When the going gets tough...

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Tough goingJohn Pope says you can stare the recession in the face – and survive. Here he gives his practical tips on how to get going to beat the downturn.

It certainly looks like a recession – all the symptoms are there: government in denial, remarks like 'It's always slow at this time of year', 'We mustn't panic ourselves into it!', while at the same time, consumers are stuck for cash and there is a big personal debt mountain, and businesses are trimming back their budgets.

And at these times it is a tradition that training budgets and activities are cut, often dramatically, and dismaying many independent training providers.

Photo of John Pope"Do those 'starred for promotion' managers really have to go to Harvard or Fontainbleu, and why now when the ship is leaking badly and it should be all hands to the pumps? Can they be spared? Can the business afford it?"

Well, there's no avoiding reductions in the budget, so the question for those responsible is what action to take. Training and development will still be needed but must be more effective and at reduced cost.

I have now been through four serious recessions. My suggestions for getting more from less are based on what I have seen work.

Don't train people who are not going to be around

Seems obvious? Yes, it is, but how are you going to know who they are? Only by being close to top management, and knowing what is being considered, which lines may be dropped, what activities stopped. The list of sacrifices will not be totally new – some may have been on the sick list for years and kept alive only by regular transfusions.

Take a look at the 'walking wounded', the individuals who have seemed to be ineffective for a long time. And look also at the professional 'course attenders'. How can they be so available when you are trying to complete numbers for an undersubscribed event. Their departments can spare them so easily – they must be candidates for redundancy.

Left hand – right hand

One of my brothers was sent on an expensive leadership programme in common with others in the company. The aim of this was to identify those with talent and leadership qualities. He outshone everyone there and was marked as being very high potential. Two weeks later he was being culled. Stupid or cruel? Probably both and certainly a double waste of talent and money. You need really good links with HR to avoid that sort of thing.

Review your existing training programmes

You have a regular programme of training events. They were all valuable once; are they still? The ideal is to challenge every programme and every aspect of programme delivery. Are there cheaper or more effective ways of achieving its objectives? Is the balance between internally and externally provided training right. A thorough review takes time, and you may be pressed to make savings quickly, so take a few short cuts. Get a colleague and some managers whom you trust for their judgement. Look at each in turn and prioritise them for relevance and effectiveness. Don't look at the cost until you have done that, then consider which you would prune if you had to.

Review the length of each programme

These 'happy sheets' should tell you whether the time was well spent, but seldom do when they are filled in a wave of euphoria at the end of a course. Look at each programme - could it be shortened without losing something important? There may be scope for reducing costs as well as getting members back to work sooner. And do they have to be run in hotels?

Cut out that high-cost training

At least cut it back until the good times come again. Do those 'starred for promotion' managers really have to go to Harvard or Fontainbleu, and why now when the ship is leaking badly and it should be all hands to the pumps? Can they be spared? Can the business afford it? Better check on the business case which has been made for each expensive 'investment'.

Reallocating some of the investment

Now I agree that these are short-term responses to a problem, so better put together the case for and against continuing each bit of training and, if it were cut back, where any money you are allowed to retain could be spent. And do that before it is done to you.

Training as an investment?

There has been a spate of good articles on TrainingZone.co.uk on calculating the return on investment of training.

Training only makes a 'return' when the new skills and knowledge are used on aspects of importance to the organisation. Better check up on how much training is really applied after the course. Yes, managers are supposed to de-brief their people when they come back from training, hold a discussion on how it will be used, identify what new work that individual will be capable of. How often does that happen? Not enough in my experience – there are always reasons why it hasn't been possible, why that manager is 'still thinking about it'. Better prune that training, better still, prune those managers who waste people and their abilities. And you already know who they are.

Train for the current issues

What happens in a recession? Re-organisations and redundancies. Better take a look at how the last few re-organisations have been handled. Happy? That's good. 'Not happy' is more than likely. Here's where you can, and must, spend some money.

"Better put together the case for and against continuing each bit of training and, if it were cut back, where any money you are allowed to retain could be spent. And do that before it is done to you."

Project managers and line managers will need some training. If possible, do that in-house and draw from past experience. Get in a good project manager or relevant specialist who is also a strong facilitator and use the experience gained so bitterly and at such a cost last time so that the new changes are managed well and properly co-ordinated. Make sure that managers know how to handle redundancies without getting into trouble. Once again, you need to be in close touch with HR and the top management.

The management teams are going to be busy

Yes they are, but managers should not be too busy to get much more involved in training their own people, and helping to train other manager's people. They should have been doing it already. Some will, and you know who they are – they are your friends. The others have been passengers – get them out and get them to help. Give them guidance, check on the results. If the business problems are serious they should want to be seen to be pulling their weight.

Nobody likes recessions, reorganisations and economies

But when they happen you can spot those members of the staff who, stimulated by challenge and good leadership, really pull their weight. Remember that sign-on-office-walls 25 years ago: 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going'? Yes it was trite, but it happens to be true, and development and training managers, as well as the top management, can make it happen.

Short term – long term

Much of this is a short-term action, and some of it might not have been necessary if the training function had a closer relationship with HR and with the top management team. There will be an upturn, and you will need to be ready for it. Strengthen those links, look ahead, be aware of what development is going to be needed when the recession recedes into the distance.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He has worked in a wide range of businesses where performance and service were the keys to success.

He continues to advise businesses at senior level on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change. He can be contacted at [email protected]

To read Nigel Paine's feature Surviving the budget cutsclick here

To read John Pope's recent features on TrainingZone.co.uk click on the titles below:

Executive development: Do you need a carrot or a stick?

Developing new managers: Will you let them sink or help them swim?

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