Uncertain times often lead to budget cuts, with the C-suite reassessing their organizational spend. History has often seen learning as one of the first budgets targeted, but the need for consistent learning opportunities has never been greater. Organizations are facing unprecedented times, with a looming global recession anticipated and continuing market volatility and geopolitical tension. To respond readily to sudden external changes, organizations must continue to invest in their workforce’s skills, knowledge, and ability to mobilize into new roles.

It’s the job of the chief learning officer (CLO) and other senior learning leaders to convince their peers that learning budgets should be maintained over the coming months—if not increased.

No return to ‘normal’

Make no mistake, we won’t be returning to business-as-usual, and that means your learning strategy (and therefore budget) will have to adapt. Now is a great time to be more targeted with your learning strategy to ensure that every plan links back to a business goal and the bottom line.

Link with the business goals

By showing the C-suite how learning is supporting the business strategy and outcomes, you’ll make it much harder to justify budget cuts. As Chris Holmes, director of global learning and development at Booz Allen Hamilton, explains, “If learning is integrated as a part of a shared outcome, then the need to 'advocate' for training investment can be a very different conversation."

Broadly speaking, learning drives value for an organization in four areas—driving growth, increasing efficiency, decreasing risk, and building foundational skills. Use this as your baseline to focus all executive-level conversations and to assess investment in each area.

For example, given the current social distancing measures, the immediate need might be to reduce risk by implementing a new employee safety program based on current guidelines. Simultaneously, a new market entry (along with associated sales training) may be delayed due to current conditions.

Looking long-term

One way to achieve this is to take a more long-term approach. Indeed, the C-suite is being advised to look at more medium and long-term continuity plans at the current time, as the full ramifications of the ‘Great Pause’ are realized. CLOs must follow suit, by mapping each stage of their learning investment to the business’ short, medium, and long-term goals.

Up-skilling for digital transformation

Leaders must also be aware of the risk of hindering their growth in the years to come. Digital transformation has been advanced two years in the past two months. A large proportion of the workforce must be up-skilled to take advantage of this. Fifty four percent of the workforce globally will need significant up-skilling by 2023—likely more given the aforementioned advances. If your organization fails to prepare for this by cutting investment in up-skilling now, your future market position will slip.

Financial returns

Another compelling argument to continue your learning investment comes from increased revenue—when organizations offer a comprehensive training program, on average their income is 218 percent more per employee. They also enjoy profit margins that are 24 percent higher. Although we’re going through a time of belt-tightening, your up-skilling program can help you generate greater returns.

Plus, it can help you make the most of your existing talent at a time when the majority of recruitment activity is frozen. In the US a third of firms have stopped hiring. To achieve the same output and meet upticks in demand, every employee's skills and career potential must be realized. Their skills must be kept up-to-date and relevant to market needs.

Refresh your learning program

Finally, it’s worth assessing the effectiveness of your current learning program and whether it fits current business needs and workplace shifts. With social distancing in place for the foreseeable future, emphasis must be on programs that can be run virtually from home since in-person events will be limited.

Review your learning catalog too, as your learners’ needs and priorities may have changed. Degreed data has shown an increase in the number of ‘flexible skills’ like leadership and communication being sought out, compared to more technical skills like Python and Machine Learning. Similarly, at Booz Allen Hamilton, employees are engaging more with content that helps them lead and work in a virtual environment.

Now is the ideal time to divest anything that isn’t delivering results. This will give you greater resources to allocate to programs and tools that do. It also shows your C-suite peers that every dollar invested in learning is being optimized—and the benefits of investing in solutions that better suit the business case.

Avoiding the downward spiral

The situation that you don’t want to get into is where cost-cutting becomes the new normal. It can lead to a downward spiral of lost productivity, increased attrition, and a loss of market share to competitors who are investing in their people. With this in mind, learning leaders must establish their functions as business-critical. Where, during a downturn in business, learning is maintained as essential to recovery.

Critical to employee support

The way we work has completely changed and learning is well-placed to take on a more visible role in empowering all employees. To be effective in their work now and tomorrow, they need to have the right skills and training.

If that doesn’t sway your peers, then consider this: Your employees are watching how you respond to the current challenges and support their needs. They will remember and value the choices that you make now, in every career decision they take after today.