Long reads

How do you make the most of a tiny L&D budget?

2 Sep 2021 By Verity Gough

The exponential rise in digital learning during the pandemic has put training at the heart of organisations. But with increasing demand for e-learning amid declining funding, L&D has to work smarter with less

The last 18 months have seen digital learning become the norm for organisations across the UK, with L&D leading the charge as companies discover new ways of responding to the challenge. The crisis has also provided opportunities to innovate, realign with organisational needs, refresh tired processes, and streamline many of the employee reskilling practices in response to the disruption. 

With the move to digital across all functions, one could be forgiven for thinking that there was money in the company coffers earmarked for these transformational developments. Yet earlier this year, a study by online and blended learning specialist Arden University found that almost 60 per cent of L&D professionals said that while the pandemic had changed their organisations’ attitudes to digital learning, the increased demand was not translating into investment: only half  (52 per cent) planned on increasing their 2022 budgets to match this need. 

The same trends were evident in the CIPD and Accenture’s 2021 Learning and Skills at Work report, which further revealed that while seven in 10 (70 per cent) organisations reported an increase in their use of digital or online solutions over the last year, a mere third (36 per cent) had increased their investment in learning technology. “I think it’s true to say that the pandemic has caused some who perhaps may have had some scepticism about the value of digital learning to recognise its importance, and there’s now a general acceptance of digital as a very effective tool that can be embedded in most organisations,” explains Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD. “We’ve really got to recognise now that we need to be able to deliver great digital solutions. It’s not second best: digital now is a brilliant option for us.”

Pulling rabbits out of hats

For organisations in the third sector, delivering training has always meant keeping an eye on the bottom line, but the recent disruption has seen L&D take the bit between their teeth and maximise what they have. The Charity Learning Consortium, a group of around 200 charities that shares resources and best practice, has seen a 350 per cent rise in the usage of its free training content during the pandemic: “For years, we’ve talked about learning culture, but changing the culture of an organisation takes time. When you’re forced into doing something, it accelerates that culture change,” explains CEO Martin Baker. “The pandemic has condensed that digital transformation into a matter of maybe weeks. Managers have looked at the situation and said to themselves, ‘We’ve got these resources right here, we’ve just got to use them.’ They’ve just had to change the way they were doing things literally overnight.”

A great example of this is Barchester Healthcare, which runs 240 care homes and six registered hospitals across the UK, employing 18,000 staff. It has been understandably pressurised during the pandemic, yet managed to train more than 650 volunteers using its e-learning induction program, increasing employee satisfaction from 72 per cent to 85 per cent during this time. “The adaptiveness of our digital learning platform enabled us to react within days at the onset of the pandemic,” explains Gareth Williams, the company’s director of learning and development. “We moved some of our face-to-face courses to e-learning, enabled site-based competencies to be recorded locally and enabled trainers to host remote learning and dial into sites to observe practice. 

“As guidance filtered through from the different governments and the Department of Health, we were also able to disseminate messages and videos, usually the same day, to all our people. Throughout the pandemic our statutory and mandatory training didn’t drop below 93 per cent,” he adds.

Another example of L&D ingenuity is the impressive results achieved by Jacqueline Turley, learning and development manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a charity that oversees more than 100,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services across the UK, operating under NHS contracts for a variety of its services. Turley manages clinical training for the nurses, midwives and doctors, ensuring that they have the knowledge, skills and behaviours required to do their job.

“I was told, ‘You can’t do clinical training online, it’s impossible,’ but we’ve had no choice,” she says. “Staff who had been furloughed needed to keep up with their training, and because it’s a clinical setting, they have to be recertified every so often and show continued CPD.”  Turley promptly took the traditional classroom-based lectures online, created interactive videos and an assessment tool to ensure that staff met the requirements before signing them off. “I obviously needed to prove that this was the way to go because the heads of our clinical departments weren’t sure it was going to work – but we’ve now transitioned 95 per cent of our training online.”

What’s more, Turley has also been able to report impressive figures to back up the switch to digital learning: “We’re getting some pretty amazing results. In 2019, we ran 4,746 courses, in 2020 during the pandemic we ran 5,692, and today, at only halfway through the year, we have more than 6,000 courses running. We’re getting more people through training, they are more competent and for a lot less money. In fact, I’ve taken two-thirds off our training budget,” she enthuses. 

Boosting motivation and engagement

Eleanor MacKenzie, learning and engagement officer at the Central Services Committee of the Church of Scotland, has found that the move to digital has had the additional benefit of boosting workforce morale despite the uncertainty brought about by the Covid crisis. “E-learning has really taken off for us and it’s shown the leaders just how valuable it is,” she says. “We have tended to go for face-to-face training traditionally, but since the pandemic I’ve incorporated online learning and we’ve delivered our own tailored e-learning modules that staff can access 24/7. Employee engagement in training has just gone through the roof. They love the virtual classrooms and webinars, and they also find instructional videos useful. I’ve even developed an infographic of how to connect yourself to Microsoft Teams and it’s not just our direct staff that are using it – it’s being picked up by external employees too,” she adds. 

One of the key things that has come out of the Covid crisis for L&D is how much expertise can be harvested from within the organisation – and this untapped, cost-reductive potential translates into training opportunities. Turley has found a means of funnelling the expertise of her nurses into an internal clinical assessment function: “Why would we pay somebody else when we have lead nurses in place who know their jobs inside out? They should be able to develop other people, it is a great skill and motivator for them as well and makes them much more engaged in the process. They have this vested interest, too, because they want their nurses in their own clinic to be the best they can possibly be. The best person to do that is them,” she says. 

And the data doesn’t lie. She reports that the company has reduced its training spend by a third since 2020 as well as building its bank of assessors, training thousands more staff and building digital competence across the whole organisation: “L&D is not just a training department – we’re seen as the driving force.”

Content is king

Ensuring that training design is both relevant and effective is one of the pain points that L&D managers flagged in both the Arden University report and the Accenture/CIPD study, but this does not have to equal higher costs. Lancaster says now is the perfect time to harness the free content available and learning departments should be able to curate the best of what is out there: “In the past, organisations might have dabbled a bit and done a bit of Googling around a particular programme, but what we’re seeing now is an intentional strategy to go and find great resources which support learning within the organisation,” he explains. “The use of smart devices to create short instructional videos or podcasts is increasing and these are incredibly authentic, in the moment and contextual. They are a means of sharing knowledge and experience, which is great to see.”

Williams also points out the benefits of being able to customise cost-effective training packages as a means of achieving more while spending less: “Learning needs to be flexible and developed to meet your operational needs. If you buy off-the-shelf packages, make sure you have the ability to edit content or put together simple e-learning or webinars,” he advises. Lancaster also highlights the benefits of this blended modality: “We are seeing the use of peer coaching and mentoring in socialised communities really coming through to create a place where knowledge can be shared, practice sharpened, and problems solved.”  

So is this the bright new future for L&D? Smarter, more cost-effective, learner-centred and customisable programme design, consumable learning and blended approaches, and a reduction in face-to-face learning, even as we emerge from the pandemic? “We’re not saying training won’t be face to face. Insightful learning teams can now look at how they leverage digital in a really meaningful way, and this doesn’t have to be high cost,” says Lancaster. 

MacKenzie feels that digital is set to become the primary method of delivery for her training programmes: “I can’t see us going back to face-to-face courses the way they were,” she says. “We’ve found staff tend to prefer the webinars and online content, and we’re now creating our own e-learning modules that are blended with supplementary Q&A sessions.” Turley, too, is convinced that the success of her approach to digital learning speaks for itself: “I’ve actually asked the question every fortnight during a catch-up with one of our directors. I said, ‘We’ve done all this great stuff, so what do you want to see going forward?’ And the response was unanimous – this is now the way we do L&D.”

What will digital learning look like in the next 12 months?

 “With massive open online courses (MOOCs) and platforms like Linkedin Learning and Skillshare, managers in charge of L&D budgets have access to an unprecedented variety of learning technologies and offerings. It’s the best time to build an inclusive and diverse learning offering landscape with limited budget. Content abundance, however, means attention scarcity. More than ever, L&D has to answer the relevance and effectiveness question. Why are the selected topics and skills relevant, and how can we minimise the learning time while maximising the output?”

– Nan Guo, programme director executive education at The European School of Management and Technology

“While much of the next 18 months for L&D remains opaque, some things have become clear. Hybrid technology will become a standard part of how we work, learn and develop; ensuring dispersed individuals feel physically included when based outside the office. Inclusivity and participation will become the critical drivers of every learning programme.”

– Richard Robinson, managing director of Econsultancy

“Since Covid, this idea of multiple series, training box sets or collections of minute-long content has grown, and training is going to be much more consumable. People don’t want to be sitting down in front of a PC, they want everything to come straight into their phones.”

– Martin Baker, CEO of the Charity Learning Consortium

“I believe there will be a greater blend of formats going forward. Those who can elegantly integrate and facilitate adult learning between the different formats, recognising the role and value of the different components, will win the race. Online sessions need to be used to deliver learners to the face-to-face sessions ready and prepared to optimise their face-to-face learning time.”

– Claire Hewitt, head of partnership programmes, Corporate Development Division at Henley Business School

“Prioritise, socialise, personalise. We need to recognise that we need to be able to deliver great digital solutions. The pandemic has forced us to really prioritise, while ‘socialise’ is about how we connect people in vibrant learning communities. Finally, personalise: one size never did fit all, and we have people working in hugely different circumstances – what we must do is offer a personalised approach where people can access different content and different resources.”

– Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD

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