· 2 min read · Features

When budgets are tight you have to target training with precision to get the best return on investment

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As we emerge from recession, employees who have been sitting tight for a couple of years are starting to look for new opportunities. The financial impact of losing a good performer is significant, so at this stage in the economic cycle it's especially important to have a strong retention strategy.

One important tool in improving staff retention is, of course, personal development.  Individuals increasingly recognise the need for a broad skill base to give them role flexibility and help their career progression. Employers who provide that development will reap the benefits in reduced staff turnover as well as improved performance. Our experience with a major sales academy showed that, as well as the performance benefits, staff turnover fell by 50% once a solid development programme was in place.

But the slow recovery from recession means that learning and development budgets are still under pressure. Careful spending is important to ensure profitability and in some cases even survival, but can the training industry support HR professionals in balancing this with the need to invest in people?

One approach is to reduce the amount spent ‘sheep dipping' a large number of employees through the same training. One size rarely fits all, and increasingly we encourage an approach we call ‘precision development'.  This uses a combination of statistical and qualitative analysis to pinpoint the dominant competencies by job role. By identifying the skills that make the biggest difference to performance, you can make better-informed decisions about where and how to invest in training.

Blended training has been around for a long time, but used well it too offers a way to improve training efficiency. E-learning can reduce the number of days spent in the classroom by taking the knowledge transfer component online, leaving a shorter, more skill-focused classroom session. The latest technology even allows you to re-create much of that classroom activity (including breakout groups and role-plays) in a virtual setting, dramatically reducing travel and accommodation costs.  The more widely-spaced nature of virtual sessions can also be beneficial, weaving together training and application over a two- to three-month period.

Even when e-learning and virtual training are not appropriate, there are other creative ways to cut training costs. For example, coaching is a vital part of learning transfer, but one-on-one coaching is very expensive. Simply putting two or three managers in one session with a coach can reduce the cost considerably, and may even result in a more productive experience.

Other forms of reinforcement can be streamlined too, but ironically the way to save money here is actually to do more, rather than less. The biggest waste in training spend is that much of the learning doesn't stick; It is estimated over 80% of traditional training has little impact. Reinforcement is a lower margin activity than training, so the training industry as a whole is guilty of promising much but delivering little once the attendees have gone home. 

One particular area where HR professionals need to be more demanding, and vendors need to do more, is around measurement and evaluation. With so many corporate initiatives flying around, ‘you get what you measure' has never been more true. People focus on what will improve their perceived performance, and the benefits of personal development on employee retention are also magnified if there is a formal accreditation process. Furthermore, having solid feedback about what is working and what isn't allows you to continue to drive the agenda for precision development. Measurement can be as formal as a competency assessment or a business impact study, or as informal as asking the right questions on a regular basis - but measure you must.

Every organisation needs to manage its training budget, but training companies and HR professionals must work together to balance this with the need to invest in people. Getting it right means improving performance, and limiting the loss of talent once the employment market returns to a more fluid state.

Richard Barkey is CEO of training provider Imparta