In 2013, at the end of my first week as Cornerstone OnDemand's first manager of learning and development, I sat down and wrote a three-year training plan. After just a few days on the job, I had no idea what my budget would be, but that didn't influence my priorities in the least.
I had learned how to be scrappy after two decades as an educator and training consultant in struggling schools, where "budget" often meant no budget at all. My subsequent years in corporate learning (despite having more funds) only reiterated that there's little correlation between how much an organization spends on training and how effective it is.
As Brandon Hall Group's 2017 training benchmark study stated, "Although it is a much sought-after piece of data, the actual size of the training budget doesn't mean much. What's truly important is how it is developed, who owns it, and how it gets used."
If you're feeling the constraints of a tight budget for learning and development in 2018, focus less on whether you're spending enough money and more on spending the money you have in the right ways.
While employers spend more than $70 billion a year on training, bigger does not mean better. There are several ways to build strong training programs without high costs.
1. Go on a listening tour.
During my first week at Cornerstone, I went on a "listening tour," scheduling meetings with employees at every level of the organization to get a sense for our culture, structure and mission.
I asked people about their most and least fulfilling work, their team dynamics, and their personal and professional goals. After collecting all of this information, I sat down and put together my three-year plan.
Based on what I learned, I focused on leadership training as a foundational priority. I knew more than half of new managers fail within their first two years on the job and half of employees quit because of their managers, and I saw an opportunity for management training to have a positive ripple effect across all aspects of our organization--improving productivity, engagement and retention.
I go on listening tours every quarter now and revise my plan as needed. For example, we're going to implement a more formal mentoring program next year after hearing feedback from employees.
Listening costs nothing, and it prevents you from chasing squirrels. Before jumping on a new learning trend or investing in the latest tool, you'll be prompted to evaluate whether these resources actually align with your priorities.
2. Curate content before creating it.
The biggest challenge facing your employees isn't finding information, but rather finding quality information. Think about how we consume information in our personal lives: we listen to playlists over albums, attend book clubs over bookstores and subscribe to newsletters instead of newspapers. Learning at work should be no different.
If you can, invest in a learning management system (LMS) or program with built-in curated content. While it may be a larger upfront cost, the ability to handpick training content from existing curriculums will save you time and money in the long run.
If that's not an option, there are plenty of free resources to tap online: Lecture series like TED Talks feature experts on workplace dynamics, leadership and more, and industry-specific publications offer a range of insightful commentary and research. The important thing is to provide employees with a starting point.
3. Find your internal ambassadors.
The best-kept secret to a budget-friendly learning program is your own workforce. I've been an advocate for a learning model that I call "inside-out development" for years.
You can build a custom training program for your employees at zero cost by leveraging the skills, talents and expertise of those same employees.
Every other month, Cornerstone hosts "Development Days," a full day of workshops run by internal employees on everything from remote working to stress management to Adobe Creative Suite.
Our company of 1,500 completes nearly 6,000 training hours a year during Development Days alone, which are entirely employee-generated, employee-designed and employee-delivered. An institutionalized mentoring or coaching program can provide similar impact at little to no cost.
The one piece of advice I've always shared with fellow executives: Never, never institute training for the sake of training. Train because you've identified a need, a gap or a goal in your organization, and develop the right content to address it.
Money alone won't solve the problem, but money spent on a clear vision and thoughtful program can change careers--and companies.