Today’s business landscape includes mergers and acquisitions, financial downturns and structural realignments (among other challenges), which can create downward pressures that ultimately reach learning groups. While these pressures can affect the entire organization, they often result in direct cutbacks and consolidations in the learning function. Savvy learning leaders can leverage these situations to increase strategic value and become more closely aligned with business priorities by doing more with less. This article highlights five areas where learning leaders can achieve high-impact results with fewer resources.

1. Invest wisely. Training not aligned to business results or strategic imperatives is often seen as a cost to the business and is more likely to be subject to cutbacks. Conversely, training that demonstrates results and is closely aligned with the organization’s priorities is viewed as an investment in the business and is a candidate for further resourcing. While training managers are only one stakeholder with input on which projects are adopted and supported, there are often many opportunities to set priorities and provide guidance on where investments should be made.

Investing wisely begins with becoming well-versed in the organization’s strategic direction. This knowledge must evolve, based on leadership changes, acquisitions, technological innovations and more. Staying aligned with these priorities is the starting point for any investment case. Meeting with line of business heads and other key stakeholders to understand functional priorities can help round out the strategy starting point at a more tangible and project-focused level. This approach provides the basis for formulating learning strategies, project plans, timelines, budgets, resources and organizational structures.

Here are some key questions for consideration:

  • Is the learning organization optimally configured with the right mix of skills and number of resources to support its agenda?
  • If internal clients demand a large-scope project that you assess to be superfluous to the business need, are you well-positioned and ready to make a case for a “rightsized solution”?
  • For custom projects, have you carefully considered the pros and cons of executing them with current internal resources versus a vendor work-for-hire engagement versus staff augmentation?

2. Is it productive work or busywork? This consideration takes the “invest wisely” point to a granular level. How and where do learning leaders and their staff invest their time? When used wisely, time becomes a source of competitive advantage. With this in mind, high levels of activity do not always predicate high levels of results. There are two important questions to ask: Am I focusing on projects and tasks that align with business priorities, and am I performing projects and tasks in the most efficient manner?

A job task analysis performed by General Dynamics IT for a client proved this point. The analysis of a salesperson role revealed that master performers consistently at or above quota spent approximately 80 percent of their time and effort on activities that led to increased and expanded sales, and only 20 percent of their time on administrative or other non-core sales tasks. For salespersons with below quota sales performance, the numbers were virtually flipped. Both groups were busy, but one focused their energy where it yielded the greatest return.

Efficiency depends on a number of factors: planning and organizing the work, identifying and weeding out inefficiencies, matching level of effort with expected returns, maintaining focus, managing time, quality-assuring work product, and concentrating on end goals and results.

Adopting the right attitude to achieve high levels of productivity not only takes time and practice but a realistic assessment of where one’s mindset may need to shift. Table 1 shows the distinction between busyness and productivity select workplace mindsets.

Table 1.

Mindset Busy Productive
Orientation Activity Results
Projection Busyness/talk Accomplishment/act
Work/Results Expectation More work/more results Improved work/better results
Response Reactive Thoughtful
Status Quo Accepts Challenges when appropriate
Level of Effort Constant Matched to outcome/expected return
Thinking “In the weeds” “Big picture”
Quality Quality control (at the end) Quality assurance (throughout)
Task Response Always says “yes” Sometimes says “no”

3. Rethink learning.
 Old habits can be hard to break, but breaking outmoded ones can help achieve success with fewer resources. Whether it’s the learning group saying “we’ve always done it that way,” or the internal client indicating “we expect it that way,” failing to challenge the status quo, when appropriate, can have consequences: becoming predictable, losing the innovation edge, falling behind technologically and missing opportunities. It can also result in lost efficiencies, with projects taking more time and resources than they should and that the organization can afford.

How is the learning organization thought of in the broader context? As “order taker” that develops training or as a “trusted partner” that helps to move the needle on performance? When the focus is on performance, it naturally challenges the team to be a catalyst for improving the end product, which can stimulate newfound ideas to create learning that is better, faster and more cost efficient.

One such approach involves analysis. Analysis efforts often face criticism for being time consuming, costing too much, and not always yielding actionable and practical recommendations. When performed properly, however, they can be very manageable and provide roadmaps for rapidly and more cost-efficiently developing instructionally sound learning. For example, Rapid Instructional Systems Design (RISD) re-engineers the analysis and design process by gathering all key stakeholders together, brainstorming approaches, outlining a solution arrived at through consensus and quickly documenting the outcome. In our experience, RISD results include:

  • Cutting design time by up to half
  • Identifying gaps earlier in process
  • Improving risk mitigation planning
  • Delivering high-impact information with minimal investment and time
  • Reducing rework

Pushing the envelope on new methods not only can result in improved learning outcomes, but also more productive means to create them.

Here are some key questions for consideration:

  • Does the learning organization have the performance consulting skills needed to effectively conduct front-end analysis and back-end evaluation?
  • What efforts are being made to sharpen the skills of the learning organization (e.g., dedicated R&D, joining a learning consortium, participating in leading industry events such as TICE)?
  • Have new approaches (e.g., modified ADDIE, virtual instructor-led training, performance support tools) been considered to support business needs?

4. Rightsize learning. Investing time wisely has two connotations for the learning organization: Is it investing its own time wisely, and is it developing products that maximize learning efficiency? In the past, a “bigger is better” mindset prevailed. Today, it is “less is more.” Common user complaints of training that isn’t optimized include:

  • Attending training where only a fraction of content is relevant
  • Retraining on mastered subject matter
  • Taking courses that are too long
  • Unrealistic/unmanageable learning paths

Whether because of faulty maintenance, past acceptance of bloated curriculums or lack of sound modularization, a non-optimized curriculum that is left untreated can create resounding negative impacts on the learning experience, but also on critical skill acquisition and behavior change. Fortunately, there are a number of approaches to improving non-optimized learning, including:

Microlearning: Integrating five- to 10-minute chunks of discrete learning on focused topics allows learners to get exactly what they need, when they need it, without having to take a long course.

Slimmed Courses: Reassessing legacy e-learning content with fresh perspectives can often reduce course size by as much as 33 to 50 percent. Focusing on need-to-know content, keeping it performance-based and pulling out content that can be used in a support role (i.e., job aids) are all ways to “rightsize” courses while maintaining instructional effectiveness. Of course, any new development should apply the same stringent standards for determining which content is included and how to most effectively treat it.

Adaptive Learning: Incorporating a means to assess a learner’s prior knowledge and skills, whether by creating custom training paths or providing opportunities to test out of training, can often result in an improved learner experience and significant learning efficiencies.

Reassess Learning Paths: Is the current curriculum “overstuffed”? Is it meeting business needs? Are learners satisfied with it or do they complain? While a curriculum analysis requires dedicated resources and time, when properly conducted it can set the stage for more targeted, succinct learning paths while also paying dividends for future courseware maintenance.

5. Drive Value of Partner Relationships. Selecting the right partner begins with a thorough and objective assessment of need. For example, what specific functionality do you require from your learning management system (LMS) and why? There are many LMS solutions on the market offering a broad range of functionality, industry specificity and price points. Documenting your organization’s specific requirements is the starting point for objective assessment of needs.

Here are some key questions for consideration:

  • How well does the provider understand your organization’s challenges and your industry?
  • Are they consultative in their approach and willing to deliver candid answers, even if they aren’t the ones you want to hear?
  • Are they responsive, ready, willing and able to assist when needed?
  • Do they manage time well and respect your time and that of your stakeholders?
  • Are they willing to make small changes in scope without fees, or do all requests include an upcharge?
  • Do they conduct themselves with professionalism and integrity in all their interactions?

Doing more with less is both a challenge and a trend for learning professionals in today’s business climate. With openness to change and a plan to address areas where critical productivity gains can be made, the challenge can be met successfully.