How to train on the cheap

It's easier than you might think to teach your staff new skills without paying for expensive external training. There's no reason why, with imagination and enthusiasm, you can't achieve as much as the professionals - or more.

by Alicia Clegg
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Give something back

We all know the saying 'necessity is the mother of invention', but will the chill winds blowing through austerity Britain start a revolution in how businesses develop their people? In a recession, training traditionally tops the pile marked 'non-essentials' and is first in line for the chop when cuts are called for. Now, with the country staring down the barrel of a double-dip recession and with the prospect of low growth or no growth for months to come, budgets that have already been cut are being sliced to the bone, or scrapped altogether.

But hold on a minute: surely when the hour is darkest, a starvation diet is no way to engage people and put fire in their belly for the fight back to prosperity? At such times, more than at any point in the business cycle, you need your team to be on top of their game. If budgets won't stretch to big pay rises and nice perks, at least a bit of career development makes people feel that they are getting something back.

At the root of the feast-or-famine approach to training that remains all too common in British firms is an assumption that developing people means spending money. According to Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of future workplace guide The Shift, this is a fallacy. 'There is a misapprehension that taking staff out of the office and putting them in a seminar is the way to develop them,' Gratton says. 'When you listen to what people say about how they really learn, they talk about learning from their peers and having challenging jobs where they feel they are being pushed but at the same time mentored.'

Find some volunteers

So, if it's possible to hack your training spend right back and still deliver decent results, how do you go about it? As learning and development manager at the five-star Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, William Mayor used to spend his employer's money hiring consultants to deliver off-the-shelf courses to staff. That was when business was booming and life was easy. For the past year, he has been training his own best chefs, housekeepers and restaurant staff to spend a few hours each month building the skills of their team-mates.

By cutting the Connaught's dependence on outsiders, Mayor, who prepared for his hands-on role by learning 'train the trainer' techniques with People 1st Training Company, says he is saving his employer a small fortune. But the benefits are not solely financial, he reckons. Because it knows what is going well for the hotel - and what is not - Mayor reckons that the Connaught's army of volunteers does a better job of driving up standards than parachuted-in professional trainers. 'They have their fingers on the pulse,' he says, 'if there is a knowledge gap, it can be filled very quickly.'

The Connaught's scheme is just one of a variety of cost-cutting innovations that cash-strapped businesses have been experimenting with since the economy hit the buffers in 2008. Another company rethinking training to give pride of place to knowledge sharing is the IT provider Fujitsu. Two years ago, the UK senior team got together with the learning and development people to develop a series of Harvard Business School-style case studies about leadership, which they presented to up-and-coming managers. Now volunteers from the top team's direct reports are taking the approach forward by drawing on their own leadership experiences. Says head of talent management Rachel Rose: 'People are learning about leadership in the company in which they work, which makes it very credible.'

Moving from an externally sourced training model to one that emphasises learning in-house is not without hazards, however. Without exposure to diverse perspectives, organisations can become self-referential, robbing workers of the transferable skills they need to sell themselves in a cut-throat labour market. Such inward-looking firms also risk cutting themselves off from the outside world and its vital supply of new thinking.

Club together

Joining up with other businesses can address this problem at the same time as making modest budgets stretch further. The Learning Collaboration is a not-for-profit enterprise in Cambridge, supported by around 50 local businesses which purchases training at discounted rates on behalf of its members. Hosting courses on members' premises rather than at training centres brings further savings and opportunities to network. Bill Parsons, CIPD vice president, learning and talent development, says that pooling purchasing has allowed his employer, ARM Holdings, to ditch wasteful practices. 'Most training is uneconomic when you go it alone,' Parsons says. 'At any time, you might have only five people to train, but you still have to hire a trainer, so to fill the spaces you rope in another five who don't really need to be on the course. Collaboration is very efficient and lean.'

Just as individuals learn from colleagues so whole workforces can learn, at low or no cost, from peers in other companies. Recently, Virgin Atlantic's senior leaders hosted a strategy and innovation workshop for their UK opposites at BMW, to be followed by a rematch at the carmaker. 'Because our skills are complementary (entrepreneurialism and brand savvy versus that legendary Teutonic discipline and efficiency] exchanges are a cheap way of stretching our senior people to really think about problems from another perspective,' says Jill Brady, director of HR and external affairs at Virgin Atlantic. Alternatively, suggests Duncan Cheatle, founder of entrepreneurs' organisation the Supper Club, why not invite a supplier or a customer to talk to your team and 'piggyback' on their expertise?

But how does this work from the employees' perspective? Book a training course and nobody doubts that there is a price-tag attached - even if the content isn't all that great, at least people know they are being invested in. But invite Dave from marketing to give a masterclass and, however brilliant he may be, the monetary value is lost. In other words, don't imagine that just because your content is good, its value will speak for itself. As much as you need to get the basics right, it's important to enthuse people - which means applying some psychology.

Hook a high-flyer

Enlisting the help of a big hitter gets you off to a good start, especially if by attending an event people think they might give themselves a leg-up. At Fujitsu UK, the CEO hosts quarterly breakfasts for the talent pool, giving high-flyers a chance to rub shoulders with top brass. At IT services company Xceed, tying 'lunch-and-learn' sessions, led by the firm's senior consultants, to an e-learning course studied by analysts has turned a solitary slog into an opportunity for junior staff to tap the know-how of senior colleagues whom, naturally, they don't want to let down. 'For the lunch-and-learn to be beneficial, people know they must have completed the e-learning (module), and because we put people through courses in groups they naturally want to keep up with their peers,' says Xceed services director Dan Russon.

Perhaps the biggest danger to watch out for is replacing a well-structured if costly training programme with a smorgasbord of cheap and cheerful learning opportunities culled at random from clients, colleagues and suppliers.

If knowledge-sharing sessions are bolted into the business ad hoc, says Suzy Ferguson, programme director at Lewis PR, the process looks haphazard and badly thought through.

But if sessions are held regularly and inspired by requests identified through career-planning interviews, she says, 'people feel they are part of an ongoing programme'.

As with so many other aspects of employer-employee relations, a lot depends on 'having really good managers in your business', says Virgin Atlantic's Brady.

Successful development depends on communication between employees and line managers and the skill with which people are guided and given projects that broaden them. Staff also need clear feedback on what they do well and what they need to do better to progress in their careers.

Get the mind-set right

Could the preoccupation with delivering maximum bang for your buck mean the end of the traditional 'sheep-dip' style of training in which cohorts of employees are herded through a roster of courses as a precondition of corporate advancement?

Professor Gratton observes that 'recessions are great times to think about how to do things differently'. She predicts that today's exigencies will hasten the adoption of scenario-based e-learning, whereby learners grapple with work-related problems posted on corporate intranets. Another may be to accelerate the shift from a 'parent-child' relationship between employer and worker to an 'adult-to-adult' one in which the responsibility for pursuing learning lies as much with the individual who is being developed as with the employer.

Xceed's Russon endorses this principle from an employer's perspective. If your ambition is to create a learning culture in which acquiring skills is what people naturally do, he says, your first priority must be to target the right mind-set. 'E-learning is not for people who need spoon-feeding,' he says, 'but if you get the hire right, people will do very well.'

Times may be hard, but if you buff up your management skills, hire the right team, make the most of technology, piggy-back on other people's savvy and pool your know-how, your company's ability to invest in your people need not suffer. If you play your hand skilfully, you could even end up stronger.



1. Never write a cheque for training until you have established whether there is someone in-house who could teach the same skills for free.

2. Be a cheapskate. 'It's cheeky but true,' says Xceed's Russon, 'but every time you spend, you need to think, how can I not spend that money again?' Whenever his firm purchases training, a director sits in on the course noting key ideas with an eye to running a boiled-down version internally.

3. If you can't promote your rising stars, offer them the opportunity to become trainers of their peers. The likelihood is that they will feel flattered and, knowing that their talents are appreciated, be motivated to stay.

4. Equip volunteer trainers for their role by sending at least one person on an accredited course to learn training best practice to pass on to the rest. As Mayor at the Connaught says, people have different learning styles - some are doers; others need to learn the theory first. 'As a trainer, you must know how to adapt your methods.'

5. Use Facebook-style message boards, chat rooms and collaboration tools to encourage knowledge communities in which employees swap insights and experience.

6. Piggyback on the efforts of others. Getting clients, suppliers and friends to talk to your people can be a great way to inject some free know-how into your business. But ...

7. ... Don't be afraid to look gift horses in the mouth. Before you let your freebie guests loose on your team, check that what they will be covering is neither too technical nor too basic for the audience - just as you would with paid-for training. As Jake Allen, co-founder of bespoke tailoring business King & Allen, puts it: 'If you take people away from their jobs for a talk that's not worthwhile, that's a cost on your business.'

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