers and employees as it provides growth and upskilling opportunities for team members while completing projects that cost-effectively benefit the business. But most importantly, thrusting employees in the deep end creates more resilient and dynamic workers who are adaptable to changing business landscapes and can meet any professional challenge set before them. 

4. Job enlargement and enrichment

Job enlargement is the horizontal expansion of tasks and duties across the same organisational level designed to improve an employee’s workflow flexibility. Basically, it increases the scope of the employee’s responsibilities to improve soft skills such as time and expectation management, workflow, communications, etc. It is also a way to break up the monotony of a particular job, thereby improving employee morale.

Job enrichment is the vertical expansion of the roles, responsibilities, authority, and activities along with the different hierarchical levels. This builds more depth to an employee’s position through more control, responsibility, and discretion and is based on a qualitative approach. Company’s often both enlarge and enrich an employee’s job role to drive motivation and break the monotony of the requirements, leading to an invigorated workforce with renewed focus and an adjusted scope for growth and development.

5. Job shadowing

For most people, the best way to learn is by watching and doing. This is why job shadowing is used as a tool for employee development in many businesses big and small the world over. By following an experienced worker for a period of time, ‘shadowees’ are able to learn directly how to perform various tasks and functions on a daily basis. It is a level of practical and experiential learning that goes a long way in providing employees with specifics on the mechanics of day-to-day business operations within a particular department. It also allows ‘shadowees’ to learn from the experiences, successes, and failures of their colleagues. 

It also helps experienced workers to stay on top of their tasks and procedures, as having a shadowee by your side for a period of time learning from their every move will ensure best practices are adhered to at all times. Job shadowing gives less experienced employees first-hand exposure to the daily challenges facing each department and thus creates a wider business awareness of daily operations that only helps to create a well-rounded employee.


Employee development must be viewed as a powerful business development tool that all businesses must leverage to their advantage, no matter their size. It is crucial for all managers, coaches, and mentors to listen and be attentive to their less-experienced co-workers’ needs to identify their requirements for career development. It works both ways too: assisting employee development also improves a business’s managerial and organisational proficiency, and creates a productive, well-rounded, and upskilled workforce. 

Management must lay the foundation of mutual respect and understanding to create a symbiotic working relationship that speaks to the individual needs of the employee. It is vitally important that those tasked with assisting with co-worker development provide continuous feedback (preferably weekly) in order to remain aligned with development and business objectives. This will also improve the confidence of less-experienced employees who will see the value and incremental progress of their up-skill endeavors, creating a more driven and skilled worker.

Elvire Jaspers

Elvire is WeAreBrain’s CEO. She has worked in the tech industry for many years, successfully running and selling her own start-up in 2017. With a big passion for sailing, she's very keen on conquering the seas (besides the tech space).

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