How to Build Skills Without the Budget

Q: 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 skill sets? —Anonymous

As the age of austerity casts a long shadow on the federal government, training budgets continue to diminish if not disappear entirely. At the same time, workers are being asked to produce the same 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 members of your team improve their expertise so they will be ready for career advancement when opportunities arise?

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

Classroom Instruction

This type of educational experience introduces new knowledge, concepts and thinking. Without a training budget, this is the type of infusion of new knowledge that is held back from

Applied Knowledge

You can advance your expertise by working on—and solving—difficult problems that are 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 develops functional new knowledge and expands your skills.

But there is a risk. Tackling problems with complexity far beyond your existing knowledge base is like trying to bridge a canyon that is too wide for the 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 challenging problems, but not too challenging, is difficult.

Deconstruction and Examination

This approach involves tackling recurring problems, but in a different way. You can treat a chronic problem as something more complex than you have represented it in the past. Look at it from different perspectives. Reframe it. 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 on, the risk of frustration, diminished confidence and lost desire is minimized. Solving the problem in its new form will expand your expertise and may even improve innovation and productivity.

Without a training budget and the new knowledge that comes with it, you still can help your employees advance their expertise by using this approach. If the team’s task is to produce a large annual report, for instance, ask what problem the report is intended to solve. Who uses the report and for what purpose? What value can the report create? What data is needed, in what format, and from whom? These questions likely will lead to a more complex formulation of the challenge, which in turn may lead to an innovative solution. Even if it doesn’t lead to an innovation, your team will learn from the exercise and build expertise. It is kind of like going to the gym for your regular workout, but using common weights for a 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 that investment. You can do so by making sure those who receive training use the new knowledge to tackle more complex challenges than they are used to. Solving problems that couldn’t be solved before the training is a great way to demonstrate return on 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, a professor at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis, is a senior scholar in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and director of Brookings Executive Education.  

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