Should You Cut Your Learning Budget in a Downturn?
At some point, every organization will face an economic downturn. It could be a global recession or a serious slump in one of the industries you serve. Regardless, too many organizations jump to the wrong conclusions too quickly. They slash investment in employee development to save on variable expenses. But cutting a learning budget in haste can lead to much more severe business damage over time.
That’s why smart leaders embrace a long-term growth mindset before, during, and after a downturn. It’s why they double down on developing their people, even when times are tough. And as a result, these organizations don’t just survive. They thrive.
Learning: Strength in a Downturn
Wondering how some businesses actually flourish during difficult economic times? Take a look at the research. During the recessions of 1980, 1990, and 2000, a small minority of companies (9%) showed strong performance. In fact, they outperformed competitors by at least 10% in sales and profit growth.
What was their secret? In part, they invested in helping employees make better-informed decisions, improve their responsiveness, and adapt more quickly. What was the common denominator beneath these improvements? Learning. People needed the right knowledge and skills to pursue new roles, embrace new tasks, work more resourcefully, and make more effective decisions.
That’s why organizational learning is critical during a downturn. Yet ironically, L&D is often among the first departments that suffer when budgets are cut. It’s time for learning leaders to challenge this practice. Because employee development is not just a nice-to-have option when times are good. It is actually a powerful way to increase productivity, retention, and competitiveness — especially during uncertain economic times.
Flip Your Perspective
A downturn often brings uncertainty and fear. But seeing it instead as an opportunity for growth and differentiation can help your organization position itself as a market leader when recovery eventually comes. Preserving your learning investment can help your people do exactly that. If you cut back your learning budget now, you will hinder your future success.
I might be preaching to the L&D choir. But this is a vital message to spread far and wide across your senior stakeholders. Why? Chances are, the learning budget has already been slashed in each of your competitors’ organizations. If so, you can plant seeds now that can eventually grow into a competitive advantage.
Build the Case for a Sustained Learning Budget
To communicate effectively with executive stakeholders and colleagues, focus on understanding their unique priorities, fears, and challenges. For example, issues that matter to your CFO won’t necessarily be what keeps your CHRO up at night.
Department heads can be a goldmine of insight into high-priority projects, as well as the skills needed for successful outcomes. Partnering with these leaders increases buy-in. And with more voices supporting you, the less likely your learning budget will be cut.
Internal partners can also help you define learning programs that will have a deeper impact on your business. For example, when Capital One implemented a new cloud-based digital transformation, senior learning leadership worked closely with the CIO to define and develop required skills, assignments, and content.
Align Learning With Business Success Metrics
During a downturn, leaders are laser-focused on return on investment (ROI). To avoid seeing your budget hit the cutting room floor, L&D should focus on business metrics that show how learning contributes to the top and bottom line. When you show evidence that learning boosts performance, productivity, and operational efficiency, your C-Suite will think twice about trimming your funding.
Again, partnering with other departments can help uncover relevant data that may not be available in your learning system. For instance, you could link learning behavior with business data such as sales leads, onboarding time, or customer satisfaction scores.
The more directly you tie learning content and consumption patterns with business readiness and productivity metrics, the better. It’s even better if you can prove your learning strategy delivers a tangible business impact at a lower cost than a legacy learning system or process.
Make Every Dollar Count
Ericsson is a good example of this strategy in action. When investing in a new online learning system, the L&D team found that course completions rose by 62%, while the cost of operating the learning technology ecosystem fell by half.
At the same time, business units saw a 41% increase in ethical practices, with 97% of employees completing new anti-corruption training within two months of launch. This was a month faster than previous campaigns with higher completion rates.
In addition, the L&D team discovered that the number of workers who learned Ericsson’s five company-critical skills (5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning, collaboration, sales, and automation) increased by 14%.
Address Employee Uncertainty
A final point you can make to your C-Suite involves the human aspect of thriving in a recession. Make no mistake, your people are feeling very vulnerable right now. If they think their jobs and livelihoods are at risk, they cannot do their best work.
People may need to expand their workload in the wake of hiring freezes or layoffs. They may need to switch to another role, team, or project to keep your business operating smoothly. Or, they may have extra capacity when a project is canceled or delayed.
All of these situations affect employee wellbeing and performance, especially if people don’t feel equipped to perform well. In fact, nearly 60% of workers say a lack of confidence in their skills makes their job more stressful, and nearly 40% believe their mental health suffers as a result.
Offering a tailored learning plan with clear career growth opportunities that extend beyond the immediate downturn can have a huge influence on an employee’s perception of job security.
The Marketplace Values Skilled People
Companies that treat their people well during a downturn are building lasting loyalty and a strong employer brand that can pay off over time. For L&D, actions you take now to preserve your learning budget can directly influence your organization’s ability to attract and retain talent in the future.
This is also a strong confidence signal to those outside of your company. It shows prospective customers, analysts, influencers, and investors that you understand this is just a moment in your business lifecycle, and that you’re preparing your workforce for the inevitable upturn.
After all, if your people aren’t prepared with the right skills when the opportunity arises, your business won’t be able to seize the day. In fact, if you wait to upskill your people when a recovery begins, you’ll be too late. Others who invested in learning during the downturn will lead.
Grow Now, Lead Later
Historically, some of the most innovative and inspiring businesses continued to grow during downturns because their leaders understood that opportunities don’t necessarily come during good times. Tough times present challenges that can force you to rethink processes, reskill your people, and develop a competitive edge while other companies may pause.
Learning is crucial in all economic climates, but especially in uncertainty. Skills are the building blocks for your future. You don’t want to cut back on them and find yourself without a springboard to success when the going gets better. For the kind of business impact that will stand the test of time, resist the temptation to cut your learning budget. Instead, double down — the sooner the better.