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Training employees in an economic slowdown
Sunder Ramachandran
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February 20, 2009
An excellent way to determine the state of the job market is to count the number of pages of leading job supplements every week. More pages mean more work opportunities and that only translates to a growing economic climate. But these days, the reverse is true. Diminishing jobs and retrenchments, businesses packing up and the downfall of formidable companies is only creating more uncertainty and fear in the country. This, in turn, affects the productivity and morale of the employees.

It is not news that whenever there is a budget crunch or as we are experiencing now, a slowdown, one of the first things we see happening is training cuts in organisations. Big mistake for this is the time when all employees need to sharpen skills, learn to do more with less, get creative and continue to commit to sustain the organisation. 

"When the going was good the company pampered them and did everything to retain them. Now that the economy is slowing, they want to throw us out. Isn't that really unfair?", echo most professionals.

Why should employees be considered as disposable commodities when the profit margins start to diminish? Why are they considered indispensable and given high retention bonuses when the organisation is flourishing? Are businesses only concerned with the bottomline? Whatever happened to business ethics and a loyal workforce? Were the Team Building and Behavioral Training programmes only delivered to employees for short term gains? What happened to the nice looking values and mission statements of companies at their plush receptions?  These are some of the few questions that most employees are asking currently.

Alok Mittal, managing director of the VC firm Canaan Partners feels that "Even in a downturn scenario, it is important to keep training going. Apart from its ongoing value to the business, it is also a strong signal to the organisation that talent development remains a key agenda. The first step is to figure out which pieces of training are optional and which need to be retained.

Second, training needs to be made more cost efficient -- this may involve using more in-house trainers, reducing off-site trainings in favor of at-company, and increasing on the job mentoring. Employees are often themselves the best source of innovation in making training more efficient, and it is useful to solicit their suggestions when looking to rationalise costs on this front".

The key question is how do we incorporate a training strategy in the current economic scenario? This challenge can be overcome with a little creativity. Here are some ideas to make this happen. 

Consider informal learning

Often, the most valuable learning takes place serendipitously, by random chance. Most companies, however, focus only on formal learning programs, losing valuable opportunities and outcomes. Keeping in mind, the ever increasing need to ensure optimum utilisation of both time and money, some organisations are promoting the culture of informal learning. Informal learning includes job shadowing, Sharing best practices, peer to peer learning, mentoring, stretch assignments and cross team projects. Here are some ways to initiate this:

Structure all these activities by putting them on a common platform i.e. a corporate blog or intranet. "The economic situation offers companies an opportunity to redraw contours of training towards a more inclusive, collaborative and participative model which has employees as key stakeholders right from conceptualisation to delivery of training programs" says Kapil Murdia, Knowledge Management Executive with an Executive Search firm in Gurgaon.

Meet & greet

Something as simple as 'meet & greet' programmes where executives of the organisation can share a specific area of expertise with employees over coffee/tea break is a method of education.

Lunch & learn

A forum where employees bring their own lunch. Time frame could be extended by half an hour to cover a specific training topic. It is possible to break down a complete training course into manageable chunks to cover off during lunch periods. Organisations must be careful though... as that break is necessary and so this should not be daily. This must be communicated as a voluntary training opportunity and evaluated to determine impact both on the organisation and its employees.

Jo Verde, senior director with Jemm Consultants, Canada [Images] feels that "Organisations should at all times be looking at their training strategy and plan but perhaps redesign appropriate training into self-paced modules with online testing for knowledge and performance change. Another thought is perhaps organisations might choose to use attendance at a desired external training course as recognition for top performers in an organisation. This person could then come back into the organisation and share the knowledge with others.

I have for a long time been a believer that an excellent test of training effectiveness from a knowledge standpoint may be measured by an individual's ability to train others. Organisations may be missing out on a tremendous opportunity here which hits, reduced cost, motivation, recognition, commitment, skills development and so on."

Using Web 2.0 & electronic learning

One way many companies have realised significant training cost savings is through online learning. Electronic learning accounts for a smaller part of training today, but that is changing. Many experts size the online learning market growth from $2.2 billion to be well over $15 billion. Whether you are talking synchronous or asynchronous online training, the challenge is to engage the learner in a style that fits his/her learning preference.

Leveraging the collaborative power of technology, the need is to leapfrog from 'classroom' to 'web-room', from training to 'mentoring' and 'peer learning' and from 'trainer' to 'facilitator'. This can be a win-win as not only it enables organisations to accomplish 'more' by committing less resources, it also keeps employees involved. There are several ways: webinar, podcast, videoconferencing, learning blogs, or even conventional phone or mobile systems. Learning through digital connections and peer collaboration can be significantly enhanced by web technologies where users/learners are empowered to search, create, and collaborate in order to learn new information.

"In my experience, unfortunately what I see is the pendulum swinging one way or all the other. The best organisational training strategy and plan uses a variety of methodologies from online, to lead-led, to self-paced, to tutorials, to lectures, to study groups and so on. They measure ROI and learner feedback and are serious about adjusting their training continually, making sure that results fit the corporate strategy and goals and they manage training like every other area of the business" says Jo Verde of Jemm Consultants. 

A successful general knows that only way to win a war is to keep 'morale of the soldiers high' by involving them, challenging them and developing them. The economic slowdown is triggering rightsizing in many organisations, however it will be in their best interest if they also look at right training as a survival strategy.

Sunder Ramachandran is a managing partner at WCH Training Solutions, a New Delhi [Images] based training & consulting firm. He can be reached at

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