In a strong economy, it’s relatively easy and painless for companies to commit resources to professional development. Because there often is inherent acceptance of value to a learning organization and because impact is costly and time-intensive to measure, some organizations overlook the ROI assessment under the common assumption that there’s impact somewhere, so the expense is worthwhile.
But when the economy takes a turn for the worse, budgets tighten up and people start to take notice of unmeasured, and therefore unquantified, value. Though many organizational leaders know there are benefits to an organization that is continuously learning and growing, if the results haven’t been proven, programs get cut.
Of course, parts of this approach make sense. When jobs are on the line and economic viability is uncertain, it makes sense to control cost and scale back on the nice-to-haves. But while it’s important to minimize unnecessary expenses in a down economy, it’s also vital to business survival to take a long-term view and make wise investments. Sometimes cost control requires a hatchet, and sometimes it requires a scalpel — cutting unnecessary costs, but investing in and improving those that make sense and can generate business results.
Since the economy runs in cycles, we can and should anticipate a return to the stability in the global economy. And we must anticipate the consequences of short-sighted business decisions. The companies that remember this and invest sensibly during these times will be the survivors.
Given these two seemingly contrary ideas — control costs while at the same time remaining on the cutting edge — what are companies expected to do?
First and foremost, they should identify and explicitly articulate the company’s long-term and short-term goals. Second, they should outline specific strategies for achieving those goals. Often, this act itself will help control impulsive decision making that runs counter to the pursuit of long-term goals.
Third, trim the fat: Separate the nice-to-haves from the have-to-haves. While it’s true that many learning programs appear optional, not all of them are. There are a handful of training programs that are essential to daily and long-term success. They promote wise and efficient business practices while also promoting longevity by projecting (or keeping) the businesses that utilize them at the forefront of their industries.
Strong, efficient training programs bring more value to an organization than they detract. Companies that continue to invest in their workforces, even (and especially) during challenging economic times, reap tremendous rewards. Those companies that do invest in organizational learning benefit from several significant advantages.
First, better-developed and honed employees help an organization maintain and build the client base through improved skills and have a unique ability to identify and articulate their value proposition. In a downturn, competition for market share becomes tighter. A better-trained sales team, for example, can engage and ask important questions of clients in different ways, such as taking a more consultative approach.
Second, because long-term planning is essential to business survival, companies that invest in their workforces are poised to surpass their competition during an inevitable economic resurgence. Companies that spend time now retraining and retooling the workforce will be prepared to seize competitive advantage during a rebound, when it will be difficult to take time out to train.
Third, the benefits of general workforce satisfaction cannot be overlooked. Keeping the workforce active, engaged and moving forward during slow times minimizes underutilization issues. Investing in and training key employees during difficult times sends a clear message about their value to the organization and will help retain them in the long term.
Commitment breeds commitment, and employees are less likely to leave for other opportunities if they work for an employer that takes care of them in hard times. Employees recognize that when companies cut training, it’s a sign of the value placed on development. When employers do the opposite, employees see it as a sign of the company’s investment in them and their future.
But it’s important to make wise decisions and investments. Not just any training program will have the impacts described above, and neither will every training provider. Now more than ever it’s important to vet vendors. Are they around for the long haul so the relationships you build today will pay off tomorrow? Are they as invested in your success as you are in theirs? What do they do to ensure follow-through and application of the material so that you are not left alone for reinforcement? What do they do to understand and address your teams and the challenges they face?
Answering these questions about your training providers is essential to making sure you’re making wise investments that lead to skills development and behavior change. Otherwise, the money and time you’re investing in your workforce are being wasted.
Now, more than ever, the ability to innovate and collaborate are essential core skills. Withholding the development of those skills from the workforce will inevitably hold back an entire organization. In times such as these, it’s essential for businesses to assess their needs, understand the skills that will bring them through the economic crisis (and beyond) and commit, strategically, to investing in their future. Those that don’t may not be around to enjoy the benefits of the protective cuts they made across the board.