Recently I’ve been reading articles and posts warning learning and development professionals that their budgets are about to be slashed. What has annoyed me is the snarky tenor of some of these warnings which say, in essence, that we’re getting what we deserve – we aren’t relevant or vital, and business leaders rightly take this opportunity to get rid of dead wood. Ouch! You know, I get that some of us haven’t learned to be business people yet, but many of us have – we craft robust strategies that support key business initiatives; we have been delivering programs that genuinely help people to be more productive and effective; and we have streamlined our processes to be efficient and cost-effective. So I wish people would stop making it sound like we’re an entire industry that doesn’t know how to deliver the goods.
That doesn’t mean budgets won’t be cut. Everyone is taking a look at their expenses and determining what can be cut back and what can be postponed. For example, a family may need a new car, but they just don’t have the money to fund it right now. In truth, what they need is transportation, not a specific vehicle, and there are lots of ways to get from here to there that don’t require the purchase of a luxury car. In truth, what working people need from us is support in developing knowledge and skill, not necessarily an expensive training program, and there are many, many ways we can help them.
Here are four pillars that I think should guide what we’re doing these days –
Alignment– Organizations are restrategizing their short and long term plans, and we need to do the same. We have to be careful to balance what will get us through next year with what will be needed in the future to help our organizations to take off again when the time is right. We need to be part of strategic conversations so that we can advise business leaders how to leverage tough times to prepare for better ones. Consider what skills may be needed in the future and how we can use the present to help us to get there. (For example, now is a great time to teach future leaders valuable lessons on how to manage in low gear.) In addition, projects that are in alignment with long term strategic plans need to continue to move forward – they may move more slowly, but shouldn’t be shut down completely if not absolutely necessary. Otherwise, our organizations may stall out when it comes time to kick into high gear.
Immediacy – In times when funds are limited and workers are busier than ever, people can’t work on what they’ll need “someday.” (It’s also true that employees are likely to find those skills have changed when “someday” finally comes.) Now is a great time to start moving toward developing learning resources, building informal learning strategies, and connecting people to one another – in other words, building learning assets that are just-enough, just-in-time. These strategies are becoming more important even in less stressful times because the pace of change makes it difficult for formal, longer-term programs to keep up. (Note to self: balance immediacy with alignment. When “someday” comes, we need to be ready; consider how to serve the immediate needs of today AND align for the future.)
Quality – We must make sure our strategies are effective. (Duh!) Quality isn’t as much about perfect organization and award-winning presentation (although these can be valuable) as it is about trustworthiness of content, efficiency in learning, and timeliness of access. We need to define quality for new kinds of learning assets, especially for user-generated materials and social networking strategies. Our biggest challenge going forward is finding ways to support user-generated learning materials while still ensuring trustworthiness, efficiency, and accessibility. A mess of content won’t be helpful, but having learning materials available too late won’t work either.
Applicability– Learning can’t be sustained if there’s nowhere to apply it (and some would argue it isn’t learning until it is applied). When people are busy, the obstacles to application can be insurmountable. So while we can feel good about ensuring learning, we also have to be sure we are supporting application in the workplace. Our learning strategies must include improving management support for learning, increasing access to knowledgeable peers or other facilitators for help with application, and providing resources and tools that aid in the application process.
Come to think of it, these pillars apply always, although their tactical implications may change with the times.
The upcoming year will likely be a challenging one, but as an old boss once told me, you can’t buy this kind of experience (not that you would want to… but it’s part of our development as leaders nonetheless). As budget and resource decisions are made, we should put on our business hats and help our organizations make decisions that are good for the current and future health of the organization’s workforce capabilities. There are opportunities here as well as challenges. Just don’t let those grinches tell you that you aren’t critical to your organization’s continued success – you are if you choose to be.