Learn More With Less: Corporate Education in the Current Economy

With less money available for corporate education efforts, how can organizations learn more now? Some suggestions are old school, others post-modern. This is the first in a series of articles focused on learning as the money runs out.

I’ve directed large education organizations with huge budgets and small departments without a dime. Training rooms I managed accounted for the largest portion of real estate on a spatial corporate campus and another time I ran the training function of a startup out of my attic office. The journey has been a productive one, sometimes flush with money, other times only rich in experience. Each has its merits and all were educational.


So when I began getting asked by education execs for tips on how to manage the corporate education function with less, I wasn’t surprised. Working in extreme situations comes naturally to me and that reputation draws me into conversations with people who don’t know where else to turn. With each call, I’ve reminded people approaches they’ve forgotten amid recent stresses and pointed to new approaches they may have missed.

I believe this is a great time to be learning while short on cash. Never before in modern history has it been so easy to run a training department (or be accountable for people’s learning when you’re in another department yet still focused on knowledge transfer) without large budgets, blocks of free time, or even an organization to help marshal your resources.

Deputize More Trainers
My first suggestion is to increase the number of teaching opportunities for people throughout your organization. Although the best way to learn is to teach, in recent years I’ve seen a trend to bulk up training organizations and reduce reliance on in-house subject matter experts as instructors, managers as mentors, and new employees as a source of fresh knowledge.

By relying mostly on the training department to teach, fewer people remember that educating is part of their job, there is less opportunity for employees at all levels to improve their facilitation skills, and the time-tested, “Gotta learn this now,” which comes from the pressure of explaining it to someone else, dissipates into the regular old rhythm of work. Worse yet, this change of policy shuts down a vital source of innovation in our organizations: the practice of capturing as much new outsider insight from new recruits as we can before they’ve gone “native,” leaving their old responsibilities and brain cells behind.

The Exchanged

At Microsoft, at a time we were challenged to train throngs of people with very little funding, we met with all of the managers in our division to ask if they could each volunteer one person for a 3-month period to work part time — sometimes just for a few hours a week, in other cases practically full time — to get some trainer-training and help enlarge our small team’s capacity. While we were very nervous about their receptiveness to our proposal, fourteen managers took the offer to their respective teams and found people not only willing but very enthusiastic to be part of the effort. As a result from this type of creativity, the employees grew their teaching skills, had an excuse to learn some new cool stuff, and their teams widened their bench-strength considerably.


The Unprocessed

The benefits of giving new hires, even those just out of school, an early job assignment to teach people in their new organization about what they learned before they arrived may be the best investment of time (not money) you make. Empowering new employees in every part of the organization to teach what they know gives them a chance to feel competent at a time when they may not be feeling all that sturdy and it gives your organization an almost unlimited low-cost source of diverse and fresh information. If lunch-time talks mean they don’t get the time they want to bond with new co-workers, create a Friday afternoon panel where a seasoned employee with a Tonight Show-style personality interviews new employees about themselves and some of the lessons they learned in previous situations. Film the show and post it on your intranet. There are many creative ways to gather and share information at little or no cost; it just takes some imagination and motivation.

The Supercool

Thinking this is all too 20th Century? Consider adding a supercool bottom-up, grassroots component to your education efforts. Modeled after the Supercool School Facebook app, which allows participants to initiate (and join in on) learning programs for topics they want to learn about, you can do the same within your enterprise. When enough people have joined together with a request, open a teaching position and anyone willing and able to teach may. This says to people in your larger ecosystem, “Here are programs where your expertise is requested now. Who’s interested?”

It’s no shame for an education department to focus most of their resources on classes for the masses. The money you have should make the largest possible impact. That also may mean there’s no other vehicle for taking advantage of the long tail. For example, if a small group of people are interested in learning how Twitter can be used on the job, but there isn’t a strategic need or numbers to justify a course, most training departments wouldn’t step up. If the group has an easy way to find an instructor, though, why stop them? This self-organizing model offers a vehicle for people to enroll in and teach class on topics interesting to only a few people, and it gets more instructors, not fewer, excited about teaching what they know.

Erik Davis and several of his colleagues at Booz Allen Hamilton, are piloting a hybrid supercool approach by using their internal social media software to post Craig’s List-style classified ads where people can request and respond to learning opportunities. Their social media space has become a hub for people offering and seeking goods: education, learning, and the teaching that leads to wider knowledge transfer and deeper responsibility throughout the organization. And it costs next to nothing.


While I encourage you to enlist the teaching skills of people throughout your organization, please realize this doesn’t need to be only for courses. Consider job swaps or have novices shadow expert employees.

Every activity that helps people become mindful about their role as educators ups the conversation about learning in the workplace and leads to people learning more.

If you don’t believe in the traditional separation of learners and teachers, either, or you have your own favorite low-cost solutions, comment here or in fewer than 140 characters @marciamarcia.

The second article in this series addresses free and lost-cost content.
The third article approaches nontraditional fundraising.


Marcia Conner >>


About the author

Marcia Conner works with ordinary people doing ingenious work and mediocre organizations realizing their employees can work in inspiring ways. She features stories of both in her upcoming book on ingenuity