Low Cost Learning

When budgets are tight, learning and development activities are often the first to come under the axe. Just this week, an Accenture survey has shown that despite continuing concern over skills shortages, nine out of 10 European employers have cut or frozen their training spend over the last year.

Maintaining investment in training can be a particular challenge for SMEs, not just because belts are being tightened, but also because small businesses often find it difficult to give employees time off from the demands of their day-to-day job to attend courses.

This, however, is where the nub of the problem lies. Far too many businesses are still locked into an out-dated model of training that is focused around expensive and time-consuming classroom based courses. The thinking – and the technology – has moved on considerably and although trainer-led development will always have a place, it is no longer the only option. There’s a whole host of effective but relatively inexpensive learning and development opportunities out there that are within the grasp of even the smallest businesses.

At last week’s CIPD HRD conference, I was fascinated to hear how two very different organisations – Save the Children and Google – are managing to keep their learning activities fresh, relevant and accessible to all staff, regardless of their location or levels of seniority.

Save the Children described how they are using mobile phones to deliver just-in-time training to their people out in the field. Their focus is on becoming the ‘curators’ rather than the ‘creators’ of learning. In other words, looking at what knowledge and content is already out there and thinking about how to signpost people to what they need to know at the time they need to know it. There’s also a real emphasis on collaborative learning – encouraging people to learn from others who are in the same situation as themselves, rather than sending them to the ‘experts’.

The philosophy at Google is that the next great idea could come from anywhere in the company – so the learning needs of all employees are considered important rather than just those of the chosen few.

‘Googlers’ are encouraged to own their own development, with the business stepping in to help people where they can’t help themselves. What this means in practice is a mechanism which allows any employee to put in a learning request and to expect a swift response with advice and guidance about how best their need might be met. Courses are developed quickly in response to emerging learning needs – and are no longer delivered when they’ve lost their currency. There are ‘hangouts’ – on line forums where people can collaborate and learn from each other – and the ‘Magnet’, where secondments, short-term ‘bungee’ assignments and volunteer opportunities are advertised alongside jobs.

There’s even a programme called ‘Learn on the Loo’, where volunteer teams work together to create posters carrying bite-sized learning which are displayed on toilet doors.

Employees are also encouraged to think about how they can use internal resources (peers, mentors, existing knowledge) as well as external information sources (news reports, web content, blogs, YouTube) to facilitate their own development.

Of course these are large organisations with more resources at their disposal than the average SME, but they are both using ideas which could easily be adopted by any company keen to develop the skills of its staff within a limited budget.

Brown bag lunches, for example, are easy to organise and a great way to get colleagues to share expertise and information. Stretch assignments can help employees develop new skills, make new contacts and build their confidence.

A simple discussion group, hosted on your intranet or via a private social network group such as Ning, is a great way to get people collaborating and sharing knowledge and resources. Using your own staff to act as mentors or internal coaches can also pay enormous dividends in terms of skills development – and it doesn’t always have to be top down. Why not think about getting some of your Generation Y staff, for example, to mentor more senior colleagues on the use of social media?

Here at Cezanne OnDemand, we are putting together a list of low-cost learning and development ideas for small businesses who want to grow their people. Watch this space – and let us know what initiatives have worked well for you.

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