Your company's greatest asset isn't your product, your customers, or even your big ideas. It's your employees. The more time and resources you allocate to cultivating this valuable investment, the more significant dividends it will pay.

Why, then, do Learning and Development departments have to fight tooth and nail to get financial buy-in from the C-suite? Why are employee training programs seen as a perk, a "nice to have," instead of an essential tool for growing a better company?

This myopic view often stems from insulated L&D departments that are disconnected from larger company goals. Departments that deliver training materials on demand but don't create long-term initiatives to fuel overall employee development will be hard-pressed to prove their ROI or position themselves as a long-term strategic partner. They will always be seen as a short-term expense, not a tool for company growth.

To provide the most long-term value, L&D departments must align themselves with larger company initiatives by proactively setting learning goals instead of reactively responding to training needs.

Reactionary training is an expense

Pouring training budgets into reskilling initiatives that retroactively plug up skills gaps leads to an inefficient and ineffective L&D department that's vulnerable to budget cuts.

Reactionary training programs are only rolled out after a skills gap has grown so wide that the company can no longer ignore it: for example, retraining to focus on empathy in customer service after receiving negative customer comments about that, or, on a larger scale, instituting mass reskilling initiatives designed to retrain large chunks of the workforce whose jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete due to new technology.

The problem with reactionary training is that it's often too little too late. By the time a training need grows too big to be ignored, it's already causing damage to your company in the form of ineffective employees, lost customers, or general inefficiency.

If these skills gaps are allowed to metastasize on a large scale, they can be very difficult to close. Mass reskilling, for example, rarely works the way it's intended. People aren't robots; you can't input the same new skills to all en masse and expect everyone to adopt them equally well. When you standardize training for large swathes of people, you're forced to overlook each individual's aptitudes and career objectives. This mass generalization leads to redundancies. Some employees are forced to repeatedly learn the same information while others may slip through the cracks without achieving proficiency.

While some reactionary training is always necessary to tackle unexpected road bumps, an L&D department that only responds to training needs once they become too big to ignore is in a vulnerable position. When companies spend the majority of their training budget on these ineffective "fix-it" programs, L&D starts to look more like an expensive band-aid.

A reactionary L&D department is continually playing defense as it hurriedly creates training programs to meet demand. Short deadlines and urgent projects handicap the department's overall productivity and prevent them from planning larger initiatives or contributing to larger company goals.

Proactive training programs are an investment

Instead of just reacting to training needs after they've emerged, start treating training as a proactive tool that can head off potential knowledge gaps before they become significant issues.

Proactive training means creating training programs that address future projected training needs. You do this by aligning your L&D strategy with larger company goals.

For example, if your company is adding a new feature to its product in May, a proactive L&D department would create product demos and courses to educate customer service and sales teams in March and April. This way, everyone is prepared for the change, and nobody is playing catch up after the fact.

Proactive training can also be more expansive. It can mean building a learning culture where employees feel empowered to ask for help and surface training needs. It can mean empowering employees to share their knowledge with their co-workers. It can also mean promoting self-directed learning paths to encourage employees to take charge of their personal development.

Shifting to proactive training programs requires some significant structural changes. Traditionally, many companies have taken a centralized, top-down approach to training. Managers or L&D leaders decide training needs based on what they believe the company needs. They provide training courses, and the employee's only role is to complete those courses.

Conversely, a proactive training environment is more democratic. Learning is typically bottom-up, with employees playing an active role in identifying potential learning needs, setting their own learning paths, and even contributing to course materials.

While there is more of an upfront cost to proactive learning programs, the ultimate ROI is much greater. Robust development programs are also a powerful mechanism for boosting employee satisfaction and retention as a valuable share of your Employee Value Proposal. An L&D department that aligns with the C-suite and the company's larger goals can be a powerful tool in keeping up with the pace of business.

What treating training as an investment looks like

To start treating training as an investment, you’ll need to create a learning environment that is more democratic and inclusive while fostering a broader culture of learning throughout the company.

That can sound daunting, but you can take some specific measures to start shifting your training from an afterthought to a strategic tool.

Identify learning needs ahead of time

Shift to a bottom-up method of training needs analysis to create more relevant training materials and respond to training needs faster.

Traditionally, L&D teams or individual managers perform a training needs analysis on their own, independent of employee input. They look at existing knowledge gaps, perform a skills-gap analysis, and create a plan to fill those gaps by creating new courses. This process is labor-intensive and promotes reactive training: you identify existing needs, then you meet them.

In contrast, a proactive L&D team will work to identify potential learning needs before they become a significant issue for the company. They’ll source potential needs from employee suggestions and prioritize those needs based on business impact. Sourcing training needs from employees is more accurate and helps you uncover training gaps before they grow.

Training needs analysis comparison

Instead of happening two to four times a year, a proactive training needs analysis is flexible and ongoing. This helps L&D to detect potential issues early on and quickly source materials to address them.

Create a culture of self-enrichment

Encourage employees to independently learn and improve themselves, even when there isn’t a directive. As our CEO says, “employees who are continually learning will never need reskilling.”

Reactive L&D departments only ask employees to complete training when it’s required to solve a problem. Their focus is on results, not initiatives. Employees devote little time to enrichment activities for their own sake. Not encouraging development can be very demoralizing for employees and can lead to increased turnover.

Effective self-directed learning requires a careful blend of employee autonomy and manager support. Employees want to learn to be better at their jobs, advance their skills, and further their careers, but they often don’t know where to start. More than half of employees report they would happily spend more time training if their managers offered specific guidance and recommendations. Encourage employees to set their own learning goals under the supervision of their managers.

Leverage your employees’ knowledge

Your employees got the job because they are great at what they do. Take advantage of this massive knowledge asset by allowing them to teach and learn from one another.

Many L&D departments outsource their course content creation or have L&D do it. Not only is this cost- and labor-intensive, but it's also slow. It can take 100- 160 hours to create one hour of traditional online learning content. Slow course production limits courses' effectiveness and prevents L&D from agilely addressing projected training needs.

Tapping employees as part of the content creation process speeds up the process. When you use a Collaborative Learning platform, anyone in the company can easily create a course. You can make the most of your employees’ valuable institutional knowledge and create more relevant courses.

Measure ROI

To treat training as an investment, you need the data to show that investment is paying off. It's not enough to create courses and hope they help people learn. Hard numbers will help you prove training ROI, earn C-suite buy-in, and make a case for bigger budgets.

Invest in an LMS or learning platform that can collect robust analytics data. You'll want to see course completion rates and information on how learners interacted with your courses and whether they found them helpful. With an advanced tool, you can connect your learning platform with other tools, like your CRM, to directly see how training affects employee performance.

Change the conversation around training

The world is changing fast, and businesses need to evolve to keep up. They need to invest in proactive training programs that address reskilling, employee growth, and technological shifts before skills gaps cause significant company problems.

You can make this compelling argument by continuously tying your departmental initiatives to supporting overarching company goals. It will be easier for management to see investment in learning as an investment in your employees’ overall agility and adaptability, and not just see training as a quick ‘skills transfer’ in a moment of need.

Encouraging the C-suite to see training as an investment, not an expense, is the key that can open the door to bigger budgets, better leverage, and even a seat in the C-suite as a Chief Learning Officer. To do this, you’ll need to change the paradigm through which most leaders view L&D.