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Training Without the Training Budget

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Training dollars in my department recently dried up. My team and I have hit a wall in terms of personal and team development. Without the money to pay for training, what are ways we can work together to continue to develop our careers and skillsets? 

--Anonymous

As the age of austerity continues to cast a long shadow on the federal government, training budgets continue to diminish if not disappear entirely.  At the same time, federal workers are being asked to produce the same amount of output or more but with fewer resources.  Doing so requires continuous innovation and advancement of skills and capabilities.  Without funding for training, how can you help your team improve its expertise so that they will be ready for career advancement when opportunities eventually arise?

Developing individuals, a team or a large organization typically takes place during three kinds of activities:  

1. The Classroom: The first activity is some type of educational experience that introduces new knowledge, concepts, and thinking.  Without a training budget, it is exactly this type of infusion of new knowledge that is held back from organizations.  I will come back to training; first let’s describe the two other activities. 

2. Applied Knowledge: The second activity that can advance your expertise is taking new knowledge and working on—and solving—difficult problems that reach just beyond, but not too far beyond, your existing capabilities.  Exploration, creativity and trial and error provide the crucible for not only coming up with an acceptable solution but also developing deeper and broader expertise in the problem’s domain.  In essence, tackling progressively more complex problems makes functional new knowledge and expands your expertise.

But, there is a risk.  Tackling problems with complexity far beyond the individual’s existing knowledge base is like trying to bridge a canyon that is just too wide for your existing building materials.  When problems are too difficult then solutions are not found, frustration builds, confidence diminishes and you lose the desire to keep trying.  Yet, without new problems to solve, you get bored, lose focus and performance suffers.  Maintaining the right balance of finding challenging problems, but not too challenging, is difficult.

3. Deconstruction and Examination: The third activity for developing expertise involves tackling recurring problems but in a different way.  You can treat a recurring problem as something more complex than how you have represented it in the past.  Look at it from different perspectives.  Reframe it in new ways.  Think about the problem differently.  With a new representation of the problem in hand, then try solving it in a new way.  Because you already have past solutions to fall back upon, the risk of frustration, diminished confidence, and lost desire is minimized.  Solving the new representation of the problem will expand your expertise and may even lead to innovation and productivity improvements. 

Without any a training budget and the new knowledge that comes with it, you still can help your team advance their expertise by focusing on this third way to develop expertise.  Ask your team to represent existing problems in a new and different way and then ask them to solve the new representation.  For instance, if the team’s task is to produce a large annual report, ask what problem is the report trying to solve?  Who uses the report and for what purpose?  What value can the report create?  What data is needed, in what format, and by whom?  These questions likely will lead to a new and more complex formulation of the challenge, which in turn may lead to an innovation in what the team delivers.  Even if it doesn’t lead to an innovation, your team will learn from the exercise and build its expertise.  It is kind of like going to your gym for your regular workout but using common weights for new exercise.  Doing so can strengthen a different set of muscles that can expand your capabilities.

If you are fortunate enough to have some training budget then your focus should be on getting a higher return on investment from it.  You can do so by making sure that those who receive training soon thereafter use the new knowledge to tackle more complex problems than they are used to.  Solving complex problems that couldn’t be solved before the training is a great way to demonstrate return on training investment.  Who knows, such results may even lead to an increase in your training budget.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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