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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Recession – a time of opportunity?


I was reading a report from the IOD the other day all about training in the recession. The results of two surveys conducted 6 months apart were pretty positive – training seems, for the most part, to have been spared the worst of the cutbacks and, for 80% of respondents, training budgets have either remained the same or even increased, despite difficult economic times. As hospitality, events and travel have been cut back pretty seriously in most organisations, unsurprisingly some of the costs of training have also been under the microscope, with organisations quick to investigate training methods which don't require hotels, lunches and course dinners. This certainly mirrors my recent experience with more and more requests for advice and guidance about how businesses can best utilise online options to limit time off the job and reduce the costs associated with training such as travel and accommodation. Innovation often springs from some of the most unpromising of situations – after all, necessity is the mother of invention, isn't it? But one quote in the report really struck me. Along with utilising internal staff to run training programmes and sharing expertise with other organisations, the use of online learning had extended in more than one case to webinars and synchronous online conferences. This unnamed respondent said: "We have a total ban on travel and external training – everything is having to be done through our corporate learning portal via the use of web seminars. But many people are ill-prepared to have their training and development delivered in this way – it is easy to only give the training half your attention by continuing to read/write emails whilst the phone is on mute for example." I found this interesting, not just because it shows a great insight, but also that so few organisations have thought about the cultural shift which an online learning approach may require – amongst managers, learners and trainers. Now as it happens I'm not a big fan of webinars, though I have occasionally been involved in some very good ones. It seems to me that the skills of an online facilitator/trainer are quite specialised – a cross between a subject matter expert and a radio phone in host. Not surprisingly, therefore, those less engaged may zone out now and again and emails and Solitaire become a necessary distraction. That said, I have observed a number of training programmes where busy, stretched executives have been reluctant to put down the blackberry or even close the laptop during the workshop. At least then the trainer can see them and address the issue directly – assuming they are sufficiently assertive, or sufficiently bothered. There are other cultural issues with the move online. When I was involved in evaluating a major programme for one of my clients – a programme available as an online experience for those with network access and good English language skills and also available as a face to face version for those who perhaps didn't have regular internet connection or needed it in their mother tongue – we found that face to face learners were given ample time off to complete the programme. The workshop based events tended to be a bit of a sheep dip approach to training – one size fits all. By contrast, online programmes were much more tailored to meet specific needs, but learners were rarely given any time to complete their learning and complained that they needed to learn in their own time, at lunchtime or even during their holidays if they were to complete the programme within the agreed schedule. Perhaps the fact that training has been taken away from the 'coal–face' of the day job for so long – sub-contracted to external consultants in conference centres just off the M4 – has meant that the practicalities of essential learning and development taking place in the workplace is too much of a shock. So, amongst those in the IOD survey who had fought for and saved their training activities, there was a tendency to shift training responsibility online and/or to in house subject matter experts – both options that are certainly better than removing training opportunities altogether in difficult times. I think many organisations beyond IOD's survey are also thinking of this approach and if that's a route you're intending to follow, here are my three top tips: 1. You need to ensure that those who are now required to facilitate learning are given every assistance to do so – adequately trained to do the role and prepared for any resistance they may face if internal programmes are valued less by learners than the previous external provision (complete with chocolate hob nobs, those little wrapped sweets in the seminar room and lunch on the company). 2. You need to prepare managers and learners through very active communication so that they understand how their roles will be different in the changed learning reality. 3. The delivery of programmes online and/or by local experts needs to be absolutely first class or your learners will compare essentially amateur offerings with the work of professionals – an unfair comparison and one which will always reflect badly on those left to pick up a new and unaccustomed role. In particular the IOD survey makes a very important point – a recession is really not the time to abandon staff training altogether. Having been through more than one economic crisis, I can certainly endorse the view that being equipped to handle the other side of any downturn is equally as important as weathering the current storm.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting article…
    Hi Robin,

    Interesting piece. I run a training company in Brighton and from about November last year people kept saying to us that “training is the first thing to go in a recession”!

    In reality, this hasn’t been the case, although we have seen some interesting trends in the sort of courses that people are asking as about compared to last year. We provide a wide range of courses across IT, Business & Management Skills, Project & Process Management. Whilst demand for some of the “nice to have” courses has dropped off, we’ve been doing a lot more Lean and Process Management training . I think a lot of companies that got away with having inefficient business processes in the boom years are suddenly realising that they need to reduce waste in the recession.

    Your comments about organisations bringing training in-house are also interesting and this is something we’ve also observed. We’ve been asked to deliver more tailored in-house courses and demand for our Facilitation Skills and Train the Trainer programmes has also increased.

    Overall though, it seems that companies recognise the fact – as you rightly point out – that now is not the time to abandon training altogether, as those organisations that continue to invest in their staff will be best place when we start seeing economic recovery.

    Colin Welch
    Training Manager
    Silicon Beach Training

  2. Thanks for your comment
    Couldn’t agree more with your comments and I’m glad my experience isn’t isolated. I think the increase in your train the facilitator courses and similar provision suggests some organisatons are taking seriously the need to give the necessary skills to in house experts if they are to be relied on to do more and more training themselves. I wonder if the rest of the training industry is sufficiently equipped to sense the shift from provider to enabler?

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Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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