Chief Learning Officer magazine recently reported that its Business Intelligence Board (BIB) of learning leaders is more optimistic about the outlook for 2011 it was in 2010. Sixty percent of learning executives report feeling more optimistic about employee development in 2011. This might not seem like a large number, but the data is showing that the trend is up. In support of this trend of increasing optimisim, economists and bankers are forecasting strong GDP and job growth in 2011 indicating the economic recovery is occuring.

Organizations are beginning to believe that 2011 could be the chance to increase spending on employee development in an effort to increase a competitive advantage. Even though optimism is increasing and the economy appears to be showing signed of recovery, learning leaders may not be able to step on the gas just yet.

Be optimistic, but bootstrap

Before you start increasing spending ask yourself this question, “do I need to spend more money to improve employee development in my organization?” We often think that to do more and to do better, we need to spend more money. This is often true, but not always. By being creative, you can increase the effectiveness of your development offerings without stretching the budget.

Here are a few ideas about how you can do that:

Use content that is already out there.

Do you want people to learn new skills? Create a list of books people can read to improve certain skills like technology, design, leadership, finance or whatever other skills your organization needs. Provide this list, and encourage people to use their local public libraries to get started. You’d be amazed how many of the popular new books can be found at the library. Or buy some of these books and create a library in your company. Encourage employees to read these books and host book clubs to encourage discussions on what people learned and how to apply what they have learned.

Recruit training talent from within.

Need a new trainer? Instead of hiring a trainer, consider finding leaders in the organization who’d be willing to facilitate learning experiences. For example, book club discussions or classes on how to be a leader or on customer service. Get your best sales person to teach a class on how they sell.

Tap into social software apps.

Need informal learning software? There are vendors selling very good software. Rather than spend the money upfront, start off by using using free social software services like Yammer or Social Text or Wikispaces.

Reduce instructional design costs.

Designing training is labor intensive, and you need to know how much it costs to develop one hour of training. Track the cost per developed hour of your instructional design and work to reduce that number.

You can increase employee development without spending more money, at least to a certain point. Consider living as lean as possible, and do not allow yourself to get used to big budgets and comfortable time frames for designing and delivering training. To some extent, live like the economic crisis is not yet over.

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Bill Cushard, Chief Learning Officer at The Knowland Group, is a learning leader with more than 12 years experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

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