Training and eLearning in a Recession

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PrintFrom the start of 2008, the “Big R” has been tossed about liberally by the media. The favorite wording tends to be “Looming Recession.” Are we headed for, or are we in a recession? Depends on which publication and which economists are talking – not to mention which day of the week. In fact, just yesterday, Fed Chief, Ben Bernanke stated that while economic growth was “sluggish,” he doesn’t foresee a recession. Regardless, one thing I think we can all agree on is that the economy is certainly in a slowdown, and looks to continue. Economic “uncertainty,” has come to roost. What does that mean for all of us in the world of corporate training?

If you’re like most, the first thing you think is, “Prepare for cutbacks—or worse.” In fact, as we reach out to companies in our marketing efforts, we’re encountering affected training departments. It seems pretty much a given that, when times are hard, training is the first to go. But is it really a given? Is there anything training departments can do to not only avoid the chopping block, but to help their organizations weather the storm and come out stronger at the end? Of course there is! After all, if learning and development isn’t valuable enough during the lean times, how can it be valuable during the fat?

We know the value training brings because we have a strong understanding of its effect on the performance of human capital. I like this statement from Ed Stewart of Southwest Airlines concerning their training recession strategy, as quoted in an October 2003 T+D article:

“Any [airline] can fly 737s to different cities. Our secret weapon is people, so we still had to invest in them.”

Fact is, whether or not they are a “secret weapon,” people are undoubtedly the key to a company’s success. Ensuring they perform well shouldn’t even be a question. But I’m preaching to the choir. Which is the point of this post. If we want to weather this storm, we need to preach and prove to the rest of our organizations our worth. Here are a few ways to do just that:

Do the Numbers
Now’s the time to get your data together. Make it concise. Make it prove your initiatives’ worth—whether you’re talking ROI or qualitative or soft returns. As competition during a recession becomes fierce, quality increasingly becomes a key differentiator. Be prepared to show concrete numbers where your department will directly impact that quality. In the long run, numbers speak much louder than any other talk. If you don’t believe that, have a chat with the CFO. Which leads us to the next item…

Talk to the Right People
Fortunately, trends show senior managers are recognizing training’s worth. Don’t take it for granted, though. The CEO certainly needs to understand your worth. But so does the remainder of the C-level suite, all of whom need to be advocates for training. Take for example, the CFO. S/he can help you understand what numbers you can directly affect in relation to value and organizational growth. Work with the CFO to get your numbers straight and to prove your value to him or her. Certainly, the CFO will be one heck of an advocate.

If one advocate is good, a team of advocates is even better. Work with your company’s business unit leaders. Review the successes your programs have had as well as the impact to their units. Seek to understand where they expect your greatest impact to be—particularly in this year of economic downturn. Remember, business unit leaders are peers and face the same chopping block you do. Be their consultant by demonstrating how training can help their department avoid the pitfalls of a slow economy.

In short, make yourself invaluable to the business unit leaders, and you’ve made yourself invaluable to the entire company.

Tighten Your Belt
You can expect training will be required to cut back, just as other departments. Since it’s a foregone conclusion, be proactive. Don’t wait to be told where, how and how much. Figure it out yourself, put it into numbers (see above), and take it to the CFO and CEO (and your team of advocates, for that matter) now. You’ll not only show you understand the upcoming impacts, but you’ll also demonstrate your department is a “team player.” On top of that, you’ll gain significant trust, and trust is the currency that buys you a spot at the table when senior management seeks advice.

Be Consistent
Now is not the time to start trying wild and/or unproven methods. Yes, the industry may still be going ga-ga over Web 2.0, the Wii or some other such buzzwords, but if you’re looking at untested ground, switch your focus back to what’s already working, what can give you the numbers and proof you need. Besides, you can always try these ideas when times get better, as they surely will.

Look to Past Recessions
What companies survived past recessions? Of those, which came out stronger? Look to those winners and find out what their training organizations did. Model and adapt them to your company’s particular needs and your department’s specifics.

No Time Like the Present
Hopefully, you’ve already been doing all the above. If so, congratulations—you and your company are on the path to not only survive any economic uncertainties, but to come out stronger and more competitive when the economy cycles back to strong growth.

If you’ve been lax in the outlined areas, feel comfort that you aren’t alone. But don’t feel too comfortable. Now is the time to get on it, before things get worse, before decisions are made without your input. Today is the day to make your plan. Tomorrow is the day to implement it. For your good, for your team’s good and for the good of your whole organization, make your move now.

Have your own good ideas for how corporate training departments can tackle recession issues? Share them and we’ll post some of the best ideas.

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