Contrary to analysis showing learning to be one of the only truly competitive weapons organizations can control, training departments are rarely well funded. It's the nature of being viewed as an expense against the bottom line. During slow times in the economy, many organizations scrutinize education expenditures even more than usual. Thankfully there are many ways to help people learn without copious capital.
Marshal Thrifty Materials
A few days ago, while in search of a specific Tonka truck, I saw one of my town's richest women checking out at Kmart in a neighboring community. I don't believe her family's fortune has been frittered away. I imagine she just can't bear paying a bundle for all-cotton briefs. Like most truly wealthy people (and organizations) I know, frugality is in her genes. She probably shopped there last year, too. Thrifty strategies work equally well in laden and lean times.
My second suggestion in this more learning with less series is to investigate inexpensive educational materials in locations you may never have looked before. Without trying to sound like I'm 93 years old, I want to point out that "in my day" free educational offerings weren't as plentiful as they are today, and those that were dirt cheap looked like dirt.
Now there are millions of educational modules available to you and your organization free of charge, only requiring the legwork to find them and the time spent sifting through an Internet-size course catalog. The Open Courseware Consortium offers free college-level programs from the likes of MIT, Carnegie Melon and UC Irvine based on an evidence-based design (there are more than 100 business courses available). The Open University in the UK has been presenting free courses since the 1960s and provides mashup tools. There are dozens of learning object repositories across the globe. A former professor at the NYU Stern School of Management offers free on-line management classes to anyone who wants to learn. And you've heard of Wikipedia, did you know there's also a Wikiversity?
You may not find a course for your sales team to introduce customers to your newest product, but then again you might.. Ask your business partners what they have in development, and devote your meager resources to creating what is absolutely unlike anything out there today.
Gone are the days of customizing a general program to meet the subtle differences between the style of your leaders and those at a company down the road. A younger workforce is far more accustomed to personalizing information for themselves. Well, they should be unless you’ve trained them not to be. If you're still paying to have programs made to fit your culture, stop that practice and discover your people can make the leap. See, I've just saved you a few grand.
Go Low, Go High
Courseware doesn't always come in wrappers marked, "Learn Here." [Low tech] books are powerful and widely available, if not free through a swap, then at a lower cost than materials labeled as education content. The Dummies series has sold millions across many business themes. Visual QuickStart Guides have helped me master many tech applications, and with an estimated 150 million books available today, few topics are left untouched.
There's also the high tech route. Instructables has wonderful and fun tutorials on opportune topics. The Dummies people aren't really dumb after all. They've launched Dummies.com with how-to information across a broad range of themes. Howtoons offers cartoons showing kids-at-heart how to build things.
On the low, many colleges and community organizations sponsor free lectures on timely subjects. Check with business schools about getting on their mailing list; your local chamber of commerce to find out if the programs are posted on a schedule.
Webinars and podcasts are also widely available through organizations such as Gartner, strategy+business, WebEx, and Harvard Business School. Sites like WiZiQ make it easy for people to attend public sessions on various topics from academics to anything under the sun. In the spirit on OpenCourseware, UC Berkeley webcasts select courses and campus events for on-demand viewing
Winning the best low-tech low-cost education solution I've heard: a board of directors I work with peripherally has forgone its quarterly (high-priced) guest speaker at meetings in favor of passing out hot business books. Each board member reads one chapter prior to the meeting and gives a short presentation on the most relevant parts to the organization's governance. Refrain from imaging boring book-reports. These are gifted communicators using their existing skills to share key information with colleagues. Economically.
Widen Your Net
Not only should you seek publicly available materials, you probably have more educational content in your organization today than you could ever imagine. Create outreach programs to alert everyone and anyone in your organizational ecosystem that you'd like to know about the programs and materials -- be it full courses or small job aides -- they've created over the years. Make part of your job cataloging and linking to these resources so that other people can find them and benefit from them, too.
RedHat University discovered that in the open-source tradition they are accustomed to, people affiliated with their organization and their products had not only created programs about their technology. They had also extended course offerings and modified the programs in very useful ways. By reaching out to the people who had done this work, they encouraged more "Not Made Here" efforts and they also learned about a treasure-trove of materials the University would never have enough staff to create.
The Learning Resources Center of the United Nations Development Programme, in a similar effort, created a very low-cost newspaper-style learning resources catalog that could be sent out to 150 offices worldwide, promoting different approaches to staff development and listing all education opportunities available from UNDP's divisions.
By stirring in the work of onlookers, they'll tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends…
If you find value in frugality or you have your own favorite low-cost solutions, write here or in fewer than 140 characters @marciamarcia.