By SkillSoft

A recent survey conducted by Onepoll shows that, currently, the vast majority of employees (92%) are experiencing stress, with almost a half (44%) losing sleep because of their worries about workplace overload and redundancies. Given the current news, this isn’t surprising.

Each day we hear stories of fresh job losses and companies sinking. Those in work see themselves as the lucky ones; but the constant barrage of bad news means they also feel insecure and gloomy about the future. They no doubt work as hard as ever, but they probably keep a low profile and try not to take risks.

Yet, what does a business need more than anything during tough times? Apart from a healthy order book, committed, intelligent and innovative-thinking employees are near the top of the list.

Rewind to around a year ago when everybody was talking about knowledge and skills shortages - securing and retaining the right talent was seen to be one of the great business challenges of our age.

All the usual touchstones have been moved in this uncertain climate. However, businesses are not going to survive by relying on the cautious and wary. They need smart, well-trained thinkers — not just to weather the storm, but to be ready to take rapid advantage of opportunities when the sun eventually does start to shine again.

But, this is where we have to face facts. Nobody ever thinks that there should be cuts in their own particular areas of business. Yet when budgets are shrinking something has to give. And once a company has withdrawn free gym membership, business travel, subsidised healthcare and other incentives, where do they go? Invariably it’s straight to the training budget. Yet in doing so they cut off one of the most effective ways of creating and keeping talented staff.

A report by researchers at Cranfield School of Management published late last year, showed that three quarters of over 1,000 companies felt that training their own staff was more beneficial than recruiting people from outside. One-third found it increased staff motivation and almost one half that it actually saved money.

So given that even in hard times, business really do need to nurture, develop and guide the talent they do hold, how does this reconcile with diminishing financial resources? It’s clear that compromises have to be made. However, if we take a closer look at what is actually happening in the training industry itself, it may become clear that what begins as an initial compromise, may turn out to be the smartest option after all.

Although there will always be a place for classroom based or external training, a less rigid approach to both methods of delivery and the courses themselves could prove to be the key. For example, large global organisations are increasingly turning to e-learning.

E-learning has come a long way in the short time it has been available and anyone who sees it as a poor substitute for other types of training could be in for a surprise. The main vendors supply a rich mix of programmes ranging from formal skills-based IT qualifications to high-level business courses for managers and beyond.

These maximise the benefits of working online with interactive exercises, rapid self-assessments and role playing exercises. The best offer services that would have been unthinkable without the internet — for example, SkillSoft’s Books 24x7, an online library which puts around 20,000 reference books and other material at the disposal of users around the clock.

The advantages are manifold — especially in the current business environment. Learning is self-paced, can fit around business demands and can be used to address specific and current business issues as they happen. Also, as it concentrates on individual development, it can meet the varying needs of staff far more closely, so underlining their own particular contribution.

Because learning is more private it’s an ideal medium to learn about dealing with more personal issues, such as managing difficult people, coping with stress and other potentially delicate subjects. These help to strengthen the emotional intelligence of staff, giving them better resilience to survive in these more robust conditions.

At SkillSoft, we’ve seen several examples of training managers completely changing their mind about e-learning when they see how far it has come. To their surprise, employees tend to take to these methods extremely well and end up preferring it to more traditional ways of teaching.

For example, Telecom Services Centres or TSC has around 3,000 employees all needing training about a complete range of different clients. Classroom learning was becoming highly expensive and cumbersome to organise.

At this time, TSC’s head of learning and development, Tracey Smith, wasn’t really a supporter of e-learning. However, she was open-minded enough to recognise that a blended learning approach was the best solution for TSC.

Thankfully, Tracey was a rapid convert — and she wasn’t the only one. Although staff were used to classroom training, often on a one-to-one basis, almost without exception they now say they prefer e-learning because of the lack of time constraints and the autonomy it offers.

Because of this, the resulting improvement in performance has been significant. “Nobody could now devalue e-learning,” says Tracey. “We are able to deliver more training with fewer resources and less time than we could before.”

In fact, the return on investment per course has been closely evaluated, revealing vast savings against the cost of delivering courses in the classroom by using TSC trainers or outsourcing.

“It’s a positive, self-perpetuating circle. Increased performance improves our track record, which raises morale, which in turn boosts performance,” she concludes.

It’s been shown that the best companies use economic downturns to widen the gap between themselves and their competitors, to re-align market share and to put themselves into poll position to maximise the recovery when it happens. Cultivating talent is good stepping stone towards this, particularly when it helps better motivate and encourage staff.

And especially when large organisations such as TSC prove that they can do the seemingly impossible — make training more flexible, accessible, relevant — and enjoyable — without increasing the cost.