How to Upskill Your Team on a Tight L&D Budget

“Upskilling” is the buzzword of the year, as companies continue to compete in a cutthroat market for talent acquisition and competitor-proof innovation. But for leaders in the learning and development space, for whom budget, time, and a losing battle to increase employee engagement are continual hurdles, knowing how to upskill employees (especially at the enterprise scale) can be a bit of a guessing game.

There are countless programs and avenues for long-term skills development, but the majority either benefit only the top 10% of the company… or fail to keep employees engaged and produce an ROI at the IC and/or people management levels.

In order to make the most of limited resources, upskilling your employees should ideally be an initiative aimed at addressing broader concerns for your organization’s growth (such as retention, DEI, and internal mobility) – something that “hard skills” programs are simply not equipped for.

Luckily, in leveraging peer-to-peer learning alongside the right tools and partners, there is a minimal lift, maximum impact solution for “leveling up” your organization. Integrate these three tips to improve learning and development in the workplace, and your investment is all but guaranteed an ROI.

1. Consider Scalability When Upskilling Employees

It is commonly misunderstood that Learning and Development is not a “revenue-driving” lane on the corporate highway. But considering how much influence L&D holds over innovation, collaboration, retention, and increasing employee engagement, that notion is clearly false.

The truth? When influential employee upskilling programs are successfully deployed at scale, they can operate as sustainable fuel for revenue year over year.

That being said, not all programs are created equal. In fact, many tend to reinforce inequities that already plague the majority of Fortune 1000 companies.

Limited mobility for women and other minority-represented groups is a driving source of flopped diversity promises and (no doubt, related) attrition. And the resources available for upskilling employees directly mirror these unmended “promotion cliffs.” L&D leaders are then forced to put people into boxes (“exec,” “high-potential,” “IC”) and allocate their resources accordingly – effectively adding to the problems they (along with Human Resources) are tasked with ameliorating.

This is why program scalability should not be considered a mere “perk,” but rather a requisite to stay agile, deliver on equity, and easily renew value without burning cash on niche skills trainings that apply only to specific roles.

But “scalability” is also a term to be debated. Just because a program can be repeated and/or facilitated to large teams does not mean the content can (or should be) amplified across the entirety of your organization. The first question corporate leadership should be asking is…

What kind of skills training will benefit the entire company?

This might be a difficult question to answer, if you begin by analyzing how each specific vertical or even band of seniority could improve their performance.

A better place to start: think of the collective potential that your employees share, unbound by their specific roles or departments. In other words, what investment could you make that would impact “the employee,” agnostic of their vertical?

This might also require a little reimagining of what upskilling your employees means. Are “hard skills” really the best use of your L&D budget, when the majority of information it takes to uplevel these capabilities can either be passed down through colleagues or digested online?

Arguably: no. Besides the fact that they are, by nature, only scalable to a fraction of the workplace, the lion’s share of hard skills trainings have marginal completion rates, rarely “stick,” and ultimately rely on a level of employee engagement that is difficult to attain without an already thriving company culture.

The best alternative to upskill your team? Invest in a program that equips employees to take the skills they already have, and employ them more meaningfully amongst their colleagues to advance.

Why? Because all of your employees are capable of “doing their jobs” well. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have hired them. What they need after they are hired is the knowledge and support necessary to navigate professional relationships, increase the visibility of their work, and effectively advocate for the opportunities that will keep them feeling fulfilled.

Upskilling employees with the intent to empower autonomy, spur inspiration, and support stronger communication channels is not only scalable to every vast end of the corporate spectrum, but is also positively aligned with retention efforts, increased innovation, and DEI.

Put simply: when people feel confident about their unique potential, know how to bring it to the table, and feel supported by their organization in doing so, they feel an increased sense of appreciation and belonging, are motivated to share their thoughts outside of their immediate teams, and are less likely to burn out because they know how to position themselves within initiatives they are passionate about.

This is why The Forem’s Level Up Career Advancement program centers on networking, personal branding, stakeholder alignment, and self-advocacy: the critical skills every employee needs to maximize their impact and achieve their goals.

2. Leverage Peer-to-Peer Learning to Increase Employee Engagement

Fact: the majority of companies do not measure the impact of learning and development initiatives in terms of employee engagement, revenue, retention, or productivity. They more often calculate success via completion rates and “satisfaction surveys” procured from ICs and filtered by people managers.

This strategy reveals a faulty way of thinking: primarily, the idea that L&D can be separated from the bottom line.

However, the reality is that learning and development is inextricable from the bottom line, because its successes and failures directly impact each employee’s ability to succeed in their careers.

With some reframing, it quickly becomes clear that the metrics by which program efficacy is measured can influence org-wide metrics for success (especially when the program itself is deployed to every employee from IC to C-suite).

For example: if a company only measures L&D’s success based on the completion rate and satisfaction level of a one-off skills training, they ignore the more important picture: how does that skill translate to the organization’s larger initiatives, and will it be enough to keep someone in their job? Answer: it won’t. But, if the company invests in a program that is designed to increase employee engagement outside of the learning experience, it widens the consideration for impact and vastly improves the ROI.

This scenario is most commonly achieved through peer-to-peer learning initiatives, wherein employees are not just engaged with the material, but with their colleagues, stakeholders, and a consistent cycle of self-reflection.

Beyond the “win” for Learning and Development leaders (the ability to measure a meaningful ROI), peer learning also boasts the lowest drop-off rates for training attendance (using the magical power of accountability) and fosters cross-vertical exchange that frequently isn’t possible within the hustle of an enterprise – at least, not without formal facilitation.

When is P2P learning most effective?

All that said, peer to peer learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all initiative. Plenty of training programs will claim to be cohort-based and peer-focused, yet 75% of the coursework takes place in isolation from others (if it takes place at all).

Bottom line: peer learning at its finest – when colleagues are not only consuming the same information but are leveraging each other’s insights to deepen and retain their understanding – relies on live, interactive facilitation.

In an ideal scenario, participants are motivated by their organization’s buy-in, yet active learning takes place in a neutral environment, wherein they are free to fail, experiment, and ultimately grow without fear of jeopardizing their careers.

A great example of this kind of third-party partnership model is The Forem’s Level Up program, wherein employees participate in break-out discussions, active work sessions, networking meetings, and gain access to monthly mentorship 1:1s to foster 360° development alongside the curriculum.

As a result, businesses who partner with The Forem to upskill their teams achieve a 38% spike in employee innovation, a 400% increase in productivity, and save an average of $2 billion due to improved retention.

And it’s not hard to understand why. When employees feel supported by a community, they are more likely to stay, seek out internal opportunities, and feel motivated to advance their careers. They are therefore driven to take a more active role in upskilling, as it serves a clear purpose aligned with their sense of fulfillment and personal goals.

3. Sidestep Automated Learning Tools

When working under stiff budget constraints, the question of how to improve L&D in the workplace (quickly and sustainably) is commonly answered with low-cost, plug and play solutions that promise quality, relevant content with minimal involvement org-side.

And if that sounds too good to be true… that’s because it usually is.  

Like everything convenient and appetizing in this world, automation is great – in moderation. There are plenty of elements to the employee upskilling process that can be tech-optimized, but it is worth considering (for the cash drain you will save yourself) what amount of human-driven content is being sacrificed.

Case in point: for Massive Online Open Courses (commonly referred to as MOOCs), completion rates average between 5-8% (topping out at 20% for “big name” providers like MIT and Harvard) no doubt in credit to the asocial nature of the programs. No live instructor + no interaction with fellow learners = zero motivation to engage (and near-zero retention of the information).

And just to cover all bases, let’s talk about learning management systems (or, LMS’s)…

An LMS is typically leveraged to host, administer, and track completion of MOOCs or other pre-recorded training materials. And while they had their moment in the late 1990s, not much has changed since then (except the human attention span, the concept of “the workplace,” and all other technologies).

Meaning: despite taking a microscopic administrative hassle off your shoulders (namely: generating a spreadsheet of who “completed” – i.e., let the video run in the background while multitasking – their queue of role-specific refreshers), learning management systems are a poor fit for the evolving dynamics of the modern enterprise.

How do you upskill your employees (at the enterprise scale) without automating content?

To clarify: just because you can’t plug people into a computer and upload cutting-edge knowledge, doesn’t mean there aren’t turnkey solutions for upskilling your employees.

In fact, making the process inclusive, remote-friendly, and easy on the wallet does beckon the use of limited technologies. It just equally demands the integrity of a human-first learning experience.

When the platform model and other remote-work resources like Zoom and Slack are utilized appropriately for networking, information recall, and workshopping new content in conversation with live, human-interactive course facilitation, employee upskilling can easily be an effective, low-lift, and net-positive investment.

Not to mention, making use of tools that your employees are likely already interacting with on a day to day basis increases the chance of engagement with their community, and lowers the chance of platform fatigue. 

Unfortunately, because marketplace solutions to training are enticing from an operations perspective (assign, track completion, move on), learning and development leaders have a rough time trying to advocate for more holistic programs at the IC level. Because there is no clear solution, resources are bifurcated: one on one coaching for execs (and maybe higher-up managers), MOOCs for the rest. Hence: limited internal mobility (stagnant development), burnout, and attrition.

So, what’s the sweet spot?

Find the right partner – the one who knows how to upskill your team, but also how to create a more collaborative, innovative workplace and earn L&D leaders a much-needed career win.

At The Forem, we strike the right balance that makes your life easier, your employees’ careers more fulfilling, and your organization’s bottom line more robust. Talk to our team to learn more about our platform-anchored, peer-driven solution to upskilling employees at scale.