Sally Watson, director of executive education at Lancaster University Management School, has already seen evidence of the recession hitting training budgets. “This week a rather demoralised HR manager rang me to share the news that his organisation had changed tack suddenly to buy in a scaled-down training programme,” she says. “He was concerned that this new programme didn’t address business issues or align with strategic imperatives. It was just cheaper.”
It is a story being repeated in every sector across the UK. Watson adds that in the past fortnight she has come across four more organisations making dramatic changes to their training and development budgets in the wake of the government’s admission that we are now in a recession.
It is hardly news that in tough times training budgets come under pressure. Yet, as every HR professional knows, you need to keep developing your staff if you want them to stay, if you want to motivate them, and if you want to continue to improve performance. Forgetting about staff development for a year or two simply isn’t an option.
Here, then, are 10 ideas from HR departments and training experts to hep you continue to develop your staff on a reduced budget.
1 Prioritise training needs
“Training budgets are usually the first in line for cuts and, without doubt, some training can be postponed,” says Joe Goasdoué, chief executive of The British Quality Foundation. “The key is working out which training courses are essential, and which merely desirable. Instead of making indiscriminate cuts, you must be clear on the critical success factors for the business during the recession.”
He adds: “For most businesses in the current environment priorities will be customer satisfaction and retention, process improvement in all areas to eliminate waste, reducing costs and improving customer service, and financial discipline – such as careful control of costs and accelerating and improving debt collection. Any training that contributes to these objectives should be a priority.”
2 Persuade employees that development is more than training
In 2007 The Co-Operative Financial Services spent £18m on training. In 2008 it spent just £9m. Tony Nicholls, head of development, explains that it achieved this saving by adopting a more holistic view of development. “Where once we used to equate a development need with a training gap, now we bring together reward experts, employee relations specialists, training providers, and so on, to really get to grips with what will make a difference,” he says.
“We recently reshaped the field sales department in this way, and it proved very successful. The key is to get people to recognise that development is not the same as training. By building that culture we’ve been able to do more with less.”
3 Subsidised courses
It can be difficult to make sense of the government’s complex system of subsidised training (see feature p16), but it is worth making the effort. Toni Eastwood, training director at advice and networking website Everywoman, says: “There are plenty of options out there such as the Train to Gain initiative. And just because the training is free for the end user, this does not mean a reduction in quality.”
Furthermore, it is not only the government that is offering subsidised training. Look into what your local colleges and universities have to offer. Blackburn College, for example, has offered £600,000 worth of free places on its short courses. Ian Clinton, principal at the College, says: “We want to make sure that we are doing our bit to help support local businesses. We’re not expecting them to sign up to lengthy two- or three-year courses – what we’re offering are short two- or three-week, tailored programmes to meet particular knowledge or skills gaps relevant to their organisation.”
4 Online courses
Enterprise Rent-A-Car has 3,500 staff in Europe, and European HR director Donna Miller runs an HR team of 20. She reports that, while training budgets have not yet come under significant pressure, it has become increasingly difficult to persuade line managers to release staff for training. However, the company has a policy of internal promotion and so learning and development is central to its growth strategy.
Miller says: “We have had to become even more innovative and creative about how we deliver our training to reflect the current time pressures. We’ve found online courses to be very useful. Staff can do these from their own desktop at a time that suits them. Rather than buy these in we’ve developed them in-house, and now have a suite of courses covering many areas. It recently proved very popular and effective among our sales team.”
5 Train at existing conferences
According to HR director Andrew Fowler, research provider TNS is growing through the recession, and is spending more than ever on training. However, he stresses that he always needs to be budget-conscious, and so he does a lot of training at existing conferences. “A large part of the cost of training is getting everyone together, “he explains. “So it makes sense to do training when everyone is already in the same place.”
6 Internal knowledge sharing
Rather than paying external experts to come in, share the knowledge that already exists within your organisation. David Colgrave, chief executive at recruitment firm Ardent Search and Selection, says: “It is amazing how much training material you amass in a business. Internal delivery is often overlooked, but can be highly rewarding for both trainees and trainers. Develop coaching and mentoring schemes that ensure continual professional development rather than one-off classroom based programmes if you look in the right places you will find the experience and enthusiasm to operate such schemes.”
7 External knowledge sharing
Then look outside your organisation. Jorgen Thorsell, executive vice-president at training provider Mannaz, says: “Do you have contacts in other organisations that are facing similar issues? If so, what opportunities are there for your employees to do a job-swap or spend time in another organisation to learn new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking?”
This could be suppliers, customers, or just a neighbouring business.
Corinne Mills, head of career management at recruitment website monster.co.uk, offers this tip: “One way employers can grow the skills and experience of their staff is by encouraging them to take on worthwhile activities outside of work such as becoming a Special Constable, organising a sports team or joining the Reserve Forces. Take someone who is in the Territorial Army, for example. The government spends thousands of pounds training them in key skills that employers always need, such as problem solving, people management, planning, organisation and communication.”
9 Encourage reading
One old-fashioned and very inexpensive method of building knowledge, which is largely ignored in today’s business world, is reading. John Osbourne, product marketing manager, training at BSI Learning, says: “There are plenty of ‘how to’ books in the library. Admittedly it can be time-consuming and it doesn’t replace the hands-on experience of a course, but it is certainly cheap. And of course there’s the internet. Allow your staff time to tap into that vast pool of knowledge.”
10 Online conferencing
Dina Knight is the HR director at Northgate Arinso, an HR software provider with around 7,000 staff in 40 countries. Her advice is to make use of online conferencing: “With systems like WebEx you can bring managers together without the need for costly travel and accommodation and without taking them away from their work for too long. We recently did a Belbin team role seminar in this way and it worked very well.”
A cut too far?
There are many ways of continuing to develop your staff within a limited budget. However, there is no replacement for a properly funded, carefully constructed and professionally delivered training programme – and your employees might be in need of that now more than ever.
As Simon Jones, chief executive at Investors in People, says: “Many people are being asked to cover new and expanded roles following major reorganisations. It is at such times, when people are facing new challenges, that training and development programmes can play a vital role in helping them to succeed.
“If organisations fail to help employees get to grips with the new challenges they are facing, it will ultimately affect the bottom line – both in the long- and the short-term.”