6 ways to train your employees on the cheap

Even in a down economy, smart IT execs find ways to invest in their people.

Christina Hanger is chief operating officer at Worksoft Inc., a small, entrepreneurial software company in Addison, Texas. She has never had a big training budget, yet she acknowledges that a highly skilled technical staff is the lifeblood of Worksoft.

"We have to keep programmers and developers on the cutting edge," she says. "There's no way around that."

Hanger says ongoing education is important because it helps keep technical workers interested, innovative and motivated. But training programs and educational conferences can be pricey. And given the state of many corporate budgets today, CIOs report that such offerings are simply out of their financial reach.

"It's unfortunate that training is always the first thing to fall under the budget ax, because if you're not investing in your people, you fall behind. And your workers remember that. So when the good times are back, they'll be gone," says Robert Rosen, CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md., and a past president of Share, an IBM user group.

So, what's a CIO to do? Follow the lead of these executives who have found ways to stretch their training dollars through efficient, yet effective, arrangements.

1. Rotate employees

Cross-training has long been an important way to help people learn new skills, but Hanger's company has taken it a step further. At Worksoft, IT employees rotate through assignments involving different technologies and projects.

"We don't want people to feel like they're only working on maintenance. So everyone works on new products, which keeps them moving into new technologies," Hanger says. "This way, people don't get stale. They don't stagnate."

Alan Stevenson Jr., senior staffing consultant at TreeTop Technologies Inc., an IT staffing and consulting firm in Newton, Mass., says he has seen rotations work equally well within IT departments. His firm worked with a life-sciences company where IT was divided into groups, with each group managing a specific business application. With the training budget squeezed, the manager encouraged employees to collaborate with people in other groups.

"It allows people to diversify their skill sets," Stevenson says, noting that such training can actually be more effective than a typical class. "You get to partner with someone who is hands-on with the application, so you can see what they do every day."

2. Set up forums

Two or three times a month, employees at Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Lexington, Mass., can spend their lunch breaks hearing from colleagues who have developed expertise in particular areas.

CIO Tony Murabito started the program several years ago, at first mandating participation to build interest in it. Now the program is popular enough that participation is voluntary. Today, about half the sessions focus on tech topics, with IT workers presenting; the other half delve into issues affecting other departments, with employees from those areas leading the discussions.

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