Building A Zero-Cost Learning Programme

Building A Zero-Cost Learning Programme

L & D departments are undergoing a unique and difficult situation during the COVID-19 times. While Learning needs have not reduced, the budgets have frozen. The ‘bells and whistles’ have gone, yet the learning needs are real.


“No…no, Niharika! There’s nothing good about this programme design!” No fancy facilitators, no modules from marquee universities. Only a series of virtual sessions. Every RBC in my ‘training blood’ was boiling over to say- ‘this ain’t gonna work’!


The apprehensions felt by me are strikingly similar to what L & D departments in organisations are going through in the COVID-19 times. Learning needs have not reduced, but the budgets have frozen. The ‘bells and whistles’ have gone, yet the learning needs are real. In such extreme situations, how can we design great learning interventions with a zero budget? Coming back to Niharika….


She saw my internal angst, and then said, “This is a good design.” I walked away disbelievingly, telling myself, “She is always polite.” A few weeks later, much to my utter scepticism, we launched the programme.


As the programme was deployed, I witnessed something that I had never experienced previously. The magnitude of the feedback, the buzz, the perception of content relevance, the goodwill generated, the culture building etc. everything that participants came back to us with, was incredibly positive. I could not believe it. This was after all, the underdog programme. The zero budget one!


But I am fast forwarding too much and jumping to the end. Let me rewind a bit and start from the dinner table conversation that I had with my eldest daughter. “Maa, like me, (she is preparing for her engineering exams) your participants were also preparing for something. So, their interest in the programme is natural.” She was right. In parts. The participants on this programme were indeed high potential leaders who were being prepared for the next level of leadership. But this overwhelmingly positive feedback did not come when they reached the next level or when they got promoted. It came way before that. The participants did not connect their individual promotion as a criterion, for determining the programme’s usefulness. They had made that decision long before.


Which is why I had liked to start by saying that beyond the high philosophies and grand themes, lie the unfaltering details of execution. And that is where the success story of this programme design begins. It is built on simple six principles.


Get the basics right


Old fashioned as it is, good learning design begins with learning objectives being correctly identified and narrowly defined. Once articulated, these need to fit into the programme’s pedagogy and content. In this case, there were three key learning objectives.


★ As future leaders of the firm, the participants needed to have a deep understanding of the firm’s wide offerings.


★ The firm’s local leadership needed to engage with them and teach them how to build the business- here and now.


★ They needed to build the softer aspects of leadership- like executive presence and communication.


These three objectives translated to three pillars, each of which had a specific learning intervention built around it.  



 “Old fashioned as it is, good learning design begins with the learning objectives being correctly identified and narrowly defined. Once articulated, these need to fit into the programme’s pedagogy and content.”



For participants, seeing is believing


In his seminal research paper, ’Is career management related to employee development & performance’ (Journal of OB, 1996), Raymond A Noe studied 120 employees and their managers in a state agency to understand the relationship between career management and employee development activities. In this paper, Noe argues, ‘that the closer the employee’s current position is to their career goal, the more interested and involved they will be in development activities.’  This is because employees recognise the need for ‘readiness’ to the next role. Secondly, the participant feels that his/her developmental behaviour may improve their chances for obtaining their desired position as it signals to the ‘powers that be’ that they are interested and motivated to receive new opportunities. Our learning programme was paced at 4 months away from the time of the actual process of the promotions. So, proximity to the learning goal (which in this case was the promotion process) greatly enhanced the engagement levels of the participants, keeping them around 95%. It is possible that would not have been the case if the programme was 8-10 months away from the learning goal.


Give them the context right, they will learn everything else


In our programme, we only used internal trainers, following the model of ‘leaders teach leaders’. This worked brilliantly. This is exactly what Antonio Aragón-Sánchez et all (2003) had stated in their paper, ‘Effect of training on business results’. After their study of 6000 managers in small and medium industries, they concluded that on‑the‑job training given by in-house trainers is the method that had the highest positive influence on profitability results of the organisations. ‘This positive effect’, the authors opined, was because this kind of training presents less transference problems: it does not interrupt the work; it develops the workers’ precise skills, and promotes an environment of learning’. Similarly, in our programme too- the homegrown leaders, people who had gone through the promotion process and who knew the anxieties and lows, were called on to take all the sessions. At the same time, we had somebody from the senior leadership who truly cared about the programme. In our case, it was our CHRO, who was the programme’s biggest evangelist. He nurtured the programme idea, carefully molding its shape.


Provide just in time content that ‘comes together’


There is a reason why ‘Pizza Hut’ increases their advertising spends between 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. every night. It is simply because that is the time when people are hungry. Cereal manufacturers have smart analytics that can predict when the cereal box is due for a refill for a family. That is when their direct marketing kicks in. Our programme borrowed some of these principles. Programme content, such as the in-depth knowledge of the firm, the future strategy, the opportunities and challenges are the things that these ‘to-be-leaders’ already knew. It was about re-providing it to them at just the right time, when it mattered the most. We also stitched the virtual sessions, making them into an interesting TV series, where every session felt like the cliff hanger of a great novel. Also, we realised that the content does not have to be pretty and perfect. Imperfect, evolving and practitioner-led content, is more precious to a learner than great looking slides! One look at any of the Khan Academy videos will tell you that you do not want the content to be ‘perfect’!


Bring in the FOMO, to bring in the engagement


Although, there is a lot of research that proves that a state of anxiety is not conducive to learning or concentrating, in today’s world, some amount of ‘fear of missing out’ is a good thing to build in. Through the marketing and communication of each of the interventions, participants were made to feel that ‘missing the session, was like missing the bus and they had to have to take the train, which is not coming anytime soon.’ To help participants stay connected, we played up the hype just a little bit by talking about what they would miss (instead of what they would learn), when we spoke about a specific learning intervention.

Ultimately, it’s all got to do with motivation

One of the main objectives of a learning programme then should be to make the learners believe that change is possible and that they can drive it post the programme. This is what Bandura (1997) called self‑efficacy or the belief in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments. Throughout our programme, participants were provided with the assurance that they are already the future leaders of the firm, regardless of whether they got promoted or not. Even at the end of the programme they were given consistent messages that they are ‘ready’ for the next level. This was reinforced by well‑designed communications going from their managers and other influential members of the leadership. This created a sense of self‑belief that actions from here on will be dictated by the participants and that they have the onus of change!


“One of the main objectives of a learning programme then should be to make the learners believe that change is possible and that they can drive it post the programme.”


Like I mentioned above, the COVID-19 environments are forcing us to think of high quality, low cost offerings. While there is nothing so glorious about these simple six principles, when they come together, they provide the fundamentals of a highly effective learning programme built at zero cost!




Nishath Usmani is responsible for leadership development of senior leaders at KPMG. She comes with an experience of more than 18 years in leadership development, learning strategy, talent management, facilitation, coaching & learning communications. She has worked previously worked in Capgemini's Corporate University and Deloitte Consulting. Nishath is presently pursuing Ph.D. in management (HR).


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