Promoting L&D investment during a downturn

Collin Poage explores the importance of L&D and how learning leaders can communicate this imperative to the C-suite.

Inspired by the famous Ben Franklin quote “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” author Tom Collins noted that “For purposeful long-term success, an enterprise must be solidly anchored by a belief in the Two Certainties – we will always be judged by others, and change is constant.” 

If there’s one constant in business, it’s you must constantly navigate upturns and downturns – always under the scrutiny of colleagues, customers, investors, and more – to cement your company’s market leadership. But savvy business leaders know that the real opportunities for differentiation, change and innovation come during downturns, which are also the best times to invest in your people. As many businesses face today’s economic uncertainty, it’s up to L&D leaders to communicate why learning investments are so critical, and why companies should see the threat of recession as a talent development opportunity.

The right people investments will help your business do more with less. Hiring freezes often occur during downturns, so your existing workforce needs to remain productive and adaptable. If your people are continuously learning, they’re ready and able to move into new roles or take on additional responsibilities.

Why invest in L&D?

Investor Warren Buffett once said bad news is your best friend because it creates opportunity. He also noted: “The best investment by far is anything that develops yourself, and it’s not taxed at all.”

If you wait to upskill your people until the economy starts to recover, you’ll be behind those who invested in learning during the downturn

Investing in your people can signal confidence to your stakeholders, especially those who will want to know your plans for growth when the inevitable upturn comes. After all, if your people aren’t prepared with the right skills when the tides begin to turn, your business won’t be able to grow, transform, and innovate.

In fact, if you wait to upskill your people until the economy starts to recover, you’ll be behind those who invested in learning during the downturn, and they’ll lead instead.

Learning can clearly help your company through tough times. But how can L&D communicate this to senior stakeholders?

Share the true impact of learning

The answer to how you can communicate the value of learning is hiding in plain sight in your data. But it’s not just about L&D data, it’s also about business performance data. Indeed, partnering with business units will help uncover the data that tells the full story of how learning is supporting business objectives and driving revenue.

Understandably, business leaders are hyper-focused on ROI and business value, with 44% changing their purchasing decisions due to rising costs. This means L&D metrics need to evolve beyond vanity metrics that fail to show learning’s true impact on business performance. L&D must be seen in this environment as critical to the business, otherwise it leaves L&D susceptible to budget cuts.

The right metrics can prove to senior stakeholders that learning is a clever investment and not just a cost centre. Forging a close partnership with colleagues in other departments can provide you access to business data to answer key questions, for example:

  • How has learning and skill building impacted sales leads, onboarding times, customer satisfaction scores, or promotions?
  • How do your active learners perform relative to their peers in terms of performance reviews, mobility, employee turnover, or engagement?
  • How has your learning enabled key corporate initiatives?
  • How has your skill building allowed the organisation to be more nimble or more data driven?

After all, studies show enabling people with the right skills and knowledge and boosting engagement will ultimately impact their daily work and performance. More than four in ten workers say that a lack of confidence in their skills means tasks take longer to complete and more than one in five state that their work is lower quality due to missing skills. These skill needs can be easily addressed, oftentimes through tools that have demonstrable ROI.

Connecting learning hours and popular learning topics to business goals, readiness, and productivity can help you provide the C-suite with a more complete picture of how learning is supporting your workforce to succeed.

Grab attention

When you tell your data story, be sure you know your audience and tweak your message accordingly. What matters to your CFO is not always what drives your CEO, so choose your metrics and methods wisely. And remember that short, at-a-glance reports and graphics will make your data more digestible, especially for time-strapped business leaders. Summarise your key points, and bring it all to life using real-world examples.

In one such example, global investment group Prosus enabled 101 developers to upskill in AI micro-credentials, thereby opening up new career opportunities for those individuals. Simultaneously, Prosus also developed technical skills for thousands more through its AI for Everyone learning programme, increasing the baseline data and digital literacy in anticipation of future AI investments. L&D is helping the organisation build skills to meet future demands while investing in the long-term success of its people.

Get buy-in and budget

Partnering with other departments has an added benefit. It can drive more targeted learning, as closer engagement helps identify critical skill gaps within those departments. Team leaders and department heads are closest to the daily skill needs of each function, so they can inform learning plans based on what’s needed to meet current and future goals. You can create valuable business allies by proving your learning programme can help stakeholders upskill their teams. (And you might even gain some budget to make it happen.)

L&D is needed more than ever

It’s understandable that right now many business leaders wish to pause. However, the responsible thing for L&D leaders to do is highlight the critical role the workforce plays in every aspect of business survival and recovery. Learning helps all teams achieve more with less in tactical and strategic ways, and it enables people to ramp-up quickly when the inevitable economic recovery happens.

You can be a spokesperson for learning in your organisation. You can help the organisation understand the ways learning drives real business value. You can help ensure senior leaders accelerate recovery by supporting L&D when it’s needed most.

Collin Poage is senior director of business consulting at Degreed

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