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Challenging times ahead for public sector L&D

Source: PSE June/July 15

The public sector is expected to face ongoing reductions in development resources. Ruth Stuart, learning & development research adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, talks about the challenges and potential opportunities to diversify.

Half of public sector learning and development (L&D) professionals believe that funding will be cut over the next year. This is a significantly higher proportion than their private sector counterparts, where only 15% believe that funding will decrease. 

The figures were revealed in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD’s) latest annual ‘Learning and Development’ report, which highlighted the “challenges” facing the public sector in this field. 

Speaking to PSE about the findings, Ruth Stuart, L&D research adviser at CIPD, said: “In previous years the private sector was also showing a less positive picture, but this year seems to be the year that the private sector has shifted its view and is more positive. It is a consistent trend but it seems to have widened this year.” 

She added that this finding was as might be expected, as the public sector is facing significant budgetary cuts, while the private sector is anticipating more growth. 

The report – in its 17th edition – notes that L&D headcount is increasing in the private sector, with these organisations twice as likely to report that L&D headcount has increased than that it has decreased. They are also more likely to report that the use of external associates has increased than decreased. In contrast, the public sector was twice as likely to have reduced its headcount and use of associates rather than increased them. 

Reflecting on the funding issues, Stuart told us: “Large budgets don’t necessarily mean you are going to deliver a good and relevant L&D initiative.” 

Some of the most interesting innovations in practice, she said, have actually come from organisations with the most pressure on their budgets. “This has been because they have had to think differently about how they approach L&D. I don’t think it has stopped people from approaching development, but sometimes you have to think a bit sideways and at different ways of doing things without large budgets.” 

Stuart said one of the best ways of encouraging development is “unlocking the knowledge” that employees already have. “There is so much knowledge there. Sometimes, as L&D professionals, actually, our role might be to facilitate that knowledge and share it with each other, rather than paying for expensive courses where people have to go off-site for a week,” PSE was told. 

“I’ve certainly seen the not-for-profit sector innovating. Charities such as Barnardo’s have had a great way of continuing to develop L&D teams to be innovative and keep up with the latest technology without having to spend a lot of money. They’ve been able to do this with a small team that is quite focused on what it is delivering for the organisation. There are also a few councils doing great things as well.” 

The CIPD report concluded that in the current financial climate it’s even more  important to ensure that the L&D investments made are the right ones and activity is directed towards improving organisational performance – whether the organisation is experiencing growth or not. 

“We’ve seen before that tough times can actually be the spark that fosters innovation,” said Stuart. “Therefore, it’s possible that in future years the most interesting L&D developments may emerge from the sectors currently experiencing the greatest challenges.” 

The report also suggested that mobile learning technologies will have the greatest impact on L&D developments, followed by virtual classrooms and social media in the next five years. 

It was also revealed that, overall, in similar findings to previous years, three-quarters of L&D professionals report they use learning technologies, rising to 88% in the public sector. The use of learning technologies also increases with organisation size. 

“There’s has been an increasing use of learning technologies partly because of the availability on the market of different products and tools,” said Stuart. “I think, in the past, it was seen as a bit of a cost-saving tool in terms of if you could put people through an e-learning course you could save money. But I think some people are starting to get a bit more wise to that now. Unless you really transfer knowledge and learning through that process, there is no point in implementing a costly e-learning course if it doesn’t have an impact.” 

She added that there can be “huge benefits” from using online tools, but only if organisations understand how to really get the most out of them rather than “using e-learning as a PowerPoint click-through course”. 

“Some of the best programmes adopt a blended methodology where you have some face-to-face sharing of knowledge, which is then complemented by resources that you can look at and share online,” said Stuart, adding: “It is definitely going to be challenging times ahead.” 

However, in that context, PSE was told that the role of L&D is likely to become “even more important” as it can become essential in maintaining employee motivation and engagement if organisations can come up with a credible development offer.

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