Use downtime to enhance skills

In even the best of times, organizations often pay lip service to professional development. Excellent front-line workers might receive better titles or become project managers without actually having learned how to deliver a group’s work on time, assure quality and stay within budget. Even experienced managers may be so preoccupied with quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily reports that they have no chance to learn something new — or to unlearn what’s become obsolete. A downturn presents the perfect downtime to enhance the skills your people really need to excel.

“Are you kidding?” you might ask. “When times are tough, professional development is a luxury.” Not so. Often that’s precisely when there is enough breathing room in the daily work flow to give your people the chance to better themselves. Employees at all levels can be sent for training to improve their team-building, collaboration, process ownership and other skills — which pays off when economic normalcy returns.

For example, in response to the economic downturn of 2000-2002, Alliance Business Academy started conducting annual team-building exercises at a top Indian software company. Working with two of the company’s 200 teams a year, ABA focused the training on endeavors such as completing joint tasks, clarifying group values and improving team processes. Since the program started, trained teams have been 50 percent more productive, on average, than untrained teams, according to aggregated measures of quality, time and cost. This year, the company is putting five teams through the program. ABA has replicated the results at a major aerospace company and a large European engineering conglomerate.

Such professional development pays off most with employees whose team skills are poor but whose impressive individual performance precludes letting them go. A joint research project between ABA and two European business schools has borne that out. In a study of 36 companies in the manufacturing, financial services and transport sectors in five countries, star performers with poor team skills became change agents within their firms after going through two cycles of team-building exercises lasting 10 days each. Teach solo high performers how to collaborate better, focus on the big picture and consider the organizational implications of their work, and you’ll reap sizable rewards.

Of course, casting a downturn as an opportunity to fine-tune skills is not easy. Various stakeholders’ anxieties about the short term need to be assuaged and framed in a long-term context. That includes the people whose skills are being improved. They need to have a broad enough view of how their professional development fits into organizational goals to be sufficiently motivated to make the downtime investment pay off. And they must be confident that the organization’s culture will tolerate honest mistakes as they progress and grow.

Those caveats notwithstanding, actively seizing a downturn as an opportunity can reduce the pain of the current one and can soften the blow of the next. Those are luxuries you can’t afford not to indulge in.


(B.V. Krishnamurthy is the director and executive vice president of Alliance Business Academy, in Bangalore. He is also the school’s ASI Distinguished Professor of Strategy and International Business.)