Go back

Cut on training budget? You’ve got to be kidding!

Cut on training budget? You’ve got to be kidding!

‘Do more with less’ is driving performance management in business.  In times of economic uncertainty – which has been the business climate for at least the past decade- training budgets are the first to be cut in an attempt to save costs. In the US, the average amount per learner, spent on training decreased from $976 in 2014 to $702 in 2015. Investment in people development gets limited to training that shows quantifiable increase in performance. This narrows down training to the more technical & functional in-house programs that often have to be rolled out in too little time with too many people.

Soft skills programs are put on hold or down sized to the absolute minimum. Classroom training gets replaced with e-learning. Wise strategy? We don’t think so.

Over 80% of HR people say that performance management is or should be top priority of their company. More than 40% of those survey responders claim that creating additional training & mentoring programmes will considerably contribute to productivity without raising compensation costs. Developing co-workers will equip them for change in a VUCA world and keep knowledge and skills in the company. Other surveys show that high potential millennials increasingly value developmental benefits over compensation even to a point where they will leave if they don’t learn…

Sheds a very different light on how to manage training in times of economic uncertainty, doesn’t it? Cut it? You’ve got to be kidding!

The alternative? Make a wise selection of what topics to invest in, which modalities to implement for what purpose, how to design them or how to challenge training providers.

Keep technical training? Of course! With new tools & technologies emerging at wharp speed, not training your co-workers in new equipment would be insane. Classroom technical training is and will always remain highly effective (figure 5) to keep people’s technical skills up to date. That is, if it is followed by extensive coaching and mentoring. (figure 5) Judging from the popularity of ‘how to-videos’ on YouTube, video learning might also be a promising modality to invest in. It allows learners to access training anytime anywhere. Interesting benefit: the development of learning videos requires the lowest amount of time compared to other learning solutions. (figure 3)



How about functional training? (our label for training related to processes, procedures and skills specific to the company and/or the job) A no brainer. Which is why many companies create a pool of in-house subject matter experts who train colleagues and new comers. These modules represent more than 50% of in house training.

One big hurdle!  Subject matter experts may excel in knowledge and skills about their topic. They are not necessarily good pedagogues. All too many functional training sessions we have observed were actually lectures, one way slide presenting monologues. As if ‘hosing’ information over people’s brains- hoping it will sink in- works. If you have ever been to (university) lectures, you know it doesn’t.

The smart thing to do is invest in training design & facilitation skills of subject matter experts. Not only to increase the ROI of their training sessions. Also to ensure expertise retention: expertise is being passed on and therefore stays in the company, even when staff is downsized. How big a budget would that save?

Last but not least: soft skills. Sadly, the first skills to become victim of economic downturn. Soft skills are the personal attributes that enhance an individual’s interactions, job and career performance and success. Add to that the fact that 75% of people’s time in companies is spent in soft skills (communication, team dynamics and cohesion, delegation, leadership, motivation, influencing, sales…) and that lack of these skills triggers conflicts, bad sales, dysfunctional teams, time wasted, burn outs… Weirdly enough, these skills are usually not part of the average university’s curriculum.

Now ask yourself: why one would cut on training programs that teach people capabilities they should use 75% of their time and that they have learned nowhere. Crazy? Yep!

For sure there are a couple of questions to be asked when considering soft skills training

Who needs what skills?

All too often, participants to soft skills training sessions are ‘attending because they were told to’ without really knowing why. Or -god forbid- ‘pick’ the training from a catalogue to reach their annual quota of mandatory training and consider it a day off.

Attending a training on soft skills (or any other topic) should be the result of regular conversations between co-workers and their N+1. Those interactions will clarify specific learning needs which can only improve the match with a corresponding (customized) training offer.  Setting up such an enrolment process (supported by reflection templates, logbooks and action plans to be discussed with managers pre and post training) is the best way to turn training into a strategic component of the company’s performance management approach. On top of that, it will bring learners to take more accountability for their learning & the training outcome.

How to design (for trainers) or buy (for training managers) soft skills training modules?

Designing a training program- whether it is about functional or soft skills- does not equal putting together slides! It requires meticulous analysis of business goals first, followed by aligning the learning objectives to them. Real ‘learning facilitators’ then design a scenario that opens & closes skills gaps, checking how well intermediate gaps are closed all through the training. This cannot be done in ’presentation’ mode as more learning styles than just the theoretical one need to be addressed.

Training managers can be great sparring partners for both in-house and external trainers by challenging:

  • Content: Why do learners need each part?
  • Objectives: What should people be able to do at the end of the module?
  • Result checking: How will you know that they do- how will you check?

How to measure ROI of soft skills programs?

I wish I had the recipe to measure the ROI of soft skills training or even training in general. I’m afraid that is not (yet?) possible. Why? 

  • Because how to determine if the new performance/ behaviour is the result of the training or some other variable?
  • Because people walking away from a great and effective training are still free human beings. Being ‘capable’ of doing something doesn’t mean one ‘will’. Isn’t competency the result of knowledge, skills and attitude? Free will refers to attitude which is heavily driven by habit. Habits are the result of years of repeated behaviour and/or belief. Then how could a couple of days in training change that 100% guaranteed? It can’t. Therefore, soft skills trainers can only be held accountable for the capabilities their learners walk out with, not their long term behaviour. All the more reason to carefully identify, train and check those capabilities. Fortunately, attitude can be influenced by mentoring and coaching which is the area of learning US companies have invested most in for the past year. (figure 5) Together with class room training, coaching and mentoring score the highest when it comes to effectiveness.  Good soft skills training sessions should therefore ideally be followed up by at least 1 month of coaching for each participant.

Source: ICF

  • Because people remain chemistry driven individuals who sometimes get stressed & emotional. When in such a state, the rational (read trained brain) is overruled by the emotional one which causes people to NOT apply what they learned in the soft skill training. Again, coaching will be a powerful learning tool to reinforce the training impact.


Bottom line? If performance management is top priority in your organization, don’t let habit lead you to cut on training budgets. It may seem like a short term quick win at first sight. It will definitely cost extra in the long run: people will not be prepared for what comes next, young potentials will leave and subject matter experts will take expertise with them when they retire. Instead, involve every manager in the training enrolment processes, invest in the right topics & modalities, consider introducing more coaching & mentoring and transform your in-house trainers into real learning facilitators.

You’ll find that it’ll pay itself back in productivity, retention and wellbeing of staff. And we’re not kidding…