Firms race to provide the competitive cutting edge

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While some investment banks have been giving training something of a back seat amid recent market uncertainties, others are forging ahead with long-term plans for in-house training.

Financial training is a growth business and new demand is constantly being created by developments in the financial markets, as is made clear by the recent surge of demand for training from the fund management industry. But this is also a market in a state of some confusion.

While the providers of training race to provide the cutting-edge service, advances in technology have only succeeded in confusing the issue of where exactly that cutting edge lies, making choices about training methods and commitments that much more difficult for financial institutions.

Demand for financial training appears insatiable and large training companies that offer open courses are working hard to meet demand.

Companies such as BPP Financial Education, IFF Specialist Financial Training, Euromoney Training and Hyperion offer a wide range of open courses on investment banking and treasury, credit analysis, risk management, corporate finance and much more. These tend to be short courses involving a few days away from the desk, often followed by more in-depth training at the office.

The advantage of open courses for many training providers is the chance to be able to offer in-house training as well.

'Tailored training and bespoke packages are those that are most sought after, but there is also a desire to taste before the client buys: this makes organisations that offer open courses as well as tailored training more attractive,' says Anne-Marie Barcia, who heads the training company Corporate Consulting Resources (CCR), which has made a name for itself in training in credit and fixed-income markets.

She says that the financial services industry is looking at training on a quick turnaround basis and as a very specific tool for a particular end.

Training in specific skills demands excellent trainers with specialist expertise that usually comes from previous employment within the City.

But there is a shortage of good trainers with the requisite presentation skills as well as the relevant knowledge to do the job properly.

In practice this means that there is a pool of experienced financial trainers in the City - or quite often based in some of the more leafy London suburbs - who both compete and collaborate with each other on training ventures. It is an incestuous business in which they all know each other. There are a few core individuals who work well together and so their circles overlap. Financial trainers with daggers drawn may sound ridiculous, but it has been an accurate image for some of the smaller consultancies in this competitive market.

Concern among some of the smaller independents about the variable standards in the business has led some individuals to try to establish a trade body, the International Association of Financial Trainers.

Peter Leahy, ex-Bear Stearns, runs a training company called Business Techniques and is organising an attempt to 'kitemark' independent financial training.

He says: 'We have common goals, ethics and standards, and we need to be able to get people to understand what we do. We are clubbing together on a non-profit basis and trying to work out thresholds and standards for the industry. We also need to get in on future regulation in the industry by making sure we have a say in it.'

He echoes a sentiment often expressed by smaller players in the industry when asked about the role of multi-media in financial training.

'There is a role for multi-media (in financial training). I don't want to sound like a Luddite, but maybe I am. Nothing will ever replace face-to-face training. There is an element of getting carried away with the technology at the expense of common sense.

'I am very much an advocate of not playing games on multi-media but focusing on getting people to do the pricing,' says Leahy.

He says, however, that he is currently working on a multi-media project with IFF. Although some are more reluctant than others, the world of financial training is heading firmly in this direction, with links being forged between training companies and multi-media solution providers.

BG Training, the training company that has made its reputation with its hands-on training by specialists in the field, has formed a link with Wide Media, which develops bespoke interactive media for clients on disc and on the web.

And Bruno Curnier's Beaufort Consulting, well-regarded in derivatives training, is linked to Active Books, a company which provides CD-Roms to the likes of Intuition Plus, the leader in electronic publishing, as well as to IFF.

There are many other examples in the market of links being forged between the original training company and interactive media or electronic publishing companies, or software designers of so-called knowledge delivery systems.

The rapid pace of technological advance in this field has meant that even if a financial organisation knows exactly what it wants in a training package, the means of delivery of the message requires a confusing myriad of decisions. Investment banks are often not structured to cope with the need for centralised decision-making on major investment in training.

But their HR departments have embraced the concept of distance learning - particularly for graduate training - in a big way.

This has provided an opportunity for some financial training providers to offer 'complete' solutions using the latest technology to meet in-house graduate training needs.

'There is a phenomenal amount of graduate training going on in the market at the moment,' says the head of one niche financial training firm.

With the recent consolidation and subsequent job losses in London's financial institutions, the other area in which there is strong demand is in retraining - or, to give it its more politically correct name, 'skill enhancement' - for senior people.

This has more to do with getting value for money out of employees than generosity of spirit among employers. 'You absolutely have to know more than just one product now,' says the head of training at a major investment bank.

The variety of choice now in financial training is very wide - ranging from one trainer and 10 students in a room to the use of CD-Roms, 'smart' CD-Roms, electronic workbooks, e-mail, interactive intranet packages and the internet itself.

Euromoney Training is one company that has been careful to exploit every possible means of delivering the training message and caters to all needs, from open courses to its DC Gardner tailored training, from CD-Roms to capital markets training on the internet.

Charles Warburton, who looks after client management at DC Gardner, says: 'Some of our clients have created their own virtual universities and are busy installing generic and tailor-made products on their sites. We share the frustration of clients who often don't know exactly what they want.

'We also sell separate self-study products, and the market has grown because of the confusion that exists within the investment banks. Furthermore, the departments that deal with training solutions often are completely separate and it is then very difficult to provide an integrated solution.'

The level of awareness of the sophisticated technology that is available varies greatly within the financial training industry, and curiously those who argue for face-to-face training seem to forget that interactive training on the web promises just that, once it gets faster and less 'flat'.

To some extent the smaller financial training companies are defensive, afraid of being sidelined by a truly global training provider. But there will always be a demand for the smaller company, the individual trainer and the small, personal training session. In the near future there is unlikely to be a clearly defined training budget at many City financial institutions.

Financial training providers can rest assured of business on a variety of levels. According to one training company that operates extensively both in and out of the City, investment banks in particular are bad at looking up from the competitive grind long enough to sort out their own houses when it comes to their training needs.