That was the message of US President Barack Obama, speaking ahead of the April 2009 G20 summit in London: “Don’t short change the future for fear of the present.” While the case in question is fiscal stimulation – where characters as diverse as John Maynard Keynes and Viv Nicholson have been mentioned by those commentating on proposed public spending – it’s also very much a live issue in talent management.

 A quote from another well-known name illustrates the issue concisely:

 Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today”
Malcolm X

When the economic cycle is heading downwards, one thing it’s easy to lose sight of is the fact that it is a cycle. The direction will at some point turn upward again.

Training and development takes time to deliver its results: while there are immediate benefits, effective development – ie clearly linked to business objectives and with its application supported in the organisation – delivers incremental but sustained returns. If organisations are to realise the full benefits of learning and development in six or twelve months time, they must therefore be looking to make the necessary investment now – in a climate where budgets are under close scrutiny and the temptation to cut is strong.

The 12th Annual PricewaterhouseCoopers Global CEO Survey illustrates the conundrum. 72% of CEOs rated access to and retention of key talent as critical to sustaining growth over the long term. Short-term pressures are telling, however, as workforce skills – the top priority in the 2007 survey – now rank seventh in priority. As PWC observe, the risk in making cuts is that “companies cut the wrong investments, impair their competitiveness, and lose out to others who are using the economic winter to hire good people or gain market share.”

The survey implicitly flags another concern, however. For learning and development to realise its fullest benefit, it must take place in organisations that recognise their part in allowing it to bear fruit. A separate survey of 4,000 graduates joining PwC from 44 countries flagged training and development as their top priority. Meanwhile, while CEOs identify understanding employees’ wants and needs as vital in their retention and development, only 30 per cent believe their understanding in this area is ‘comprehensive’.

Analogies can be trite, but there is everyday parallel outside most people’s windows: their gardens. Pruning isn’t just about removing what’s not needed: it’s about making sure strong future growth will take place where it’s wanted or needed. Prune in the wrong places, and you may not have much to harvest. And pruning isn’t the only method: feeding and replanting are equally important.

Another recent survey, undertaken in the UK by CIPD, shows that our CEOs may be keeping an eye on the longer game. 70% of employers say learning and development remains a high priority: although 46% ackowledge that their economic/funding situation has worsened, only 32% will cut funding for training in 2009. Significantly, 81% of learning, training and development managers highlighted management and leadership development as the most important skill to embed in organisations in order to meet business objectives during the recession and a majority of employers are investing in new programmes to develop the role of line managers to help them deliver effective training.

To quote Claire McCartney, CIPD’s learning, training and development adviser:

A skilled and motivated workforce will be essential to ensure organisations are well placed to take advantage of the recovery when it comes.

Our evidence shows that employers recognise this and are doing what they can to ensure skills don’t stagnate despite the tough conditions. The importance of training line managers will also be crucial to building the resilience needed to emerge in good shape for recovery. With training budgets under pressure, they will have a big role to play in ensuring on-the-job learning is delivered and in prioritising the training needs of their teams.”

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