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Training on a Budget: Creative and Cost-Effective L&D Solutions

By 4th November 2019 November 14th, 2019 HR Management Tips

How to Provide Effective Training on a Limited Budget

When people ask me what sort of training budget I’ve managed, I inwardly smile. This is because the truth is, in most of the jobs I’ve held, it’s been a very small one.  Now, you might be asking why that is.  Well, sometimes it’s been because the company has struggled with cash flow. My most recent role as Group Head of Learning was at Thomas Cook Group – need I say more… However, even when I’ve worked in cash-rich organisations, I’ve often found that training budgets can still be pretty low.

So, how do you deliver 21st-century training on a budget?  I’m going to share my top tips on how to set the foundation in place to deliver great learning interventions. These are all applicable whether or not you’re on a tight budget. Then, I’m going to give you some inspiring ideas for the type of low-cost innovative learning innovations you can deliver with a bit of creative thinking. You can jump to sections with these links below:

Tight Budgets Aren’t Always a Hindrance to Good Training

Now, you might imagine that working with very tight budgets would be a hindrance to delivering great 21st-century training. Yet, you’d be wrong.  In my view, having only the resources already available in your organisation to play with makes you more curious and innovative.  Personally, I’ve found it makes me laser-focused on what I do have at my disposal. Consequently, I have to be really thoughtful and about how best to use those assets to really make the most of them.

I also think it makes you more collaborative. When you don’t have the money to buy in learning solutions, you have to find them. You have to look for the really talented experts within your own organisation. Those who can help you create solutions in-house. Alternatively, you might search your personal or extended network(s).

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Leverage and Focus Your Resources

Whether or not you have limited assets, it’s really important to understand where best to focus them. This is essential to achieve the biggest returns on your learning and development interventions.  And to do this, you first need to get to know your company. Get to know the departments within it. Discover the opportunities for the Learning and Development team to really make a difference.

My recommendation is to start with the company strategy, values and behaviours.  Understanding these will help you get to grips with why the business exists, what it’s trying to achieve and how it wants to achieve it.  These important factors should be reflected in every learning intervention you deliver. Furthermore, in doing so, your solutions will be aligned to moving the dial on the important company, customer and colleague metrics.

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Developing Your L&D Strategy

Once you’ve got to grips with the company strategy and values it’s time to set your L&D strategy.  I tend to create two-year strategies. This is because I find they’re defined enough to give a clear focus on the activities you need to deliver. Yet, they are also flexible enough to accommodate any rapid business changes that happen during that period. Additionally, with continuing advancements in technologies and new digital ways of working, I’ve learned, there will be rapid business changes. Therefore, you’ll need to be flexible!

There are lots of books and articles on how to set an L&D strategy, but here are my four top tips to get you started…

1. Look Inwards

Sit down together as an L&D team, get your HRBPs and senior business leaders or stakeholders involved. Construct a series of internal research activities, including focus groups, online questionnaires and 121 interviews.  Point these at different departments and different levels of seniority – the results will be fascinating and they’ll help you identify the common themes and key focus areas where your L&D solutions can add most commercial value.

2. Look outwards

Do some great external research.  Take a look at what other brilliant companies in and outside your own industry are up to in both the business and L&D spaces. Reach out to them.  Go and visit them.  Get inspired.  Make friends with your counterparts there. Don’t be afraid to ask for their insight and help with forming your own initiatives. In my experience, passionate professionals are usually really happy to help – and often for free!

3. Look Up

Benchmark your L&D team against the very best teams out there. Find out what they’re great at, and what they need to do more of in order to compare to the top deck. The LPI has great free tools to help you do this.  Research the latest trends in L&D.  What are the most current, exciting and radical developments in learning?  How can you and your L&D team become experts in these new ways of working?

This doesn’t need to be expensive. You can encourage your team to attend free conferences, give them time to do free desk research or encourage them to take up LinkedIn Premium free for a month, giving them access to a free trial of LinkedIn Learning which is packed with up to the minute tutorials on the latest L&D, business and technology thinking.  If you work for a big company that pays the English Apprenticeship Levy I would recommend using some of that levy to put your team through an L&D apprenticeship. These qualifications would usually cost around £9,000. However, if your company is paying the levy, it won’t cost a penny more than your company has already invested!  I could go on…

4. And Then…

Analyse the data and insight coming from the various research activities. Identify the key themes and focus areas, which need to be included in your strategy. Some of these will be repeated across different business areas. For example, at the moment, digital capability and literacy comes up a lot as a repeated skillset which all colleagues at every level need to continually develop. You might want to create a company-wide learning programme around this theme.  However, there might also be a need to improve sales and service skills in your customer-facing teams. In which case, you’d want to work with the Sales and Operations Director(s). Allowing you to create a more bespoke tailored programme for these areas.

Either way, these would be the types of key themes which might come up in your research and, therefore, might feature in your L&D strategy. Once you’ve identified them you can create your draft strategy.  When you have your draft L&D strategy, play it back to the business.  You might need to tweak it before your key stakeholders are happy with it. But, once they are, ask them to sign it off and you’re ready to go!

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Getting Your L&D Strategy Right

I believe it’s really important to get your L&D strategy right before starting to work on any learning solutions.  If you get these foundations right and involve the right people in the process, I guarantee you’ll have much greater buy-in and cooperation from the business. Particularly when you’re recommending L&D solutions to support strategic growth areas or to fix areas which aren’t where they need to be.

Flow Chart, Training on a Budget

For L&D to have a seat at the top table and be taken seriously it must act as a true business partner understanding the needs of the business. Furthermore, demonstrating it understands where opportunities for growth exist and finding great solutions to deliver real commercial benefits.

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14 Ways You Can Deliver Innovative 21st-Century Training on a Tight Budget

So, now you know how to develop a great L&D strategy, next, we’ll have a  look at some of the super-cost-effective and inspirational ways you can deliver innovative 21st-century learning on a really tight budget.

Once your strategy is in place and you’ve identified your key themes and the focus areas where L&D can really add measurable value, it’s time to get creative.  And the lower the budget you have to work with the more creative you’ll need to be. However, that shouldn’t put you off.  Some of the best L&D solutions I’ve seen have been created with little or no budget.  What they all had in common is bags of creativity, innovation and a strong belief from the people who created them that anything is possible.

So here are some of my top tips for creating L&D magic on a very tight budget:

1. Start by Creating a Great L&D Brand

In my opinion, this is really important. Your brand is the shop window for your product. It should be represented on every learning intervention and all the advertising materials you create.  If your company has a Communications or Marketing team they’ll usually help you create L&D resources. Such as brand logo PowerPoint and email templates, posters and advertising materials.  If you don’t have a Comms or Marketing team, you could try creating your own brand logo.

You don’t need a large training budget either. In fact, you can do it for free using a site like Freelogodesign.  Your brand will be used on all your learning solutions, so make sure to create a look and feel that you love.

2. Create a Flexible L&D Team

If your business can’t afford the luxury of a full-time dedicated L&D team, consider creating a flexible team of colleagues who take on some L&D responsibilities outside of their day job. This can be really rewarding, giving job enhancements to colleagues in operational or support function roles and giving you some valuable L&D resources you may not otherwise be able to afford.

That’s what we did at Thomas Cook, creating a multi-award-winning Contact Centre Training Experts (CCTE) model.  In this model, we took the very best contact centre agents who also had the potential to become great trainers and we trained them up with L&D skills.  They spent 50% of their time on the phones during peak periods, and 50% delivering great L&D solutions in less busy periods, and it worked like a dream.  The business was already covering the cost of this head-count, so there was no additional head-count cost for L&D.

3. Make the Most of Your LMS

Take a good hard look at your Learning Management System (LMS). If you don’t have one consider setting up a free Moodle LMS. Your LMS is probably your most expensive asset after your team.  Therefore, it’s really important you make the most of it.  Your LMS should never be a learning vending machine.  Instead, it should be an easy to navigate inspiring source of useful information designed to help colleagues in different roles get better at what they do.

Speak to your LMS provider and other customers that use the same LMS to discover the art of the possible – and then push it further.  Create multi-media learning catalogues full of great content your L&D team has sourced for free or created in-house.  Create learning curriculums to support specific development programmes.  Showcase what’s on your LMS. Run lunch n’ learns, lightning talks and advertising campaigns to show colleagues the great content you’ve created, how it links to their work, personal and business growth areas. Then show them how to access it and make the most of it.

4. Create Your Own e Learning and Video Content

e Learning is a great way to deliver low-cost training on a budget to high volumes of people, especially if you create it in-house. An Articulate Storyline licence can be purchased relatively cheaply and used to create inspirational online learning.  I’ve seen this software pushed to its absolute limits.

Filming, Training on a Budget

My internal online design team used it to create gamified learning, animated learning and integrated video content with software and it worked a treat.  They also converted an un-used storeroom into a green room and with a couple of old SLR cameras donated from the Marketing team and a boom mic they created high-end video content to use in their e Learning solutions.  They invited some brilliant internal and external guests to be interviewed in the green room and edited the videos using free or very inexpensive software like Camtasia.  These videos were then used in both online and classroom learning and colleagues loved them.  They cost a fraction of the price of getting an external AV production team in and the results were brilliant.

5. Go Social

Lots of companies are now really exploring the use of internal social channels. For instance, Microsoft Yammer or Facebook Workplace. These are brilliant channels.  But if your company doesn’t have the budget to invest in these, don’t shy away from using a domestic channel for your training. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are great platforms.

Stephan Thoma ex Global L&D Director at Google created an amazing programme called G2G (Googler to Googler). It used nothing more than an internal network of willing subject matter experts (SMEs). They were supported with some training on how to create great video content and a domestic YouTube channel.  The result was an inspiring catalogue of user-generated content. Content that fellow Googlers consumed in bucket-loads.

At Thomas Cook, we did something similar using a closed domestic Facebook group to reach our distributed network of retail stores.  The store colleagues and managers told us what learning they needed. We sourced internal and external experts (for free) to deliver a schedule of Facebook Live broadcasts followed by live Q&A sessions.  Our colleagues loved it. Moreover, they consumed most of the content via Facebook’s watch-later option between 6-8 am and 7-10 pm.  So, the people who said that colleagues wouldn’t consume learning in their own time and on their own device had to eat some humble pie!

6. L&D Champions

If you’ve created some amazing content, whether it’s classroom, online or virtual classroom but you’re not getting any traction with it, a great solution is to create a network of L&D Champions to help get the message out there. Once you’ve got your network in place, bring them in for monthly get-togethers, brief them on your latest innovations, new courses or online materials and give them a briefing pack to share with their colleagues at the monthly or quarterly town halls or team briefings.  This is one of the best and cheapest ways to get the message of your good work out there.

7. Signpost Great Free Apps on Your LMS

Scout the AppStore or PlayStore for brilliant innovative free apps that will help support your strategy.

If you’re working in a multi-cultural environment and need language skills, try Duolingo it’s free, fun and highly competitive.  If you need a free innovative mindfulness app try Headspace’s meditation app. Alternatively, if you’re looking to pep up a town hall or training session with a free live voting system try Polleverywhere.  The options are literally endless for great free innovative learning in this space.

8. Lunch n’ Learns or Lightning Talks

An old but brilliant faithful. These short innovative sessions can be used to continually put learning front-of-mind for everyone in the organisation. They’re also great when training on a tight budget. Schedule a regular date every month to host a series of talks or short training sessions.  Select topics you know will bring people in and which fit with your L&D strategy and key focus areas.  Seek out brilliant internal and external speakers. People who are happy to donate 30-60 minutes of their time to teach others about a hot topic relevant to the business.  These sessions never fail to draw a crowd. Ensure they’re well publicised. I find posters on the back of the toilet doors work well for these events (you’ve got a captive audience with time to read your advert).  Best of all, they cost nothing to put on.

9. Senior Leader Panel Interviews

Another fantastic free development solution is to select a hot topic from your strategy and invite a panel of your senior leaders to be interviewed by a member of the L&D team, about their views or recommendations on it. Again, if well publicised this never fails to draw a crowd. You can use Polleverywhere or Twitter to draw out questions from the crowd during the interview.  Project the live stream of questions onto a screen or TV and you have yourself a very professional expert panel.  You could even broadcast the session live using Facebook Live – then remote colleagues can also take part.

10. Create a TED Talk Cinema

Focussing on your business and L&D strategies, take a good look at TED and TEDx Talks. Spend time carefully selecting the most inspiring talks and aligning them to those hot topics.  Create a showtime schedule, and host a discussion forum after the show.  I promise that if you select inspiring topics you’ll always draw a crowd.  If you’re stuck for inspiration, take a look at the 10 most popular TED talks of all time – my personal favourite is Amy Cuddy:

11. Meetups

If you have expert groups who require additional continued professional development (CPD), but your company can’t afford to support expensive external qualifications, why not create an internal/external networking group. I’ve supported several of these.  A great way to connect like-minded people and share ideas when working within the confines of a limited training budget. They work brilliantly and cost next to nothing.

Start by reaching out to other local businesses who have similar working groups. For example, project managers, business analysts or customer experience experts (the list is endless).  Work with enthusiastic expert volunteers.  Connect them and help them shape the (volunteer) speaker agenda for their first few meet-ups.  If the companies you’re collaborating with have a bit more budget than you, perhaps they could sponsor pizza and drinks, while you provide the venue. Meetup is a great place to advertise the events once they’re up and running.  Use their site, LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter to publicise the events. I’m sure it will surprise you how many people come along.  Check out a great example.

12. National Learning at Work Week

Hosted each year in the third week in May by the Campaign for Learning is a brilliant way to showcase your most creative L&D work and raise awareness about your function and what it can offer. It’s also a great way to test out any or all of the new creative ideas above in a low-risk environment.  At Thomas Cook, we always tried to deliver something absolutely brand new during NLW. Why not, after all, it’s the one time during the year when putting together a stunning portfolio of learning activities provides everyone with permission to leave their desk and learn something new. Including the L&D team themselves!

13. Great Communications (The Secret to It All)

You cannot build it and expect them to come. It simply won’t work.  Use every trick in the book and get the message of your great learning solutions out there.  If you want to create a learning culture, you have to let people know you’ve got some great learning opportunities on offer.  Speak to your Comms team (if you have one).  My favourite low-cost advertising methods include:

  • Email footers to ‘Save the Date’.
  • Adverts on all of your regular training sessions (online and classroom).
  • Adverts on your internal intranet.
  • Bi-weekly e-flyers.
  • Adverts on any internal TV screens.
  • Posters on the back of toilet doors.
  • Create a closed Facebook group and put adverts on it.
  • Video trailers for courses and keynotes on your LMS or YouTube channel.

14. Retrospective Reviews

Taken from the world of Agile working, retrospective reviews (or retros) are an invaluable way of looking back on the learning initiatives and reviewing their impact.  I host a retro after every new learning initiative. Also, intermittently for longer-term initiatives like management and leadership development programmes that run repeatedly with different cohorts over long periods of time.

Feedback, Training on a Budget

I like to gather together a representative group of people. Those with a stake or interest in the learning that’s been delivered. We reflect on the following: what worked well, what could have worked better and how would we pivot or change what we’ve delivered in future.  They never fail to deliver valuable insight which helps improve the L&D offer.

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Measuring ROI

Whether your training initiatives are administered on a tight budget or not, you should be delivering learning that has a measurable impact.  You need to know this to understand what to continue doing because it’s making a difference. Also, what to stop, because it isn’t.  Many years ago I read a CIPD book by Paul Kearns called Evaluating the ROI of Learning.  In the first few chapters it goes through all the usual models; Kirkpatrick and the like. Yet, right at the end of the book, it essentially says actually, you can waste a lot of time using all of those models – so don’t bother!  Just measure what the business is already measuring.  And that’s what I’ve done ever since.

What to Look For

I look at what the business is measuring in the area I’m implementing a learning solution. Then my team and I create a hypothesis to see how far we think we can move the dial.  Then, we check back to see if what’s been implemented has moved the dial in the way we thought it would.  This will usually involve me or the team working with statisticians and the Finance team. We look at things like employee retention, engagement, productivity, promotions, lateral moves, NPS. Basically, anything of interest to the business is of interest to us.  Sometimes we measure against control groups. Sometimes year-on-year performance improvements. Your numbers experts will help you with this.

I don’t always measure the impact of all the learning my team delivers. It’s really hard to measure the impact on some of the regular short soft-skills training sessions you run. So, I’d recommend you don’t try and measure the impact of those.  But project work, or long slow-burn programmes I absolutely do measure.  It makes me think commercially, and if L&D wants that coveted seat at the top table it has to be commercial. Even when delivering L&D on a very tight budget.

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You Can Deliver Great Training on a Budget

So, in conclusion, it’s absolutely possible to deliver incredible, impactful 21st Century training on a budget.  You just need to be curious, courageous and innovative.  Block out the nay-sayers who tell you it can’t be done.  If you can do those things, I have absolute confidence you will create amazing L&D solutions with the limited resources at your disposal.

You can hear more from Caroline in the latest episode of the Learning Hack Podcast.


For further useful tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to People Management Skills. Also, don’t forget to check out our YouTube Channel and our award-winning blog to see more helpful HR Management Tips and articles.

Caroline Ford

About Caroline Ford

Caroline Ford is the ex-Group Head of Learning and Development at Thomas Cook Plc, the world’s best-known name in travel. Caroline’s passion for learning can be traced back to her first role as a specialist sales and service trainer for insurance giant AXA. Since then Caroline has gone on to work in senior L&D and consultancy roles for some of the biggest and best known blue-chip companies including Prudential Plc, Churchill Insurance and ComparetheMarket.com. A multi-award winning learning and development specialist, Caroline loves getting people excited about everything she’s excited about and right now that’s putting the customer at the heart of workplace development – and everything in tech! Her firm belief is in the development of customer-centric digital skills, which is why she’s recently established the Thomas Cook Digital Academy an attraction and retention tool promoting Thomas Cook as a company which embraces new ways of working, supports great careers and offers digital skills development for all. In addition to being a learning specialist, Caroline is a full-time working mum, a self-confessed lover of dance music and has recently taken up Tai Chi, which she says has helped her get some balance in a very busy life.

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